My Computer Museum, Part 1: The Amstrad PC1640

A reflection on computer hardware and software stretching back 35 years. Most of it is still in my possession.

I bought my first PC (“personal computer”) in 1988, over 35 years ago. It was an Amstrad PC1640, the first IBM compatible PC for sale here in the UK for under £1,000. (It was not the same as the Amstrad PCW series, which was not IBM-compatible and was mainly aimed at home users.) At the time most PCs aimed at businesses cost between £2,000 and £3,000. There was a deal at the Dixons store on Oxford Street: the PC, a flat-pack desk, telephone (landline as we now call them) and a “dictation machine” (a Saisho Walkman with recording as well as playback options), all for under a grand. My brother, visiting from Spain during the Easter holidays, put the desk together for me when I was out at work one day. He’s better at that sort of thing than I am.

The Amstrad 1640 came with two 5¼” floppy disk drives, Drive A and Drive B. Typically the disk in Drive A would contain program files (I was using WordStar mostly, and then WordPerfect 4.2) and the disk in Drive B stored documents. The available space on each disk was 360Kb. One or two people I knew, who were more tech-savvy than I am, installed their own hard drives, up to 32Mb of fixed disk space. They avoided having to juggle with floppy disks, but that never bothered me. I experimented with some Shareware software at the time. There was a very inventive program called Mindreader, an early “type-ahead” word processor. Like predictive text these days it offered suggestions based on the first few letters of a word. It was also adaptable: you could create your own library of shortcuts (Y1 for Yours sincerely, Y2 for Yours faithfully and so on). It took another 20 years for this sort of thing to become mainstream and as a touch-typist I found it interesting rather than essential. “Hunt-and-peck” typists could have saved themselves a lot of effort with software like this.

This 1988 Amstrad model, along with loan PCs from various places where I worked, was good enough for my needs right through to the summer of 1994. I kept the original packaging, and the boxed-up, unused machine followed my movements right through to the summer of 2016 when I finally took it to a local recycling centre. I had not switched it on for over 20 years, even for the nostalgia value of reliving my first years as a computer owner, or reminding myself of programs like WordStar and Mindreader.

Every other computer that I have used regularly since the summer of 1994 is still somewhere in the house. I think of this collection as my Computer Museum. In the weeks ahead I am planning, finally, to fire up each machine, make sure that there’s nothing I need from any of them, and get rid of them.


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