🖥️ The Computers of London

I have huge nostalgic associations with South Kensington, an area of London famous for its museums. So when I recently found myself in that area, I was obviously going to pay a visit to that favourite museum of many a Londoner’s childhood, the Science Museum.

Generally, the theme of my recent trip back to dear Old Blighty was one of extreme heat as I unwittingly timed my visit to coincide with the now infamous heatwave. Airport runways melted, the rail network shut down and uncomfortable sleepless nights were had. With London not being known for its air-conditioning, you need to head to some of its larger structures to cool off. Museums make an excellent destination for this.

At the Science Museum, I was soon reminded they have quite a nice collection of micro computers. Some are just sitting in their own displays, and others exist as part as part of a larger context. You have to hunt around to find them all, but they are dotted here and there.

I also paid a visit to the Design Museum at the recommendation of a friend, which highlighted some computers from past decades as design icons.

So let’s take a look at some of these gems.

The Science Museum

The BBC Model B was a staple of any classroom in the U.K. during the 80’s. Essays could be written about this fine machine and how it formed part of a successful government drive to generate computer literacy during in its era.

But, this example was clearly used for playing Elite – Notice the paper strip above the function keys. And why not? It’s a widely held belief the BBC version of Elite was the finest of them all.

Personally, I was more of a fan of two of the Model B’s successors: The BBC Master and the Acorn Archimedes, but the Model B is never-the-less a computing milestone.

The Dragon 32 shown top right isn’t a micro computer I really know anything about. The market in its time was saturated with options, and I think the Dragon lost out to Commodore, Sinclair and Acorn. At least had the coolest name.

A variation of the Commodore PET (known as the CBM in Europe for copyright reasons). A design classic with its trapezium shaped screen. It wasn’t very portable though.

The VIC 20, Commodore’s first offering for the home. All you needed was a television to connect it to and you were away.

The design of the case was nicknamed as the “bread-bin” because of its resemblance to the place people kept their loaves in 80’s kitchens. The same case design was retained for the VIC 20’s immensely popular successor the Commodore 64, and the less successful Commodore 16.

The Sinclair ZX80, which you would have ordered as a kit you could assemble by yourself, similar to the original Apple I.

It had very basic hardware, but was a great introduction to micro computing at the time. It was followed up by the ZX 81. The keyboard on either of these machines probably wasn’t that great though.

The Atari 2600 (known as the “VCS” in North America) was my first games console. With its delightful woodgrain finish, it was originally envisioned as a machine just for playing Pong, but developers pushed the hardware to do remarkable things beyond what the creators could have envisioned.

After the ZX81 came the ZX Spectrum with either 16k or 48k of RAM depending on the model. The keyboard had been upgraded to these rubber keys, which still weren’t very good.

Its version of the BASIC programming language had the advantage that each command could be invoked with a single keypress, so once you’d committed the main commands to memory you didn’t have to type as many keys to write your code.

The Design Museum

The design museum also has a collection of computing icons, but they’re displayed within the context of notable design, and as such you’ll find them nestled alongside other totemic items.

Here we see a Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 on the left, one of the successors to the original ZX Spectrum. It came with 128k of memory and a built-in tape deck, as well as a vastly upgraded BASIC programming language and a built-in calculator app!

On the right is a MacBook Pro from the era before Apple’s Jony Ive became obsessed with making Apple laptops so thin they would lose all their ports and gain unreliable keyboards. This one is definitely a model from the golden era.

The Apple IIGS was an evolution of the original Apple II, although at first sight it looks like a Macintosh. I don’t know very much about this device, but it came in around the time Apple was focusing on the Macintosh as its future line of machines.

A closer look at one of the most iconic Apple devices of all, the original Macintosh. Books have been written on this device, but you’ll have to settle for a single photo.

And speaking of books, the instruction manual for the Macintosh, notable for its iconic representation of the Mac on the front cover.

On the right, another notable Apple design: The iPod Classic. I believe it’s the 6th generation. These models would have contained a physical hard drive instead of SSD memory, as at the time it was the most cost effective way to provide large amounts of storage.

On the left, an almost complete lineup of 4th generation iPod Nano devices. Apple’s iPod line often came in a variety of colours, including the special edition “(Product) Red”. This enabled the consumer to stamp their identity on their purchase.

Our old friend the BBC Model B once again, designed and manufactured by Acorn. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the design of Acorn machines are the red function keys.

A gathering of various devices on display.

In the top left, the original Xbox from Microsoft. This platform perhaps is most famous for bringing us Halo: Combat Evolved with its memorable protagonist Master Chief.

In the second column from the left at the top is the first Nintendo Game Boy, and beneath the gamepad from the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Interestingly enough, the NES and its gamepad looked completely different when originally released in Nintendo’s home of Japan. It was completely redesigned for a North American market, and over in Europe and the UK we got the same design when it was released there.

In the middle we have the Sega Megadrive (known as the Genesis in North America), with its gamepad. Above it, an Atari joystick which would have worked with many devices in the Atari range, from the 2600 to the Atari ST.

To the right we have another ZX Spectrum with an accompanying joystick, and finally on the far right is a set of Atari paddles. You would have used these to play pong on an Atari 2600.

Nostalgia Fumes

Sadly, none of these exhibits were interactive. But, England is home to a remarkable number of computing museums which are hands-on, and they’re worth seeking out if you have an interest in these things.

So, why did I want to write about this? I have my own modest collection which I want to start documenting on my website, with a deep-dive on each item. I thought it would be interesting to kick things off by looking at a few of the larger collections around the UK, especially as some of these devices are becoming more scarce as time goes on.

Last but not least, I couldn’t end a visit to South Kensington without a transit reference, because of course I can’t, not on this blog. The Tube station at South Kensington has big nostalgic associations for people who visited the museums of the area as children, as it was the gateway to this intellectual wonderland of learning and fun.

Although I always arrived by the deep level Piccadilly Line, it’s the sub-surface platforms in their railway cutting replete with garden which makes for one of my favourite stations on the network.

Since we’ve covered two of the smaller collections, in a future post we’ll pay a virtual visit to a massive collection in the most historic of locations. Can you guess where it is?