A close up of the Canon V-20 home computer, showing the text HOME COMPUTER V-20 65K, the power indicator and F keys. Image courtesy of Thames and Hudson

The Canon V-20, home computing icon

Technology is a curious thing. Over the years, inventions and innovations have both become household names or simply disappeared into the ether. In his book, ‘Home Computers: 100 icons that defined a digital generation’ author and technology writer Alex Wiltshire captures a snapshot of a time in tech quite like no other and includes some seriously nostalgic models that Generation X-ers will remember well, such as the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, as well as plenty of surprises.

And there were a lot of contenders to choose from – the late seventies hobby of tinkering with home-built computers that happened in garages all over Europe and America turned into a veritable commercial boom in the early eighties. Subsequently, new kids on the block and established electronics manufacturers alike went head to head, entering price wars as they sought to get their model into as many homes as possible. Of course, not every computer saw the success of the C64 and because of this, the book features some rare prototypes and a few surprising entries from brands you may not have even realised had dipped a toe into the world of home computing. One of which is Canon.

Out of context, it might seem strange to envisage the Canon we know today in the world of home computing in the same timeframe as Apple’s ‘Macintosh’ and it’s multi-million-dollar ad campaign, but Canon already had decades of form in developing successful and innovative tech. All the way back in 1977, when Canon released the now legendary AE-1, it was the world’s first microprocessor-equipped SLR and sold over a million units. The company had already been making electronic calculators and ‘billing machines’ for many years and were making huge strides in printer technology. Some of this technology found its way into Canon’s early computer offerings – the AX-1, for example, was an ambitious, fully programmable machine that incorporated a thermal printer and floppy disk drive. This was swiftly followed by the AS-100, a hefty computer that weighed in at a back-breaking 30 kilos. But by 1984, technology had taken its biggest leap forward yet and the Canon V-20 (and its year-younger sibling, the V-10) was far easier to take home from the store.

A close up of the Canon V-20 home computer, showing the text ‘HOME COMPUTER V-20 65K’, the power indicator and F keys.
The Canon V-20 was cased in black and had 64K of memory. Image courtesy of Thames and Hudson
A close up of the Canon V-20 home computer, showing the Canon logo, the text ‘CARTRIDGE MSX COMPATIBLE PROGRAM CARTRIDGE’ and F keys.
The V-20 had two built-in cartridge slots but could also be connected to a tape recorder and joysticks. Image courtesy of Thames and Hudson

In his book, Alex Wiltshire describes the V-20 as “a very early example of a home computer becoming part of a multimedia toolkit”, which exactly hits the spot, as it was built to interface with the Canon T90, a high-end SLR of the time. The T90 was a 35mm camera, but came with a choice of two backplates, the standard being the ‘Command Back 90’, which displayed some basic settings and allowed for date and time to be placed on the film. This was pretty standard at the time and a feature of many high-end cameras. But by selecting the ‘Data Memory Back 90’ option, you had the added benefit of a memory chip that could also record camera settings. When connected into the cartridge slot of the V-20, the computer could display the image data, such as date, time and exposure settings, which could then be saved to tape and imprinted into photographs.

Looks-wise, the V-20 had more in common with a Spectrum than an Apple or Commodore, as it dropped the white plastic case of the V-10 in favour of a far more modish and eighties looking black. It also boosted the RAM from 16KB to a whopping 64KB! Operationally, it was part of a family of machines that ran on an operating system called MSX, which was devised by Microsoft and the ASCII Corporation and launched in 1983 as a way to create an industry standard in home computing (a bit like VHS was for video). The V-20 and V-10 were early adopters, but in total 14 different companies released machines on the MSX platform at around the same time and compatible software could be used interchangeably across them all. Not long after, the V-20 was released in Europe and found its most popular market in France. By the early nineties, the MSX standard had been overtaken by the IBM PC, but these mass-market home computers and their iconic games still have an avid fanbase and something of a cult following among gamers, who love retro games like Konami Soccer and Boulderdash.

Of course, a world of continued and demanding innovation was nothing new to Canon, which had, and still has, R&D at its very core. While so much technology exploded in power and diversified from 1985 onwards, so too did the capability of Canon cameras and office machines. Indeed, in our crazy world of IoT, where computers can connect with even the most unlikely things, it’s nice to be reminded that it was only 36 years ago that the ambition to connect camera and computer first became real. In this respect, ‘Home Computers: 100 icons that defined a digital generation’ is both as a fascinating read, but also reminds us that the things we now take for granted – and makes us think about how much there must be to come.

Home Computers by Alex Wiltshire and John Short is published by Thames and Hudson. 

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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