Back to School

Back to School

By Andy Thomas

Overload, 20(108):12-13, April 2012

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum will be 30 years old in April 2012. Andy Thomas recalls how this plucky little home computer shaped his childhood.

So... can you actually talk to it and just tell it what to do?’, I asked a kid at school.

The year was 1983, and my friend had just got a home computer, a Tandy TRS80. I had never seen a computer and was absolutely fascinated.

I visualized sitting in front of this thing and speaking out instructions such as, ‘Please calculate 6 times 7.’

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘You use menus.’

‘Menus?’ Now I really was confused, and I visualized sitting in a restaurant and reading out a menu to a box on the table. It didn’t make any sense!

At school, I was pretty much in bottom classes in everything – except, that was, for art. ‘Well, he’s good at drawing,’ I recall a teacher once telling my parents. I was 12 years old, and I didn’t know it then, but a plucky little British home computer was about to change my life.

That computer was no other the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which I got for Christmas that year. In fact, I had already found where my parents were hiding it and had pilfered the instruction manuals, which I read cover-to-cover, several times, before Christmas day.

The Spectrum came in 16K and 48K flavours, and I was lucky enough to get the 48K one. I can remember standing in the computer shop with my Dad while the salesmen emphasized what a massive amount of memory it had!

‘No matter what you do, you will never be able to fill up 48K of RAM,’ he said.

Yeah right! Good job I didn’t end up with the 16K one is all I can say now.

The Spectrum, or Speccy to its fans, had an unusual rubber keyboard which, as bad as it was, represented an improvement over the membrane keypad of its predecessor – the ZX81. Like most home computers in the UK at that time, the Speccy had its own built-in BASIC programming language. Programming it using the weird keyboard took some getting used to though, as each BASIC keyword had its own key, and there were weird input modes which allowed you to access the shifted keywords.

Programs were loaded and saved onto audio tapes using a cassette player. It could take up to five minutes to load a program, and the loading process often failed four and a half minutes in. But this really made the whole experience worthwhile – if a game was worth loading, then it had to be worth playing. It added value to the whole experience. In any case, while I played games occasionally, it wasn’t playing games that really did it for me – it was writing them. Or at least trying to, I should say.

I primarily saw the Spectrum as a kind of creativity tool – a blank canvas on which I could digitally paint interesting stuff, whether it be games, scientific programs or whatever. It was my introduction to computers, and it taught me at a young age that computers should be fun and that programming can be a creative and rewarding enterprise. I have never let go of that and, in later life, I guess it helped me not to be succumb to the notion that software development can also be a bureaucratic and soul destroying experience.

Anyway, back to my childhood and the Speccy...

I soon picked up Spectrum BASIC from the user manual, and before long, I was writing games. I wrote quite a few horizontal scrolling games, to which I gave names such as Shuttle Defender and Sea Harrier Attack .

Unfortunately, no one told me that the age of games written in Spectrum BASIC had begun and ended in 1982 with the Horizons cassette that came free with every Speccy. So I soldiered on, oblivious, and sent off demo cassettes containing games written in BASIC to the likes of Atari and Artic Computing.

Although I once received a courtesy reply, no publishing deals were forthcoming. Eventually I decided there was only one thing for it – to set up my own software house. I called my business venture Saturn Software, and spent a whole week’s wages from my paper round on a pack of five audio cassettes. Would five be enough? I wasn’t sure, but it was all that I could afford. If the orders came flooding in, then I decided I could always buy some more with the money I would be making.

I put a hand-written advertisement for Saturn Software in the local paper shop and, while I waited for the telephone orders to roll in, I loaded the cassettes with my Shuttle Defender game. I painstakingly drew the artwork for each cassette inlay by hand, and for that professional touch, I coloured them in with felt-tip pen.

Tragically, the one and only telephone phone call I got in response to my ad was answered by my Mum...

While I never learned exactly what was said, apparently the caller was rather menacing and threatened to have me prosecuted for software piracy. I was duly made to remove my advertisement from the local shop, and that put paid to my first-ever business venture.

It didn’t put me off though, and I carried on writing games and other programs. I had a creative urge, an internal spark, that kept me awake at night dreaming up new projects.

Finally, however, I came to realize that Spectrum BASIC just wasn’t going to cut it. If I was ever going to get a game published, then I had to learn machine code. Unfortunately, coming from a small town in Northern England, I didn’t know how to access the kind of information and learning resources for this. The Internet would have been really useful to me then, but this was before the Web, or even the Information Super Highway for that matter.

At least back in those days computing was safe, however. There was no danger of me coming into contact with chatroom paedophiles or getting myself extradited to the US because I had clicked on something I shouldn’t have. There’s a part of me which bemoans the day my personal computer became connected to the rest of the world, or more specifically, when the rest of the world became connected to my computer. I guess I’m a little nostalgic for a time when your computer was your own.

I did, however, get my hands on some computer books from the local library – both of them. I recall that one was about Expert Systems , and while I was fascinated, I could not quite grasp what they were actually for. To be honest, I still don’t. Did anybody?

There was one person I could ask. My best friend was an electronics genius, and while I spent my evenings writing Speccy BASIC, he spent his with a soldering iron and an assortment of circuit boards with 555 timers on them. He also knew machine code, and I begged him to teach me. I recall him giving me a verbal crash course in Z80 assembler while we stood on his parent’s doorstep. I remember it all had something to do with shift registers and interrupts, but it all went over my head and I didn’t understand it.

In fact, I never did have much luck with publishing a game for Spectrum. All my games were written in BASIC and were, well, to be honest, a bit rubbish really. But my efforts were not in vain, and the Spectrum did indeed have a profound affect on my childhood and, I suspect also, on my later life.

When I was given a home computer as a Christmas present at the age of 12, I was pretty much written off at school. Over the next two years, however, my school work dramatically improved and I was lifted out of the bottom classes, and in the end, I did very well. The truth was that, as a child, I didn’t really understand how to interact with people and found the whole experience confusing and uncomfortable. So I would just disengage sometimes. But I could understand and interact with a computer quite easily, so I used it as an outlet for my creativity, which otherwise, may have remained locked up inside. In the process, I learned a great deal and became interested in many things.

Undoubtedly the ZX Spectrum helped to shape my childhood for the better, and I wonder sometimes just how my life would have turned out without Sir Clive Sinclair’s marvellous little machine. Not as well I think.


Although I never managed to publish a game for the Spectrum, I did do slightly better with the Tatung Einstein and a little outfit called Bell Software who were sympathetic enough to publish a couple of my games. I suspect, however, this was largely due to the lack of competition in the Einstein games market more than anything else. (I recall that I made around £15 in total – just don’t tell the taxman!)

In any case, I’m kinda hoping that someone from Bell Software will Google this one day, and that by some miracle, they will still have a disc of my old games because I’d sure would love to see them again, even if they were a bit rubbish.

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