Ramblings about Historical Markers in Micro-computing

The page created about late 2000, minor editing up to February 2021
Contact: David K. Clarke – © Google search these pages

A personal view on the when and how of various significant developments in home computing between 1980 and 2000


Notes, 2017-2021

I suspect that this must be one of my earliest internet pages. I have improved the formatting of the page since the original writing, but the content has been left mostly intact. Some additional notes have been added in square brackets.

ROM: Read Only Memory, fixed memory, on microchips. RAM: Random Access Memory, memory that could be both read and written.

I bought my first computer on the last day of 1980. It was a Dick Smith System 80 with 4 kilobytes of ROM and 12 kilobytes of RAM; a near clone of the Tandy Radio Shack TRS80 Model 1. I suspect it was one of the few near-copies that were better than the originals (from the reading that I did about owner's experiences with the TRS80s, the System 80 was distinctly more reliable).

Some dates relate to specific events, others I've given as the time when something became available at a price that made it accessible to most hobbyists.

The milestones, those things that were almost ends rather than means, have been shown in bold where they first became practicalities.

An interesting article, The Origins of Personal Computing, appeared in Scientific American Dec. 2001 after I wrote this page (Nov. 2001).



Home computing About this time computing (Number crunching) became a practical proposition for 'ordinary' private individuals in Australia. Home computers came with the BASIC programming language built in. There were few commercial programs available, so users had to write their own.

Programs written in BASIC could be very slow. Rewriting them, or parts of them, in machine language (or Assembler) could speed them up enormously, but it was challenging.

In hindsight it is obvious that even these simple and very limited computers were big advances on pocket calculators, even the programmable variety; yet most people were very slow to take them seriously. They weren't considered to be 'real computers'; more toys than tools.
Recording programs and data Software was saved to and loaded from cassette tape. Commonly several tries were required to read a program in. Reading and writing data to tape was so cumbersome as to hardly be a practicality; it was often better to build the data into the program.
Games The first computers came with one or two games. Users could type more in from magazines.



DOS The Disk Operating System was a great advance [over the earlier cassette tapes for storing programs and data]. To run a DOS the Dick Smith System 80 computer had to be upgraded to a whopping 64 kilobytes of memory (was it 12 kb of ROM and the remainder RAM?) The relatively reliable storage and retrieval of programs and data to floppy disk made a huge difference to the convenience of computing; yet still few people took microcomputers seriously. The establishment still felt that to do 'real computing' you needed a mainframe computer at perhaps 100 times the price of a microcomputer.

One of the operating systems about at this time was called CP/M. If used, it had to be present on the first two tracks of a floppy disk in the computer. As, at this time, the total memory on a 40-track floppy disk was about 128 kilobytes it can be imagined that CP/M was an extremely basic operating system. The Dick Smith computers could use DOS Plus, a very much superior operating system.
Spreadsheets The first spreadsheets made their appearance about this time ('VisiCalc' had been marketed for the Apple II in 1979). The concept of having a matrix of cells into which could be placed text, numbers, or formulae was a useful one.
Word Processors There was a word processor called Scripsit. I must have used this to write my first book, Microcomputer Programs for Groundwater Studies (published in 1987) [There is something about my second and related book on another page on this site].

I recall a school principle for whom I had a lot of respect saying that he saw value in computers, but that word processors were not to be taken seriously!

I couldn't have written that book without a word processor.
The IBM PC At (as I recall) $6000 Australian, probably twice that in 2001 dollars, these were an expensive item, but those who had shunned microcomputers felt that if IBM were building them they must be capable of 'real computing'.

They came with an operating system produced by Microsoft. It was based on the old CP/M. (Why did they choose that one when, it seemed to me, that there were much better ones available?)

The IBM PC was an advance, but it was very overpriced (to call it a personal computer was unrealistic because its price was far beyond what most people could afford for home) and by far its greatest achievement was that it made those who were previously blind to the possibilities of microcomputers take them seriously.

Development Notes
PC Clones It didn't take long for other manufactures to realize that they could produce clones of the IBM PC for a fraction of the price.



Hard disk drives Floppy disk drive capacities had increased to about 360kb by this time. (They were bought as single sided disks, but were in fact usable on both sides after punching an appropriately placed guide hole in the outer paper casing.) I remember my first computer with a 20Mb hard drive; less reliable than modern hard drives, but still a great advance.
Cheap memory Memory in the early computers was so expensive that it was used very efficiently. By about this time both primary (RAM) and secondary memory (in disk drives) was becoming cheaper so that its efficient use mattered less. Software steadily became more memory hungry; much more so than it really needed to be. This trend is continuing.

Development Notes


Largely a backward step. The older operating systems used typed commands, often with many possible parameters. The new OS required you to point at an icon and click; your number of choices was largely limited to the number of icons available. In 2001 there are still a number of operations that can be better done under DOS than under Windows; for example backing-up files and comparing file content. Of course Windows was easier for beginners to learn.
Searchable records Files of notes that were searchable using key words or other methods became practicable about this time.

Development Notes
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) These became a practicality about this time.
CD ROMs With 650MB on one CD ROM (equivalent to 325 000 pages of double spaced typewritten text) it was now possible to have a major encyclopedia in your computer

Development Notes
The Internet and the Web. Communication Computers became capable of allowing you to communicate with people all over the world. We have not come close to developing all the capabilities of this development yet.

This communication didn't use paper. The paperless office had been talked about for years; it started to become closer to a real possibility.
Photographs Storing, organizing and editing photographs on computer

Development Notes
MP3 music It became possible to store hours of music, and replay it, on your computer.
Writing to CD ROMs Floppy disks were too small to be practical as a medium for storing more than a few photographs. They were quite useless for storing music and large data sets. The advance from a 1.4MB floppy disk to a 650MB CD 'ROM', at about the same price, was a great one. [I don't know when, but rewritable CDs also became available. As I recall they could not be written over very many times before they failed.]

Removable hard disk drives had been available for six years or so, however they were always expensive.