Fourty Years On

This post, previously titled “Thirty Years On” appeared on another incarnation of my blog 10 years ago. I am being lazy nostalgic and re-posting it today as it’s the 40th birthday of my first computer, the diminutive Sinclair ZX81.

On Christmas day 1981 I awoke with the usual excitement of any 9 year old boy. I clearly remember going downstairs and being told not to go into the lounge because my Dad was busy setting up my main Christmas present. In those days we’d get a main present and some other smaller presents. My parents weren’t well off, we lived in a typical 3 bedroom semi in Southern England and got by as best we could.

After breakfast in the kitchen we were eventually allowed to go into the lounge to open some presents. What greeted me was the device that propelled me into the world of computing. My parents has bought me a Sinclair ZX81.

The reason we weren’t allowed into the lounge was because my Dad had got up early to go and set it up, connecting it to the family TV. He spent most of the early morning typing in some code from a manual or magazine (I forget which) so I’d have something to play with right away.

I remember with great fondness spending much of the day, and following year playing with my very first computer. I would avidly buy magazines and type in the listings. I’d borrow books from my local library and interpret the TRS-80 or other generic BASIC programs into something my little ZX81 could do.

The family got sick of me monopolising the main TV in the house, and eventually got hold of an old one for me to use in the kitchen. I spent much of my pre-teen years sat on a stool in the kitchen about 3 inches from a 23" TV on the kitchen breakfast bar, with my ZX81 on a shelf below. My brother and sister would have friends round and I was pretty much always there, typing in some code or trying to get something to load from a tape cassette. Such happy days.

I’d frequently be amazed at the raw computing power in my hands. One day I had to go to my Dads work because school was closed. I took my ZX81 with me and wrote a dating application. It stored vital details about individuals in a database and could find your perfect mate based on a simple questionnaire I typed up on an electronic typewriter in my Dads office. He passed it round the people in the office, getting them to fill it in and I processed the results, telling them who matched who. It felt like the office workers were amazed at my computing prowess, but secretly they probably fixed their answers to make my code look good.

A while later I outgrew the ZX81 and its wobbly 16K RAM-pack and lusted after more powerful devices. We were not well off so I couldn’t afford the next generation device, the Sinclair Spectrum, but I saw one for sale, second hand, in a record shop nearby. I begged and pleaded with my Mum to get it for me, and eventually she got the funds together to buy it for me. It was the best £20 I’ve ever begged her to spend!

It was a 16K ZX Spectrum with a rubber keyboard, all packaged in the original polystyrene box with a cardboard sleeve. There was an orange covered manual, power supply, cables and that was about it.

There was also one cassette that came in the box, labelled “Horizons”. It contained some demonstrations of what the Spectrum could do, a couple of simple games and a version of Conways Game of Life. That tape got a lot of use until I saved up enough to buy some ‘real’ games.

The nearest town to where I grew up had very few stores where you could buy games. Martins the Newsagent in Farnborough had a decent enough collection of software. I would go in religiously on a Saturday to see what new titles were available, pocket money in hand to splurge on the latest £1.99 or £2.99 tapes.

There’s a fairly small number of games compatible with the 16K Spectrum and I probably owned most of them. Many an hour was spent on Ultimate titles like Cookie, Trans-Am and Pssst! One day I bought Ant Attack and was dismayed to discover it was a 48K title, so wouldn’t even load on my lowly 16K speccy.

I saw an advert in Sinclair User magazine for a RAM upgrade kit from an outfit called Video Vault. The 16K spectrum had a bunch of slots into which more RAM could be inserted to bring it up to the full compliment of 48K. I saved up the cash to buy the RAM, and sent it off. It cost me £19.95 which was a fair amount for a 11 year old kid with a sweets and video games habit.

I remember clearly reading and re-reading the cassette liner for Ant Attack, day after day until the memory finally arrived. Once installed I spent many a happy day playing my new 48K titles. I expanded my game collection to occupy most of the spare storage space in the kitchen!

Eventually I moved on from the Spectrum 48K to a 128K +2 then later an Amstrad CPC 464 which I sold to buy my first PC, an Epson 8086. Since then I’ve owned more computers than I dare to think about, all growing in size, speed, capacity and capability with each iteration.

It’s been a great 30 40 years with computers in my life, and I can only imagine what the next 30 40 years will be like. Thanks Dad for setting me on this road, and thanks too to Sir Clive Sinclair for designing the first computer I ever owned.