2 February 1979

The Archive: How Do I Start in Personal Computing? (1979)

Microsystems '79 Conference
Keynote Speech at West Centre Hotel, Lillie Road, London SW6, England
Friday, 2nd February 1979

Stewart Stevenson
Scottish Amateur Computer Society

Fired by the enthusiasm of amateurs in the USA over the last 6 years and in the UK for about 2, a considerable growth in "Personal Computing" has taken place.

Many more want to start but don't know how or where.

This paper is addressed to these people.


The evolution of the human race has covered the last million years; that of personal computing as I shall describe it, perhaps only five. As with all new developments, the rate of change is frighteningly high and the contents of this paper must be obsolete almost at once. Therefore, I shall discuss the types of people to be found in this embryonic personal computing industry, rather than dwelling on the hardware.


(a) The Amateur

I define the amateur as one whose computing is funded mainly out of their own pocket or that of their relations. Their objectives are those of self-gratification but when pressed on the matter, their statements both on their computing "what" and "why" will resemble the utterances of the proverbial deaf-adder. Introspection is clearly not their forte!

In the UK, initial purchases may range from £10 to £500 with the occasional co-operative venture being up to £1,500. The signs are, that a personal computer is beginning to compete with the hi-fi as a status symbol for Mr. or Mrs. Jones next door. Thus individual expenditure should rise.

At the bottom of the price range is the electronics buff who can discuss at great length, the relative merits of dynamic or static RAM, of the 8080 or Z-80 or indeed any subject you bring up. The results achieved are rarely impressive in computing terms and they are therefore always in the process of selling, buying or upgrading their equipment. Find one of-these and befriend them; they may be useful!

I number myself among the growing number of amateurs who want to do "real" computing and who have therefore acquired a ready-built system or a large kit. The profile of such a machine might be:
  • Z-80 or 6800 processor,
  • 4K to l2K of RAM,
  • cassette tape for programs and data,
  • primary output through TV,
  • a BASIC interpreter.
The amateur generally knows that they have much to learn and is the life-blood of the many clubs and societies which are springing up.

(b) The Small Business User

A number of people in this category are merely clever amateurs who understand Her Majesty's Tax Inspectors better than I. However, even those in that category are forced to put their computers to practical use, if only to preserve the facade.

Spending at least £1,000, the small business person is attracted to personal computing for a number of reasons and I leave this to others to expand upon. I have met doctors, dentists, guest-house operators and even large commercial concerns who have introduced their machine for applications as diverse as:
  • immunisation recall programs,
  • appointment control,
  • teeth indexing,
  • VAT calculation,
  • training and personnel evaluation.
(c) Educational Users

Personal computer systems are now cheap enough even for Parent-Teacher Associations to buy. Up until now, school computing might have required a large, centrally-funded investment to get "on-air". The small, cheap machine can free schools from the administrator!

At least one University has a large number of PETs installed which it can use to provide both initial "hands-on" programming experience and also a limited "real" computing facility.


(a) Preliminary

The most important question must be "What kind of user will I be?". Not the old classic "What do I want to do?". Nine out ten personal computer users will do quite different things once the machine is acquired from those envisaged at the outset. Now that you know what you are, find some similar who is already experienced , or failing that, who is also just starting. That leads us straight into:

(b) User Organisations

There is now a plethora of clubs and societies throughout the UK which cater mainly for the amateur computer enthusiast. The business person may nonetheless find that this is a suitable place for contacts and the Scottish Amateur Computer Society, at least, does attempt to connect up all people of like interests.

Find your club through anyone you know who is already into personal computing or by reading the computer press.

(c) Literature

Almost the only literature worth reading at the outset, are periodicals since in this fast-moving field, a book can be out-of-date on the day it is published. The periodicals sponsoring this conference are among those which you may wish to consult. It will certainly be worth getting hold of at least one US magazine when you come to buy your hardware, as you will be wanting information on:

(d) Pricing Policy

Almost all the equipment you will consider, will be available in both the UK and USA markets. Therefore a word about UK vendors. After paying import duty, VAT, transport and conversion to UK electrical supply requirements, it must be inevitable that UK prices are higher. The responsible UK vendor will be selling at a price that is about 80% to 90% (in pounds) of the US figure (in dollars). Know that us price first, so that you can catch the guy who just changes the dollar sign on the price to a pound one and adds a note "VAT extra"!

(e) Second-Hand

Don't forget that a lot of commercial concerns have been computing for a long time and will therefore have used equipment to sell from time to time. The amateur, in particular, may find rich pickings when looking for an old terminal. Prices might range from £10 for an old CREED Teleprinter to £200 for an IBM Selectric typewriter.

Personal computer equipment is also available second-hand and the odds are that your local club will know of some.


I wish I could say that I knew a computing equivalent of the lodestone with which you might unerringly navigate the murky waters of personal computing. These guidelines must suffice instead:
  • Join a club or society,
  • Read everything possible before buying,
  • Buy no system which you cannot be shown working perfectly,
  • Pay on receipt of goods if possible,
  • You are buying instant obsolescence, spend only money you can afford,
  • Help the next poor beginner, ownership of a machine makes you an instant "expert".


With the passage of 35 years since I delivered this note to a large and eager audience at the first commercial microcomputer conference in these islands, a lot has changed.

Computing does remain a "club" activity but with major conferences now discussing "open software" rather than hardware. And the core piece of open software under discussion at many forums is LINUX. And that is the software which underpins the Internet, a technology so pervasive today that one can easily forget that it's been around in something like its present form for only about 20 years.

In 1979 no one talked about anything that could be thought to be like the public Internet, although many of the concepts were being discussed and experimented with. Indeed I gave a paper in Vienna in 1977 that discussed an implementation of a kind of software service virtualisation [note below].

So when I said in 1979 that the rate of change was frighteningly high, not only was I correct, but I remain correct.

Note: Virtualisation is described and discussed on Wikipedia at

Stewart Stevenson
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