The ‘1977 trinity’ and other era-defining PCs
Technology is prone to lose functionality over time. Diminished performance, however, can be compensated by growing nostalgia. Since personal computing has been around for over four decades, we’ve compiled a list of the machines that aged like fine wine.
If you just can’t be compelled to get rid of your old mobile phone, or you still get fascinated by the sound of a tape being put into a cassette player, then you’re no stranger to nostalgia-tech.
Sure, digital audio and modern smartphones are much more convenient, but there’s a particular attraction when it comes to old devices. For some, it’s nostalgia for childhood, while others can’t look away from well-aged designs.
After all, it’s not every day that you might see a tape recorder mounted on the case of a PC or an acoustic coupler, used for dial-up internet, that for younger generations is only known from 80’s movies like the infamous WarGames.
We’ve already shown you some of the coolest retro PCs that people collect and use up to this day. This time, we’d like to show you computers that were released over 30 years ago and kickstarted personal computing as we know it.
Commodore PET 2001
The Commodore was the first member of the so-called ‘1977 trinity’, a series of computers released in 1977 that conquered the markets and established personal computing as something the middle class in the West could afford.
Largely forgotten in the 21st century, Commodore International was the largest manufacturer of personal computers in the US through the ‘70s and ‘80s. The original company ended its 36 year-long history in April 1994.
However, the company’s golden years were marked by the release of the Commodore PET 2001 in January 1977. Sold at $795, or around $3,500 in today’s money. The system was comprised of a microprocessor and a computer monitor.
The PET had a built-in MOS 6502 processor and 4KB RAM that makers later updated to 8KB.
The PET was equipped with a ‘datasette’, a tape-cassette-based storage device mounted on the device’s left side. Similarly to an acoustic coupler, the device converted information from the computer to analog sound stored on a cassette.
Yes, in the pre-floppy days, apps, documents, and any other data were stored on tapes.
If the PET’s design and name seem somewhat similar, you must be a Stanley Kubrick fan. PET 2001 is an homage to the HAL 9000, the ominous intelligent computer from the 1969 motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s impossible not to visualize the ‘70s sci-fi genre’s aesthetics when looking at the Commodore’s chiclet keyboard design.
The legendary Steve Wozniak designed the second member of the ‘1977 trinity’. Apple II was released in June 1977 and discontinued in 1979. At the time, the PC was called a ‘micro-computer’ and was lauded as a sign that computers are shifting from being machines to house appliances.
Apple sold the computer with a 1.023 MHz MOS technology 6502 processor, 4KB of RAM with eight slots open for expansion of up to 64KB. One of the defining features of the computer was that it was able to display color graphics.
Apple II was one of the key reasons why there was a time when the Apple logo was based on a spectrum of colors. The feature, however, came at a price. With a price tag of $1,300 (equivalent to around $5,500 in current dollars), the Apple II was considerably more expensive than PET 2001.
In an almost unimaginable move for modern Apple Inc, the Apple II was sold as a circuit-board-only device, without a keyboard, power supply, or case, allowing hobbyists to make the machine in a way they see fit.
Even though it was released last, in August 1977, the Tandy Corporation’s Radio Shack 80 computer system was the most popular device of the ‘1977 trinity’. Even though the company expected to sell only a few hundred machines, 10,000 TRS-80’s were sold in the first month of its release and over 100 thousand in two years after.
Such performance was a humongous achievement. For example, Commodore PET sold around 5,000 units in 1978 and was considered a success. One reason for RadioShack’s success was pricing. TRS-80 sold for $600 ($2,500 in 2020) with a monitor, meaning one Apple II cost as much as two TRS-80’s.
The monitor, however, is a somewhat fancy term to describe a modified RCA black-and-white TV set. The device came with a 1.77 MHz Zilog Z-80A processor and 4KB RAM that users could expand to 16KB without purchasing additional expansion interfaces that cost almost as much as the PC itself.
TRS-80 used a modified version of the BASIC programming language, which allowed users to see its source code. The device’s design inadvertently encouraged users to modify and write their programs, creating an entirely new way to code: from the comfort of your home.
The popularity of the device came at a certain cost. With a growing number of users came greater attention to hardware and software flaws, for example, the slow and unreliable ‘datasette ‘device, earning the device the name “TRaSh-80.” That, however, was a small price to pay for a market-conquering device.
A device released in 1982 might not be an eye-pleaser, but to this day, in 2021, it still holds a respectable place at the Guinness World Records as the highest-selling single computer model of all time. Commodore claims that it sold between 12 and 17 million copies over C64’s lengthy 12 years running time.
There were several reasons why the C64 became a superstar of PC’s First, as it cost less than $600 ($1,500 in 2019 dollars), making it an acceptable investment for a medium income household in the US and the West generally. With the increase in mass production capabilities, the price eventually dropped to a low $300.
With a 1MHz CPU and, unsurprisingly, 64KB of RAM, the device was ahead of the competition in terms of usability and power. The C64 could be plugged into a TV, allowing users to convert the PC to a gaming console.
Built-in microprocessors supported high-resolution graphic modes, whereas a sound card allowed for somewhat complex sounds. Because of the advanced sound-generating chips, the C64 was likely the first computer that thousands of people used to make music with.
Released in 1982 by the British computer makers at Sinclair, the ZX Spectrum is comparatively as influential as C64 was in terms of sales and legacy. Sinclair sold over 5 million copies of the device worldwide until it was discontinued in 1992.
The 5 million does not include various clones based on the ZX that flooded the market after the device was released.
Spectrum, the successor to the ZX81, was named so to announce its color capabilities. To push the point even further, Sinclair made the device black and had a rainbow-colored stripe to signal the color capabilities, somewhat mimicking Apple’s move a few years earlier.
The device sold for £125 ($500 in 2021 dollars). It also had a 3.5MHz Zilog Z80A CPU and 16KB of RAM.
Even though ZX Spectrum was a worldwide success, it’s best known for its impact in the UK, where it was the first household PC for many. Small and capable, the device still has a cult following, with owners using a modified machine to cater to 21st century needs.
Other computers that changed the way live or just look very cool are pictured below.