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Visions of the future

The Daily’s Shannon Palus looks at past computer ads and their projections

“The idea of a computer in every office and home used to be science fiction,” begins a thick page of copy advertising Commodore computers. William Shatner, with a head of thick brown hair, is pictured holding the unit, which boasts a real-time clock and 500 kilobytes of disk capacity. The ad ran in 1981, shortly after the first home computer hit the market. These first generations of PCs looked like clunky over-sized calculators, and many were designed to plug into a television set. The ads invited interested customers to call a phone number or write via snail mail for more information. They often didn’t just advertise computers, they advertised the future, as though computers were time machines that could make the future happen now.

The makers of Sinclair ZX80 promise that “you don’t have to wait for the future.” Though the copy lists math lessons and creating home budgets among its uses, it’s marketed as more of a plaything, a fun experiment, than a tool: “take a trip to the computer age now.” It cost just shy of $200, and came with a guide and a ten-day money-back guarantee – and the promise that “in one day you’ll be writing your own programs!”

Atari Home Computers: A girl with a clear space-helmet sits next to her dog, as she plays a game called, “Caverns of Mars.” The caption reads, “Learn to Brave New Worlds.”

Apple II: Even in the early days, Apple ads featured a clean design and timeless copy. One ad featured a red apple on a white background, below the words, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

“By the year 2000, the world may catch up with the way CompuServe’s new electronic mall let’s you shop today.” The ad promises at-home shopping: customers could call up descriptions of products, view catalogues, and place orders. A “unique ‘feedback’ service” was available to ask merchants questions, and electronic bulletin boards – mostly run by amateurs – were also gaining popularity.

In a two-page IBM ad spread, Charlie Chaplin rides a bicycle with a large tan case neatly strapped to the rear wheel. The large copy reads, “How to move with modern times and take your PC with you.” The fine print includes: “It’s a PC. In a case. With a handle.” IBM ran many ads with the words “modern times” accompanying Chaplin’s image – perhaps in ironic conflict with the 1936 movie Modern Times, where Chaplin plays Little Tramp, a character struggling to fit into a world which relies increasingly on technology and industry.