A Very Vintage Tech Christmas

In these nostalgic 1980s ads, home computers, floppy disks, and even robots bring the whole family together.

By Benj Edwards

Personal computers have never seemed more promising than in the early 1980s, when they began to enter American homes in large numbers and the whole idea of using a computer for entertainment, education, and personal finance was still new. So join us as we celebrate the holidays with this evocative collection of vintage computer-related ads--Christmas-themed and otherwise--targeted at the first generation of families that welcomed PCs into their households.

The American Dream, Heathkit Style

Nothing could be more American than this middle-class nuclear family from 1986. At least that's what computer and electronics kit manufacturer Heathkit wanted you to think when you saw this cozy living-room scene in the company's winter catalog. And it should come as no surprise that every member of the family is engrossed in a Heathkit product. Dad learns electronics with the ET-3100-B Trainer, Mom manages a spreadsheet on her new Zenith Z-181 Portable Personal Computer, and the kids--bless their hearts--program their HERO 1 Robot to drop toys in the fireplace. Meanwhile, Grandma's probably in the kitchen baking apple pies with her Heathkit Bionic Arms. Life doesn't get any better.

A Cup of Hot CoCo

Radio Shack designed a series of nice Christmas-themed computer advertisements over the years, but none charm quite like this simple 1982 ad for the TRS-80 Color Computer, with a snowy, festive scene geared toward parents buying Christmas presents for their children. And since the "CoCo" was Radio Shack's first home computer with color graphics, the company couldn't help but show it off with a color game--in this case, Mega-Bug (originally known as Dung Beetles). Despite its unpopular "Chiclet" keyboard, the CoCo proved a capable (albeit undersupported) low-cost machine for the time.

Battle for the Home, Part I

In late 1983, industry experts forecast a major clash of computer titans in the coming year. No, it wasn't a showdown between the Macintosh and the IBM PC--it was a supposed face-off between their little siblings, the compact Apple IIc and the ungainly IBM PCjr. Both machines were meant for consumers, and the child's-bedroom scene in this Apple IIc ad merely hints at the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the high-end home computer market. Ultimately, the IIc flourished, while IBM had to put the PCjr out of its misery within the year.

Battle for the Home, Part II

The state of the home computer market in the early 1980s was balkanized, with over two dozen incompatible mainstream computer models competing. IBM, still heady from its success with the business-oriented PC, decided to enter the home with the PCjr. Big Blue's battle for the home was incredibly well covered in the computer press of the day--in fact, all of the hype contributed greatly to the flawed machine's rapid downfall. Upon the debut of the revised PCjr in 1984 (sans the reviled Chiclet keyboard), Tom Halfhill of Compute Magazine wrote, "Nine months before, the excited gathering of journalists had buzzed with anticipation about the long-awaited [PCjr] that was sure to conquer the home computer market, legitimize a confused industry, and establish new standards for others to follow." That never happened, but machines based on the standards set by the full-fledged IBM PC--not the PCjr--did come to dominate the home market.

The Land Before Hard Drives

These days, floppy disks are so disposable and underused that it's hard to remember the era when long-term data integrity was the primary selling point of any floppy brand. But before hard drives became inexpensive enough to be standard computing equipment, users lived and died by their removable magnetic storage. They depended on floppies to store all of their data on a day-to-day basis--a scary thought by today's standards, and even scarier in 1983. That's why every floppy manufacturer went to great lengths to convince users that its disks were more reliable than another maker's, even if most floppies were, in the end, largely the same. Fido didn't seem to care either way.

Attack of the Clones

In the mid- to late-1980s, Video Technology marketed a line of Apple II clones aimed at consumers who found Apple's genuine hardware too expensive. The Laser 128 was a respectable, surprisingly capable knock-off of the all-in-one Apple IIc. This ad, positioned for the home computer buyer, used the popular "role reversal" idea (we'll see another example soon), in which the child wants to get work done but the parent wants to play games. Ads like these highlight the home computer's importance as a game or entertainment machine, a role that still proves crucial in introducing the personal computer to the average person.

A TRS-80 Under the Tree

It's Christmas 1978 all over again, except this time you're getting a new Radio Shack gadget called the TRS-80 Microcomputer instead of the moped you asked for. You see, your dad has been reading about the educational benefits of "personal computers," and he's been lured by this new Christmas ad from Radio Shack. From now on, you'll stay home and learn to program "guess the number" simulators in BASIC. Sure, it sounds crazy now, but you'll thank your parents once you've made your first billion as a computer software pioneer. Then you can buy a million mopeds and launch them off cliffs, just for laughs.

Trading Brains

Man, parents just don't understand kids--even when their children act like uptight, sweater-clad investment bankers. They just want to play Protector. This contrived pitch for the obscure NEC TREK feels more like a TV commercial than a printed image. As with the earlier Laser 128 ad, here NEC relies on the role-reversal formula to play up the computer's entertainment capabilities (who doesn't like games?) while claiming that the computer can work as a serious home business tool.

Putting the Fun in Dow Jones

The terms "Dow Jones" and "fun" don't seem to belong in the same sentence. But there they are, sharing the headline. In the early 1980s, Dow Jones's News/Retrieval service competed with other online services such as CompuServe and the Source. It offered online reference material, shopping, news, weather, and, of course, financial information. Unsurprisingly, the last feature won out: Dow Jones's electronic offering proved more valuable to hard-core investment types than to the general public. The News/Retrieval dial-up service continued well into the 1990s, after which it joined Dow Jones's other Internet offerings on the Web.

Welcome Home, Robot Overlords

There was something about the early 1980s--probably the popularity of the first three Star Wars movies--that made it a particularly potent period for robot pundit pontification. The computer press had an absolute love affair with the idea of personal home robots: Some of the more promising early contenders for robotic slavedom were Heathkit's HERO line, Androbot's BOB, and RB Robotics' RB5X (seen here greeting its new masters). These home robots shared some key features, such as exorbitant price tags and general near-uselessness. Sure, they might have looked like R2-D2, but on the inside they were little more than off-the-shelf microcontrollers on wheels. Amazingly, the RB5X robot pictured here is still for sale in 2007, but we'll still have to wait a while longer before it can toss a lightsaber to someone in need.

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors