It’s safe to say that 50 years has been a long time in the world of computing. Gone are the monolithic structures and valve-filled towers that filled entire rooms, replaced by devices with vastly greater capabilities that can fit in the user’s pocket. But there’s an enduring appeal to these formerly cutting-edge ‘antiquities’ – a shared nostalgia evidenced by the crowds who are drawn to exhibitions of retro technology.
And here on the Plymouth campus, in the Portland Square Building, there is just such an exhibition. Housed in glass cabinets within the School of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics is the South West Retro Computing Archive, a collection of dozens of items that chart the development of personal computing and gaming technology since the early 1970s.
“It started many years ago when we wanted to do something to give our area within Portland Square more of an identity,” says Head of School, Professor Steve Furnell, who has loaned many of the items from his own extensive collection. “We started with a few pieces of old technology, and it became apparent that people were stopping, looking and reminiscing about what we had on show. So we began to look at ways to expand, and now we have reached the stage where every available space on our part of the floor is full.”
The archive – curated in conjunction with the South West Branch of BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT, and also available to view online at www.retro-computing.org – represents a technological journey through time, starting with a now somewhat dated Ladybird tome from 1971 titled How It Works: The Computer. It then charts the meteoric rise in popularity of computers over the next four decades, representing innovations created by manufacturers from Amstrad to Apple, Commodore to Dell, Hitachi to IBM, Microsoft to Nintendo, Sega to Sinclair, and more.
There are popular systems from the 1970s and ‘80s, such as the Acorn Electron, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, BBC Master and Commodore 64, and iconic consoles from the ‘90s including the Nintendo Game Boy, Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx, as well as more recent additions such as the Apple Mac and Nintendo DS Lite. And there are games which have enthralled millions across the world, including Battleship, Donkey Kong, PacMan and Simon.
Steve says: “I grew up with the Sinclair Spectrum and then moved on to computers from Amstrad and Commodore, so for me there is a connection to so many of these items. And over the years, I have managed to acquire hundreds of pieces of equipment and software, not just for that personal tie but because it is always a great reminder to see how far computing has come during my lifetime and how quickly things can change. Within the archive, there are many devices that changed their time and became international icons, while there are also lesser known items that have influenced the innovators of today such as the Apple Newton which, in essence, was the pre-cursor to the iPhone.”
As well as being on permanent display in Portland Square, the archive has formed part of the undergraduate programme, with students using the old systems as a means to understand the evolutions of technology over recent decades. It has also been used extensively at public events, with computers and consoles on display at the University’s annual Science and Technology Showcase, the recent celebration of the library’s 40th birthday, and BCS’ own retro gaming and computing events held in Plymouth.
Steve, who is Chairman of the BCS’ South West branch, adds: “The archive may have started out as something to enhance the school’s identity, but it has grown to become something else, even if there is now only a small portion of it on show at any one time. We now regularly receive donations from the public and thanks to the efforts of those within the school – including Paul Dowland, Bogdan Ghita, Ismini Vasileiou and John Welsh – most of those systems are catalogued and, in many cases, restored to working order. It is something that will grow, and we will continue to look for ways to reach an even wider audience.”