Up until the age of 12, I’d never thought about what I wanted to do with regards to a career. In 1980 a seed would be sown, that would grown and map out the rest of my working life. On visit to the school library one break time, I was idly thumbing through some magazines. Paris Match was always a favourite, with pictures of alluring European women and the odd grotesque scene like a murder, or the aftermath of a suicide, was rich fuel for a furtive, pre-teen mind.
Anyway while picking through the other magazines, I picked up a fairly hefty one and realised that it was one on computers. Back then, computers filled rooms and cost thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds. I didn’t know enough then to know smaller and cheaper computers were making an appearance, but this fact hit me square between the eyes, when I saw a full page advert for the Sinclair ZX80 computer. It was very small, white and about half the size of an A4 sheet of paper. At one end it was about 2 inches deep and the other about half an inch, which meant it kinds of resembled a wedge shape, with a lump on the thicker side. The keyboard was a very, visually interesting shade of blue, with white lettering. The technical specification looking back were laughable, but here was a computer anyone could afford, well nearly anyone. Every day I went back to the school library, thumbing now exclusively through the computer magazines, lusting after a computer of my own, but not really knowing why. I think I might have asked for a ZX80 for Christmas, but it was still a lot of money, especially for something that could have been just a child’s fad.
In 1981 Sinclair launched the successor to the ZX80, predictably called the ZX81, with all manner of technical improvements. The biggest differences to me, were that it was now black, which made it look very futuristic, and it was cheaper. I seem to remember the ready built version (yes it was available in kit form, for the adventurous) was Â£79.95, but Wikipedia seems to disagree. As soon as I saw an advert for the ZX81, I desperately wanted it. It was virtually all I could think of. Fortunately for me, I had a birthday coming up and my Mum and Dad gave me the money I needed. After school on the fateful day, I caught the 73 bus near my school with my friend Steve and off we ventured to the West End, more specifically Oxford Street, to Bourne and Hollingsworth, inside of which was a W. H. Smiths, then the main outlet for Sinclair stuff.
I gently cosseted my new ZX81 at the checkout, along with a tape called Super Programs 1, which looking back was astoundingly written by ICL, the then, huge corporation, which was later to be taken over by Fujitsu. Why they were writing games for the ZX81, I have no idea. Upon getting home and unpacking my new computer, the first thing that struck me was the manual, which was 212 pages and took the user all the way from setting up the machine to actually programming. I didn’t need too much help hooking it up to my 14 inch black and white TV, as I had already owned numerous games consoles. Well you can call them game consoles, but they are not quite in the same league as todays XBox 360′s, PS3′s and Wii’s.
Bizarrely enough, the thing that really stumnped me was getting the tape player communication to the computer. I’d type the LOAD “” command into the computer, press play on the cassette player and be greeted to 2 minutes of awful electronic screetching. When the noise stopped, my ZX81 did nothing, but sit there, as it had the previous 2 minutes. For some reason it took me a while to realise I had to plug the supplied cable into the cassette player. Even then it was all a little hit and miss, but eventually I had loaded in my first computer program, the impressively titled Invasion from Jupiter. The title was impressive, but the games was a very simplistic counting game. Several aliens ‘*’ were randomly drawn across the screen and you had to guess their position, by counting across the screen, then typing in the number that corresponded to the alien’s position. This might have been simplistic, but considering this was the first computer game (not console) that I’d ever played, it was mighty impressive for this 11 year old. I remember dragging my Mum and Dad into my bedroom to show them the awesome power that was my computer. I’m not sure what they made of it, but I think they knew I’d found something I was passionate about.
Time is an illusion, computer time, doubly so. I lost track of the nights, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning, working my way through the manual and typing in computer programs from the magazines that had been created for this new, emerging market. That being said a computer program written in BASIC, didn’t take too long to type in, as the basic ZX81 only had 1K of memory, the same technically as 1024 Characters, or about 5/6 of the first paragraph. Even this isn’t quite accurate, as the computer itself needed some memory to work, which left the user with about 800 characters. The ZX81 had a few tricks for squeezing the most out of that 1K. One of these was to tokenise the keywords, which took 1 byte, instead of say the 5 bytes needed to save the word ‘PRINT’. The best way to make the most effective use of the memory was to program in machine code, the language the computer could understand natively, rather than BASIC, which the computer had to first convert to machine language, which is the reason BASIC is much slower. Machine code is commonly referred to as a low level language, meaning you are at the lowest level to the computer. BASIC is considered a high level language.
I remember typing in an amazing space invaders style of program that ran in 1K, printed in the Your Computer magazine. There was row after row of hexadecimal numbers like, AE, 00, FF, CB, CD, 09, 15… You had to be extra careful with this kind of program. It was imperative that you saved the program to tape first, as a single wrongly typed character, could cause the computer to crash, losing everything if it wasn’t already saved. You could have struck me down with a feather when after saving the completed program, I ran it and it worked perfectly. This was a miracle in itself as typing on the ZX81′s membrane keyboard was a pain, quite literally sometimes.
As I learnt more and more, I began pushing the ZX81 until it kept running out of memory. I managed to get the necessary funds to purchase a nice new 16K ram expansion pack, which I think cost about Â£49.95. Suddenly a whole new dimension of game-play presented itself. Unfortunately, so did the dreaded RAM pack wobble. Many times I can remember typing in a program and forgetting to save, then having the ZX81 crash as I inadvertently touched the RAM pack, or nudged the ZX81, causing the RAM pack to wobble and the ZX81 to reset itself, losing all my unsaved work. Clive Sinclair’s solution, was to use a bit of velcro, which I only found out about recently while watching a documentary drama, based on the kind of feud between Chris Curry, head of Acorn and Clive Sinclair in their race to be the BBC micro. Not really the kind of thing you want to hear from the head of a company, to who you just gave your hard earned money. For some reason I never did anything to alleviate myself of the RAM pack wobbles, but fortunately it wasn’t something I had to suffer for very long anyway.
I remember one day dragging my Mum and Dad to one of the unmissable events on every Sinclair enthusiasts diary, the ZX Microfair, this one held at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. There I saw an amazing full action keyboard, which my Mum and Dad treated me to. Unfortunately the company Fuller, didn’t have any at the show on that day, so I had to return the following to to pick it up on my own. My new keyboard also had the added bonus of curing the RAM pack wobble.
I went to many ZX Microfairs, at the Horticultural Hall, and later at Alexandra Palace. In fact I was also an exhibitor at one ZX Microfair, working for the Micromania Software Shop, which used to be on Caledonian Road. Working at that shop was a blast, but more of that later.
One of the amazing things about the ZX81 is that it had no sound and no high resolution graphics. These limitations however did not stop people coming out with creative ways to overcome these limitations. For sound someone realised that if you switched the computer multiple times between SLOW and FAST modes, and turned up the TV’s volume, you could get the ZX81 to make a tone. Painstakingly, people began writing music for the ZX81, to be played this way. I think my most memorable was a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th, which seemed to be a piece of music used a lot on computers.
Using some low level creativity, it was even possible to boost the ZX81′s graphic resolution from a blocky 64×48 to an impressive 256×192. However high resolution games came relatively late in the ZX81′s life by which time most people had moved onto the ZX81′s successor, the ZX Spectrum, which had a native resolution of 256×192, all in colour, but not without it’s own limitations.
Looking back, I really wish I would have kept my ZX81. I sold it to Wayne Robinson from school, for 50 quid I think it was. Be interesting to hear what he did with it. Is it languishing in a closet somewhere? In the years since, I’ve owned a few ZX81′s. Unfortunately when I left the UK, I sold all of my retro machines, as they would not work over here in Canada, with the different power supply of 110V, instead of 240v and the different TV standard, NTSC as opposed to PAL. I did pick up a Sinclair/Timex TS1000, which is the North American equivalent of the ZX81.
So that’s how I got into computers. The next part to this series will be about the ZX Spectrum. I hope you enjoyed reading this, I’d love to hear about your first computers.
I love London with all my heart, but its always so sad to hear about the city I love, losing more and more of the things that define it. Roger Ebert the noted film critic wrote a wonderful blog post yesterday about the redevelopment of Jermyn Street, including the hotel 22 Jermyn Street, which I didn’t even know was a hotel, even though I’ve passed it hundreds of times and now will never get the chance to try it. The full blog post can be found here :