If you ever want to see just how far technology has come over the past 50 years, print adverts can act as time capsules in a way that no number of Wikipedia pages or product photos ever could. 

From Raspberry-Pi-style computer kits sold by DigiComp to the first electronic calculators, the mega mechanical machines of IBM and the launch of the Apple 1, old computer ads offer a fascinating glimpse into what was once considered flagship technology, and what was once deemed “affordable.”

Take a journey back through our technological past with this selection of ads dating from the 1960s to 1990s.

The finest print ads for classic computers

Apple I

8K bytes RAM in 16 chips! 960 easy-to-read characters! This advert for the original Apple I, or Apple Computer I as the ad describes it, is poles apart from the firm’s flashy and stylish marketing today. This was long before Apple was a global household name – three decades before the iPhone launched – and when personal computing was still in its infancy. This particular ad was published in both the September and October issues of Interface Age magazine in 1976. It was on sale for just 18 months before its successor, the Apple II hit shelves.

Apple II

Many adverts from the early days of personal computing spent vast magazine real estate explaining the ins and outs, and benefits of getting a PC. With the Apple I costing $666.66, the equivalent of almost $3,000 in modern-day terms, this was a hard sell. So much so, Apple placed this ad aimed at helping Playboy readers buy a personal computer. You still needed a degree of technical know-how to program and use the Apple II but as the ad explains: "The more you learn about computers, the more your imagination will demand. So you'll want a computer that can grow with you as your skill and experience with computers grows. Apple's the one."

Tandy computer

One of the first computers marketed at consumers and schools, the TRS-80 Color Computer 2, also known as the Tandy Color Computer or CoCo, went on sale in 1983. Sold exclusively in Radio Shack stores, CoCo computers connected to a TV and, as the advert describes, could be used to “prepare a household budget”, play games and teach children to read and write using educational software from the likes of Disney and Sesame Street. Its ability to play games pit it against the Commodore 64 yet its educational software gave it a significant USP. It was succeeded in 1986 by the Color Computer 3.

Commodore 64

Speaking of the Commodore 64, this advert takes aim at the high prices being demanded of Apple, IBM and Tandy with the tagline: “If personal computers are for everybody, how come they’re priced for nobody?” It describes the $600 Commodore 64 as a high-powered computer you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to afford and promises the ability to play “terrific” games. This marketing certainly paid off. Commodore Computers dominated 40% of the market during the 1980s, outselling IBM, Apple and Atari.

Electronic calculator by Friden

As a precursor to early personal computers, this electronic calculator by Friden was fundamental in the move away from large mechanical machines to desktop and compact devices in the early 1960s. Its computational software was far-reaching in its capabilities and the display used on the Friden 130 represented a further breakthrough because it proved such displays could be made relatively cheaply. That said, this advert lists it as costing “only $1,695”, cheap in comparison to the previous machines but hardly a bargain. The ad also shows the Friden 130 being marketed as an education tool yet it was also common in payroll and account departments.   

Sinclair pocket calculator

The innovations developed by companies such as Friden paved the way for Sinclair’s pocket calculator, pictured in this Playboy advert from 1973. Positioning it as a status symbol, the ad describes it as the “world’s lightest, thinnest electronic calculator,” sounding remarkably similar to the kind of language Apple now uses for its own devices. It was considered such a fashion accessory, Sinclair sold it in department stores and jewellers.

IBM Computing

Calling itself “The company behind the computer”, this double-page spread from a 1971 issue of Time magazine showcases IBM’s range of computers, tape drives, storage units as well as 88 computer programs. Initially, the reserve of large, highly-specialised companies, this ad wanted to highlight its technology was for “businessmen, scientists, and educators” and was “just the beginning of a lot more good things to come.”

Pingdom from Flickr (CC BY 2.0)The Most Iconic Computer Print Ads Of All Time image 9

IBM Personal Computer

True to its word, one of the “good things” still to come was the IBM Personal Computer, released a decade later. Launching almost 40 years ago, in August 1981, the IBM PC marked a turning point for the company as well as the industry as a whole. Previous IBM computers could cost as much as $9 million[1] , take up entire rooms and require air-conditioning units and 60 engineers to operate. The company’s early PC models not only shrunk this technology, they did so at an “affordable” price. This ad plays up to this, although a 64KB diskette drive for $2,108 doesn’t feel that affordable now. 

Apple Personal Computer

As the price of PCs in the 1970s and 80s put them out of reach of the everyday consumer, many were bought and marketed at businesses, as this somewhat bizarre Apple ad proves. Not only is it being modelled by a moustachioed business man, Apple lists all the ways its computers can be used to forecast business models and does so by comparing it to the “age-old business tool” a crystal ball. At the time of this advert, Apple states that more than 300,000 Apple computers had been sold. To put this into perspective, more than 5.3 million Macs were sold in the last three months of 2018 alone.

Digi Comp 1

The Digi Comp 1 could be seen as a forerunner to the Raspberry Pi. A digital computer, sold in kit form from 1963 for just $4.99, early models of this educational machine were made of polystyrene and plastic. They could be programmed to play maths-based games, such as the strategy game Nim, as well as make computations by moving its wires and levers. This advert calls the “electronic computer brain” of the Digi Comp 1 a “miracle of the modern space age.”

HP 150 Touchscreen

Proving the touchscreen has been around for much longer than many of us would think, this double-page spread from the 1984 January issue of Forbes advertises the Hewlett Packard 150. Having launched in the October before, and developed under the codename Magic, the HP 150’s screen wasn’t a touchscreen as we know them today. Instead, it consisted of a 9in Sony CRT display surrounded by infrared emitters and detectors. This system was able to detect the position of any non-transparent object, i.e a finger, and respond accordingly. The downside to this setup is that the small holes containing the emitters and detectors could fill with dust, causing the screen to fail.

HP MX65

The price tag on this 1975 computer may seem high but it’s even more incredible to think that was the bulk discount price if you bought 50, plus in modern-day money that’s the equivalent to a staggering $83k[3] . Yet at a time when the likes of Apple and IBM were promising kilobytes, 15 megabytes was next-level computing. The size, and price, of the MX65 aimed it squarely at large businesses.