I feel rather fortunate to have developed interests in electronics and computing right at the beginning of the microprocessor era. Today’s generation are entering the technology, software and internet fields at a time when they are well established and the chaos, experimentation, excitement and optimism are somewhat less than they were forty years ago.
This is a subject I’ll be returning to from time to time as I blog; it was a fascinating and stimulating period in which the idea of “personal computing” was a little far fetched. Most of us who were truly determined to actually program had no choice other than to assemble boards and chips and ribbon cables, memorize hexadecimal “opcodes” and patiently save and load our work using a portable audio cassette recorder.
The microprocessor was the vehicle with which many electronics hobbyists gained entry to a whole new world of programming. The first computer hobbyists were almost exclusively electronics hobbyists, students or engineers and – initially at least – these early forays were primarily hardware projects with software playing a small but compelling role.
Its hard to appreciate today but a great many important ideas that permeate our modern technological world made their first appearance within a short time beginning around the mid 1970s or thereabouts and a trusted companion many of us relied upon was the “computer magazine”.
Although there were many of these my personal favorite was Byte – The Small Systems Journal. Byte was a wonderful publication embracing electronics and software and attracting both hobbyist and professional alike. The articles were often written by people in academia or industry and reflected genuinely cutting edge and imaginative research, much of it within reach of the dedicated hobbyist.
Every issue focused on some stimulating theme like operating systems, compilers, databases, mathematical computing, communications, education, artificial intelligence, chess, speech recognition, computer graphics and so on. I was building microprocessor boards and small robots, writing control software and interrupt handlers, studying electronics, reading science fiction, studying the night sky, listening to Pink Floyd, Hawkwind and David Bowie, watching Dr. Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Prisoner, Star Trek and The Avengers and all the while scouring the pages of Byte magazine soaking up new ideas and seeing an incredible unfolding of technology.
Few things conveyed this variety, excitement, optimism and feeling of technological promise better than the cover artwork found on each issue of Byte magazine, and no artist in my opinion has contributed more to technologically inspired art during the personal computer revolution than Robert Tinney.
I have several signed limited edition prints of Tinney’s work and some of these hang in my office and throughout my home and I never tire of them. They are amongst the most imaginative pieces of commercial art that I’ve ever seen in any field and Tinney’s ability to come up with an imaginative image, issue after issue after issue, with each image beautifully capturing each month’s theme was incredible.
Here are just a few of these covers, I hope you can appreciate how these images capture the intensity and technological potential of that era.