A history of home computers through nostalgic photography

Photographer John Short captures 100 computing ‘icons’ that underpin the dream machine generation

Caution template at the back of an Apple computer
Apple II
(Image credit: John Short)

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, the old joke goes, and chances are that if we were ever bumped back into an 8-bit world, stripped of our touch screens, broadband and social networks, then we soon find plenty to complain about. The premise of photographer John Short’s new monograph is to assemble 100 of the computing ‘icons’ that underpin our current and future digital generation, reminiscing with a fond smile.

Short eschews a clichéd approach in favour of moodier, more atmospheric imagery of these machines, treating them as pieces of industrial design rather than focus on the quirks and characteristics of their archaic operating systems. These are the Model T Fords of the computing industry, some of which were produced in the millions, but almost completely overlooked due to their ubiquity. Some of the featured machines are rather more niche, but as the text by tech writer Alex Wiltshire explains, they all share a defining characteristic; a computer as a standalone, self-contained object that is more akin to functional furniture than an all-pervasive and persistent component of everyday life. Here are a few of our favourites.

MITS Altair 8800B, 1975

Grey and blue computer design

MITS Altair 8800

(Image credit: John Short)

A kit-built mini-computer offered at a fraction of the price of its rivals, the blue-hued Altair was a bridge between room-sized business systems and the compact home computer. Altair BASIC was Microsoft's first-ever product.

Apple II, 1977

Old version of an Apple Computer

Apple II

(Image credit: John Short)

A giant leap forward from the kit-based Apple I, the 'II' encased Steve Wozniak's pioneering circuits within a beige all-in-one box designed by freelancer Jerry Manock; Wozniak's Apple co-founder, one Steve Jobs, reasoned that aesthetics and consumer convenience would help build the brand. The design endured and evolved; the IIE came out in 1983 and the computer remained in production until 1993.

Sharp MZ-80K, 1979

Older version of a Sharp Computer

Sharp MZ-80K

(Image credit: John Short)

An all-in-one device that encapsulated the prevailing feeling that miniaturisation and innovation was coming only from Japan. The MZ-80K combined keyboard, screen, tape drive and even a speaker into a single angular package.

Apple Lisa 2, 1984

Older version of an Apple computer

Apple Lisa 2

(Image credit: John Short)

The original Lisa cost nearly $10,000 but also introduced the wider world to the delights of the graphical user interface. It was superseded by the cheaper Lisa 2 in 1984, co-incidentally the year that the first Macintosh appeared and the Apple revolution truly began.

Atari 520ST, 1985

Older version of an Atari computer

Atari 520ST

(Image credit: John Short)

This is the base model of a computer that found immediate favour in the music industry, with enough power to make it the go-to machine for producers and acts. The ST ran the original version of the software that ultimately became Logic Pro and is still fondly remembered by chiptune aficionados.

Matra Alice 90, 1985

Red colored older version of a Matra Alice computer

Matra Alice 90

(Image credit: John Short)

Intended as the French equivalent of the UK's BBC Micro, the bright red Matra Alice was pitched at the educational market. The upgraded Alice 90 that followed had a sci-fi off-set form, making it stand out from the many compact home computers of the 80s.

Apple iMac G3, 1998

Apple iMac G3 screen and keyboard

Apple iMac G3

(Image credit: John Short)

This machine was a game-changer for Apple. The iMac's candy-colours and translucent casing still stand apart, differentiating Apple from its boringly beige PC rivals, with an advanced technical specification – including the first ever built-in USB port – that helped it transform Apple's fortunes.


Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation, published by Thames & Hudson

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.

With contributions from