Tag Archives: history

ZX Spectrum+30

On Friday 23 April 1982, the Royal Navy task force was steaming south towards the Falklands. At the same time, advance forces were preparing in secret to retake South Georgia, a success which would catapult Margaret Thatcher onto the steps of Downing Street all bug-eyed, bouncing off journalists and imploring us hysterically to “Rejoice”.

Meanwhile at a hotel in London the as-yet unknighted gingerboff Clive Sinclair was unveiling the computer that would replace the year-old ZX81 and its wobbly RAM pack. Everybody had been expecting the launch. Speculation about the ZX81’s successor had been appearing in computer magazines for months. Many people expected it to be called the ZX82.

It was, of course, the ZX Spectrum. With high-resolution 256 x 192 pixel, 15-colour graphics, 16K or 48K RAM and a 3.5MHz Z80A processor, it was a substantial step up from its predecessor. A bit more expensive too: £125 for 16K and £175 for 48K.

I found out about the launch the following day, as on that Saturday my Dad took me to London’s glittering Earl’s Court for the Computer Fair. It was the second computer show I’d been to — the first being the previous year’s Personal Computer World show at London’s guttering Novotel in Hammersmith.

Earl’s Court was packed with nerds and protonerds gawping over the likes of the Vic 20 and the TRS-80. The crowds were especially thick around the Acorn stand — at least partially thronged with people who’d ordered and paid for a BBC Micro (launched a few months before) politely enquiring when the hell it would arrive. In those primitive times we were told to “allow 28 days for delivery” of new computers and were lucky if they arrived in less than a hundred.

I remember seeing the Sinclair Research stand. It was immediately obvious there’d been an announcement: one wall of the stand was plastered with a blown-up image of the new machine. Crowds stood several deep, grabbing leaflets and hoping for a glimpse of hardware. When I pushed to the front I could see a portable TV looping through a demo showing off the Spectrum’s capabilities. If memory serves there were no finished units on display: merely a couple of shrines behind glass, untouchable and perhaps with the paint still drying to hide the wood grain.

Naturally it wasn’t possible to hand over your Thatcherite tenners and take a Spectrum home with you — the demo was, I suspect, all breadboards and pixie dust — but staff would be more than happy to take your order, and your cash.

I salivated. A negotiation began with Dad. Neither of us remembers now how much I paid (or promised to pay) and how much was counted as a belated birthday present, but the result was a scribbled receipt — I believe numbered 1151, it’s in the collection somewhere — and the fizzing anticipation of a delivery of a 16K Spectrum in less than 28 days!

I took away with me one of the brochures, the front cover of which was a life-sized picture of the keyboard. Identical brochures fell out of every computer magazine for the next few months. One travelled in my school bag every day, because if you’re going to obsess on something there’s no point doing it by halves.

Twenty-eight days later the Spectrum had not arrived, of course; but the Royal Navy task force had reached its destination, and the news was dominated with the latest from the Falklands War. It wasn’t until sometime in late June, I think, that I scurried home from school to find, finally, a small brown parcel waiting for me. By this time the Argentine forces had surrendered and the war was over.

Sadly there is no unboxing video, as I had left my iPhone in the future. I unpacked everything solemnly, like a reverse Pharaonic burial rite. I plugged in the power (reviewer criticisms included: “still no on/off switch”) and tuned it in to the living room TV. Finally the message “© 1982 Sinclair Research Ltd” stared back at me with a faint shimmer, and I understood what was meant by dot crawl.

Then one by one I loaded the demo games and tools from the supplied Horizons tape, and heard for the first time the soundtrack of the next five years: brrrrrrrrrrbip! brrrrrrrrrrbipplybeebipplybeebipplybeebipplybeeetc!

And I proceeded, as a true geek, to inhale the manual.

I loved that machine. I came to know every part of it. It suffered at my hands. I upgraded it to 48K. I progressed from BASIC to Z80 assembler — like all real programmers, first by hand-assembling to machine code using the table at the back of the manual. I bought a copy of the Complete Spectrum ROM Disassembly — the Spectrum’s OS decoded and annotated, every byte of it, every bug and whistle. I bought an Interface 1 and ZX Microdrive — each cartridge (a squiggly loop of magnetic tape in a small case) able to hold a massive 85K or so, and loading and saving much faster than cassette tape. I learned how to disassemble and hack games, like Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy and Fairlight and Atic Atac and Knight Lore and and and… and I wrote my own. I hacked and coded for money. I was published in Your Spectrum magazine.

My ZX Spectrum

I loved that machine.

I still have it, of course. My ZX Spectrum is an issue one design: light grey keys, with a hand-patched board inside to fix a hardware bug. This makes it one of the first 60,000 manufactured, I believe.

Serial number: 001-000046. That’s pretty early.

I haven’t powered it up for at least twenty years, and I daren’t do so now in case something goes pop. But I’ve taken some photos of it and every piece of software and every book I still have and uploaded them all to Flickr, because if you’re going to obsess on something there’s no point doing it by halves.

In amongst all the tapes, I was very pleased to find my master copy of The School — the text adventure game I wrote (designed with Dave O’Neill, school friend and one of the commenters on my previous blog post). Although I submitted it to several software houses nobody took it on: the game was never professionally released (it wasn’t good enough) and hasn’t been played since the mid-eighties.

But, you know, we’re living in the future now. You can get ZX Spectrum emulators for just about every platform…

All I needed to do to play it was sample the tape, and load it into the emulator. How hard could it be? The standard Spectrum saving routine encoded data on tape at 1500 baud — roughly 1500 bps. Easy to sample. Ten minutes tops, surely: five to play the tape, five to faff.

Now then. Find your nearest ZX greybeard. If that’s me: hello! Ask him (it’ll be a him) what caused the most problems with Spectrum games. He’ll say gloomily: “R Tape loading error” (the R is an error code). You had to play goldilocks with the volume and treble and bass on your cassette player, hunting for the sweet spot that tickled the Spectrum’s distinctive stripy borders. And also, cassette players tended to wind the tape at different speeds, often speeding up and slowing down. With yer Slade and yer Boney M and yer Wham (note: I owned none of these) it made no difference, but with the intolerant and pernickety Spectrum loading code, it sometimes did.

I proceeded to spend hours (spread over several days) sampling the tape, and loading it into the emulator, and watching it fail. Sometimes it would load one of the three chunks of code, sometimes two, but it never reached the third, the longest chunk. R Tape loading error. The bits were corrupt.

I found a different tape player — in fact, one I used for saving and loading software around the time the Marines were yomping over the Falklands. Sampling with this player didn’t work either.

I even splashed out on a new tape player — one with a USB cable, for sampling directly into Audacity on the Mac. Aha! Better! For the first time since 1984, I reached the third chunk of code and saw the loading screen — and here it is:

I was fifteen, OK? There was no such thing as Photoshop. I hadn’t even built my mouse yet.

Anyway, I thought: since it got that far, why didn’t it load the entire thing? I listened closely to all five minutes of the sample (the third chunk loads 49,152 bytes, from start to end of RAM). And I was surprised to hear, in a couple of places, the sound dip. What? It wasn’t doing that before.

The Falklands-era tape player had corrupted the Falklands-era tape.

Thatcher. It’s always Thatcher’s fault.

In Audacity I zoomed into the waveform where the sound dipped: flatline. Unrecoverable, by me at least. At this point, I emitted some kind of meeping noise and tweeted about throwing something and then myself out of a window.

But then I thought: I still have those earlier samples that didn’t work, sitting in the trash. I went right back to the very earliest and reimported it into Audacity. There was no dip. Then I realised I’d exported this sample first time as a stereo WAV not a mono WAV — and stereo was bad. I exported the right channel as a mono WAV, and tried that.

It worked. The game loaded.

I immediately tweeted: “Um, OK. Um. Blimey. Well. This is. Cor. Now then. Burble. *makes backup, cup of tea, squealing noise*”. It received a few worried responses. I just stared at the emulator screen.

As I write these words, I haven’t yet tried to play the game. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a complete walk-through for reviewers, sent with the tape to the software houses. Right now I can remember only one puzzle: the first one. It involves a hammer cage.

Would you, by any chance, like to play it? Here it is: the-school.tzx (apologies for Google Docs link). [Edit 2012-06-06: now available from World of Spectrum] Open it in the emulator of your choice (I’m using Fuse for Mac OS X). Press zero to delete (I’m sorry – on the Spectrum, delete was Caps Shift-zero, and for some reason I decided to “make it easier”). When a flashing block appears at the bottom right, press Return.

I warn you: it’s not particularly logical. It doesn’t have a sophisticated parser. It’s slow. I have no idea whether it’s entirely uncorrupted: it might be unsolvable. If you were at Sheredes School in the early 1980s you might know your way vaguely around. Of course, any character’s resemblance to any actual teacher or pupil of that period is entirely coincidental.

ZX Spectrum: thirty years old today. For The School, well, you just had to allow 28 years for delivery.

PS Possibly of interest: Rick Dickinson’s original industrial design sketches for the ZX Spectrum, and more.



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X-Men: Solid 2.1

The first message was confusing. It arrived sometime in the spring of 1980, in the lunchtime playground of Sheredes Junior School. The usual preteen chaos bounced around the tarmac, hopscotching and hula-hooping and Trevor Brooking in the service of entropy. I was busy repairing an android – an obsolete model, all cogs and flywheels, its maintenance bulb insistently recommending a positronic upgrade. That would have to wait: a rough-and-ready patch-up job was all I had spacetime for. These asteroids wouldn’t mine themselves, after all. I rolled up my genetically modified sleeves and got to work.

I’d barely started unscrewing the chest plate when I felt a silence spreading slowly around me, a cloud of inactivity. Pigtails and snot trails froze in mid-air. I began, imperceptibly, to glow. Uh. Did something happen? What?

The android repaired itself. The message came through loud and clear. The words, though, made no sense.

The playground came back to life.

Perhaps Professor Charles Xavier peered briefly through my eyes, saw no wheelchair ramps, and bailed out muttering. Understandable. In those days children with disabilities tended to be segregated in schools, and mutants hid. Disabled mutants were most certainly not welcome in Tory Broxbourne. (I think she was in Debbie Does Dallas, but I’m no expert.)


X-Men: First Class positively goads you into titling a review “X-Men: Second Class” or opining about the price of stamps these days (46p! Cameron’s Britain, ConDemNation, har-de-har, etc, etc). And as you’ll have noticed I’ve given in to temptation. I don’t think it’s a classic film or even a classic genre film, but there’s nothing wrong with a 2.1. That’s what I told myself when I wore my Darth Vader cape to collect my degree from Chancellor Palpatine Baroness Warnock.

The film’s 1962 setting – around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis – gives it an interesting if slightly clichéd edge. As many have said there’s a strong feeling of Dr No about it, plus a nod towards the war room of Dr Strangelove. (All it needed was Dr Kildare and Doctor Who for the full house.) Toss in a few cheeky references to the earlier films (set in this film’s future) including a couple of show-stopping cameos, and some gags about hair loss, and mix with bucketloads of bangs and crashes, and you’re done. It’s not afraid to laugh at itself and is confident enough to play to the audience’s knowledge of the franchise in its varied forms. It takes a few liberties with some characters, naturally, but X-Men and comics continuity in general is notoriously malleable. Another year, another reboot. A slice of retcon, a spoonful of alternate universe. ANTIHULK UNSMASH! Happens all the time.


Xavier’s second message didn’t reach me for another couple of years, until a run-of-the-peppermill Tuesday afternoon in Home Economics. A laugh, a joke, an innocent pair of tongs. An unequivocal sign. “Don’t trifle with these powers,” said Xavier, which was odd as we were making a flan.

I put away childish things, and the tongs. I didn’t want to speak to Xavier. He was old, bald, and liked hanging out with younger guys. All a bit creepy if you ask me.


In the film Xavier is young, hirsute, and James McAvoy out of Shameless and a Narnian Wardrobe – like David Tennant, a Scot who’s often professionally English. Adding to the accent confusion is Nicholas Hoult, once About a Boy and later of Skins, expanding his acting chops from 1962 All-American totty in A Single Man to 1962 All-American mutant totty here.

Other mini-mutants appear, little x-boys and x-girls, as Xavier trawls the world sniffing out the talent: looking for that elusive X Factor I suppose. Hmm – Simon Cowell: alias Supreeno, special power Hypnosis of TV Executives, costume The Gentleman’s High-waisted Trouser.

The film’s plot ostensibly concerns the nascent X-Men battling a Big Bad called Sebastian Shaw – Kevin Bacon bringing himself home in splendid cackly fashion. His opening scenes are really rather unsettling, almost entirely – and bravely – conducted in several flavours of non-English. In those scenes we discover exactly how the young Magneto – Magnetini? – learns the extent of his powers, and what drives him and the main thrust of the movie.

The film succeeds for me by meshing both the BANG CRASH and subtler stories. The effects-laden set pieces window-dress the underlying human mutant tensions of the leads. The heart of the film is the heart of the X-Men franchise in comic and film form: the story of Professor X and Magneto, of Charles and Erik. Friends and enemies.


Xavier tried to get through to me regularly in my teens, never defeating my psychic block. He failed again in my college years, despite a cunning flanking manoeuvre at the Societies’ Fair.

It might have been different had he sent a representative. I knew there were other mutants; I knew where they gathered. Had one approached me I might have embraced my mutation much sooner and answered Xavier’s call (his ringtone was mental).

Or I might not. Mutations can take a time to mature, to ripen. The trigger that finally unleashes the power can occur at any time, in any place. In my case, the trigger was Batman. Well, actually, Robin.

Marvel versus DC – as it was, so shall it always be.

Avaragado’s rating: one blueberry muffin

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Spurs are on their way to Wembley

“Do you want me to call it off?” Mum stood framed in the bathroom doorway, hands on hips, looking down at me sprawling in pain.

“No! I’ll be fine!” My bladder had screamed full all the way home from school and was busy wreaking its revenge. I wasn’t going to let it deter me: it was Thursday 14 May 1981, and I had a ticket for the FA Cup final replay between my team, Tottenham, and Manchester City. I’d been to plenty of football matches – I had a season ticket – but never a match this important. Never Wembley.

And how could I face my school friends the next day if, after bragging that I was going, I then stayed at home – because of a bladder strain. That choice would haunt me forever. Nothing short of a detached limb would stop me going.

I wasn’t going alone, of course. My cousin Mark, altogether more worldly-wise at 18 or so, also had a ticket – and a car. It wouldn’t be our first trip together: we’d gone to London a few years before, just the two of us I think, to see 2001 at the cinema. No, not the original release; it might have been the tenth anniversary, though – 1978. I’d have been nine, he fifteen. Hmm, surely not? Possibly. Times were different then, all flares and hair and grainy film.

We drove to Wembley, or thereabouts. I have no memory of the walk along Wembley Way with the gathering thousands, or of the queue, or of the hunt for the correct stairwell, or of the steep climb to our seats – oh, perhaps I do. It seemed near-vertical back there, vertiginously deep in the top corner of the Royal Box side, not far from the left goal line from the usual TV perspective.

It was a tense match. Spurs took the lead early, never a good sign, with City levelling only a few minutes later in the goal nearest us. Five minutes into the second half they went ahead through a penalty. The supporters around me – all Tottenham fans – became nervous. After 70 minutes Spurs equalised: jumping, screaming, relief. Twenty minutes to find a winner.

Six minutes later, it happened. The finest goal I’ve ever witnessed in person. Ricky Villa, substituted in the drawn match the previous Saturday, took the ball deep into the penalty area past one defender, two, jinking left and right, and fired a shot—

I’ve never seen, heard or felt anything like it. Fifty thousand people simultaneously screaming, exploding in joy, hugging, bouncing. Astonishment, disbelief.

And then the interminable wait. Fourteen minutes, plus injury time. Just keep the ball. Just. Keep. The. Ball.

At the final whistle we could breathe again. The celebrations began. From our vantage point we couldn’t see the team climb the 39 steps to the Royal Box, nor could we see Steve Perryman lift the trophy; we simply cheered when everyone else did. We cheered as, presumably, each player in turn held the cup aloft. We were drunk on cheers.

I’m not sure how we got home without Mark crashing the car. Sober, but still drunk. A high I’ve never forgotten and know I can never recreate.

Football’s a game played by overpaid, often unlikeable twats; owned by oligarchs; run by idiots; watched by thugs and bigots. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s played by sublime craftsmen at the top of their trade, and watched by passionate, loyal fans who experience the greatest highs and deepest lows with friends and strangers on the terraces across the country. But it’s still owned by oligarchs and run by idiots.

Cup Final day is not what it once was, even ignoring the rosifying memory lens. This year it’s not even the final match of the season. It’s lost in the Premier League and Champions League cash-chase, another victim of the sport’s insatiable greed. The loss of the FA Cup’s prestige arguably began when money begat exclusive TV deals. Once, the FA Cup Final was the only live domestic football match on TV, and the build-up began on both main channels at dawn with Cup Final Pro-Celebrity Eggy Soldiers or some such; now the single terrestrial broadcaster has no work to do. No romance to talk up. No semi-literate panel to parade. No Moore v Coleman/Motty contest to hype (Coleman, obv.).

All we have is the game, yet another live game in a season of yet another live games. Eagerly awaited by the teams and the fans, and the obsessives, but few others. Of course I’m only saying all this because the year ends in one and by rights that means Spurs should have been there, dammit.


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Inflection point

It was an eighties telly in a seventies wooden box – complete with shutters you could draw across the screen, like music hall curtains closing on Spandau Ballet. A boxy remote the size of Dagenham was optimistically labelled with the full range of digits, only three of which had purpose. The remote did have a red button: for turning off the TV. I pressed, and held, and a red light on the remote blinked furiously until an overlong timer fired and the TV switched off. Not standby: off. The power button on the TV popped out with an alarming clunk. The not-flat, not-square tube crackled with static.

“Lift.” Feet up for Mum’s hoover, a frantic round of pre-holiday housework.

I’d been parked in front of the TV for a couple of hours watching the special coverage of Columbia’s maiden flight, Live by Satellite from Cape Canaveral. But Young and Crippen wouldn’t be flying that day: the pocket-protected NASA techs were taking no chances. Even with the world watching, another few days of tests wouldn’t matter. The shuttle programme was several years late already.

By the time Columbia arced into the Florida sky, two days later, we were settled in to our cottage at the Coral Reef Club in Barbados. Fancy. Launch was at 7am EST, one hour behind us, and since that time on a Sunday was in those days purely a hypothetical concept I didn’t watch it live. I saw later replays on a snowy hotel portable, Barbados TV showing a feed from a US network. It was 12 April 1981, twenty years to the day from Gagarin’s flight, and three days before my twelfth birthday.

Later, I’m asked: “Do you want to go waterskiing?”


“Why not?”

“Don’t want to.” I’d been skiing on previous holidays and enjoyed it. Grab the handle, crouch in the water, let the skis pull you upright as the motor roars, lean back, bend the knees, relax the shoulders, smile for the instamatics. Push down a little with either foot to drift to one side, even over the wake into choppier waters. Keep going until your arms fall off.

This time, though, I didn’t want to ski. But I did want to. I just didn’t want to belly-flop forward when the speedboat surged, or to catch an edge while waving to the beach, or to lose my balance venturing out of the wake. I didn’t want to fail. Failure was not an option, I’d decided.

I watched from the boat and from the beach. “Your turn next Dave?” No. My bare heels dug deep in smooth Caribbean sand. I retreated into my head: to science fiction, or the notebook in which I scribbled snippets of rubbish eighties code.

But even though puberty was beginning to ensnare me, dragging me to surly adolescence from the cosy certainties of childhood, I was no vampiric, coal-impersonating minigoth. I sizzled gently in the April sun, and swam where the spiky, poisonous sea urchins had been cleared. I explored the coast a little with my brother and his friend Robert, here with his parents in a multi-family extravaganza. We played shuffleboard – essentially, man-sized shove ha’penny.

My family tried again to persuade me to go waterskiing. Again I refused. “I just don’t want to.” It had become a point of principle: the more they went on about it, the more I was determined not to do it, even if I secretly wanted to. I just didn’t want to enough.

At some point during the holiday, I don’t remember how or when, I became friends with a girl called Carrie. Or Kerry. Or something like that. She was about my age, maybe a year older, on holiday from Florida with her family. We, like, totally hung out.

By her last evening on the island, the now-twelve-year-old grown-up me was beginning to wonder whether this qualified as a bona fide holiday romance. Perhaps it was, I thought, but as far as romance was concerned I was still skiing resolutely within the wake. After dinner, just the two of us, on a beach cool and quiet bar the lazy Caribbean rhythm of gentle waves and broadcasting crickets, we lay on sun loungers under moonlight and talked about everything – nearly everything. It was getting late.

“So… can you stay out a bit longer?” she asked. It seemed an Important Question.

“Um…” A little downward pressure on one ski and I’d start to drift to the wake. Push left, go right. That’s all I’d need to do. Simple, easy. “Er, I’ll need to go and check.”

I caught an edge.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Mum back at the cottage. “Time to stay in now.”

I somersaulted into the sea, skis cartwheeling off, handle skipping away in pursuit of the boat.

I don’t think I saw Carrie again. Or Kerry. Whatever.

On our last full day in Barbados, the constant nagging finally broke me. That’s not strictly true. “I tell you what,” said Robert’s dad, “I’ll give you twenty dollars if you waterski.”

There’s a photo somewhere of my brother, me and Robert, skiing three abreast. Easy money. I fell over while peeling off to ski unpowered to the shore, but that’s life, I guess. I lost no time in collecting the cash.

That holiday was memorable for many reasons: for beginnings and endings, for decision and indecision. For an uncertain glimpse into a future not to be, from a present clinging to the past. And for one other thing.

On my twelfth birthday that Wednesday, I had a few presents to open. One was small, no bigger than a packet of cigarettes. It was a silver box with an LCD display, a volume wheel tucked along the short side, and a single small button on top. When you pressed the button the box spoke the time. “It’s nine forty-three AM.” And there was a stopwatch. “One minute, ten seconds elapsed.” And an alarm. “Attention please. It’s ten fifteen AM. Please hurry” – followed by a few bars of music. It seemed magical, impossibly small.

I still have it. It’s by my bed, as it has been for thirty years, now grumpily sharing space with my iPhone. It’s seen me through school, college and nearly two decades of work. I never sleep late enough for it to wake me these days; it’s a backup, chiming and talking at 8am, 8.05am, and 8.10am, reliably, reassuringly. Eighties technology in a tens world.

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We could use it for recipes, or something

I’m often asked: “What were computers like when you were young, grandad?” The answer is: big and clunky, even the ones that weren’t big and clunky. The past always looks like that. Apollo got to the moon with little more than a heavily disguised abacus, intravenous nicotine and a mountain of nerds. But at the time, it was the future.

That was forty years ago. Thirty years ago, the future was the home computer. I remember my parents asking what would we use it for? I pointed to the moustachioed twonk in a glossy magazine advert, inexplicably engrossed in a green-on-black low-res bar chart. Finance! I implausibly claimed. Or recipes, or something. I’m not sure they bought either argument, but eventually they bought the computer. Christmas 1980: the Tandy TRS-80.

That means I’ve been coding, on and off, amateurishly and professionally, for fun and profit, for thirty years. I’ve seen more religious wars than the Vatican correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle. I have a list this long of creators of programming languages, libraries and other technological ephemera who I would, gladly and vigorously, throttle.

I started programming with TRS-80 BASIC and a very much mistaken belief that I couldn’t reuse variable names. Multi-dimensional arrays took a while to grasp, before I stopped worrying about real-world metaphors of rows of columns on pages inside folders inside shelves inside filing cabinets inside rooms on floors inside buildings in streets in cities in states in countries in continents on planets in solar systems in galaxies in universes and realised that if I needed an 18-dimensional array then I had bigger problems.

The first “proper program” I remember writing was called Data Draw. It used what might be the world’s least efficient way of encoding a graphic: arrays of ones and zeroes (TRS-80 display: 128×48 pixels, one-bit colour).

My brother wrote a much more interesting Space Invaders variant: it had a single invader, which crawled along the top of the screen while you crawled along the bottom firing lasers (slow-moving pixels) or photon torpedoes (slower-moving pixels) at it. We enhanced it regularly with ever more ingenious and slow-to-render alien designs.

It was a roaring hit. With us.

In those days, magazines like Personal Computer World printed programs contributed by readers. We didn’t submit any of our own masterpieces, but we occasionally typed in ones that looked interesting. They rarely worked – far too many vectors for bug transmission between the mind of the author and our own fingers.

Those we did get working, or bought from the Tandy store in Cheshunt, or borrowed, live strong in the memory. Various Scott Adams text adventures that I’ve written about before, full of plot and ingenuity in no more than about twenty locations. The trading game Taipan! by the excitingly named Art Canfil, with its moneylender Wu and sea battles regularly sending us to Davy Jones’ locker.

And then there was Dancing Demon. This was a genre-defining choreograph-em-up in which you gave a highly green creature a set of dance moves encoded in a long string of characters and watched him twirl and skip and tap along to tinny tunes. Yeah, that was pretty much it. And by the same author, Android Nim: a simple game, but full of character.

The most interesting part: although these games had sound, the TRS-80 had no sound chip. But it saved programs in audio form to standard cassette tape. If you threw correctly shaped bits speedily enough at the tape interface, and gave the user sufficiently detailed instructions on setting up their tape recorder, games could make sounds.

And if you could do that, all it took was a sprinkling of magic hacker dust and you could synthesise speech. And they did: one game we played, Robot Attack, would say phrases like “Game over, player two. Great score, player one.”

Not bad for 16K RAM.

I remember the same kind of astonishment a few years later when I first heard the single-channel audio ZX Spectrum play two-channel music. The game was Zombie Zombie, the isometric 3D follow-up to the isometric 3D Ant Attack. The two-channel effect was achieved by playing short bursts of each note in rapid succession and hoping the brain would fuzz them together. I can still hear the music in my head.

Many of the early TRS-80 games were written in BASIC and it was trivial to see the source code. I learned little coding technique but got a very strong taste for hacking. Even games written in the mysterious and arcane “machine code” weren’t immune. Later I’d progress to disassembly and the hunt for infinite lives and other treats, PEEKing and POKEing my way through my teens almost as if I were a real boy.

In fact I wrote my first machine code program for the TRS-80. It looped through every non-space character on screen – one ASCII-encoded byte per character – decreasing the value by one. Then it repeated, until the screen was entirely spaces. It was a neat clear-screen effect possible in BASIC but too slow even for the paltry 64×16 character resolution – 1K of video RAM.

I learned several lessons writing that first machine code. Not least: save your work before you run it, you idiot. I had no assembler. I wrote on paper, hand-assembled using a Z80 reference guide at the back of a book, and used a BASIC program to POKE the values in sequence from an array. “Error prone” hardly seems to cover it. I eventually got it working. I even got the code to exit properly. I think.

I know I used to be able to recite Z80 opcodes from memory, in hex and in decimal. What a saddo. Er, I mean, real programmer.

The early 80s home computing landscape was the equivalent of turn-of-the-20th-century film-making. Thousands of unpleasantly aromatic amateurs making things up as they went along, trying everything, making the hardware do things its inventors hadn’t thought possible. Audio on a system with no audio. Two-channel sound on a system with only one channel. The BBC Micro had several distinct video modes with different colour depths and pixel resolutions: and Bell and Braben’s classic Elite changed the video mode half-way down the screen.

Thirty years on from the launch of the Sinclair ZX81 on 5 March 1981, we’ve reached the 1930s of film. The talkies have arrived in the form of the internet as a platform for applications and data (some people said the talkies were a short-lived fad, incidentally). Computer games now, like movies then, are becoming a recognised art form – despite much huffing and puffing by those who should know better.

On the desktop, Charlie Chaplin no longer makes his programs single-handed. But the new frontier of mobile and tablet apps still has that back-bedroom feel to it. It still seems possible to make bags of cash developing on your own, at least for a short time. But it’s not a repeat of the early 80s; not another sequel. The difference, the key to success with apps on the new devices, is one simple realisation: it’s not a computer. Numerous geeks and geek-hags groan that their lives depend on unfettered access to a filesystem and the ability to place a thousand and one customisable pointless gizmos on their desktop-equivalents. But real people just want to Do Stuff. Computers are the means, not the ends.

In another thirty years, modulo the usual underwater caveats, the question “what were computers like when you were young?” will likely sound as odd to people’s ears as “what were motors like when you were young?” do to ours. In the early 20th century people could buy motors and add attachments to make them useful: the software to their motor hardware. Then motors became cheap and ubiquitous and disappeared inside the machines.

This transition has now started with computers. Big and clunky; big and clunky, but smaller; invisible.

Now take this Werther’s Original and clear off, I need a nap.



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As Steve said, Roger’s written a history of VisionFS.

I’ve said this before I suspect, but of all the products I’ve worked on VisionFS is the one I’m proudest of. It was a small but great team of people, all pulling in the same direction, with sufficient autonomy – whether official or unofficial – to do the Right Thing. It was also, mostly, fun.

For me there were a number of firsts. It was the first product I was involved with from such an early stage in development (thanks to Roger, I’m sure). It was the first product on which I had a great say in the doc deliverables. It was the first full-length printed manual that I wrote. It was the first complete UI that I designed. It was the first project on which I felt part of the team, rather than being the person doing doc for whatever the team produced.

There’s a lot more I could write about VisionFS, and I might do so once I’ve had a chance to look through my extensive archive.

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