30 years ago this week the ZX Spectrum was released upon the unsuspecting Eighties; very quickly it claimed a huge chunk of market share and many happy hours of my childhood. At £125 it was cheaper than it’s rivals and looked it; anyone that has ever used one will still miss the iconic grey rubber keys with their bouncy/sticky feedback, the rainbow slash, the separate tape player and that signature tune as the screen border flashed and frazzled whilst loading some of the most wonderfully BASIC computer games ever devised. Yes kids you had to wait for a program to load back then, there was none of this instant clicking of icons, you had to load software via tape cassette every time you wanted to use it. A full 5 minutes of growing excitement with only a heavily pixellated screen still for company – it was almost always worth it. Released during the employment famine of the early eighties when £125 was a proper investment, it was the enfant terrible of Clive Sinclair, later knighted for his efforts. His mission was simple and audacious: to bring home computers into the UK mass market. He achieved this by keeping the price down and giving us the barest of bones: a black box of RAM and a tiny processor. And I do mean tiny. To give you some idea of the genesis of the home computer and a snapshot of how far the PC has come, I am tapping this article out on a MacAir which has a processor speed of 1.7GHz and SDRAM memory of 4Gb – very modest by today’s standards. In 1982 my ZX Spectrum had a processor speed of around 3.5MHz and an 8-bit memory, in other words my laptop is getting on for 500 times faster and with a staggering 4,000,000,000 times more SDRAM memory.
And yes of course my laptop has many features that the “Speccie” didn’t have, but it doesn’t have the kinky rubber keys, it doesn’t run on a computer language so basic it was actually called BASIC: a language so easy to programme in, that at the age of 7, I was writing rudimentary programmes. And that was the real joy, it was a computer designed for you to tinker with, to see what you could make it do. It willingly led you behind the curtain, admitted there was no great Oz and said it doesn’t matter, tell me what to do and I will do it, my limitations are your challenges. It trusted you. Weekly magazines were available which published lines of code that were there, ostensibly, for you to change anyway you wanted. A generation of coders became very talented at getting around the limitations of the hardware, producing classic games like Horace and the Spiders, Manic Miner and my personal favourite: JetPac.
When the more powerful machines came along the UK had already grown some very talented programmers with a real problem solving mentality, well placed to take advantage of the burgeoning software market and the unstoppable tide of the games consoles.
And then, in the late eighties, admitting that it’s time was up, the black slab of dreams wished them well and went the way of all computers. But unlike other computers, the ZX Spectrum still retains something that has never been seen since, surely the most elusive quality for any computer: charm.