[vcf-midatlantic] Revised, My take on "what is vintage computing"

Herb Johnson hjohnson at retrotechnology.info
Wed Dec 23 18:38:22 EST 2020

Bill writes in his Web article:

> Some say the golden era of “vintage computers” occurred during mid-1970’s S-100 homebrew-era and lasted until about 1987. This is when the home appliance and small business computing markets emerged. Computers became practical to a wider population. 

I was in my 20's in the 1970's as a student and working electrical 
engineer on microprocessors. I"ve worked with some of those computers to 
the present day. So I'm qualified to speak about the period, express my 
informed opinions. But: it's Bill's Web site and article and thread. I 
won't compete by posting another article. I'll make a few points I think 
are important.

 From my experiences, I can say that a lot happened in the years Bill 
mentions. Too many kinds of things, to sum up with one phrase like 
"golden era". also: every generation has their early days which they 
retrospectively think of as "golden". For Millennials, it's playing 
video games in their bedroom - not building an IMSAI memory board.

History is different, for people of different ages and experiences.

He's right about emerging markets, because of course there WAS NO MARKET 
for personal or dedicated computing products and devices, until the 
microprocessor and related digital IC's were created; and then 
understood; and then became cheap. That created opportunities for the 
markets that emerged.

What markets? Video-gaming computers. Single board computers for 
training and for hobbyist self-learning. Computers of many boards, for 
industrial control and the first home/business/scientific computers. 
Portable computers (lugable before laptop). And eventually: standardized 
desktop computers produced in quantity to reduce price. Each market has 
a history of its own, origins and consequences.

Also: this idea of "homebrew" as a kind of distinction. I don't like the 
term, it makes the idea of home construction and modification as 
something like making illegal whiskey. This part, I'll have to explain, 
it's my history but not the history of people younger than I.

The facts are: in the 1950's and 60's and 70's, lots of people built and 
repaired things at home, using shop tools of industrial quality. Many 
people had JOBS and businesses to repair and manufacture, small shops of 
a few or dozens of people. Trade schools, mail-order education, 
self-education - all ways to learn a trade, get a job, *start your own 
company*. This was common activity at the time - read any science or 
hobby magazine of the period for the advertisements, the how-to articles.

Also: if you are going to talk about 1980's personal computing, there's 
a single, seismic event you cannot ignore. *The introduction of the IBM 
PC in 1981*.

The world's foremost computer company, announced it was ENTIRELY 
ACCEPTABLE for a Fortune 500 company (definition of a big important 
international company) to purchase what was previously a toy, a pipe 
dream. Quoting from the era: "nobody was ever fired for recommending 
IBM". That's dramatic, but it also happens to be true.

With the 1981 IBM PC, MS-DOS became the standard. The ISA bus became the 
standard. The 8088/86 became standard. And I assure you: the 
microcomputer world fractured into those who followed IBM - and those 
who were left behind (in the opinion of the winners who transitioned to 
the IBM PC). And once IBM PC's could outperform the old but useful CP/M 
machines - they went into the dumpster. (that's where I got part of my 

However: most of the early IBM PC MS-DOS software, was reassembled CP/M 
software. All that CP/M and S-100 and Z80 / 8080 work was not scrapped: 
it was retooled for the IBM PC. IBM's success was built on preceding 
technology and technologists.

Another major event in the 80's, was the rise and fall of "home 
videogaming". Over several years, a bunch of companies produced video 
game computers. They all competed and drove each other's prices down. 
Then the market crashed because of those financial losses, and because 
home computers (IBM PC's among others) of growing availability could run 
games too, faster, with more graphics. Graphics became a thing.

My point? History matters, your time in history matters, and what you 
value (or know about) matters to you and people you know. Too much 
happened in microprocessor computing in its first decade, to lump it all 
into one historic track. The period Bill describes, is so far back in 
time for most people, they don't know how to make sense of it - except 
from recent experiences which are very different from those of the time.

So it comes down to: what you care about, because of what you know, 
generally from your own time and place. "History" is about learning the 
other stuff.

Regards, Herb Johnson

Herbert R. Johnson, New Jersey in the USA
http://www.retrotechnology.com OR .net
preserve, recover, restore 1970's computing
email: hjohnson AT retrotechnology DOT com
or try later herbjohnson AT comcast DOT net

More information about the vcf-midatlantic mailing list