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A Brief History of Memotech

Origins

Memotech was founded by Geoff Boyd and Robert Branton, the two met while they were both at Oxford University.

Robert Branton taught mathematics at Christ Church College and also worked in Oxford's Programming Research Group (PRG), part of the Oxford University Computing Laboratory (OUCL).

Geoff Boyd studied for a PhD in metallurgy, probably at Wolfson College, and by 1979 had begun post-doctorate research in the University’s Engineering Department. During his PhD and research activities, Boyd had had to design electronic circuits to support his laboratory work which led to his having a keen interest in the subject. In an interview with Audio Amateur in 2013, Boyd said "My exposure to electronics was as a postgraduate student in the Department of Metallurgy, Oxford University, where those so inclined built their own electronics equipment for lab experiments. I took to this like a duck to water and became quite proficient at electronics design and construction as well as sheet metal work for enclosures."

The complimentary skills of Branton (software) and Boyd (hardware) were ideally suited to a technology based business partnership and, with financial backing, the two formed Oxford Computing to produce and market a touch interface system that they had designed as a replacement for the ubiquitous qwerty keyboard. The pair's involvement with that venture was short lived, and when Sinclair Research released the ZX81 with its measly 1K of Memory, they saw the potential for expansion RAM packs for the ZX81 and formed Memotech in the Spring of 1982 to exploit the opportunity. Not long after the Memotech RAM packs became available, Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum in the UK, limiting demand in the UK, resulting in over 70% of Memotech's initial sales going overseas. When Sinclair had problems supplying their own 16K RAM packs in the August of 1982, Memotech were able to fill the void and increase UK sales through the retail chain.

Memotech went on to produce a range of hardware based "Memopaks", including RAM, RS232 and Centronics interfaces and a High Resolution Graphics (HRG) adaptor. In addition, using Branton's software skills, they also produced ROM based Spread Sheet (MemoCalc), Word Processor (MemoText) and Z80 Assembler software "Memopaks". By the end of 1984, some 250,000 Memopaks had been manufactured. (The Home Computer Advanced Course "Technocrats" feature in Issue 29 gives an interesting overview of Memotech's origins.)

 

The Memotech Computer [Memotech Limited]

In tandem with production of the ZX81 products, Branton and Boyd had started to develop a low cost, high resolution, computerised video digitising system they called the HRX. They had commissioned Steve Marchant and Chris Marvell to design the system, at the heart of it was a 6MHz Z80B computer designed by Marchant , which he named the "SM1".

Steve Marchant says "Geoff [Boyd] & Robert [Branton] first got in touch in the late 70s following the publication of an article in Practical Electronics detailing the design of a character-based video display unit. At the time I was working on a PhD at Nottingham Uni. On the strength of the article they commissioned me to design a Z80 based computer platform for Memotech [the SM1], which I did.

The SM1 had 64KB of RAM, a pair of 8-inch floppy drives, a full 80-column colour graphics card and used the CP/M operating system from Digital Research. The SM1 would have been a very capable business level machine, but, although a number were made and used as development machines within Memotech, they were never offered for sale.

The success of the "Memopak" products had encouraged Memotech to invest in land for the construction of a new factory in Witney, Oxfordshire in order to expand their production capacity. However, when Sinclair brought out the 48K ZX Spectrum at the end of April 1982, it was clear that the market for memory add-ons was going to disappear and Memotech's backers decided that they should refocus the business on the production of their own brand of micro computer - which would become the Memotech MTX series.

While the Station Lane factory was being built, Memotech moved into portakabins.

(Photo from PCW, 1982)

A couple of photos of the inside of the finished factory, taken from the cover of a Memotech sales brochure folder.

Part of the production area.

(Photos courtesy of Arthur Leigh)

Part of the administration area.

Do you recognise anyone in the photos?

Contemporary photo of the outside of the factory, showing one of the owners of Norbit Elektronikk arriving at the factory.

 

Norbit worked with Memotech to develop the prototype for the Super-Toolbox for the Russian schools bid.

In 2012, the old Memotech factory now looked like this

(Photo courtesy of Google Street View)

No busier than it was after Memotech moved out, the factory is once again "For Let".

 

Although the SM1 was available, Memotech decided to build on the relationships that they already had in the home computer market and to develop a new home computer based on the SM1 design, without the high end subsystems such as the 80 Column graphics card and disk drives, this allowed the "new" MTX500 computer to be brought to market relatively quickly. The MTX was pitched at the higher end of the market to compete more with the BBC Micro than the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It incorporated a high quality Video Display Processor (TMS9929A) with dedicated video RAM, a multi-channel sound chip (SN76489AN), a high quality BASIC interpreter and built-in Z80 assembler. [The full specifications are described on my MTX About page.]

While the "low cost" MTX was intended to target the home computer market, it retained essential interfaces, such as the expansion bus connector, to allow it to be upgraded to a business level machine using functionality from the SM1, including the 80 Column graphics card and a floppy disk controller that were needed to run CP/M. These SM1 components were at the heart of the upgrade paths which were later made available for MTX owners, such as the FDX System.

Andy Key describes how the SM1 was used as a development machine for MTX software on his MTX Development page.

Unfortunately though, by the time that Memotech had entered into the home computer market, it was already too late. By the time that the MTX500 became generally available, the market was close to saturation and it was to peak in 1984. By the end of that year the home computer market had crashed and the MTX was effectively already doomed as a commercial product. The last throw of the dice was an attempt to win a contract to sell a large number of computers and disk systems to the Russian school system, when this failed, Memotech Computers struggled on until the end of 1985 and went into Administration in early 1986. [My MTX About page describes the situation on greater detail.]

Memotech Revisited [Memotech Computers Limited]

Robert Branton had left the company during 1985 as the financial situation deteriorated and when Memotech Limited folded, Geoff Boyd acquired the assets of the old company and re-launched the company as Memotech Computers Limited in February 1986. Boyd continued to market and support the MTX500, MTX512 and RS128 with the final MTX computer, the MTX512S2 being released late in 1986.

 

The Memotech Video Wall [Memotech Computers Limited]

With the decline of the home computer market and the monopoly of the business computer market by the IBM PC & compatibles, Boyd repositioned the business to market the Memotech Multi-Effect Video Wall system - a development of the Memotech HRX described above.

Memotech were a dominant force in the Video Wall market in the late '80s and early '90s - supplying the technology for such high profile installations such as the Videowall at the Natural History Museum and the original equipment and system upgrade in 1990 of the Video Wall in the Hammersmith Palais. Memotech Video Walls were originally distributed in the UK by Cameron Video Systems, until Memotech began selling them under the Memotech brand late in the product's life.

When the video monitor manufacturers such as Barco were able to integrate the required Video Wall technology into their equipment, they could offer complete systems at lower cost than third party integrators, effectively ending the market for a separate Video Wall product. The business having run its course, Memotech Computers Limited was itself formally wound up before the end of the 1990s.

In the Audio Amateur interview, of his Memotech days, Geoff, recalled :-

"At Memotech, we thought all we had to do was produce a first-class product with a great design and specifications, and the buyers we had on allocation would come to us. So, we designed and manufactured the Memotech MTX 512 home computer, which was launched in 1983. We were competing against [the] BBC Microcomputer System and never stood a chance in the UK. The buyers never came and the level of marketing required was beyond our resources, so our backers eventually pulled the plug in 1986.  . . . . I bought what was left of the business and re-launched Memotech Computers using high-resolution digital video technology that had been developed at Memotech to a new market of Video Wall technology. We dominated the supply of Video Wall controllers for nearly 10 years, from 1986 to 1995. "

 

Where are they now?

Robert Branton

Geoff Boyd

 

 

credits :-

 

"The Home Computer Advanced Course", Issue 29, "The Technocrats" - From the World of Spectrum archive.

e-mail from Steve Marchant to Andy Key posted on the Facebook Memotech MTX500 Group

Geoff Boyd, Interview with Shannon Becker, Audio Amateur in April 2013

Popular Computing Weekly, "Street Life", 7th July 1982

http://www.theregister.co.uk - 30 Years On - The Story of the Memotech MTX, Tony Smith, 28/06/2013

 

 

 

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