From the ultra-rare Acorn Phoebe to early virtual reality consoles, the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge has a number of lesser seen machines on display. This article profiles just five of those more unusual items from some of the biggest names in computer manufacture and gaming, then and now. All photographs copyright The Centre for Computing History and used with permission.
Five Unusual Items on Display at the Centre for Computing History
The Centre for Computing History has some rare and unusual exhibits in among the more common BBC Micros, Ataris, Amstrads and handheld consoles.
This piece of bright yellow kit is as distinctive as it is unusual. The Centre for Computing History’s example is believed to be the only complete machine in existence, and came with half-finished work on as it was still very much in development when the project was cancelled two days after the first full test in September 1998.
This workstation machine ran RISC-OS and was to be part of the next generation of Acorn products, but the overall number of pre-orders was low and the public price was quoted as being £1,500, which made it very expensive even for the enthusiasts it was aimed at.
See what I mean?
Distinctive, isn't it?
The Acorn Phoebe
The MK14 kit
The MK14 (kit)
The first computer by Sinclair, before the company was even called Sinclair. Originally sold by Science of Cambridge, as it was then known, for just under £40 in 1977, the Microcomputer Kit 14 version held by the Centre for Computing History is even rarer. There are repro versions out there these days (see MyMK14 for one) and original machines do occasionally surface for air – and vast amounts of money – on eBay. This machine had 256 bytes of RAM and was able to be modified following instructions published in the home computer and electronics magazines of the day. Appropriately enough for a Cambridge-based museum, the Centre for Computing History has both a fully assembled MK14 machine and the super-scarce kit form which has never been made up.
Nintendo 3D Virtual Boy
One of the earliest attempts at virtual reality, or VR, technology, the Nintendo 3D Virtual Boy was a project ultimately doomed to failure. It was released in 1995 in Japan and North America only, but disappointing sales saw it discontinued within a year. 770,000 units were sold, many to US Blockbuster outlets which rented them to gamers, but the system was criticized for its lack of ‘total immersion’ and often features in lists of the worst selling consoles. Nevertheless it is a valuable collector’s item and the Centre for Computing History is pleased to list it on their inventory.
The Virtual Boy
Apart from the non-immersive experience, the system is noted for its red LED display (a quirk shared with the Entex Adventure Vision tabletop console) which apparently was because a full color screen would have made the system too expensive. In total, 22 games were released for the console in its official lifespan. Since then, the homebrew community has released several more games and with hindsight the system may well have been directly responsible for the development of the 3DS handheld.
Entex Adventure Vision tabletop console - Code Red
The first attempt by Sega to enter the home video gaming hardware market, the Sega Game 1000 was a cartridge based console unit. Its development spawned the creation of many other future handhelds from Sega after the first phase was released in 1983 in Japan. Limited releases in other markets followed, but the kit was never sold in North America or the UK, which accounts for its rarity here.
Th Sega SG-1000
The North American market later gained an SG-1000 clone called the Telegames Personal Arcade. The machine underwent several updates and a computer version, the SG-3000, was produced which could run all the SG-1000’s games. The third iteration of the machine was eventually renamed the Sega Master System. Notable games included the Pinball-like Flipper, Space Invaders’ style Galaga, various platform games and racing games such as Safari Race and GP World.
The Domesday System
A BBC-based system, the idea is explained in Rory Cellan-Jones’ piece in May 2011. It was an ambitious partnership also involving the Cambridge firm Acorn, the makers of the ‘Beeb’, to recreate the kind of day-to-day information found in the Domesday Book. However, the set up costs of £5,000 put it beyond the budgets of most, including some schools and libraries. Only 1,000 systems were sold nationwide, and the Centre for Computing History has one among an extensive collection of fully working BBC machines. The problem was that the system relied on the use of Laserdiscs and a specially adapted version of the BBC Master machine. This is where the specialist museums come in. The Centre for Computing History has the necessary kit to assist in preservation and extraction of the data on the Laserdiscs. Staff are hopeful that the information can be released online once copyright has been fully investigated. The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park has two Domesday Systems accessible to visitors. In addition, the BBC itself has undertaken the Domesday Reloaded project described in the May 2011 article linked above.
The BBC Domesday Project
If this quick rundown of five of the more unusual items at the Centre for Computing History has whetted your appetite, the museum is open Wednesdays-Sundays for as long a visit as you like. More information can be found on the website.