Happy birthday, ZX81



Thirty years old? How time flies. This was the first computer I actually owned – I’d done a bit of programming because the school had an ASR-33 teletype link to a minicomputer at the local college, but this was the first machine I had at home. I still remember writing dumb vertical scrolling racing games (possibly the easiest genre on such a machine.) (Want to do the same? Here’s an online emulator. Written as a Java applet.)

And above all, I remember the feeling of power when I got my 16K RAM pack. 16K? How could I ever use up that truly vast amount of memory? Heh.

But I still sometimes long for the days when it took only two or three lines of code to test out an idea, to see some graphics up on the screen. And for the days when kids learned how to program in their bedrooms.

Maybe those days are coming back, just a bit, with Linux and – particularly – Android. Perhaps Android is tempting people into coding because it is pretty easy to get something running. Nowhere near as easy as in the old days, but not too bad.

To end, here’s a quote from Bill Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition:

Walking on, he explains to her that Sinclair, the British inventor, had a way of getting things right, but also exactly wrong. Foreseeing the market for affordable personal computers, Sinclair decided that what people would want to do with them was to learn programming. The ZX81, marketed in the United States as the Timex 1000, cost less than the equivalent of a hundred dollars, but required the user to key in programs, tapping away on that little motel keyboard-sticker. This had resulted both in the short market-life of the product and, in Voytek’s opinion, twenty years on, in the relative preponderance of skilled programmers in the United Kingdom. They had their heads turned by these little boxes, he believes, and by the need to program them…

…”But if Timex sold it in the United States,” she asks him, “why didn’t we get the programmers?”

“You have programmers, but America is different. America wanted Nintendo. Nintendo gives you no programmers. Also, on launch of product in America, RAM-expansion unit did not ship for three months. People buy computer, take it home, discover it does almost nothing. A disaster.”


3D Monster Maze screenshot

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