Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

With This Sinclair ZX81 I Will Conquer the Galaxy

Writing that post about Gödel Escher Bach got me interested in, for lack of a better way of putting it, the archaeology of American nerdiness.

Archaeology is not an exact science — it does not deal in time tables! — but yesterday I was moving a box of books up to the spare room, because the shelves in “my study”* give out at the P’s and this box contained the Z’s. As such it was mostly full of Zelazny novels, with a soupçon of Zola left over from college.

But it also contained this artifact:

This is the programming manual for the first home computer my family ever owned. Which looked like this:

This is a beautiful piece of photography, as it shows off perfectly the crap grainy plastic of the case, the crap membrane keyboard of the ZX81, and the perfect period crap wood-grain coffee table that often supported ZX81’s, and is their natural habitat.

The ZX81 was a home computer released in 1981 by Sinclair, an English electronics company. Because when you want a cutting edge PC you know your first stop is definitely the British Isles. (I say this as a half-English person.)

The ZX81’s specs were as follows:

1K RAM (not a typo)

8K ROM (double the puny 4K of its predecessor, the ZX80!)

CPU: 3.25 MHz

Data storage was accomplished using cassette tapes. Actual cassette tapes, which we would simply play into the thing using my dad’s boom box. (You could say “boom box” back then unironically.)We used to play our programs back at top volume. Of course they just sounded like white noise.

God did my dad hate that noise.

When I showed my brother the manual cover (which happens to be by SF stalwart John Harris) a couple of years ago he drily remarked, “So this is an illustration of the vast intergalactic empire you’re going to build with your ZX81,” or something to that effect. And yet (as he knows) it was an extremely empowering device.

Of course my programs were total bullshit. You worked in BASIC — the ZX81 had the helpful buy azithromycin 250 mg habit of pointing out syntax errors as you typed them. My programs would do things like print out every character in the ZX81’s character set:

Yeah. I must have written dozens of them. I maxed out one day when I tried to write a Scramble-style side-scroller and realized that either I or the ZX81 didn’t have the chops for it, and neither of us was willing to get the RAM expansion pack.

But by then the ZX81’s work was done, which was to give me a pretty good education in grokking the grammar of a small but powerful programming environment, and using it to generate what for lack of a better word I will call content.

I don’t often do the kids-these-days thing, but I have to say, there is a basic difference in the way we dealt with computers back then. Get on a computing device nowadays and your attention is immediately directed outward onto the Net. The device’s innards are concealed beneath a bright shiny hard candy-coated GUI shell. It may not even have a keyboard. So you look outward, to other people’s content.

But back then you were forced to tunnel inward, to delve into the hardware and use what you found there to create your own content. You did not browse other people’s content. You fuckin’ mined that shit like Moria, and doing so was good for your brain. It turned your brain into an engine that could extract, refine and build.

I’m not saying kids don’t do that now. But they must do it differently.

Epilogue: earlier this year Sinclair founder Clive Sinclair, 69, married a 33-year-old stripper-slash-former Miss England and honeymooned in Vegas. Cheers to you sir.

*I am putting an asterisk next to “my study” because my study has been somewhat compromised by the arrival of the baby. If a man’s study has a breast pump in it, it is no longer a man’s study. It is something else. Something with an asterisk next to it.

11 comments on “With This Sinclair ZX81 I Will Conquer the Galaxy

  1. Dags says:

    Oh, Gods… that was positively evil of you! I think I just squeed a little…

    As a proud owner of a 16K Issue 1, I resent the ‘American’ modifier – I know for a fact there are at least 3 perfectly preserved units currently residing in Serbia. (And yes, you can replace the ‘a’ with a ‘я’ if you wish…)

  2. M says:

    so your whole family has wikipedia pages?
    this is the only thing i have to comment about on the whole entry, when i grew up, we at least had MS-DOS or windows 95..:D

  3. Leverus says:

    @Dags we totally need a blog about Serbian nerdiness

    @M I guess. I fricking hate my wikipedia page but feel like wikigod will punish me if I edit it

    in retrospect I don’t even know why we didn’t have an Apple II, they had them by then, except that it was cheaper ..

  4. dennitzio says:

    We had Apple ][s but my friend had a ZX-80. There was something SO Erector Set about how when you hit Enter the screen would go blank because the computer couldn’t draw it at the same time. He actually got some cool programs running on it, before ordering a build-it-yourself Commodore clone. I, on the other hand, got tired of the whole program-in-your-program-and-save-to-tape paradigm damn fast and was really glad when we got VisiCalc and a floppy and whatever the heck game was available back then…

  5. Dags says:

    I know a few, but they’re… well… in Serbian.

    I’d indulge you, but somehow all my blog posts about any and all things Serbian turn into rampant snarkfests before you can say “Gremlin Graphics”.

    My non-volatile memory is sadly defunct. *sighs in defeat*

  6. Church says:

    Holy crap. I did computer camp back in the 80s and we got one of these (well, the Timex/Sinclair version (produced, purely coincidentally, mere miles from my house)) as a bonus.

    Insanely frustrating to work with. Even with the memory expansion pack. I envied my friends with Commodores. Hell, the Trash-80s at school were a relief to work with.

    And then I got the IBM Peanut. Oh yeaaaah. Look at the rims on *this* rig ladies…

  7. Jen says:

    Love your blog!

  8. Alison says:

    Until the room is repainted pink, it is still an ambiguous space, and needs clarification. Has the artwork been changed to showcase a full spectrum of art, or is Haly looking at UFO’s? Has the light had a dimmer added to the switch? Are the window treatments puffy? You need to action at least of some of these, as well as add floor rugs and vintage photos of her mother as a child. Don’t worry, America has just got a new IKEA catalogue.

  9. fourcultures says:

    Thank you – that photo of the ZX81 manual really brings back memories. To me it absolutely was the handbook for the bedroom revolution. I’m writing this on a toshiba netbook which has revisited some of the quality features of the ZX81 – toy keyboard, inadequate screen, lack of built in memory. But I love it. Reflecting on your comment about looking outward towards the web (now) vs. looking inward towards the processor (then), I quite agree. My first encounters with Linux reminded me of something and it was those first fumblings as a kid with that marvelous black box that actually responded to the instructions you gave it and didn’t hide its guts from you. The ‘great’ thing about the ZX81 was you more or less had to use machine code to get it to do anything worthwhile.
    By the way, you didn’t miss much with the ROM expansion to 16k. Mine had a dodgy connection so at any moment the entire thing would wipe itself. The Sinclair insistance that all computers should be capricious by design, well at least that remains, though the ZX81 is all but forgotten.

  10. Mick says:

    ZX81, magic

  11. Jeff Rose-Martland says:

    Stumbled in here while browsing for a zx81 t-shirt.

    To quote Holly from Red Dwarf: ” I was in love once. A Sinclair ZX81. People said, no, Holly, she’s not for you. She’s cheap, she’s stupid and she wouldn’t load, well, not for me anyway.”

    But the thing with the XZ81 is this: it was truely affordable. Trash-80s and Apple IIs were running $600-$1000 in real money; quite a lot for parents to chuck on what they saw as a toy. Sir Clive, building on the DIY concepts that brought out the Altair, wanted to – and succeeded – in producing the first computer that practically anyone could afford. The small sleek design kept it from being this scary monstrosity that took over the living room, or the desk. At $99, even a kid could raise the funds.

    Which I did, through a long slog, low customer, weekly paper-route. God I hated that route! But I did it, snow and rain, and filled the jar, and sent to Nashua, NH for the kit (kits were $99, fully assembled were $150 [I think]). My mother thought the kit would be a great learning opportunity, and she seemed a tab disappointed when the box arrived with a note saying they’d run out of kits, so here was an assembled one for the same price. [I, knowing exactly how capable I was with a soldering iron, was thrilled.]

    Eventually, I got the 16k memory pack that crapped out constantly [according to a BBC documentary, this was a common problem, and easily fixed by using blue-tack to connect the pack housing to the case.] Then I found a guy who had the too-gauche TI-1000 and, more importantly, a bunch of accessories, so I bought the works: an expandable 16k pack – which cascaded with the other giving me a whopping 32K! Also a proper click keyboard and a thermal printer (which are now used to print receipts everywhere but was cutting edge back then).

    Which really was the point of the ZX81 – to be cheap enough and innovative enough to get you hooked on computers. It was only intended to be a stepping stone, but what a stepping stone it was! Yeah, it had a lot of issues – including no colour, no sound, but looking back at it now, Clive had done something amazing with ZX Basic. He made it very small, but also fast, by hard-coding the instructions into keystrokes. He also had the debug-as-you-go compiler, which I haven’t seen anywhere before or since. [every other language, you had to enter the program, then attempt to compile or run to see if you did it right, and often guess at where your mistake was.)

    And boy did you learn the most important skill any user can have: patience. How many ZX81 owners spent ages playing in a 30min cassette program, only to have it fail immediately? How many spent hours typing to have it crash? There was something to be said for the TRS-80: with the built in CRT, it was too heavy to throw across the room. The ZX81 wasn’t, but was so resilient that it was likely to bouce back and bloody your nose for you.

    Yes you absolutely correct that people don’t learn computers any more; it’s all just get-on-and-go. That current attitude led to the creation of Raspberry Pi, which was also inspired by the ZX81: a DIY,cheap, computer. In fact, many recent retrospectives on the microcomputer revolution place Clive Sinclair among the top most influential developers.

    Thanks for the opportunity to get that off my chest! My family just doesn`t get it.

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