Early Computer Memories

My plan to post daily has once again come up against the harsh realities of school life. But until the next few posts make their way out of my brain and onto this blog, I thought I’d share something I’ve written for Andrew Field (of School History, Effective ICT, Content Generator fame)  for his new website (How many websites does one man need?!!)

He was asking for a couple of paragraphs on my memories of early computers. The conversation quickly went beyond 140 characters :

Blimey. Had a ZX Spectrum that you had to program, but had no way to save and would reboot if you knocked it. Fun times!

And so I’ve just emailed him this…

We had a ZX Spectrum when I was young. And not just any old ZX Spectrum. This was the ZX Spectrum + and it had a whole 48k of RAM.

Well, it sounded impressive at the time.

To play anything you had to load the programmes from cassette tape, but there was no built in player. Instead you had to attach a standard tape player to the computer and ensure that the volume control was just at the right level (my Mum tippexed an arrow on ours). When you hit play this unearthly noise would echo around the lounge for however long it took for the game to load. If you’ve never heard a Spectrum loading up go and find the sound online. It’s one of those sounds that I suspect may be completely impossible to describe in words.

Of course, as well as playing games that someone else had written, you could programme your Spectrum to do amazing things. Like repeating words infinitely down the screen or (if you were willing to spend several hours on this) creating shapes that filled the screen. The one drawback was that could couldn’t save any of the work you’d programmed, so once it was done, and everyone had been invited in to watch the word ‘bum’ scrolling repeatedly down your tele, you switched it off and lost it all. Actually there was a second drawback. The Spectrum wasn’t the most reliable machine in the world. If someone knocked it as they were walking past, or the ball game at the other end of the lounge got a little out of hand and the soft spongy ball would roll over the keys, (or, seemingly when someone in the kitchen sneezed), the whole thing would reboot. And all your work thus far would be lost.

It’s probably no surprise that it took me another ten years and a move to University before I would have anything at all to do with any kind of computer programming.

Once the Spectrum had gone off to the great electronics shop in the sky, our next computer was a BBC Micro. I can’t quite remember how we ended up with it, but I think it might have been one that my Mum’s school felt was past it’s usefulness, but my Mum felt could still be put to good use entertaining me and  my siblings. By now of course, computers had come on leaps and bounds. This had a whole 128k of RAM and sported a floppy disk drive which not only loaded programmes, but let you save things as well. And these were real floppy disks, that really were floppy. I always thought the later, smaller, evidently non-floppy floppy disks really should have been called something else. Rigid disks probably wouldn’t have caught on in quite the same way…

I don’t remember many games for either the Spectrum or the BBC. I remember one for the spectrum having some really annoying intro music, a full listenable copy of which was included on the tape along with the game. I remember Chucky Egg and Sink the Bismark for the BBC. But what I remember more than any of that was being useless at the games (I still am rubbish at computer games) and getting easily bored and frustrated by the whole thing. I never ‘got’ how my friends could spend hours with their Amigas and their Commadore 64s.

Ironic I suppose given that now anything geeky is right up my street!

Why not share your early computer experiences? Consider it a meme if it helps you write it, but let Andrew know and it might help him out with his new website!

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Dave Stacey