The Computers That Made Britain on sale now

TL;DR: Computer History nerds, we wrote you a book.

The Computers That Made Britain

The home computer boom of the 1980s brought with it now-iconic machines. Machines that would go on to inspire a generation, such as the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, and Commodore 64.

The Computers That Made Britain tells the story of those computers – and what happened behind the scenes during their creation. With dozens of new interviews discover the tales of missed deadlines, technical faults, business interference, and the unheralded geniuses behind all of it. Geniuses who brought to the UK everything from the Dragon 32 and ZX81, through to the Amstrad CPC 464 and the Commodore Amiga.

Get your copy now

You can order your copy of The Computers that Made Britain today online from the Raspberry Pi Press Store. Alternatively, you can buy it in the Raspberry Pi Store in Cambridge, and from other leading online highstreet booksellers, including Waterstones. As always, you can also download the book in PDF format, for free, directly from the Wireframe website.

The Computers That Made Britain hardback book

And now, a little word from our author, Tim Danton

It turns out that when you mention you’re writing a book about computers from the 1980s, you get two reactions. One is best paraphrased by “Awesome!” followed by a rapid check that their favourite is included. The second is a bemused expression and the question, “Why on Earth are you doing that?”

My initial reason for writing the book was simple: curiosity. I cut my computing teeth on the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum, but I knew little about their origins. My only recollection of the people behind the products was a hazy image of Sir Clive Sinclair driving a C5 down a busy road.

What I didn’t realise is how fascinating the stories behind these computers would turn out to be. And yes, I know there’s an element of “He would say that,” but as you’ll discover if you buy the book, it’s also 100% true.

It turns out that the 1980s was a boiling pot of controversy packed with all the passion, politics and deal-wrangling that Dallas brought to our TV screens. Except that this time, the power struggles were happening in America’s Silicon Valley and the UK’s Silicon Fen.

This book covers the stories of not just the computers, but the people behind them. Geniuses such as Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber, the co-creators of the ARM processor. Entrepreneurs like Alan Sugar, who applied his “mug’s eyeful” approach of building hi-fi units to computers, with astonishing effect. Industry legends such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who it turns out were willing to play a little dirty to succeed.

The end result is a story of not just 19 computers that upgraded Britain to the digital age, but of the people behind them. It also captures a unique time in our history, when anything could happen. And often did.

But I realise I also need to answer the other question: is your favourite computer in there? Here’s the full list, so you can find out.

  • Acorn Archimedes
  • Acorn Electron
  • Apple II
  • Apple Macintosh
  • Amstrad CPC 464
  • Amstrad PCW 8256
  • Atari 520ST
  • BBC Micro
  • Commodore 64
  • Commodore Amiga
  • Commodore PET 2001
  • Commodore VIC-20
  • Dragon 32
  • IBM Personal Computer (5150)
  • Research Machines 380Z
  • Sinclair QL
  • Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81
  • Sinclair ZX Spectrum


CooliPi avatar

Raspberry Pi is missing!

Anders avatar

It’s missing from the 1980s too.

Nev Young avatar

I remember it all like it was just last century.
I’ve just given away over 500 items of my old computer stuff. Mostly Sinclair and (my favourite) the SAM Coupe.

Andrew Gale avatar

Nev Young… now there’s a name I remember from my using my SAM in the 90’s. Happy days!

David Waterhouse avatar

No mention of the Nascom 1 or 2? Thousands of us cut our teeth on those, building them from component kits in the early 80s. The Nascom 2, especially, was quite advanced for its day. They were ‘proper’ computers, not just games machines, with a range of applications including programming languages, published listings of the monitor firmware and their own magazine.

Nigel Canning avatar

I had (have) a Nascom 2 which I assembled from the kit. That Computer taught me Z80 assembly language, PIO, soldering, you name it. That is what the R-Pi has now done again for a whole new generation which is fantastic to see.
My Nascom 2 is still in the loft and has moved around with me for 40 years (oh dear LoL).

Roger "Merch" Merchberger avatar

The first time I read the headline, my brain went a little too fast and put the pauses in the wrong spot… I read it as:
“The computers that… made Britain on sale…”
My brain envisioned some guy at a garage sale (Yank term – I *believe* a similar Brit phenomenon is called a ‘car boot sale’ but please correct me if I’m wrong) saying “and right over here in the corner, I’ve got this *lovely* island nation… quite unique… make me an offer!”

Oh, and my favourite? The USA ‘cousin’ to the Dragon 32 – the Tandy Color Computer. Still have several working examples.

Stewart Watkiss avatar

I love the cheesy 1980s style video to go with it. Complete with realistic typing on the computer keyboard :-)

Mike Askew avatar

You’re missing the Jupiter Ace – I think that was the one that said you could operate a powers station with it – oooo joy

Anders avatar

Orange, Apricot, Tangerine.

shubas avatar

I remember it all like it was just last century.

Anders avatar

To go to Kings Parade in Cambridge and look at the windows above the Innerspace shop is thought provoking. You can then go behind into Market Hill and look at the walkthrough next to GAP for the Acorn history.

ukscone avatar

80s Britain where anyone with a dream & 50 grand could become a computer manufacturer. Many weird and wonderful “what on earth were they smoking” designs.

Personally i’d have ignored the American computers for the book & concentrated on the British ones Like the Sinclair’s, the Beebs, the Dragon, the Newbrain, the Camputers Lynx, the Enterprise,…

Ian avatar

Newbear :-)
I also remember the first “micro computer” I ever saw: a Newbear 77-68 a school friend built. Toggle switches and LEDs to indicate address and data bus status and a push button to load the data. You just had to remember the hex codes for the 6800 assembly language to fill all of its 256 bytes of memory! I really must be getting REALLY old!!!!

Silas avatar

Feel America’s connection machine (like Bristol’s Transputer) admittedly not included, was fairly amazing

Jongoleur avatar

I bought my first computer from a little shop in Brunswick Street, Liverpool that sold all the latest bits and bobs. I still wish I had bought the first issues of Dr Dobbs Journal! The computer? A Science of Cambridge Mk14. Wish I still had that too!
I’ve still got my ZX81, and the Commodore 64 that replaced it. Both still work…

Nick_s avatar

I used to frequent Microdigital in Water St in Liverpool around 1980. I still have a cassette case with their branding. I too enjoyed Dr Dobbs and I bought a CD a while ago with some of the back issues. I can dig it out and try to make a copy if you are interested.

Colin Rose avatar

Disappointing that the predecessor of the BBC Micro is not included. I’ve still got mine in the wardrobe.
What is it?
The Acorn Atom of course!

Richard Costello avatar

Order placed. There is already a similar book “Digital Retro” by Gordon Laing (recommended), but that only scratches the surface, I suspect this one digs deeper – can’t wait.

PeterF avatar

What a wonderful book – I look forward to subsequent volumes, there were some many new creations in that era and very little compatibility.

The pdf version of the book has a problem in that the page numbers from the index are out by 2! Any of the computers featured could have checked the validity of the index in a few seconds!

The “Apricot” was in a class of its own with its variable speed (& tuneful) floppy drives. The “luggable” Osborne 1 was probably responsible for many skeletal injuries. Please let’s see these in Volume 2?

Andrew Waite avatar

No love for the Oric-1 or the Atmos?

fanoush avatar

Atari 800xl and 130xe is missing next to Commodore 64, it is like Atari ST vs Amiga a bit later.

Silas avatar

For those in Cambridge, the Centre for Computer History worth visit if you’d like a go on one of these machines!

Bob avatar

What on earth is anything from US companies Apple, Commodore, Atari or IBM doing in a list of “Computers that made Britain”?

Ed avatar

LOL. The book’s title is “Computers that Made Britain” not “Computers Made in Britain”. So I guess you have to include imports from the other parts of the empire.

Anders avatar

Because these computers were extremely popular in Britain during their time, especially C64 and Amiga. A lot of British kids cut their coding teeth on them and are now part of the tech economy.

BSimmo avatar

Even more cut their gaming teeth on them, their pirating teeth and their mod tracker teeth.
A few also dabbled in a bit of art.

Ray Allen avatar

Brilliant, i’m lucky enough to have used almost all the computers in the book it was just like yesterday. Great read, thank you

BlastFX avatar

I hadn’t realized Britain was on sale. How in the world did the computers manage to do that?

Ken Matthews avatar

Hawk tools uses Raspberry products in their production facility to control line speed. It’s incredible how efficient Fabric Wax
production can be. Canvas wax used to be manufactured by hand in small batches but today’s digital integration and modern mold designs allow rapid production. The mind boggles…

Nick_s avatar

My first machine was an Acorn 6809. They seemed to be produced in fairly small numbers and I remember I had a long wait to get it. 6809 assembly language and a cassette interface which wasn’t very reliable! I assume the board wasn’t very successful as I never hear of it these days. They were nice Eurocard PCBs.

Barbarian _bros avatar

Got the book in today mail.
Pity I don’t see the Oric 1/Atmos in the computers list… I know it was more a succes in France than in UK, but it’s still a British made computer.

Malcolm Ratcliffe avatar

A Fantastic book, about a fantastic period. I was no expert but dabbled, and taught computer studies. I managed to assemble a collection of BBC and Electrons. I had 8 of them, wired in parallel with one cassette player. Get the pupils to type in CHAIN”” then press play on the cassette player. The program would then load simultaneously on all 8 machines. This was later upgraded to use MACEnet connected via the user port to a RM 380z to allow users to save their code. All very Heath Robinson.

Andy Lunn avatar

Used most of them in the book, either at home, school or Dixons, whilst not forgetting Tandy (my local electronics “goto” shop) where they had the TRS 80s.

YorkshireKev avatar

Excellent book. I downloaded the free PDF version, but after reading it I felt compelled to donate. I’m not sure if the donation just goes to the rpi foundation or if the author will receive anything (I certainly hope so!). The book is well researched and written. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Bob Oliver avatar

Downloaded this and once I started reading, ordered the hard copy book to add to my range of computer history books. It is an excellent book, brought back lots of memories.

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