Tales from the Tech Attic: Sinclair ZX Spectrum

ZX Spectrum by Marcin Wichary, on Flickr

Today is the 30th anniversary of one of the most famous home computers of the 80’s, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Tributes are surfacing on the Internet, and a couple of must-read articles are by the BBC and the tech site The Register.

This machine and several similar ones by Atari, Amiga, Commodore, and others, were used at home by tech geeks everywhere, much before the ‘Mac or PC’ era, and the ZX Spectrum is special to me because it is at the origin of ‘The Tech Bug’.

Three years before the university days – in the summer of 1983, to be exact – this little machine planted in me a passion for tech and computing that never abated. Even as a freshly minted Civil Engineer, I knew that I would be a tech guy, as a hobby or a part of my career. And though I really wanted to become an Engineer for as long as I can remember, the ZX Spectrum is largely responsible for the fact that my love for tech never waned, even when computers were but a tool that I used at work.

The following is my tribute to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and its sucessor, the Spectrum+ – it’s an article that I wrote sometime in 2005, collecting dust bunnies on a home PC and waiting for an occasion to be dug out.

The Background

Back in 1983, my uncle sent us (by us, I mean my two brothers and I) a shiny Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This little machine was half the size of today’s keyboard, and had a whopping 16 kilobytes of memory. The black metal casing contained the computer itself and its keyboard, with rubber keys representing each letter of the alphabet and special functions. To use a monitor, you had to plug the computer in your television set using video output cables; this was typical of many small machines of the era. It had interfaces at the back, allowing you to plug a printer and something Sinclair called the ‘Microdrive’ – an early adaptation of the external hard disk. Of course, all these devices were proprietary; that was before IBM revolutionized the industry with their PC, and before minimum acceptable standards were adopted by almost everyone in the computer hardware business.

A Geeky Family

Evidently, to us children, the perspective of using that machine for learning and gaming was very attractive. After all, our only brush with home ‘computers’ was with that hugely successful game console that Atari was selling; we spent days and evenings playing Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids, and other famous games, challenging each other, and our father, in two-player mode. The Sinclair enabled us to play more sophisticated games, ‘loading’ them from cassette tapes available in the market using a plain old tape recorder. At other times, we keyed programs found in computer magazines using BASIC. Some of these programs were games as well; all three of us learned BASIC, which was the easiest programming language to grasp back then if you wanted to get ‘into computers’.

A fascination with that piece of technology quickly swept us away; each one of us started doing more and more advanced stuff with the quirky language that is BASIC. From drawing simple and complex geometric shapes to simulating a dialogue with the computer, we spent long hours programming, all the while studying the thick manual accompanying the Spectrum. While other kids were happily soaking sun outside, my brothers and I showed unstoppable determination to uncover the secrets of this mysterious black box. What seems inevitably trivial today allowed us to use some critical problem solving skills, and being that none of us had actually learned anything similar before, it was a great extra-curricular activity.

Onwards and Upwards

As luck would have it, my uncle sent us another package, called the ‘Expansion Pack’. After opening the large box, one found the equivalent of today’s laptop docking station: you connected a small device to the back of the Spectrum, containing various ports and interfaces. Other contents included a tiny printer (with horrible ink: the words always seemed to tremble), the famous ‘Microdrive’ (Sinclair’s attempt at an offline storage device), several miniature tapes to be used with that drive (with some new games), as well as a few cables to connect everything. It was our firsthand experience with computer peripherals. The next few hours – and few months – were spent reading manuals, connecting, attempting to print, failing, reading again, printing, attempting to load the new games, failing, troubleshooting, loading games and playing…

The ZX Spectrum+

Our dear parents quickly encouraged us to further explore this new little toy. After watching us a whole summer tinker with the Sinclair, they drove their kids to the brand’s distributor. To budding programmers, it was a dream come true: it was there that one found all the hardware and software (on cassette tapes, remember) that Sinclair offered. We proudly brought home a new computer, the Spectrum+. This wonderful little machine had a better keyboard: a mechanical one, with plastic keys replacing rubber. It also had a great-looking black plastic case, its size closer to that of your typical keyboard today. But the greatest news was that the size of memory had tripled – to 48 kilobytes. No more ‘Out of Memory’ errors when you tried to type a large program; even better was that we could also buy those 48K games that friends and relatives were showing off. And of course, everybody knew that the coolest games were the 48K ones, but they did not run on our old 16K ZX. Along with the new computer, my parents bought us a slew of gaming tapes, including a surprisingly realistic ‘Flight Simulator’.

The Takeaway

Back then, it was great to have a computer that you had the possibility of carrying to your friend’s house, especially after seeing what the ‘real thing’ looked like on TV. I am of course talking about mainframes, and the reason every kid was impressed was the sheer size of these giants (a mainframe filled a whole room – and a really large one). But the greatest amount of time that you spent on your Atari, Commodore, Sinclair etc…was to play games. In a way, the home computer of those early days was partly a glorified (and highly programmable) game console.

What computer did you first use ? Did you witness the era that preceded Windows and the start of the Mac-PC wars? Sound off in the comments!



One Response to Tales from the Tech Attic: Sinclair ZX Spectrum

  1. factor6 December 11, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    The Spectrum was my first computer and I consider it as one of the best things in my life ever. Later then, I has taken me into the demoscene kinda underground and it still plays a big role in my daily being until today. Thanks for the article.

Leave a Reply