Hanneke du Toit

You had me at “Hello World”

The Sinclair ZX81 – with all of 1K of RAM.

The Sinclair ZX81 – with all of 1K of RAM.

What a wonderful 80’s headline. Power. Apparently that’s what everyone was into in the 80’s: power dressing, bouffant power coiffes kept in check by nuclear powered hairspray leaving a sticky film on power padded shoulders. Whether you were an American Psycho-esque inner city slicker with a corner office, or the teenage geek next door screwing around with bits of computer, the cats on Madison avenue figured that power was what you were after. And they were going to offer you that, whether it was actually present in the advertised product, or not. Because the funny thing about the ZX 81 is that it had 1K of RAM – remarkably underpowered even for its time. I’d imagine the guitarist of Kiss could negotiate more functionality out of his instrument (if you count trashing hotel rooms) than a prospective computer geek could extract from this basic little PC with 1 K of RAM. But as it turns out it was not power, but something closer to – dare I say it – love that afforded the ZX 81 its cult following.

I’ve certainly had my fair share of machine cult worship. One of my more unpleasant memories of moving house involves leaning far over the edge of a dumpster, slowly releasing my grip on a deeply beloved but long deceased Blueberry iMac. I had come to love that machine despite the staring contests over stagnant progress bars, (it had 64 MB RAM) and compatibility issues with almost every peripheral I brought home. I might as well come out and admit that I named the thing. The first range of candy coloured iMacs was undoubtedly the most aesthetically exciting thing to have happened in hardware since VGA monitors displayed 256 colours. I had hung onto this ’98 model for years thinking it might acquire collectors value, being, as it were, the product that turned the entire ailing Macintosh empire around. My Mac guy told me not to hold my breath and sent me instructions for turning it into a fish tank. But I can say that I have first-hand experience of love for an inanimate object. It is easy loving pretty things.

Sinclair patent illustration

Sinclair patent illustration

But the ZX 81 wasn’t even aesthetically appealing. Released in, um, ’81, its perfunctory design sported striking similarities to the veggie pricing scale down at your local Checkers (on which you can never find the button for lemons/onions/whatever you happen to be weighing). Its programming functionality was basic – all you got after boot up was a flashing cursor and a command line. It was a total hit in the UK and later in Eastern Europe, but less successful in the US where video gaming had just become very popular. Wherever it did take off, it sparked a love for programming.

In his novel Pattern Recognition, William Gibson pays homage to the ZX 81 through Voytec, a caracter that collects and exhibits them.

… he explains to her that Sinclair, the British inventor, had a way of getting things right, but also exactly wrong. Foreseeing the market for affordable personal computers, Sinclair decided that what people would want to do with them was to learn programming. The ZX 81, marketed in the United States as the Timex 1000, cost less than the equivalent of a hundred dollars, but required the user to key in programs, tapping away on that little motel keyboard-sticker. This had resulted both in the short market-life of the product and, in Voytek’s opinion, twenty years on, in the relative preponderance of skilled programmers in the United Kingdom. They had had their heads turned by these little boxes, he believes, and by the need to program them.

A first wave of computer programmers grew up on these, referring to themselves as the “Sinclair Generation”. The ZX was a spark, a contributing factor to much more powerful “real” programming some of those kids went on to do. But no, all of us don’t want to program and as end users we are ever further removed from the digital petticoat of 0’s and 1’s. Just because you don’t understand it though, doesn’t mean you can’t love the result.

You’ve come a long way, baby: Here are a few illustrations of early 80’s PCs, submitted to the US patent office.

Software - programmes were loaded using a tape deck. Tapes squeked noises similar to a fax being sent.

Software: Programmes were loaded onto the Sinclair PCs using a tape deck. Tapes squeaked noises similar to a fax being sent.


Filed under: Hardware, , ,

5 Responses

  1. Ida says:

    “die ponies gallop”
    boek geskryf deur iemand wat saam ons op skool was. hoe het dit gebeur dat jy dan nog nie gepublish is nie?

    • hanneke du toit says:

      Wel ek het ook eintlik jare laas iets geskryf 😉 Daai “Ponies” word tans gedagvaar deur ses B-grade celebs; beslis nie my idee van stimulerende pret nie. Ons almal kies maar hoe en waar ons ons kicks kry!

  2. Will North says:

    Great writing. Brought back memories of a simpler time, when my childhood pets scattered with the sound of a ZX Spectrum loading.

    • hanneke du toit says:

      Great to hear from you! I follow Gibson on Twitter (@GreatDismal) and I finally had to put something in words about the book with the coolest main character ever 😉 @DougCoupland is also interesting to follow. Hope you’re well!

    • hanneke du toit says:

      @Will North – By the way, brilliant link, alhough somewhat tortuous! Only saw it now.

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