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


  1. Mel Rimmer says:

    My first machine, too. I learned BASIC on it, and Z80. And for years I went round telling people that soon everyone would have a computer in their homes and they laughed at me like I was mad. They couldn’t see why on earth they would want one. Ten years later home machines were pretty common for gaming and word processing and things like that, and I was telling people that soon everyone would have the internet in their homes and they laughed. I dunno what’s coming next. It’s not flying cars or robot butlers though.

  2. Indeed, my first machine. I got it as a Christmas present, so I was a little late to the party. I didn’t get the RAM Pack until my birthday the following February.

    Still, it taught me programming and how to type hexadecimal characters from a magazine (Your Computer) for three days, or rather two sets of one and a half days as the first time, just as I was getting to the end there was a thunder storm. (Anyway, the game, a version of Space Invaders was rubbish anyway and I think I must have mis-typed a value somewhere as it crashed at the end of the first level.)

    I still have the machine in the loft. Although I sold it to a work colleague of my Dad’s to fund the upgrade of my Spectrum from 16K to 48K (Fox Electronics upgrade) I bought it back a year and a half later. It has a hole melted in the side where a friend put a cable through for a gamepad he made that was soldered onto the keyboard connector. It still works but it’s difficult to find a TV which will take the output from the modulator and display anything usable. (Oh, and it’s an Issue 1 circuit board but with the later ULA.)

  3. P.S. Re: programming now.

    Android etc. and all current programming language incarnations have a *FAR* too high an energy barrier before you can do fun things. We need a replacement for the interpreted BASIC with which after 5 minutes of looking in a manual will allow a 13 year old to print his/her name on the screen several times. Ideally, after 10 minutes (s)he’ll be able to make the computer make a silly noise or draw a set of coloured lines on the screen.

    Without that immediacy you lose their interest. With it they catch the bug and start to play further. This was best demonstrated in the BBC 4 series “Electric Dreams” when during the 1980s programme the boy was given a BBC Micro to play with and he and his friend couldn’t get enough of it and wondered why today’s computers weren’t as fun.

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