Gerrards Cross Computer Club – History

Gerrards Cross computer club was initially formed in the late 1980s when the BBC Microcomputer project made computers for use at home affordable. A BBC Micro Model B was around £400 but also required a portable cassette tape deck to load and store programs and a TV for displaying the output.

The IBM Personal computer had been around since the mid 1980s for businesses but was still expensive for a home user. A typical small computer with 1 Mbyte of RAM and a 10 Mbyte disk was initially around £8000. You also had an 8 inch Floppy disk drive that could store around 500 Mbytes of data or programs. There was a very basic Operating System called DOS (supplied by Microsoft) which provided a standard way of accessing disk files, keyboard, and screen – monochrome of course! Memory was a maximum of 1 Mbyte but of that only 640 Kbytes was available for running programs or storing data.

IBM made the internal device interface specification publicly available and by the early 1990s other makers were making IBM compatible computers that was driving the cost down. By around 1992 an IBM compatible computer with 100 Mbytes of disk and a 5.25 inch floppy disk of 1.2 Mbyte capacity cost around £1500. Memory could be "extended" to 2 Mbytes my using some clever tricks.

Microsoft added to the picture by providing a programming language called BASIC. Some companies were making the computer more usable with business programs such as VisiCalc - an early spreadsheet. Microsoft produced an early version of Word Processing - Word for DOS which could be configured to run from a floppy disk By this time floppy disks had shrunk to 3.5 inch and capacity increased to 1.44 Mbyte.

Microsoft then started working on a more user friendly operating system using a Graphical User Interface that they called Windows. This was released as Windows 1 but it was only when Excel was created as a competitor to Visicalc that it began to be a serious competitor. Windows version 3 and then 3,1 was the first time they started to achieve significant market penetration and was being used by club members, Microsoft started working with IBM on a far more secure business version but they fell out and IBM produced OS/2 and Microsoft Window NT4. Microsoft won the battle and proceeded with many releases up until the current Windows 10.

In 1990 the cost of the hardware together with a Windows 3 license was around £1500. This was still relatively expensive but was beginning to be adopted for home and small business use. When U joined GXCC in 1992 the IBM compatible PC was the most common amongst members.

Data communications also evolved with the increasing speed of modems and the rapidly falling costs it became possible for home users to connect to the embryonic Internet. By the early 1990s fax machines were quite common and computers were beginning to have inbuilt modems to communicate to central Internet Service Providers. Email and Web services were starting to be important. At the time BT had to approve all network devices and the cost of approval was high and technically very (excessively) rigorous. I designed some modems and had to go through these approvals. Non approved devices were appearing but in practice there was no enforcement. The cost of a modem card to be placed inside a PC fell from £250 for a 14.4 kilobits per second non-approved device to about £25 for a 56 Kbps over a very short space of time. You also had to pay a telephone usage cost – usually a local call. Then Broadband was introduced and enabled 512 kilobits per second permanently connected and the Internet we know today started to become all pervasive. I had broadband in 1993 and it cost £22 per month for PlusNet compared with £38 per month from BT (and BT was staff discount rate!). Speeds increased over they years and now with fibre we are talking of 50 megbits per second or more.

Costs have fallen dramatically over the years and the size and speed of computers, and the memory and disk sizes, have increased dramatically as has the relative cost of data communications. The operating systems have evolved almost beyond recognition.

Our aim during the early years of the club was to find low cost, or free, programs to do useful things, Microsoft by then had Word for Windows and Excel (around 1992) but the cost was about £150. GXCC had an active membership then of about 20 members. Even then our membership consisted of professional and amateur enthusiasts. Some are still active members.

We also have more devices to consider. Apple produced the Macintosh computer which unlike the Windows/PC open architecture was totally proprietary and initially expensive but is now more affordable. We also have mobile phones, which are now powerful computers in their own right, and have evolved into tablets etc.

We now cover all the basic Operating Systems and platforms.

John Steele