The Computers That Made Britain - Tim Danton

This book was mentioned by ex-PhDing-peer Rob Hague, and it looked up my street, so off I went and bought it. It's Raspberry Pi press, so there's a mild sub-text of how everything in the '80s led up to the wonderful Raspberry Pi. :)

The book is arranged by machine, in chronological order, which surprised me as to how early many things were - a number of 8-bit micros debuting in the '70s, and the origins of most 16-bit micros in the early '80s. For me, in deepest, darkest Gloucestershire, micros didn't arrive until the mid '80s, and 16-bit machines were a '90s thing.

The British focus is, I have to say, rather pleasant. While not all the computers are British, a decent number are. Those that aren't, are viewed through the lens of British public. Reading the various different stories, you can see patterns emerge. Britain was good at IP, not so hot at manufacturing. With the arrival of VLSI, slapping together an 8-bit micro was not too tricky, so while the chips were made in the US, we could put them on a PCB and in a box. The software side was somewhere the UK excelled, writing both the ROMs and the programs for these machines. This kickstarted UK software development, which we're still pretty good at.

The difficulties with the physical side and VLSI are emboddied in the Ferranti ULAs. Various UK companies went to Ferranti for their chip designs, and were disappointed, before ending up going to foreign companies to get them actually made. Having previously read The Spectrum ULA, it's interesting to see the Ferranti chips in the wider context.

I wrote "IP" rather than "software" earlier because the final chapter of the book talks about the Acorn Archimedes, and by extension ARM. It's fascinating to think of how something so successful managed to grow in the UK. I find it very hard to tell if the ability to produce this kind of success was intrinsic in the UK technology sector, or was mostly luck! Either way, a fantastic success story that, of course, set the scene for the Raspberry Pi.

I've been talking about what the book covers, not the book itself. I've been used to picture-heavy, content-light books being nostalgic for the computers of the '80s, and this is something of a refreshing change. One machine picture per chapter, and the rest is solid text. It's not deep or highly technical, but I learnt a fair amount about the computers I knew little about. Most of the computers are covered in much more depth in other books (or on the net), but this book makes no bones about it, including a clear list of references at the end of each chapter. It's not all based on secondary material, though - the author managed to get a number of interviews with key players in order to get the details right.

As such, this makes an excellent summary of the '80s machines of the UK, and a great starting point for learning more. It's well-researched, and good light reading for a techie who never thought about the business aspects of what went on with '80s micros.

Posted 2021-08-22.