Review – Usborne Guide to Computers.

October 28th, 2013

As this is my first review I better explain how this works. I grew up in the era of the microcomputer and the home computer in the early 80s. Before this computers were either mainframes or minicomputers. The sort of large, expensive computers only seen in universities, large corporations or the lairs of Bond villians.

My first computer was a Vic 20 that I got for Christmas in 1983. I remember at the time reading everything I could about computers and I remember writing my own Basic programs in a small book I made from stapled together pages.

All those first programs were really simple and all just variations on those I saw in the 80s Usborne books like the ones I will review now.

These books will probably be familiar to anyone who got into computers when I did. A lot of my colleagues remember them and even still own some. I also remembered them very fondly.

One of the projects I am undertaking is making my own computer. This is a 6502 based machine (like my VIC 20 and later Apple 2s). The machine is called Orwell since it is really a machine from 1984! You can read all about Orwell here:

Any computer need a purpose.  Part of the fun with Orwell is just building it and making it work. But it needs more of a purpose than that. I want to use it for something. I decided that this machine would run Basic and I would use it to enter and run all those great Basic programs in the Usborne books I remembered from my childhood.

As I built the machine and got the original Microsoft Basic from 1977 running on it I simultaneously started collecting all the 80s Usborne computer books I could. I think I have tracked them all down. I did contact Usborne in the UK to see if they might be able to help with a list but I never got a response.

This is my current collection. I have three more on the way and three left to buy as far as I can tell.

IMG_4357_1 Usborne books.

I will review each one in turn and, where possible, enter and run any code I find in them on Orwell. I will also see if I can make any of the projects and perform any experiments I come across in the books too. I won’t show every page. Just those of interest.

But we must start at the beginning so today I am reviewing the “Usborne guide to computers”.


This book is one of the earlier Usborne books that came out at the start of the 80s. This book doesn’t go into many specifics and doesn’t go into programming languages such as Basic or Machine Code in any detail. It really is a simple introduction as the cover claims (and colourful). There is nothing here I can do with Orwell but it’s a good place to start.

We notice something interesting on the cover right away (no, not the locomotives). On the cover, just under the car, is a small handheld computer. Now I have something just like that. A Casio PB100.


The book covers various aspects about computers including such topics as ‘Can computers think?’ and ‘Computers and art’. We’ll look at some of the other details though.

First up, what is a computer?


Stonehenge ?!  Apparently prehistoric people could work out their calendar from the position of the shadows made by the sun shining on the stones. I wonder what happened when they needed to check their calendar at night?

I am not so sure about that one being a computer really but the bottom left looks more promising. That’s Babbage’s Analytical Engine. That really would have been a computer if it had ever been built. Interestingly the first computer program was written for this machine by Ada Lovelace and she is often called the worlds first computer programmer.

The machine next to that is described as a small, modern computer! Apparently it is running the Stonehenge calendar program. And the chap even has a computer on his wrist. In the form of a digital watch!

That follows onto other types of computer.


Now this shows what I was mentioning at the top of this page about mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers. Supposedly there are still mainframes running somewhere in the world. This page uses some now quaint old terms: “VDU” and “Data storage cabinets”.

Next the book goes into the parts of a computer.


Interesting view I guess. Kind of reminds me of this. After some talking about transistors and integrated circuits we get into how a computer works. Now this is the bit that always threw me as a kid. I knew a computer only dealt with ones and zeros but I could never get my head around how it could do things with just those. Even learning about logic gates (on the next page of the book) and understanding how the basic gates worked I still could never wrap my head around how the computer really worked. It wasn’t till much later that I learned that computers look for patterns of bits. It’s not just 1s and 0s. It’s the patterns of 1s and 0s that are important.


The finger computer is interesting. I tried it. Except I am having trouble debugging mine. No matter what I do I cannot get it to display 5 like they show in the book. Some kind of hardware failure I think. Perhaps you can try?


We also have a little section on computer doodles. Here you can draw black squares on white paper and change the pattern based on certain fixed rules. I didn’t bother to do this myself. Bah! These days we can use computers to do that!

We continue on…


Ah, now we get to the good stuff. They actually have something about software testing. Well, sort of. They do mention bugs. I seem to remember going through most of my computer science degree in the early 90s actually without there being much mention of software testing. Funny that’s what I ended up doing. Perhaps, subconsciously, I was inspired all those years ago by the stupid peanut program.

Also on this page there is mention of some programming languages. BASIC of course. And PILOT. And something called EXPLOR that was apparently invented to help artists. That’s not one I have heard of or can find any information about. It also mentions LISP which I seem to remember as ‘the one with all the brackets. All this mention of languages reminds me of this page listing the history of them all.

It also just occurs to me that after 30 years playing with computers, and nearly the last 18 or so as a professional I am still playing with Basic, a language for beginners (after all, that’s what the B stands for).

Then finally we have something to try! I carefully followed the instructions and made the ‘computer’ and wrote the program and I gave it a go using their data.


And here is what I got:

There was a young man from Kent
Who fastened his hand with cement
One night after dark
It turned blue for a lark
And he never worked out what it meant

Hmm, a little tame. I substituted my own data and tried again.

There once was a man from Nantucket

Unfortunately the rest of that one isn’t safe to print but I did prove that it actually works as shown in the book.

After that excitement I was a bit computered out to be honest. The rest of the book discusses things like ‘Things computers can do?’ and ‘Computers in offices and factories’ as well as the previously mentioned computers and art and can computers think?

The section on home computers is very interesting. Apparently in the future we’ll all be driving Porsche 928s. And we’ll all have pocket computers like this:


Now amazingly that isn’t far off the truth. Most people now have smart phones. This has a colour display (about an inch square – probably not a Retina display) and touch sensitive controls. There is a microphone for voice input and a synthesizer for sound and music.  There is a keyboard. I haven’t found a phone that actually has a socket for a cassette tape yet though. Probably need to wait for Samsung to do that first. Everyone knows how those buggers at Apple feel about external storage.

I tried to think of all the things I could do with such a device as the book says and all I could come up with was Candy Crush Saga.

Moving on, next we reach a section on instant information.  According to the book computer are able to talk to each other over satellites or telephone cables and they can store and retrieve huge amounts of data in what are called databanks. These databanks can be used for a lot of good.


There is a warning note there though. Apparently people are (in 1981) concerned about the amount of information that is being held in the databanks.  Apparently such information, in the wrong hands, could easily be used to discriminate against people.


Hands up who thinks they were being a bit paranoid there? Pfffft, as if that would ever happen.

I must admit though the chap second from the right with the monocle and dodgy moustache does look a little sinister.

Finally, after a few more pages about computer models (no, not the guaranteed 18+ variety) and computer art we get to the future and this interesting observation (and a car analogy).


It’s interesting to see that these days Apple are trying to reverse that cost trend!

Finally the book ends with a glossary and some suggestions for other books to read all about computers.

There is one interesting note in the glossary under this entry…

BUG     An error in a computer program. Bugs are usually a nuisance, but sometimes they are lucky accidents which open up new lines of approach to a problem.

So that’s where that old chestnut “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature” comes from!

Finally here are the books recommended:

All in all a good book and one I am sure I actually owned as a child. It’s not really a reference book and there isn’t much to do in it but a simple introduction as they say.




8 Responses to “Review – Usborne Guide to Computers.”

  1. david Says:

    Good memories.

  2. Andrew Says:

    I absolutely devoured these books when I was a kid. It is a pity there doesn’t seem to be anything similar around for kids today. There is very little aimed at kids that actually explains how a computer operates.

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  7. Frank Says:

    Not withstanding the jibes at the content for the time, these books were great. They were brilliant ways for children to comprehend complex concepts about how computers work at the binary and logic level, I got mine from a primary school bookclub and it set me on a lifelong career and interest. Home computers were just emerging into public conciousness, and were still too expensive for the many. It was the stack of books like this which eventually convinced my parents to spend a relatively large amount of money (for the time) on my first home computer.

    BTW. The pocket computer on the front cover is a Tandy Radio Shack PC-1 (based on the Sharp PC-1211) which was released in 1980. The remote control car and electronic chess set were also Tandy/Radio Shack products, or stylised versions thereof.

  8. Brian Reffin Smith Says:

    I wrote this and other similar books. So pleased it inspired some people. Think it was the best thing I ever did really, because I tried to give a more general, “softer” overview of computers, emphasising qualitative as well as quantitative aspects. You might note too that there are females and people of colour all over the place 😉 Had to fight for that…