22 January 2009

The brave new world of 1984

It was rubbish growing up a geek in the 1980s.

We had the benefit of decades worth of sci-fi writing to inform us just how brilliant and shiny the future was going to be. Silver spacesuits, moon holidays and commuting by teleportation were all just around the corner - or at least we hoped so. (Some people never got over it). Former Steely Dan member Donald Fagen captured the wide-eyed anticipation of the glorious technological future in his 1982 solo track 'I.G.Y.', named after the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8, when Sputnik soared into orbit and everything seemed possible:

Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream's in sight
You've got to admit it
At this point in time that it's clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
Well by '76 we'll be A.O.K.

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free...

The trouble is, this starry eyed optimism was out of place in the 1980s when so much of the technological revolution had yet to occur. Sure, we scrambled to play Galaxian at the games arcade and fussed over our brand new plastic digital watches, but if you were a geek in the 80s and you wanted a computer, you were starved for choice. Perhaps this explains why I owned a Sinclair ZX81 - boosted to 16K of RAM. Yeah, it wasn't very good.

Recently I was searching through some of my boxes in storage and I came across a Dick Smith Electronics (NZ) 1984/85 catalogue advertising a full range of the chain's wares, which gives a good idea of the wonders on offer at the time. Clunky home computers take pride of place at the front of the catalogue, and while it's amusing to chuckle at the specifications, the most eye-opening aspect of the adverts are the prices: the Reserve Bank's inflation calculator indicates that NZ$1 in 1984 is worth NZ$2.80 now (Q4 2008). Bear that in mind...

VZ-200 Colour Computer

My schoolmate Mathew had one of these, and at the time it seemed the height of modernity. 16K of ROM and 8K of RAM - now that's a whole lotta horsepower to play with! But sarcasm aside, the VZ-200 was dirt cheap ($557 in today's money) compared to other machines of the time. And maybe DSE couldn't shift any units at the original price? It was designed to run through a TV input so no expensive monitor was required, but the main expense hit the user when they sought peripherals - witness the printer for $495 (equiv. $1386). More cost effective to hire a fellow student to write things out by hand, I would've thought. Still, look at all those lovely games on offer...

DSE CAT home computer

Now this is the business. Lovely brown 80s backdrop too. Trading on its Apple compatibility, the CAT had a 2MHz processor, 32K of ROM and 64K of RAM, expandable to a whopping 192K. Its colour graphics card could manage a 560 x 192 display, assuming you shelled out for a colour monitor to take advantage of it. (Remember, back then a lot of users made do with eye-burning green or amber screens due to the prohibitive expense of colour monitors). The price tag here is particularly wince-inducing: $1295 for the computer only is $3626 in 2008 money, and that's without an RGB monitor, which set you back another $1095 ($3066), or a green screen for $450 ($1260) if you're feeling strapped for cash. Lastly, you'll need some data storage, so don't forget the disk drive at a trifling $550 ($1540) so you can save 165K on each of your 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. And don't forget people, this is the future!

Time is on my side (and in my pencil-case)

Having mentioned the popularity of digital watches in the early 80s, it seemed a shame to leave out this page. In the 80s owners of the calculator ruler were certainly envied, but the pen watch never seemed like a good idea: surely someone would pinch it or it would get lost? And it's not as if every moment in life when you needed to know the time would coincide with the writing of a letter or school project.

But fair enough - that stopwatch is still pretty cool even now...
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