Early UK Computer Magazines

Early UK Computer Magazines

(Updated January 2014)

When I first posted this article (sometime around 2005/6) the first line read: Nowadays, anyone perusing the computer magazine sections of outlets such as W H Smiths will find endless clones with their 'free' DVDs attached, each one competing for a slice of the punter's wallet but it wasn't always this way. Since then, of course, the landscape has changed significantly. It is now rare to find a cover-mounted disk of any kind and any "free" software is expected to be downloaded from the Internet. This article has been "refreshed" with a bit more information and the inclusion of improved scans of the magazine covers.

In the mid-1970s practical articles about computers on the average newsstand were the domain of the electronics magazines. Before the advent of off-the-shelf systems, titles such as Practical Electronics, Electronics Today International, Elektor, and even Wireless World and Practical Wireless showed the soldering-iron-equipped enthusiast how to put together simple breadboard systems from their component parts. Programming these rudimentary beasts was usually done in machine code using hex keyboards. In addition, the output display tended to be a row of 7-segment LEDs so, as you can probably imagine, both the machines and the crude applications that could be made to run on them were of extremely limited use. Examples of these (from memory!) were System 68, a 6800-based design published in ETI; a design based on the 4040 in Practical Electronics; and various 6502-based designs in Elektor. However, all of this was of minimal interest to those who did not understand the world of electronics and didn't require intimate knowledge of a computer's inner workings, but who just wanted to use or program them.

In early 1978 came the news that a new publication would soon be launched and sometime later came the first, undated edition of Personal Computer World. In later editions this was referred to as the May 1978 edition but it was actually published on 8th February - *see below for more information. It was a very different creature to the descendent that finally closed shop in June 2009 - apart from the inclusion of Guy Kewney who, at that time, was also producing a business periodical called Computing. It contained a range of articles so diverse that, today, you would rarely find such items gracing the pages of a single publication. Here is a sample of articles from the first issue:

At that time it really had no idea of what its audience wanted and appeared to be aiming in all directions. The second edition, sporting the CBM PET on the front cover and several related articles inside, seemed to be more focused though it did include an article by Harry Harrison, the science-fiction writer. Much content extolled the virtues of these early limited computers but rarely did they suggest how they could be put to practical use in the home!

In July, PCW's first serious contender appeared in the form of Practical Computing. This gave the impression of having been put together in a more professional manner than PCW (but only just). It reviewed the Apple II and had other articles ranging from how microcomputers (as they were then termed) could assist in the construction industry, to space games and how to wire your home so that it could be controlled by computer - as if anyone in their right mind ever would. By the second issue, it had also incorporated Nick Hampshire's Computabits magazine.

The third magazine to appear was Computing Today. This had originally started as a supplement to Electronics Today International for four issues and then became an independent publication in March 1979. Due to its electronics origin it tended to offer more hardware-based articles with an initial bias towards extensions for the Triton 8080 system that had been published in ETI.

The final cover appearing in the list below was the oddly-named Liverpool Software Gazette first published in November 1979 by Microdigital (a company that, if you hadn't already guessed, resided in Liverpool). It was only ever available by subscription and lasted 8 issues (the final issue being a double). It was aimed at the hacker the day and brimmed with articles that tended to delve deeper than any others around that time.

Of the four magazines shown here, only PCW managed to keep evolving with the market. After just over a year under the initial management it was sold on and the September 1979 edition (picture 3 above), redesigned throughout, sported the masthead that, with one short-lived hiccup, remained until its lamented demise in 2009. The other PCW covers shown above are from August 1985 when Guy Keyney managed to get his hands on one of the first Commodore Amigas; the 100th edition from April 1986; the 750-page 20th anniversary special from May 1998; and the 25th edition from 2003.

Of the others shown here, Practical Computing changed slowly to focus more on the business aspects of computing until it closed in 1987, while Computing Today also foundered around the mid-80s.

*Update (24th October 2006) I am indebted to Angelo Zgorelec, the founder of Personal Computer World, for correcting my original assumption about PCW's first publishing date which I had thought was sometime in March or April.

Angelo also had this to say about that first issue:

"As I had very little money, and I did not know if the second issue would ever be published, it was intentionally not dated. But the first issue was a big success - we sold almost 30,000 copies and within a month of publication we received over 3,000 subscriptions totalling almost £20,000. This was enough to fund at least four further issues! (There was no paid advertising in the first issue.)

The magazine distributor's money arrived about 4 months later and made PCW a viable magazine."

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