1980s Technology and Electronics

TV Advert for the Amstrad 8256 Word Processor

by Mark Nobes, chief editor

Who remembers school computer lessons back in the 80s? In the early eighties when I was at secondary school, IT lessons (as they're now called) were only available to around half a dozen kids (the chosen few), and they were learning to program the ZX80 and ZX81

Eventually, expensive BBC home computers were introduced, although by the time computers were starting to get interesting, I had to leave school!

Rumbelows Philips TV Set Advert 1983

There were no home music keyboards around which made music lessons extremely boring. The only instrument I learned to play was the recorder, and no matter how well you played it, it always sounded like a dying clanger. Unfortunately, most of our time was spent trying to learn how to read music, rather than play it - totally mind-numbing.

However, I did join the Synthesizer Club and that was pretty fascinating.  I can't remember what make of synths were being used, but there were only two available and I'm pretty sure they were both analog. The first affordable digital synth was the Yamaha DX7 which was launched in 1983. When I say affordable, you would still require £1000's rather than £100's, and that was still out of most ordinary folk's price range. So they were incredibly expensive for schools to be using. But as with home computers, just as they were becoming more accessible I was leaving secondary school.

80s cassette recorders and ghettoblasters collage

80s cassette imagery.

Of course, these days virtually every child has an LCD or even LED colour TV in their bedroom. But in the early eighties I had one of those 12 inch black and white models with a large tuning knob on the front. It was great fun tuning in to all those channels - all three of them - just like on a radio. Fog also affected the reception, and I remember that in the bleak mid winter, you could pick up some filthy French channels - oh, how I loved foggy days!
Amstrad VCR 4600 VHS Pal Video Recorder

Amstrad VCR 4600 PAL VHS Video Recorder from the 1980s

My parents bought one of these and I remember it recorded at half speed to save on tape, although this resulted in pretty poor picture quality and such recordings were imcompatible with most other players.

Back in the early 80s, there were no mobile phones, of course, but I did have a Citizens Band (CB) radio. They were great fun as you could speak to people totally free of charge for as long as you wanted with no worrying about call charges. The only downside was that you could only reach people within a ten-mile radius. I had a cheap Audioline, but some of the CB geeks had really expensive models that could reach out much further.

In 1985, I actually received an Amstrad colour TV for my bedroom! Channel 4 was just becoming available in our area, too. It was a great TV and lasted for about ten years. I also remember having one of those Amstrad Tower Hi-Fi systems, with a record player on the top and storage space underneath to keep your vinyl.

From a technological point of view, I think the 80's were perfect times to live in as all of the exciting new technologies were just coming out, but without taking over our lives. The fact is that the majority of us didn't have mobile phones or automatic washing machines, and none of us owned sat navs or went on the internet because they didn't exist. And, of course, we lived our lives perfectly well without any of them!

Just like today, people ate their fair share of junk food such as sweets, chocolates, fizzy pop and crisps. But the main difference is that many more of us used to cycle or walk everywhere, and the school playing fields hadn't been sold off. People were generally more active and the word "diet" just wasn't in my vocabulary, at least.

Old British telephones

British dial telephones from the 70s and 80s. Creative Commons Photo by Dan Brady

British Airways Concorde
photo credit: roger4336 via photopin cc
The Air France and British Airways Concorde was in service from 1976 until 2003.
Kodak Diskettes advert 1980s
photo credit: jbcurio via photopin cc
Waipitu GB113 Swatch Watch (1987)
1987 Swatch Watch - Waipitu GB113

Amstrad PCW8512 Word Processor

An Amstrad PCW8512 Word Processor from 1985 

Stand-alone word processors were popular back in the 80s and into the 90s and were a cheaper alternative to buying a full computer.

Saisho VHS Video Recorder advert
Saisho VHS video recorder advert from the 80s. Photo credit: Bradford Timeline via photopin cc
Citizen Crystron LC wrist watch (1984)
Citizen Crystron LC watch (1984)
You'll find more watches on the 80s Gadgets page

1985 video camera and phone (public domain image)

This public domain image from 1985 shows journalist Lucy Morgan with a video camera and phone 

80s Technology Collage
How many of the items can you remember from this 80s technology collage?
Atari 2600 Jr. with Galaxian cartridge
This new-look version of the Atari 2600 console was launched in 1984 and unofficially titled the "Atari 2600 Jr.". In 1989, the system was selling for under £50 and there was a UK ad campaign.
Pye Television sets (1977-78)

Pye portable television sets (1978). Not quite the 80s, but they would have probably have lasted through the entire decade. 

Amstrad PPC640 (1988)
An Amstrad PPC640 word processor from 1988. Photo credit: Francesco De Francesco
Complete Brick Phone 1985 Old School Mobile VINTAGE CELLULAR Bag Telephone Tandy circa Eighties
A Tandy mobile phone

Panasonic Ghettoblaster model TR-1200G
Photo by Joimson

Panasonic TR-1200G ghettoblaster

This unit is from the early 80s and features built-in Television, 4 band radio cassette recorder, VU meter and tape counter. I really miss these old, portable boomboxes, and MP3 players just don't cut the mustard with me. You couldn't beat physically loading a cassette (I had a fairly extensive collection in those days) and watching the tape counter rolling over.  
VHS video cassette tape cartridge

The Video Cassette

We were still watching videos well into the 2000's in our household. Being the penny-pincher that I am, I used to record TV programmes on the same blank tape over and over again until the machine decided to chew it up. We were reassured by the skeleton in those 80s TV adverts for Scotch tapes that we could "re-record, not fade away", after all. Those ads were correct to a point, although if you bought a cheaper brand then after a while your recording started to resemble an early Laurel and Hardy silent film, being both wobbly and in black and white.

When I finally got around to purchasing a new pack of blank tapes (that wasn't very often, believe me!) it took me about half an hour to get the cellophane off the damn things, causing me to miss a vital episode of The A-Team

Scotch Video Tapes (1981)
Scotch video cassette advert from 1981
Sony Betamax cassette and a Maxell VHS cassette

A Sony Betamax cassette and a Maxell VHS cassette. Despite Betamax being a superior format, the VHS became the most popular choice with consumers.

From Typewriters to Word Processors

AEG Olympia Traveller de Luxe S manual typewriter 1980s

AEG Olympia Traveller de Luxe manual typewriter 1980s 

Canon Typestar 110 electronic typewriter from 1989

A Canon Typestar 110 Electronic Typewriter from 1989

My first experience with any form of word processing was with a manual typewriter. They were just starting to become more colourful by the late 1970s, and my parents bought me a lovely green one (actually, it was ghastly!) from a local stationer. I would spend hours typing all sorts of nonsense, although manually striking those keys took its toll on your finger after a while! I used to thoroughly enjoy advancing the carriage just to hear that glorious ping sound!

Of course, these were the days when you had to use correction fluid (I used to buy the cheaper alternative to Tippex), but using too much of it just looked a right mess. I would end up with a basket full of screwed-up paper balls from trying to type just one letter!

I moved on to an Atari 1020 printer/plotter in the mid eighties, which I connected to my Atari 800XL home computer, although it was a fat lot of good for printing professional documents - printing technology was far from ideal in the mid eighties. However, it was very convenient when compared to a typewriter as it used a roll of paper rather than individual sheets, and you could print colour text and graphics using its four pens. You also had much better control over what you printed and you didn't need correction fluid.

... computer demo center!

Atari home computers display cabinet from the 1980s. Photo credit: x-ray delta one

Saving home-made computer programs to cassette

Remember doing this? Blank cassettes were used for saving and loading home-made computer games and programs back in the 80s. BASIC was the most popular programming language, although each computer manufacturer had their own version of the language. Atari BASIC was notoriously user unfriendly, although it provided impressive results once you had grasped how to use it.

Casio MT-500 advert from May 1986

Casio MT-500 advert from May 1986 inside Melody Maker


This Commodore 1520 Farbplotter (below) used a similar mechanism to the Atari 1020 plotter/printer. 

The dot matrix printer that I bought for my Atari ST in the early 90s was much better, though, and with some free public domain word processing software I was able to produce something half decent. The ribbons used to last for ages, too, making it much more economical that the inkjets and bubblejets of the 90s. Also, at this time the old 9 pin printers were being replaced by better quality 18 and 24 pin models with NLQ (Near Letter Quality) text.

I bought a Brother Word Processor in the late 90s after seeing an advert in Exhange & Mart selling them for under £100. Despite my worries about actually receiving anything, it turned out to be a truly brilliant device and it had a built-in colour inkjet printer. I found it much easier to use than the word processing software on the Atari and produced newsletters with ease. Eventually, of course, it packed up and I bought my first PC in 2003 with a Canon Bubblejet.

With the price of ink and postage now sky-high (in the UK, at least) I hardly print anything these days and everything I publish is now done electronically through blogs, websites and email. How times have changed. But isn't it ironic that just when home printers have become advanced enough to print very professional looking documents, we're doing everything online. Mind you, the built-in scanner is handy!

Commodore 1520 Farbplotter Printer
Epson Dot Matrix Printer

Although expensive to buy, believe it or not, Dot Matrix Printers are still available and are proving popular once again as they are efficient, productive and cost next to nothing to run. They now also come with USB connection. A ribbon costing around £6 will last for at least a year if you're just an average user.