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A history of the microcomputer industry in 300 adverts

In a private room at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in January 1977, Commodore launched the world's first complete "personal computer" - a microcomputer that for the first time could be taken out of the box, plugged in and used by regular people without a soldering iron. Soon Tandy and Apple joined in, and by the end of the 1970s, they - and hundred of other companies - were selling thousands of microcomputers a year. And it might have gone on like this until Sinclair in the UK, and then Commodore in the US, launched a range of affordable home micros at the start of the new decade which changed everything.

The market exploded from tens of thousands of machines a year to millions, as famous 1970s names like Cromemco, IMSAI, Nascom and MITS were swept away. Micro companies were suddenly worth $1 billion dollars and their employees were millionaires. Hundreds of companies launched hundreds of machines, with 900 mostly-incompatible systems appearing in the 1980 "Guide to Small Business Systems". Price wars were started, old scores were settled and companies were destroyed. 8 bits made way for 16 and 32 in the space of a few years. The video games market surged and then collapsed in on itself, taking out Atari and Coleco. For a while Britain led the world in manufacture and adoption, with 80% of all computers sold in Europe being sold in the UK.

Then the 8-bit market reached saturation and more companies imploded - Sinclair was sold for its name and assets only, Acorn almost didn't make it and a raft of also-rans fell by the wayside - Camputers, Dragon Data, Elan, Oric and Jupiter Cantab to name but a few. Even big names like Timex and Texas Instruments were burned. Of the near-200 companies in these adverts, only 17 remain, of which 15 are the BASFs, Sanyos and Yamahas for whom micros were only ever a sideline. None, including Apple, survives as a pure computer company.

Meanwhile, the sleeping giant that was IBM launched its 5150 at the end of 1981 and watched as it slowly but inevitably over the next few years became the standard. Other companies cloned it, copied and improved it and soon the only game in town was the IBM PC. From the latter half of the 1980s, every micro company and its dog was building generic beige boxes. The "wonder years" were over.

This collection of over 300 adverts attempts to tell something of that story...

Metacomco

December 1986

Programming the 68000 by Metacomco

St Pauls, Bristol-based Metacomco had been quietly writing system software and compilers for the Motorola 68000 processor, and had also previously licenced its own 8086 Basic interpreter for $800,000 ...

Acorn

December 1985

BBC External Services

This advert seems to represent the end of a period of retrenchment for Acorn following a difficult year which had seen it bailed out by Italian company Olivetti back in February. For most of the year ...

Zorba

October 1983

New Zorba 2000 Series - Now with Full 9" Screen

This almost-comedy wannabe hack at the Osborne and Kaypro market, with its claim that cramming 80 columns on to a "massive" 9" screen is somehow a good thing, appeared in 1983 and was considered as on...

Psion

October 1983

The best software on earth comes from Psion

Psion made its name as a software company writing mainly for Sinclair's machines, starting with the ZX80 and including the one featured in this advert - the ZX Spectrum. As well as the introductory ca...

Amstrad

November 1985

More than a Word Processor for less than a typewriter

Retailing for only £399 - about £1,220 in 2019 and about a quarter the price of an IBM PC at the time, the P‍CW 8256 and its follow ups were highly significant and transformative in the UK market, oft...

Digital Research

November 1985

Introducing the new and improved IBM PC. From £49.50

Much has been written about how CP/M, the operating system written by Gary Kildall and his company Digital Research - originally known as Intergalactic Digital Research and founded by him and his wife...

Victor

November 1985

Victor: The power to control won't cost you the Earth

Victor had been a large American calculator seller, but was in financial trouble when Chuck Peddle, designer of the 6502 processor and once of Commodore, bailed it out so it could become the OEM manuf...

Bondwell

August 1984

Make it portable! Make it possible

Bondwell was the trading name of Bondwell Holdings Limited of Hong Kong and was the company that rescued the failed SpectraVideo, which had made its name (as SpectraVision) as a producer of games and ...

Acornsoft

June 1984

The Aviator - One man's fight to save his home town

This particular advert appeared as an A2 poster inside June 1985's PCW and came from Acorn's software offshoot Acornsoft, which produced several ground-breaking games for the BBC Micro including this ...