How 1980s home computers paved the way for the internet

The explosion in 1980s home computers paved the way for the connected world of the 1990s, and widespread adoption of the internet

Thursday, 1 July, 2021

It’s often the case that new technologies take decades to filter through into popular culture.

It’s equally common for consumers to be surprised that this ‘new’ technology’s origins stretch back into the history books.

The 1980s was a particularly momentous period in the UK.

It heralded the first satellite and cable TV services, the debut of mobile phones, and the development of the World Wide Web.

The 1980s also saw the arrival of home computing, taking the microprocessor out of offices and data centres and placing it in front of the family TV.

Even so, nobody could have known as they played Chuckie Egg and Chaos that these formative experiences would accelerate adoption of the internet in the following decade…

Across the Spectrum

In 1980, a pre-knighthood Clive Sinclair launched the self-assembly ZX80, with a price of £79.95.

Two years later, the pre-assembled ZX Spectrum arrived, and suddenly every home could have a computer in it for just £125.

In time, a swathe of 1980s home computers would emerge from companies like Acorn, Commodore and Amstrad.

Yet it was the Spectrum which effectively spearheaded the UK’s IT industry – one that flourishes to this day.

Although you could buy games and utility programs from high street shops like WH Smith, the Spectrum’s keys were covered in programming instructions.

In the magazine section, alongside the precursors of today’s software review magazines, there were publications packed with program code which had to be input by the end user.

The subsequent explosion in amateur coding has been credited with cementing the UK’s privileged position at the forefront of software – and gaming in particular.

Familiar brands like Codemasters, Games Workshop and Team17 all trace their origins back to the 1980s.

Spinning a web

The emergence of 1980s home computers introduced households across the UK to concepts like plugging a computer into a TV, and using a QWERTY keyboard.

Critically, it also demonstrated how computers could be affordably used for educational and office-based duties, as well as gaming.

Meanwhile, another pre-knighthood British boffin called Tim Berners-Lee spent the final months of the 1980s developing a remote networking system for computers.

His World Wide Web launched in 1991, with the first Windows operating system from Microsoft making a well-timed arrival in 1992.

Because British consumers had already spent ten years getting acclimatised to computers, the internet’s potential was relatively easy to grasp.

There was little operational difference between a PC and the offline home computers of the early 1990s, like the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST.

And although the concept of web browsers was new, entering into a taskbar was no more intimidating than typing LOAD “” into a Spectrum’s startup screen.

Without 1980s home computers guiding us towards the digital future which awaited us in the Nineties, modern Britain would be less internet-savvy – and considerably less well-connected.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!