Amstrad was founded by Alan Sugar in 1968, with the name Amstrad being a contraction of Alan Michael Sugar Trading. The contrast between Sugar and other names in the microcomputer industry of the time is striking: whereas the other figures, such as Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry (of Acorn), were in the computer business because they were enthused by the new technology, Sugar was purely interested in the potential money that could be made from the devices. This approach to microcomputers can be seen in Sugar’s response to Sinclair, who had “started talking about the wonders of the technology in his Spectrum machine”, during negotiations to acquire Sinclair’s computer business: “For God’s sake, Clive, I don’t care if they have rubber bands in them, as long as they work” [1].

Amstrad’s first model of microcomputer was the Amstrad CPC464 (the Colour Personal Computer, with 64 kilobytes of memory), released in April 1984. Designed in Britain around the Zilog Z80 microprocessor, the machine was actually manufactured by the Japanese company Orion in South Korea, unlike both Sinclair and Acorn, who had their machines manufactured primarily in the UK. The computer utilised custom gate arrays, which was designed and manufactured to Amstrad’s specification by the British company Ferranti, with Italian firm SGS available as a second source [1, p131]. However, the computer, as well as its software, were designed in the UK. The design of the hardware was outsourced to MEJ Electronics, a small partnership run by two electronics engineers. The operating system (a BASIC intepreter) was created by another small partnership, Locomotive Software. Both groups continued to work for Amstrad, later producing the hardware designs and software for the PCW series of “word processors” and Amstrad’s first IBM PC clones.

The CPC464 was one of the first home microcomputers in the British market to be supplied with a ‘monitor’ (which used a standard television tube) as standard, as well as an integrated cassette recorder. Alan Sugar described the reasoning behind the choices made:

“Our first computer was a very typical Amstrad concept. We sat down and observed all this computer stuff. And we saw what people were actually buying with computers. They needed lots of cables and cassette decks, and then they had to plug it into a television. …I decided that the Amstrad philosophy is an all-in-one piece, so we would present our product as complete with a keyboard, cassette mechanism and monitor … It looked like a mug’s eyeful for the old man when he walked into Dixons. He looks at this thing, with its whacking great big keyboard and a monitor, and he has visions of a girl at Gatwick airport where he checks himself in for his holidays. And he thinks, ‘That’s a real computer, not this pregnant calculator thing over there called a Sinclair’” [1, p123]

The company later introduced the PCW, a word processor/microcomputer hybrid, with the “Locoscript” word processor program written by Locomotive Software, the CP/M operating system and a BASIC programming language interpreter. Amstrad was one of the few manufacturers to use the 3” floppy disk format. This decision was made for purely financial reasons: the drives and disks “were being sold cheaply because the 3” format was in the closing stages of an ultimately losing battle against 3 1/2” disks” [1, p124].

Mark New

[1] David Thomas. Alan Sugar: The Amstrad Story. Century, 1990.