Digital Retro by Gordon Laing (Sybex Press USA)
The Seventies and early eighties were an incredible, frantic time in the development of home computers. Back then, machines from famed manufacturers duked it out with the wares of the emergent geek inventor class, who were apocryphally at least, hogging all available garage space from San Jose to Swansea. Some of the names, as Elton might say, burnt out long before their legend ever did. The rest are the dinosaurs in which we might discover the DNA of the iPod, or the Mac Mini, the Blackberry, the ubiquitous Dell Desktop or OQO Model 01.
Remember how, when you'd visit your friends' grandparents, and their house would smell like old people? Well damn! Gordon Laing's Retro Digital is a musty book.He's unearthed all of those seventies and eighties computers and put together a history so rich and so authentic, the smell of burnt solder smacks the synapses as you turn the page.
While the jury's still out on why the dinosaurs passed out, Laing seems to have unearthed a simple reason for the demise of these early 1Mhz dream machines.(Aside from the one known as the Welsh computer, which was always going to suffer stiffer odds of survival than the rest). Here were machines with their proprietary operating systems and their unique peripherals, that were simply incapable of communicating with each other. Their death knell. Hey, aren't we all going that way...
Now, we're left with highly stylized Apple boxes, and the remaining 97% barely distinguishable from each other in a highly homogenized marketplace.
For some people. Digital Retro is going to be an emotional experience akin to finding pop's letters to a mistress in the loft after he kicks it. You're aware of the the lengths kids went to with their parents to acquire a Sinclair ZX81 or a Commodore64 or an Atari 2600? (And why oh why do those names trip from my tongue?) Those now grown kids, visiting the office, grab the book and turn the page to their first machine and through rose tinted lenses rapidly recount.(I don't know what they actually say at that point, I've long since stopped listening).
As an aside, it's funny just how many of those from the former emergent geek inventor class, these high school nerds, get their revenge by cashing out of the computer business and buying the high school jocks that used to bully them.Micro-soft's Paul Allen owns the Portland Trailblazers, Amstrad's Alan Sugar, Tottenham Hotspurs and Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks. Gates and Jobs don't seem to do sports.
Back on point, Gordon Laing, who looks a lot younger than most of these machines, and is a tech-lifer in London, has produced a great and good-looking book. Digital Retro is invaluable coffee table nostalgia and such an essential reference for set builders in Hollywood, they'll be giving it out with the union cards.
The 40 or so machines here are the source of the digital lifestyle when you still had a choice not to have one. Find one of these babies at the Goodwill and they'd probably give you a dollar to take it away. Find the chair someone was sitting in when they were using it, priceless.
Digital Retro by Gordon Laing, Sybex Press USA is available from Sybex and lots of bookstores.