Prehistory…

I have been informed that there was actually an earlier British home computer! I have never included the “training boards” as computers as they generally had little or no expansion capability, the user being stuck with the buttons/switches/LED display. It could be argued that the claim of “First” may well go to Newbear Electronics for the 77/68 single board unit but I’m not sure when a keyboard and video card were released for it (I think it was sometime in 1978/1979). The basic version of the 77/68 was programmed using toggle switches and lights but it was expandable. I have found very little information but there is a little on   Jake Loddington’s web page , with pictures of the main board and 4kB expansion board. However, this machine used a CPU of the netherworld (6800) rather than the good and righteous Z80 so ’nuff said! Having said all that, I still maintain that the NASCOM-1 was the first – simply because it included a proper keyboard and TV output in its basic form: they weren’t add-on items.
In The Beginning…

NASCOM Microcomputers was originally set up as a small subsidiary of the Nasco Ltd component distribution company. Nasco stood for “North American Semiconductor Company” (or it may have been “North Atlantic Semiconductors” depending on where you look and what you choose to believe! In either case, the “M” almost certainly stood for “Microcomputers”.) Their business was importing – guess what?

There is a story – which I have now heard from two sources so it may be right (!) that the Nascom-1 was designed (well, the idea was sketched out) on an airline serviette during a transatlantic flight. It appears that John Marshall got into a conversation on the flight and the idea just happened – these things do sometimes.

John set up Nascom a short time later in November 1977 (later becoming Managing Director).

[Just a little note here… I was once told that one of the original reasons for the creation of the Nascom-1 was to enable Nasco to increase their flow of the “new technology” Z80 processor. The machine was designed to use all the chips that Nasco were “pushing” at the time – Z80-PIO, 2102 memory and various 74 series chips. This may also account for the use of the 81LS97, which was quite an unusual IC at the time. Of course, this may be a load of rubbish but it gives food for thought.]

Considering that the new company had little cash, it did very well.

Tony Rundle came up with the following interesting snippet (I’m sure he won’t mind me quoting him on this):

“At a meeting before the official “launch” I asked John Marshall how many
kits we would have to sell in order to be profitable. He said about 200
would be OK but that 400 would be really good. We sold that number in a few
days after the launch. It was only after it became clear that we had a
phenomenon on our hands that a separate company was set up and full time
staff employed. Before that most of us had been moonlighting, and the Nascom
was just an electronics kit sold by Nasco, John’s component company that
became the parent of Nascom ltd. John, writing in Scorpio News, tells us that between the launch in early 1978 and May 1980 over 35,000 Nascom-1 and Nascom-2 kits were sold, an impressive figure at that time.

“The keyboard was about the most expensive single component and was crucial
to the costing and the overall kit “offering”. After the launch we found out
that the keyboard supplier only had about 400 – the were designed for an old
vdu! John managed to find another source from somewhere (most suppliers
wanted more than the price of a complete kit just for the keyboard). If he
hadn’t managed to pull that off, Nascom would have been dead.

Kerr Borland joined on the marketing side in January 1978 and became Nascom Sales Director. He left again in late 1979/early 1980 to form a new company (called Product Launch). His interest in the fledgling Nascom appeared to have waned once the company had got started. However, his new company was doing some of Nascom’s promotional work! Later still, if my information is correct, he appears to have had a hand in starting the rather short-lived Arfon Microelectronics (K.S.S. Borland is listed as “Managing” at the foot of one of Arfon’s letterheads). Arfon’s first products were a speech board (for various machines) and a light pen which was compatible with Nascom’s (Lucas’s) IVC card. They also produced a range of peripherals for the Commodore VIC 20 before they finally went into receivership.

The NASCOM computers were produced in the UK only. The user base, however, spread into Europe and Scandinavia.

Middle Age…

The NASCOM-2 appears to have been under development for quite some time before its release. This was the machine that Nascom pinned their hopes on. It was certainly far more powerful than its predecessor.

The NAS-BUS was created to add expansion to the NASCOM family of computers. (Unfortunately, due to lack of board space, a separate buffer board had to be designed for the NASCOM-1.) The idea was, in view of the popularity of the NASCOM system, to produce a UK competitor to the S100 bus. The new bus would be simpler and cheaper to manufacture than the S100 system – and wouldn’t need any licensing agreements!

Unfortunately the company was doing too well. They funded the NASCOM-2
without external finance but were immediately beset with component sourcing difficulties. The scarcity of the new 4118 (2kBx8) RAM chips was so severe that Nascom provided a 16k dynamic RAM board with every NASCOM-2 sold instead of fitting the 8k of static RAM which had been intended.

The expected return on the new NASCOM-2 computer failed to materialise in time. Their main City backer decided not to allow further working capital. John Marshall has always maintained that this was short-sighted on their part (and not a typical decision by that company), a view justified by the fact that the company appeared to continue running at a profit in the hands of receivers for the next two years.

End Game…

On 27th May 1980 Nascom had called in the receivers. Production of the NASCOM computers was cut back and a planned “System 80” was cancelled. Stocks of the Nascom products to dealers became severely restricted, although the demand was still present.

There was discussion of Nascom being taken over by another company, but that failed to materialise. Meanwhile, the receivers were causing further problems. They effectively prevented the NAS- prefix being used for all Nascom and Nascom-compatible products. This sorry state of affairs continued for almost a year, during which the value of the Nascom company must have fallen tremendously. No development was taking place and (I have been told) there were only two Nascom employees left.

At this time, the whole Nascom “thing” was being kept going by a group of (ex) Nascom dealers. One of them even acted as postbox and paperwork centre for the newsletter previously run from the Nascom offices. (The newletter changed its name from INMC News to INMC80 News at this time to create a clean break from Nascom). The receiver appeared to have no interest in the NAS-BUS as a possible standard so the original specification was tidied up and renamed 80-BUS. Someone (possibly Dave Hunt, but it may also have been Dave Greenhalgh) instigated the design of a two-card system which could be used as a substitute for the NASCOM-2 if the receiver failed to find a buyer. This was to become the Gemini system.

The new Gemini company was set up in Amersham, once again, headed by John Marshall, who left Nascom within a month of the receivers taking over the companies affairs. The original intent was to exploit the demand for peripherals for Nascom systems. John managed to get all but one of his previous suppliers to work with the new company, in spite of their previous problems. Design and manufacturing work on the new system was contracted out and paid only by results. The first of the new CPU boards was ready within 18 months and the new Galaxy CP/M system was launched at the “Which” Computer Fair in January 1982.

This was a very tense period for the NASCOM fans. If you already had a computer you were OK, but depended on your dealer for all support. If you were trying to get one then good luck! There were very few machines around. Expansion boards also became a problem. You couldn’t expand a NASCOM-1 without a buffer board, and those were very hard to find.

Nascom was finally sold to Lucas Logic (August? 1981), being renamed Lucas Nascom. Guy Kewney commented in PCW when the acquisition was announced that he doubted that Lucas could operate this sort of business. He was to be proved right! At almost the same time the Gemini Multibus was launched. Now the user had a choice of systems on the same bus. However, the two systems differed in one very important aspect. The Gemini system was designed, from the beginning, to support the CP/M operating system. A new monitor program RP/M was written (by the same author as the Nascom monitors of course!) which let cassette-loaded CP/M programs run on a diskless system. Also, the two-board design allowed for a “proper” screen display system on the second board to allow CP/M programs to run correctly.

The NAS-BUS had been renamed 80-BUS by Gemini and (it says in 80-BUS news) some 10 manufacturers were producing over 20 bus-compatible cards between them. Probably because of its close affiliation, the old newsletter changed its name again. Now it became 80-BUS News as it was supporting both Nascom and Gemini systems.

Strangely enough (what a coincidence), August 1981 saw the launch of a new user magazine named Micropower. This appears to have been started by a software company, Program Power, who had been distributing Nascom software. So now we had two parallel systems and two magazines. Program Power and Lucas Logic versus 80-BUS News and Gemini/Microvalue.

In December 1981 Lucas Logic (I can’t think of them as Nascom now) launched the NASCOM-3 rather quietly. It was a fully cased computer similar to the NASCOM-2 with 8k RAM. I say similar, as I have seen a report that the main board was different but I have never actually seen one to find out! Micropower changed its name to Nascom Newsletter in November 1982. I suspect that this was to give Lucas rather more control over it as some of the articles were drifting toward the 80-BUS!

Another computer was designed (It was seen at the 1982/83 “Which Computer” exhibition, but it definitely wasn’t widely advertised or distributed). This had (bought-in) seperate cases for the keyboard, processor and monitor and *may* have gone under the name of “Nascom-LX”. In reality it was another Nascom-2 with different expansion. It was aimed at the business market and was probably supplied with CP/M, Wordstar, Supercalc and dBaseII. It is quite possible that the exhibited model was either a dummy or a pre-production prototype.

Yet another machine was the “MicroEd” which was announced (about 1981/82) but which may or may not have gone into production. This was a Nascom-2 in a smaller box than the Nascom-3, without the expansion frame and fitted with 8kB of static RAM. It was intended as a competitor in the educational market.

Hour of the Phoenix… & Last Rites

The 80-BUS computer used processor cards which were heavily based on the
NASCOM-2, but in the same square format as the expansion cards. It was, of course, compatible with the NASCOM-2 some users could turn their “old” NASCOM systems into nice new Gemini systems just by changing the processor card! The new system was really aimed at the business sector, supporting CP/M in the “big” version.

Quite a few boards were advertised under the 80-BUS banner. The ones that I know of, or have seen advertised are listed in the hardware section.

I’m not sure what happened next. Like many people I was distracted by another machine and the NASCOM-1 went into storage.

By February 1984 there only seems to have been one outlet for the Gemini Microcomputers components. That was Micro Value. This may have been the sales arm of Gemini, Gemini themselves or just a company set up to exploit the 80-BUS. The last issue of 80-BUS News that I have is January-February 1984 but it makes no mention of being the last issue. The Nascom Newsletter published its last issue in June of the same year. The editorial states that “…the number of hobbyist users is dropping off rapidly. The natural life-cycle of a microcomputer I suppose.”

In a January 1985 magazine there are no more Gemini components advertised. Micro Value appears to have stopped advertising.

Now, here is a new bit! There were two other Gemini machines after the Gemini MkII. The first was based on the Motorolla 68000. This was known as the Gemini Challenger (I think) and was aimed at the educational market. This was kept *very* secret from the dealers right up to product launch. All they were told was that there was a new 16-bit machine. Of course, the dealers hoped that this would be an IBM clone – as that was the new trend. I have a feeling that many of them were very disappointed!

The final new machine was an up-market IBM clone using a motherboard built by British Aerospace. I am told that this was a beautifully built machine but it just couldn’t compete against the new influx from the far east and it sank without trace. It was too late and too expensive.

Gemini themselves finally disappeared about 1987.

Thus the short life of the NASCOM systems ends. Started in 1978 using the new Z80 processor (only launched in 1977) and fading away in less than 10 years. By now, of course, Sinclair had launched the ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum. Commodore had the KIM, VIC 20, PET and 64. The outcome was easily predictable: why build an expensive computer when you can buy a seemingly better-specified ready-built computer cheaper? You could buy ready-built boards but this only made the price difference worse.

Today I doubt if you could produce any of the NASCOM machines and make a profit. Even providing it as a kit and using the existing NASBUG monitor (I doubt if Microsoft would make you a present of the 8k BASIC code though!).

It would be interesting to re-cycle the old Nas-bus/80-BUS as a microcontroller interface though. Any takers?

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