Ten beautiful computers

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They ended their lives as museum pieces, aquariums, couches, and even at the bottom of the sea. But these are the ones that stay with us.

 

ZX Spectrum

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Flashes of prismatic color on Clive Sinclair's tiny ZX Spectrum mark the original from its vast army of clones.

Photo: Paul Godden

 

Cray 2

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A vector supercomputer designed by the legendary Seymour Cray, its distinctive cooling fountain gave it the nickname "Bubbles," according to Wikipedia.

Photo: Cray Research

 

PDP-10

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Designed in the 1960s, the control units for DEC's PDP series of minicomputers came in bright colors like fuscia and cornflower blue.

Photo: Dave Fischer

 

Antikythera Mechanism

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A ruined mechanism, found strewn over the sea bed near Antikythera, took a century to puzzle out. A complex analog computer dating to about 100BC, it is on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Photo: tobascodagama

 

ZX80

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Sinclair Research's ZX80 brought home computing to the British public in 1980 at a low price: just ยฃ100. It had 1 kilobyte of RAM.

Photo: Rick Dickinson

 

G4 Cube

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Jon Ive's award-winning Power Macintosh G4 Cube, a predessor to the popular Mac Mini, suffered from functional flaws and a high price. An example was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, but they're now cheap enough on eBay.

Photo: Darius Capulet

 

Ingraham

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Jeffrey Stephenson's Ingraham's design is based on a 1946 Stromberg Carlson model 1110H: "American black walnut shell clad to the aluminum body of a Silverstone LC06 mini-ITX case. The back panel is a piece of burl from the same stock"

Photo: Jeffrey Stephenson

 

CPC-464

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Designed to compete with the Commodore 64, Amstrad's CPC series was popular in Europe in the late 1980s. Like the thing itself, the graphics were colorful and blocky.

Photo: Laura Morgan

 

Difference Engine

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Charles Babbage's Difference Engine tabulates polynomial functions. It was the immediate predecessor to his Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer left incomplete at his death in 1871.

Photo: Ulrich C

 

Quantum computer

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D-Wave Systems of British Columbia announced a prototype quantum computer in January, 2007. It can play Sudoku.

Photo: D-Wave

Published by Rob Beschizza

Follow Rob @beschizza on Twitter.

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62 Comments

  1. Is Sudoku particularly difficult for a computer? I’d be more impressed if it could play Go.

  2. My brother had some really cool hardware back in the day (1970’s-1980’s)including but not limited to several Sinclairs, ZX Spectrums and a big rack mounted thing he named “Assorted Bastardized Electronics” or ABE.

    He made a mobile one (called MABEL) that he built into his SAAB.
    It would communicate with ABE via a long ribbon cable he ran out the window.

    Heady magical stuff for a kid my age at the time.

  3. For a moment, there, I thought you said “rack mounted ZX spectrums” and my heart skipped a beat.

  4. Nice assortment!

    I recall back in the mid-90’s some guys won a Cray in a bid type situation. They bid on a lark and were flabbergasted when they realized that two semi truck loads of very specialized, obsolete computer equipment was now theirs. They panicked for a while until someone told them that the Fluorinert (I think?) cooling was worth a couple hundred bucks a gallon and managed to sell it for more than the purchase price and moving costs. Then they were left with the unenviable task of gradually selling pieces off on Usenet, etc. They probably scrapped most, if not all, of it.

    I bid on a PDP-11 setup once, it was beautiful. I mostly bid a “I won’t charge you to haul it away” type price and they didn’t accept it. But really – since scrapping it would be a crime – how could you pay much for one? It would cost so much to store it, just to gaze upon it lovingly from time to time.

    I think it was an 11/40 maybe? Oh, maybe an 11/70; it looked just like this one:

    http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/gbell/digital/timeline/photos/pdp11-70.jpg

  5. Well, solving Sudoku is pretty bright for a quantum computer. In 2001 the academic world went nuts over some particularly bright perfluorobutadienyl iron complex molecules able to factorise 15 (hint: it’s 3×5). See Nature 414, 883.

  6. The PDP-11/34 and PDP-11/24 were both glorious purple.

    I think the difference was, the 34 was unibus and the 24 was something faster but narrower? It’s been a while.

    Both machines had a processor light that blinked in time with actual computing operations.

  7. mmm sorry, the Amstrad can be a piece of computer history… but it’s not pretty at all!!! cheap plastic and bright colors… at least the top model, 6128, had a more professional look to it

  8. …The Cray-2 was great, but the XMP-24 was far more classier. It was also something you could sit about 8 people on comfortably.

  9. …On a side note, if you scroll the page up and down real fast while looking at the Difference Engine photo, you get a rather interesting motion effect. YMMV – Your Monitor May Vary – but on mine it was a really cool effect!

  10. >Amstrad’s CPC series was popular in Europe in the late 1980s.

    In Europe it was called a SCHNEIDER http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?st=1&c=885

    Its popularity was generated through the mail order Catalogues e.g Littlewoods/Grantan/Great Universal, as parents could pay weekly for it for Christmas / Birthdays as presents. Real computer geeks at the time, took their parents shopping ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. @SUBRICO Wow I was just about to say that the TI-99/4A should be in there. First PC I ever owned and learned Basic on it when I was 8. Coolest looking thing, like the Delorian of the PC world.

  12. My friend’s brother works for D-Wave. My goal in life is to meet him and get seriously drunk together, so we can discuss quantum mechanics. (I have no hope in hell of understanding it sober!)

  13. @shaz

    i grew up in europe and i had an AMSTRAD… just tossing it in the mix.
    pretty sure if you were german you’d have gone with the SCHNEIDER;)

  14. Oh yeah:

    I don’t like the new layout. Inter-commnent headers are too big, too loud. They drown out the comments.

  15. #11, I agree! I’m curious, were you scrolling with your mouse wheel? I think it has to do with the distance one click on the wheel moves the page, when I used pgn dwn/up or clicked the scroll bar or dragged it, the effect was gone, use the mouse wheel and it made the gear appear to be moving up/down!

  16. Sinclair has two in the list, wow. A Jon Ive of his time? I had a ZX81 built from a kit and then a Spectrum. wot about the BBC Comp?

  17. I would’ve thrown at least 1 Atari 8-bit or 16-bit computers in there, not to mention the 5200 and 7800 game machines. The 800XL was pretty nice (got it!), and I LOVE my 2040 STe (under the desk right now!) Let’s not even get into the Falcon and TT beasts, which I believe are now even in production by a 3rd party, and heavily modified.

  18. wow, really glad someone took note of the Sinclair design – up to the + (which I sadly had, better keyboard though) was really great. Even the manuals – which I’ve kept – had really good design, even with the + which had cool colour tabs with a black/grey front – Dorling Kindersley I think.

    Also good:

    NeXT workstations looked cool, all black styling – One Per Desk I used to love as a kid. And I thought the original Macs with the handle or the Mini-Macs or the Grape IMacs were better than the Cube design wise? Even the heater G5 is.

    Parents had a Memotech 512 – all black, brushed aluminium, lovely design, it was like a Commodore with all the clunky heavy german styling and beige taken out. WOOT as they say ๐Ÿ™‚

    And Cray ROCKS. So does the Antikythera mechanism.

    But the Amstrad? You have to be kidding. Ditto whoever mentioned BBC – most boring looking computer ever bar the C64. Archimedes? Now yer talking, much nicer.

  19. I’m with Simon Howarth. The BBC Micro was the best looking UK computer of its day.
    The largely unsuccesful Sinclair QL was also a thing of beauty. If Bang and Olufsen made computers, they would look like this.

  20. The picture you have of the “PDP-10” is actually a PDP-11/40 with a KL-10 front panel being used as the console processor for the KL-10.

    The front panel of the KA-10 – the original PDP-10 processor – is far, far more pornographic.

  21. What no Amiga 3000?! I second the calls for the QL, the SGI Indigo and the NeXT station.

    B

  22. I would like to see the Atari 800XL in the list: it was really stylish, inspired by B&O products
    http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?c=27&st=1

    @SHAZ
    >In Europe it was called a SCHNEIDER

    Unless the United Kingdom and France are not part of Europe anymore, The Amstrad was marketed as Amstrad in Europe.

    Schneider marketed the CPC only in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and probably some other eastern European countries

  23. The Amstrad’s not particularly pretty, but it is neat to have a tape deck built into the keyboard–I assume that it’s for software, but it’s still a neat idea to be able to play cassette music that way. (I still had a lot of music on cassettes back in the 80s.)

  24. I have to say I have so many favorites but not many come up to the same level as you tech heads. I had all the Sinclair ZX Speccy’s right up to the +3(Diskette) and it was a travesty when Amstrad bought the designs. I also liked programming on the Commodore +4(with Hi-Res graphics) which in my opinion was an underrated machine. The IBM Vector and the Commodore Amiga A500+ were probably the first powerful machines I used, and I thoroughly enjoyed the DOS GUI the Amiga’s used. Well, even though nostalgia is a strong emotion, I look at my PC and marvel at how far we have come in such a short time.

  25. wooow, this is really kool, once i felt a tour through my college, where we started from valve diode, then semiconductors, then transistors…to VLSI…. computers have been nourished by humans thats the beauty of computers.

  26. How’z about a Sol-20?

    http://www.sol20.org/

    -THAT- was a beautiful computer, walnut side panels, and one or the best keyboards of it’s day.

    (I still have mine, and should spend the time booting it up someday…)

    Captcha: defame given – what am I, the NYT?

  27. I would add the Mindset Computer from 1986. It’s in the permanent collection at MOMA. It was killed by the delay in — and redefinition of — Windows.

  28. What?! No Atari 800, with it’s orange/brown color scheme and elegant lines? Still the best computer ever made.

  29. Back in the day when Gigabyte memory was but a pipedream for school computer rooms, there was a seemingly never ending debate over which was better, the BBC Micro or ZX Spectrum… well it seems the ZX Spectrum has finally confirmed its place in notoriety, while the BBC Micro is knocking on the door of obscurity.

  30. For me the machine that I most wanted was the MTX series … they were jet black with lightwieght aluminium casing ..even the power supply was a work of art. For the gamer the most cool add on was “speculator” a cart that allowed you to load and run spectrum games ๐Ÿ™‚

    Additionally, they were made near Oxford; not a million miles away from where I am sitting right now ๐Ÿ™‚

  31. For me the machine that I most wanted was the MTX series … they were jet black with lightwieght aluminium casing ..even the power supply was a work of art. The most cool add on was “speculator” a cart that allowed you to load and run spectrum games ๐Ÿ™‚

    Additionally, they were made near Oxford; not a million miles away from where I am sitting right now ๐Ÿ™‚

  32. That apple cube does not belong in this list.
    Especially when I have seen people turn that box into a kleenex dispenser.

    The NEXT computer with a removable MO drive sure does…

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    I do have a lot of people email me about just using the Medifast shakes as a supplement for meals. I know that there are people who do this and the company does sell them by themselves, but I would think that this would get kind of boring or repetitive after a while but I know that there are some folks who go that route. video conferencing equipment

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