The ZX Spectrum at 30

ZX Spectrum-1
While sometimes you have to rely on Wikipedia or somewhere else on the internet to work out how old something is, that’s never been a problem with the ZX Spectrum. It came out in 1982, and you know that because the first thing you saw when you switched it on was “© 1982 Sinclair Research Ltd.”
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was my first ever computer, and I used my savings to buy the 16k model in 1982 when it came out. Except I didn’t get it on 23 April 1982. There was, of course, a massive shortage of the machines, and it took me several months before I was able to buy one.
There was a 48k model too, but that was just too expensive for me. Most things I needed to do could be done in 16k, and for a long time that was all I needed. A friend also had a Spectrum, while another friend, who’d had a ZX81, quickly moved up to a Spectrum too. We were all Spectrum users.
ZX Spectrum-2
I did eventually send away my Spectrum to be upgraded to 48k. But that was a while later.
In the meantime, I taught myself BASIC – something we were learning at school anyway with first a predecessor of the BBC Micro, and then the archetypal school computers themselves. I read magazines feverishly – in particular Popular Computing Weekly which covered a variety of platforms, but also Personal Computer World and the various Sinclair specific titles, including Ashby-de-la-Zouch’s Crash magazine.
I spent hours typing in the code for the programs that were printed in these magazines. A painful exercise as invariably there would be large arrays of data that were simply numbers that you had to type in. Sometimes these would be hexadecimal numbers. I remember once spending hours error-checking some code that simply let my Spectrum play a Mozart concerto.
I would get the display computers saying stupid – but never rude – things in places like WH Smiths and Boots.
I bought books like Mastering Machine Code on Your ZX Spectrum and Advanced Spectrum Machine Language – that latter title coming from the software house that produced such programs as The Hobbit (I look forward to it being reissued with the film!).
I went to the ZX Microfairs in places like Alexandra Palace or the Royal Horticultural Hall, where a software company called Automata would do deals that seemed too good to be true. The same company had a long running cartoon strip/advertisement on the back of Popular Computing Weekly.
I bought a ZX Printer that only printed on a special thermal paper in a quasi cash-register style (and now we have a spate of not-dissimilar “little” printers coming).
I bought the astonishing The Quill (well a handful of us did together) and got into writing adventure games. I later bought The Illustrator, but never managed to get on with that.
I failed to get a game published in a magazine which was a shame, because they paid cash! However I had not one, but two games broadcast on LBC during Clive Bull’s Sunday afternoon Young London programme. The first game was, in truth, a digital wordsearch. But the key was always for the game they broadcast to be a competition listeners could enter. Yes, you heard right. LBC did indeed broadcast the “loading” sounds of 8 bit computer games. LBC’s rule was that the game had to load in less than a minute. Listeners could record the program off-air with a radio-cassette recorder, and then load it into their computer. LBC tended to rotate which computer platforms they broadcast. My second game was an adventure game written using The Quill, and I was proud to hear the following week that it had led to their biggest ever response for a game. LBC on at least one occassion went further, and broadcast an advert in a similar manner. Lots of pre-promotional spots featuring a Joanna Lumley voiceover threw forward to a Monday evening broadcast. The resulting program was essentially a mortgage calculator from some kind of finance company.
I would spend my pocket money on budget Mastertronic titles available either on the local market or in the local department store.
I ended up slowly doing less programming and more playing of games. Not least from companies like Ultimate Play The Game.
I would go around to a friend’s house where he had a modem, and parents who didn’t seem to mind him using their phone. We would go onto things like Prestel and learn things about phreaking – not that I ever really progressed beyond trying out engineering test modes.
And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I loved my Spectrum. And I still do.
The photos in this blog are of the casing of my actual 1982 Spectrum case. I later bought the Keyboard Upgrade Kit, so this shell remains empty. Although perhaps a Raspberry Pi might fit quite neatly inside. Either way, a return to a time when people could program themselves on a widescale, and not just rely on “developers” would be beneficial to the country in a big way.
Happy birthday to the ZX Spectrum.

4 Comments

  1. Nice post, and I’ve been remembering a similar experience after getting the 48k version for Christmas in 1982, and going through the same joy of copying programs from magazines.
    Mine’s still in the loft with various other bits of computer and console history. But the legacy of it has definitely stayed with me and shaped how I interact with technology now – I only hope my son will get the same experience from Raspberry Pi or similar to encourage him to take creativity with technology beyond what my meagre skills have managed.

  2. Nice one Adam, I got the 48k for Christmas when I was 7. Lots of great memories and I recently found the machine in my folks loft and now have it on my desk next to my iMac.
    I too remember spending pocket money on games here and there over the years. Loading Gary Linekers Superstar Soccer for the first time had me and my dad in stitches as the ‘MOTD’ theme played after the loading sequence. ­čÖé

  3. Rick:
    Can you imagine all the hurdles they’d have to pass to do something like that these days? I bet having the theme in the game breaks all the rules.
    One thing I forgot to add was the – ahem – “sharing” of games that we did. C90s full of games.
    But there were deterrants. I bought Elite and it came with a lens you had to use to enter two encrypted letters on screen. Wonderful game.
    Then Jet Set Willy, Manic Miner’s sequel, came with a card printed with pale blue lettering on a white background to make it un-photocopiable. You had to enter a code after loading the game. I may, or may not, have spent hours copying all the code combinations out onto a postcard.
    I also remember loving Commando, a conversion of the arcade game by the publisher, Elite. I played that game for hours.

  4. My friends and I split our loyalties across Spectrums and C64s. I owned a C64 but I happily played games on both. And also related, I was an avid reader of Ashby-de-la-Zouch’s other epic tome, Zzap64.

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