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The Life and Times of Lincoln Computer Club

By 1Chip0Limitz  |  Posted: December 11, 2013

Lincoln Computer Club 1979
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A CHAIN of electrifying events earned the year 1979 a special place in history. Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first woman Prime Minister www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SQuFjH3AUA and terror bombers struck (Lord Mountbatten, IRA victim). Iraq got a new president (Saddam Hussein). Afghanistan was invaded (by the Soviets). China opened full diplomatic relations with the USA. Americans were taken hostage during the Islamic revolution in Iran. Tsunami disasters rocked France and Colombia. A blowout at Ixtoc I polluted the Gulf of Mexico. Oil was $24 a barrel. 

Aerials and electronics had joined paper, celluloid, vinyl and tape in mass entertainment but computers were well below the radar. 

Singer Michael Jackson broke through to adulthood with an album, Off the Wall, of plain old plastic www.youtube.com/watch?v=S11eGmzM-4E. Hip-hop first charted as a single, Rapper's Delight, by the Sugarhill Gang www.youtube.com/watch?v=diiL9bqvalo

Film-maker Ridley Scott used old computer screens and oversized transistors in Alien to make the whole set look 'run-down industrial' www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEVY_lonKf4. Monty Python went from TV to film (Life of Brian) while The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy went from radio to book. 

Gary Numan used a synthesizer in his smash-hit single Are Friends Electric, Kate Bush invented a wireless microphone so she could sing and dance on stage, and music got personal with the Sony Walkman. Philips demonstrated the first Compact Discs www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2rtzSNpXxM

At Fort Ritchie, Maryland, radar-linked defence computers reported a surge of Soviet missiles heading for the USA. The world was six minutes towards Armageddon before a false alarm was called. A training tape had been left in a computer by mistake. Today the base is closed www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnSqIFCHK4g

Nuclear scares apart, in 1979 computers were few and in the background despite a decade that spawned Unix, RAM, the beginnings of e-mail and video games, cell phones, Apple and Microsoft. (The Intel 4004, a 4-bit central processing unit, had in 1971 become the first complete CPU on one chip, and also the first commercially available microprocessor). 

In 1979 the first all-in-one home computer, the Commodore PET 2001, arrived in Britain offering 4 or 8 kb of RAM www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElLt7Dm8F9M. (PET? 'Personal Electronic Transactor!'). Way off in Washington state in 1979, four-year-old Microsoft were setting up a Consumer Products Division. 

Usenet, one of the oldest computer network communications systems still in widespread use, was conceived in 1979 at the University of North Carolina. It featured 'threads' of messages and popularised the terms FAQ and Spam (from a Monty Python sketch about a clogged-up (cafe) menu). Video games were being played on video consoles, and Activision, the world's first independent developer and distributor, was founded in the autumn of 1979. Predictions about computing were in 1979 treated by the mainstream media almost as science fiction www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVd_y5VAxEs

To help chip away at the meaning of a new era, in 1979 a group from all walks of life got together as the Lincoln Microprocessor Society. From engineering, electronics and education, churches and companies, mansions, farms and banks, they included the Lord Lieutenant, the Bishop, doctors, a medical physicist and an air vice marshal (Michael Lyne, who was later elected to the council of the British Computer Society). They took on a 1980 Government commision to survey attitudes about the future in Lincoln and analysed their 30% response. Employers felt micros did not cause unemployment but increased efficiency, trade unions felt hi-tech jobs would be created though skills would have to change, and children thought computers would play a big part in a future they would like to work in. In choosing some kit for the job (the Manpower Services Commission paying!), the society felt a 1980 home computer (Commodore PET or Tandy TRS80) at around £750 not as useful as the North Star Horizon. It was 32k RAM etc and cost £2,500 cnettv.cnet.com/tales-silicon-valley-work-home-revolution/9742-1_53-32216 .html. The early focus was on office and business uses including microelectronics, agriculture and graphic art, but some were already getting hands-on with the devices of their day. A 'hobbies group' became a 'computer group' and finally the Lincoln Computer Club from 1982, founding members being Douglas Griffiths, John Rankin, Dr Ian Logan and Theo Roe. After early meetings in members' homes the club met at 'The Cardinals Hat'. Subscriptions were half a crown per visit, and facilities included access to up to 30 BBC Micros and more than 20 Spectrums. 

Dr Logan wrote many books about Assembly Language and was a developer of the Spectrum Mirco Drive. He worked with Clive Sinclair on the ZX, Zx81, QI, Zx80 and Sinclair Computer Logic. In his spare time he drove around Lincoln in a bright yellow Lotus Elan. The familiar complaint of the keyboard addict was heard in an early club newsletter: 'I look at the clock, that can't be right! Time has flown - that's half the night!' And there were familiar frustrations: 'BASIC is the only high-level language that can be mastered completely in less time than any program in it takes to execute.' 

The 1980s, lifting the burden of self-programming, gave the world DOS, Windows, the PC, DNS, the Internet, and the first Home PC. Since 1990 have come Windows 9x, DVD, dial-up, www and broadband. When Mrs Thatcher appointed Christopher Monckton a special adviser in 1982, the first computer entered 10 Downing Steet. He said later: "On my first day in the job, I tottered in dragging one of the world's first portable computers, the 18-lb Osborne 1, with a 5" screen, floppy disks that were still truly floppy, and a Z80 8-bit chip which I had learned to program in machine language as well as BASIC" www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILfKy0URsUU By the time of the 1983 election manifesto Mrs Thatcher was on the hi-tech case: 'The Western world is passing through a transformation from the age of the smokestack to the era of the microchip. Traditional industries are being transformed by the new technologies. These changes have led to a rapid rise in unemployment in almost every Western country. We will sanction new cable networks to bring wider choice to consumers, not just for entertainment, but for the whole new world of tele-shopping and tele-banking.' As the 1980s continued the names Microsoft www.youtube.com/watch?v=ys0UVok3_TU and Apple www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJHpFAGyNp4 became more familiar. After 1984 the music industry got to grips with digital remastering, and Michael Jackson's 1979 album Off the Wall got a new lease of life on CD. In 1986 the film Aliens, sequel to the 1979 chiller, was quickly turned into not one but two video game versions, by Activision www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOcmkqDITE0 and Software Studios). In Reagan's America intrigue connected the 1979 Iran hostages, arms sales for releases, and later covert aid to insurgents in Nicaragua. Would presidential tapes reveal all as he left office in 1989? As aides cleared up, the White House computer was purged of data backed-up to tape. About two dozen recordings mysteriously disappeared. The price of oil in 1984 was $20 a barrel. 

For a decade the two Lincon digital groupings were intertwined. The society probed Amiga, Atari and Archimedes while the club had for hire BBC micro, PageMaker, Amstrad micro, Answord and Spectrum micro with joystick and games (1988). A 1988 joint newsletter said: 'Imagine a computer that works by pictures... summed up in the acronym WIMP - Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer.' It went on to 'computers linked by telephone' before introducing the term 'modem'. The practical member needed support with Algorhythms & Flowcharts, 'C', databases, basic programming, Pascal, DTP, word-processing. Visits and talks exploring micro use covered amateur radio, silicon chip construction, CAD, bar code scanning, Chess, search engines, speech synthesis, weather satellites, robotics, and the Toyota Celica GT4 featuring 12 million electronic operations a second www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnKr5LZybKs. One presentation, by member Sam Griffiths, was called Micro, Music & Midi. Sam wrote the Midi software in his bedroom at his parents' house, making enough money selling it to Commodore to buy a house of his own. The club newsletter advised on viruses, reviewed an online Bible, offered a program on how to calculate the number of days you have been alive, and promoted magazine swaps. 

The 1990s opened with examination of digitised pictures, PC stripdown, car racing simulations and wargames. It was sell-off time for the club's Commodore and Sinclair www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qxTqBcfAX8. But some things don't change, according to the newsletter: 'The one language used by all programmers is Profanity.' The club named 1995 its year of the internet (via Demon) with discussion echo on Fido net. The next year club notices were off paper and through Feline BBS and email. Club membership expanded as teams went to a series of computer fairs around the city. In 1998 members felt the pain of losing their website in a server upgrade but the pleasure of another successful barbecue courtesy of Ron and Shirley Howe and the award of honorary membership to a founder, Theo Roe. In the early Noughties the club newsletter kept an eye on Microsoft's build-up including MediaPlayer, XP, PowerPoint, Office and Excel. It warned about viruses, piracy and security, and censorship in China. But it found space for jokes and practical tips. Some brands and trends mentioned now seem distant memories: Eudora (mail client), Bigfoot (finding people), Banana (web lotto), Instant Messaging, Yahoo paid-for searches. Other articles asked: What's a cookie? What is a DVD? Do I need a firewall? Noting that the internet seemed at first a male preserve, the newsletter reported women about to draw level. Entrepreneur Eva Pascoe had already launched the UK's first cybercafes and then sold her company for £1m www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1lMzRpvpIs. In the computer fair brochures adverts pointed out the new law allowing only hands-free phones for drivers. A PC wholesaler's new web site was 'updated on a weekly basis'. Street Router (£15) offered journey planning to print out. 

The club saw 2003 as the year of the networked house, while also declaring 'anyone not running an anti-virus program is a menace'. In 2006 equipment was upgraded thanks to a City of Lincoln Community Grant. Members watched closely the development of the Windows operating system, the resurgence of Apple and the efforts of rivals. It also noted a taste for nostalgia in the computer world www.youtube.com/watch?v=gly4r3zl5Pw. The club was also still a place to let off frustration: 'The power and usefulness of any computer diminishes considerably once it is bought.' 'Software = the equipment used to reveal hardware faults. Hardware = the equipment used to reveal software faults.' A quick survival guide from 1997: 1, F1/Help; 2, Read the manual; 3, Start from scratch; 4, Listen to canned music on the phone; 5, Write to magazine's help (agony) column; 6, Panic; 7, Club on Wednesdays. The transformation seen during the lifetime of Lincoln Computer Club continues apace. Today the Thatcher Foundation has a website and the 1979 Prime Minister is putting all her archives online, but not personally. The foundation's Chris Collins said recently: 'I don't think Margaret Thatcher has ever used a computer. I'm a long-term employee and occasionally work on the machine in her study at Chester Square. The first thing I always do is dust the keyboard!' Michael Jackson's fame lives on despite his mysterious death in 2009. His 1979 album Off the Wall was enhanced to become part of a phenomenal collection trade in CDs and DVDs also featuring 1982's all-conquering Thriller. In 2009 fans set yet another record - Jacko's mp3 downloads surged to new internet records. Those Aliens just won't go away. The 1979 original became part of creepy collection of DVDs in 2003 and came out on Blu-ray in 2010 www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo-K7tQo4lQ. That rap music really hung around, and in 2008 the Cern Lab (also the home of www pioneer Tim Berners-Lee) used it to educate us about the famous particle accelerator project www.youtube.com/watch?v=j50ZssEojtM. The price of a barrel of oil? Now there's a change. In early 2011 it stood at $116 a barrel. One of the most sensational leaks of classified data was a news highlight of 2010-11. Private Bradley Manning, a US army intelligence analyst, was charged with passing to Wikileaks a video of American forces killing unarmed civilians in Baghdad and also hundreds of secret diplomatic cables www.bbc.co.uk/news/10529110. Manning allegedly told investigators he would go into work with music on a CD-RW, 'labelled something like Lady Gaga', erase the music then write a compressed split file. "Everyone just sat at their workstations… watching music videos / car chases / buildings exploding... the culture fed opportunities. I listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga's Telephone while 'exfiltrating' possibly the largest data spillage in American history.' Here's a few more words as much in the news now as in 1979: Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, terrorist bombers, emerging China, Rappers and Monty Python. Gorging themselves on their fame, the Monty Python team were in 2011 on the West End stage cementing their link with the slang of cyberspace - Spamalot! www.youtube.com/watch?v=anwy2MPT5RE.

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