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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 23, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    Remember this?

    Ciara O'Brien

    If you’re, as they say, of a certain age, it’s likely that you remember this: the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

    Long before there was a Macbook or a Thinkpad, or even a Playstation of Xbox, there was this. And today, it turns 30 years old.

    It may not look like much , but it was among the first home computers, and certainly the most affordable of its time.

    Invented by British firm Sinclair, the 8-bit machine was released on April 23rd, 1982, and lasted 10 years before being discontinued. At £125, it was less than half the price of its nearest rival, the BBC Micro at £299.

    The basic model started with a whopping 16 kilobytes of RAM, a far cry from today’s higher powered consoles, and topped out at 128kb. That’s less than your mobile phone these days. Games came on cassette tape (and if you’re of a certain age, you won’t even know what one of those is) and took forever to load.

    But this was all at the start of what would become the computing revolution. How many laptops and PCs do you have in your house? Add in your iPads and Android tablets. And for fun, throw in your smartphone too, because they’re far more powerful these days than PCs were in the early years. But the ZX spawned a generation of programmers.

    Tapadoo’s Dermot Daly (@dermdaly on Twitter) is a great example of what the ZX could lead to. He credits the computer as starting him off with computer programming. These days he creates iPhone apps.

    For him, it was a Christmas present from his father at age 13 that kickstarted his future career. “My dad still refers to it as the best Christmas present he ever gave to his kids,” he said.

    Although he used the ZX for playing games, Daly said he also began to write programmes and utilities for the system with his friends.

    “Every great programmer I’ve ever met was programming from when they were very young,” he said.

    The ZX is now in a frame on his office wall, sadly no longer working but there as a tribute to the beginnings of his career.

    “It’s an 80s design classic,” he said.

    The Spectrum’s heyday was a bit before I knew what a computer was, let alone how to use one, so it wasn’t long before I had moved on to one of these:

    Hours of typing in code to get a sprite to bounce across the screen. Ages waiting for tape deck games to load. But it had a floppy drive. And that’s where my real addiction to games began. Month on the Run. Souls of Darkon. Operation Wolf.

    But I’ll admit to downloading an emulator (or three) that give you access to some of the more retro games. If you want to get a taste for the ZX, or just take a nostalgia trip, there are plenty of emulators available that can give you the full Spectrum experience – even down to the screeching tape decks as the games loaded.

    • Robyn says:

      I remember the CPC 464. I think the one in the attic is still working. The casing is a little damaged, but it still works. Put in a cassette tape (this one had no floppy disk), leave it to load for 20 minutes, and come back to find it had chewed the tape. (Fond memories, from someone who is a child of the 90′s really)

      And yes, I have emulators for it too. Can’t risk losing more tapes to the ageing machine.

    • JOD says:

      Janey well I remember that a mate of mind had one. We’d only a uselessoul CGL M5 but the Spectrum was what every kid wanted because there were a load of games for it relatively speaking as in a load meaning about 10. ”Elite” was the favourite. Space trading game rendered graphically in wireframe monochrome. You had to use a small plastic dongle that you put up against the telly when the loading screen came up and which would use some sort of visual dithering to translate an encrypted screen image into a code that you entered on the keyboard to make sure your copy wasn’t a pirated cassette. It was REALLY hard to see thru’ the dongle owing to it being all scratched perspex and bad design and if you got even one digit wrong you had to rewind the tape and replay the entire program thru’ your cassette player. But the game was worth it it was a sort of deep space Monopoly with some thrilling docking and space battle aspects would love to find an emulator for it I was a dab hand as a 14 year old at maneouvering an intergalactic starship thru’ a wormhole and synching with a spacestation’s coriolis rotation to dock before wiping out the market in Unobtainium or somesuch. God the years eh where do they go?

    • JOD says:

      Janey see from Wiki it came out in 1984 not 1980. Was an 18 year old space trader stuck in a small Cavan town back then not 14. Might have been Elite even encouraged me to get the hell out.

    • Richard says:

      I bought my Spectrum (48k) back in ’85 and it opened up a whole new world for me. As a direct result I became a mainframe programmer 5 years later (remember COBOL?) and from there progressed up to running my own web development company. I’m retired now but still play around with computers and websites. And it all started with the old Speccy!

      Incidentally, you talk of the screech as it loaded, but you forgot to mention that intensely irritating bit where the screeching stopped and the machine reset itself to the copyright logo, because something had gone wrong!

    • With the Amstrad, we’d leave the game loading over dinner and come back with fingers crossed. I remember very well the horrible moment of realisation that something had gone wrong and you needed to start over.

      Also, typing in thousands of lines of code from the manual, only to get an error in line 1345. And 5790. And 7689. And then it didn’t work. I tried to type in the code for Raffles once. I think it broke me.

    • JOD says:

      Recall typing hundreds of lines of code to get a picture of a lemonade bottle popping open and fizzing quite put me off being any more ambitious as a coder but yeah had errors in line 134 and 579 and 768 doubtless I’d be better today now I can type. It was worse when your tape recorder actually went and ATE your tape. And you’d be there trying to unpick the twisted gnarled bit of plasticised ferric oxide with a compass needle out of your maths box and hoping it’d work when you respooled it usine the sharp long bit of a biro cap unfortunately unlike Lizzy albums and such computer programmes weren’t as forgiving of cannibalistic tape recorders and it NEVER worked again. But you could always sell yer dongle to a mate with a pirated copy ah no only joking never did that seriously.

    • JOD says:

      My mother gave my old CGL M5 to a kid whose dad worked with mine after I left home. Kid was autistic spectrum and a lovely lovely lad I met him few years ago first time in about twenty and I was back from China and he had more gadgets about him palm pilots and Nokia 2210s and was working or at least doing some computer work for a local biz and he told me it was that old CGL M5 gave him his obsession with computers and started the interest off. Haven’t heard of him in a couple years he wasn’t well but he was very happy with life last time I met him so there you go. That ancient computer tech helped a kid who otherwise mightn’t have found a lot of joy in life.

    • Robyn says:

      Ah yes, the many hours of typing in code, for it to do really not much, but which I thought was amazing at the time. Or typing out game cheats. Kids don’t know how easy they have it now with their simple up down up down x o x o. Cheating on the Amstrad took time.

    • eok says:

      used to get a computer magazine called “input” the tagline was “for fun and the future”. It was one of those free binder with first issue jobs. This led to lots of typing in code into the old c64. Us commodorians definitely looked down on the zx. My favourite game was “the way of the exploding fist”. I also remember lots of typing in peek and poke codes in attempts to hack and copy games. I note with nostalgia that the inventor of the commodore – a guy called jack tramiel – passed away recently.

    • Geraldine says:

      Back in 1980 I built a Sinclair ZX80 from kit form. It worked first time I switched on, though I had never soldered anything before. There was 1Kb of memory. The things that we could do with that though! Soon after a 1Kb expansion came out. Oodles of memory- who could need more?

    • Kev says:

      Bought one of these in the very early days in London. Intended it as a surprise gift for younger siblings. Got nicked in Customs at Dublin airport. After paying duty (remember that anyone ?) it cost more than if I had gone in to town to get one.

    • JOD says:

      How long ago was that Kev? Computers (HS Tariff 8471) were at 4.9% for ages until the Information Technology Agreement came in and brought them and all other IT related goods to zero duty back around 1996. Microprocessors and chipset (8542/43) were 14% before then but unless you’d brought it back in bits you wouldn’t have been charged that. It was probably the VAT and duty together drove the price up by around a quarter.

    • JOD says:

      Don’t think there was ever excise on computers mind given their usage these days in many’s a teenagers’ bedroom I’ll warrant there’s room for a sin tax on pornboxes maybe nor yet on a left-handed mouse. Ah days of innocence little did we ever know.

    • Dermot says:

      JOD: The anti-copying system in Elite was called “Lens-Lok”. Full info here
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenslok
      Ahh, the memories, as you say

    • AJC says:

      Oh yea…got me started in the tech game all those years ago. More processing power in a €10 kids toy these days….who remembers holding the tape recorder close to the tv set to download games?

    • JOD says:

      Thanks Dermot that brought back memories. See the ZX didn’t come out til 1981 though it was earlier; in fact there wouldn’t have been customs duties charged between member states by then only VAT doublecharged both in UK on purchase and at import to IRL. There were a few lads I knew hanging round the unapproved routes across the Border could have sorted you out Kev..

    • CPL says:

      The ZX Spectrum 48k is inextricably entwined with my childhood and early adolescence. My Dad bought one for me and my brother in 1984, I think. We graduated from Pong. I remember learning Basic and being thrilled at getting a word to repeat and scroll all the way down the screen. All of those games we loaded on cassette are still so vivid in my memory (along with the screeching sound) – Jet Set Willy, Pssst, Jet Pac, Atic Atac, Sabre Wolf, Trans AM, Daly Thompson’s Decathlon, Horace Goes Skiing….all the ‘famous’ software companies like Ocean, Elite, Ultimate….eagerly thumbing through Crash magazine every month. Oh, the nostalgia…Very happy times.

      Even looking at it now, that computer is a design classic. It hasn’t dated that much in 30 years, and despite its limited memory it no doubt introduced a generation of youngsters to the power of the PC. Thank you, Sir Clive.

    • Signius says:

      There’s a new UK group (charity, actually) trying to follow in the low-cost computing for the masses steps of the Sinclair. Anyone who enjoyed tinkering with the Spectrum might be interested in the Raspberry Pi – http://www.raspberrypi.org/ – an ultra-low-cost system designed with education and enthusiasts in mind.

    • JOD says:

      That’s very interesting Signus, and very clever. The idea of giving today’s kids a tiny cheap computer to try and get them interested in the mechanics as it were of computing as distinct from the simple use of them, to address the apparent dearth in hobbyist programmers going into computer science that’s occured since turn of century and is ascribed to education curriculae that teaches how to use Office or web design and other applications rather than the nuts and bolts of computing.
      Suppose it’s like the dying art of engine rebuilding. There were once hundreds of guys in Ireland who could rebuild old engines, lap valves skim heads resleeve bores rebalancing all that sort of stuff. Now there’s about five of them left. Because people nowadays change their car long before the engine starts giving trouble and the scrappage schemes ensured no car lived that long anymore. Likewise, when was the last time anyone carried out their own car maintenance? My first yokes you could fix most prblems with a box of Snap-Ons. Nowadays you need an Itanium server and a degree in qantum physics it seems before you even take off the plastic shroud covering the absolutely enigmatic motor and allied systems. Result is I’d say that fewer and fewer hobbyist mechanics who actually know something about how an engine and powertrain works. People just drive cars nowadays without the faintest idea of how it is they do what the do.
      Very good idea that Raspberry. Anything that encourages understandng of the things that shape our world is.

    • Pete says:

      I graduated to a Spectrum + after a ZX81…today’s games are not a patch on 3D Deathchase, JetSet Willy, Match Day, Back to Skool, Bombjack etc…if it weren’t for the quality of those games, I’m sure I’d have invented Google, Amazon & Facebook in no time!

    • Frank says:

      Great piece of kit in its time. Opened the door to computer programming and stimulated gazillions of individuals imaginations and creativity and my, look at what followed. Long live innovation.

    • Mr T says:

      Richard I do indeed remember COBOL, it’s been provided me a living since 1998!
      I was a C64 person myself. The tape loading times were slowwwwwwwww, but some games had good loading music – I think Ocean games had the best. Those flickering lines of different colours as the game loaded would have you in a near trance like state by the time the game started. Some great games despite the technical limitations – ghost n goblins, wizball, nebulus, IK+, The Last Ninja, Op Wolf, Microprose Soccer and many more I can’t remember. Having played a few on an emulator again I can safely say my reflexes ain’t what they used to be!

    • Operation Wolf is currently on my Amstrad emulator. We used to fight over it as kids.

    • John says:

      I remember the Spectrum well. We still have it, it still works!!!