What does period correct mean?

Last Updated on March 26, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

When talking about retro computers or any other collectible, sometimes you’re run into the term period correctness. What does period correct mean? In this blog post, I’ll talk about the concept and give some examples from a couple of different hobbies.

Period correctness is simply a term that means correct for the era. It means that an accessory or add-on came from the same era as the item you are using with, and the two items likely would have been used together when they were new.

Is period correctness good?

what is period correctness
For some people, having a period correct computer desk might be important. For others, it’s being way too picky. This desk, which I spotted in a thrift store, dates to the mid 1980s. You can tell because it didn’t have room to accommodate both a full-size keyboard and a mouse.

When authenticity is paramount, period correctness is a good thing. It means that your example is similar to something that would have been used in the real world. And if you’re especially nostalgic for the era, you may associate period correctness with timeless aesthetics and better craftsmanship than you generally see today. It may make your hobby more enjoyable.

Not only that, matching period correctness adds a challenge. You can put things together that work together, then replace them with something more historically appropriate as the opportunity presents itself. It can coexist with practicality. The ideal IBM 5170 debate is a good example. So is the idea of matching your date codes on the chips inside the machine.

You can also take it beyond just the machine itself. What about tracking down a vintage computer desk that might have been sold with the machine? How about vintage disk files? There are any number of directions you can go with this. For some people, it’s taking things too far, being too picky.

For someone else, it may keep the hobby challenging. It gives you something to look for when the machines themselves are hard to find. Vintage computer furniture turns up in thrift stores with surprising regularity. And of course you can find it at estate sales.

In my other hobby of electric trains, I like to use period correct diecast vehicles on my layout, and tin buildings that represent period correct architecture. I have a few 1980s diecasts because those specific diecasts mean something to me, but most of my diecasts are vintage toys the same age as my trains, which generally means Tootsietoys or similar. I also use vintage track when I can. It adds something to the layout. I think diecast vehicles of modern design tend to look more jarring next to decades-old trains. And when I can’t find something period correct, I try to find things that look era appropriate and takes inspiration from the past, such as figures dressed in era-appropriate apparel.

Disadvantages of period correctness

what is period correctness
This huge hard drive stored 20 megabytes and is loud and unreliable. It also costs nearly as much now as it did when new. Solid state storage is more convenient even if much less period correct.

Of course there are some disadvantages too, in some cases. Newer items are usually cheaper. They may also be more reliable or faster or better made or more convenient. I don’t put vintage hard drives in my vintage computers, at least not permanently. I may put a drive in for testing or to set it up, but eventually, I’m going to put something more modern in it, based on an SD card or compact flash. It’s faster, quieter, and more reliable. It’s also much easier to find one to purchase. I didn’t mind the sound of 1980s hard drives when they were new, but I don’t like it now. I also usually use LCD displays. They’re nowhere near period correct for the gear I prefer, but I find them nicer to use.

Other people really want the sound of a spinning hard drive and CRT monitor, and not having them makes it feel less authentic. Everyone’s passion is different.

Temporary vs permanent

But I do try to leave my options open. Having modern stand-ins to make something functional is nice. If I change my mind later, and an opportunity presents itself to install something more era appropriate, I can take that opportunity. In the meantime, I can still enjoy the vintage piece more if it’s functional versus sitting on the bench or in a junk box.

And if you just set up the system occasionally to use it and then put it back on the shelf, having the perfect monitor and matching peripherals doesn’t necessarily matter. If you have a VIC-20 on display, having matching peripherals and a nice monitor is ideal. If you just set it up occasionally, then who cares what you’re using for a display and storage device as long as it works well?

For me, getting something retro up and running is always a challenge. Sometimes it means using some modern parts to get there. But once I get the system up and running, improving its period correctness can be fun and it can keep the hobby interesting.

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2 thoughts on “What does period correct mean?

  • October 14, 2021 at 9:36 am

    I also generally draw the line at mass storage devices. It’s just so much more convenient when shuttling files around. And my C128 sits on a desk far older than the computer, but which was a college dorm desk in its previous life – perfect!

  • October 14, 2021 at 7:25 pm

    I was going to make a joke about a period-correct acoustic coupler (“because there aren’t any other ones!”), but somebody is actually selling them new. Different look, same functionality.

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