Computers are now so central to our lives that they rank alongside cookers, fridges, and telephones as essential items in any home. We use them at work, interact with them on our commutes - either via train ticket machines or even the computers that now manage the entertainment systems in our cars - and when the work day is over we relax by surfing the web, playing games on a console, or catching up on our favourite shows via services such as iPlayer or recorded programmes on a PVR.
Thanks to the marvels of the internet, the world is now available to us in the comfort of our living rooms and its chosen vessel is the computer. Televisions now plug into the web, as do internet radios, Blu-ray players and even central heating systems.
Smartphones talk to computers on the internet, and more recently our phones talk back to us when we ask questions. Technology is embedded into the very fabric of modern living. But it wasn’t always this way…
Thirty years ago the idea of having a PC in your house was a pretty strange one. The early 1980s was the age of the mainframe - huge room-filling computers that needed to be kept in temperature-controlled environments and have trained professionals to operate them. See also: UK home computing timeline.
Indeed IBM chairman Thomas Watson famously proclaimed a few years previously, ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers’, while Popular Mechanics magazine had also speculated that ‘Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tonnes’. That prediction, of course, turned out to be true but the headline would have been considerably different had the writers foreseen just how small they'd become.
It was the rise of the microprocessor in the 1970s that began to change everything. Prior to this, computer circuits would have their copious amounts of transistors soldered on individually, which was time consuming, costly and, due to the distance the signals had to travel, limited the computational speed. Replacing these boards with a single chip - one that could be mass produced - paved the way for smaller, faster machines that would eventually find their way into our homes.
The first models were only for the truly dedicated. They came in kit-form and required the user to be a dab hand with a soldering iron. Probably the most significant of these was the Altair 8800 which appeared in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine.
As a machine it was unremarkable. It had no keyboard: just a row of toggle switches which the user laboriously used to input programs, and the display was merely a couple of rows of LEDs, which flashed in a manner akin to a 1950s sci-fi movie. What made the Altair important, and guaranteed its place in history, was the fact that it inspired Bill Gates and Paul Allen to write a BASIC interpreter called Altair BASIC, which became Microsoft’s first product.
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In Britain we had our own innovators carving out the destiny of the home computer, motivated by an unlikely source. At the start of the eighties the BBC, in its fine Reithian tradition, decided to create a computer literacy program to teach people about the new machines, how they worked, and encourage them to learn how to program them.
This would be accomplished by a ten-part television series and the corporation wanted their own, branded computer to be the star. Specifications were decided then sent to various British manufacturers, including the two Cambridge based companies: Sinclair and Acorn.
Sinclair had already developed and released the ZX80 (the UK's first sub £100 computer), and was working on the unimaginatively titled ZX81. Clive Sinclair immediately contacted the BBC to pitch his new machine, pointing out the fact that the ZX80 (which was really only an enthusiast's endeavour) had already sold over 40,000 units: a remarkable number for the time. Representatives decided against the prototype though, due to concerns about its potential for upgrades or flexibility.
Acorn’s offering was the Proton, a computer which matched the required specifications and included the necessary room for expansion. There was only one problem: it didn’t exist. The legend goes that the BBC spoke with Acorn on Monday and arranged to see the machine in action the following Friday. The team in Cambridge worked frantically to build a functioning version all week, only successfully powering it on for the first time a couple of hours before the BBC arrived.
Miraculously it passed muster and Acorn was awarded the contract for what we now know as the BBC Micro. The new machines were released at the end of 1981 as the Model A (16KB) and the Model B (32KB), showing as much flair in nomenclature as the large beige casing and black keyboard construction did in design. The drab looks did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for the computers and they quickly became, aided in no small way by the new government subsidy program, a resident fixture in most schools across the country.
The initial cost of the BBC Micros was high, with the Model A costing £235 and the model B £335. Supply problems and increasing costs saw these prices rise quickly and made the investment a challenging one for many parents whose eyes were more likely on the continued industrial action, inner city riots, and IRA bombings that dominated the news. If computers were to take hold in the home then they’d need to be a lot more affordable, and preferably bring some cheer into these dark days. Thankfully Clive Sinclair had another machine up his unfeasibly wide sleeves...the ZX Spectrum.
The Computer Programme launched on the BBC in January 1982, with the rather formally dressed Ian McNaught-Davis and Chris Serle exploring various real-life applications for computers. The first show even included a demonstration of how the BBC Micro could replace a punched card machine.
Such was the interest in computers, and paucity of choice in TV programming, that the show would go on to run for five years in different guises, most successfully as Micro Live with the addition of the more glamorous Lesley Judd and perma-excited Fred Harris. For all its educational value the one thing the program lacked was excitement. Most Kids didn’t want to learn about Prestel, Industrial software companies or the British Rail Master Timetable system. They wanted games.
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In April Clive Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum in a cacophony of hype at the Earl’s Court Computer Show. Whereas the BBC Micro was bedecked in a hard plastic shell and boasted of a proper keyboard, the diminutive Spectrum featured a design by Rick Dickinson: a single sheet of rubber keys overlaid with a thin metal plate. Each key was surrounded by several words, all of which were shortcuts to Sinclair Basic commands, and the chassis was black with a four-colour rainbow stripe on one side. It lacked the sophistication or durability of its more austere rival but was much cheaper (the 16K model cost £125, the 48K £175) and looked more fun. These proved to be enormously significant factors and the ‘Speccy’ as it became affectionately known soon became Britain’s micro of choice.
Thanks to the successes of the ZX80 and ZX81 Sinclair had already begun to attract games developers who saw an opportunity in this rapidly growing market. The low entry cost and increasing sales figures for the Spectrum quickly turned this interest into actual products. Beam Software released a text adventure based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The game featured several illustrations for locations which would be drawn and then coloured on the screen. The limitations of the processor meant this could take a few seconds but rather than spoil the game it added a strange ambience to Bilbo’s long walk. In many ways this battle with the Sinclair’s hardware was to become a hallmark of the Spectrum.
The internal speaker was capable of emitting only rudimentary beeps, but programmers could define their pitch and duration. This led to inventive scores that sounded like they could only have been made on the Spectrum. When Matthew Smith wrote his bestselling platform game, Manic Miner, it included a version of Greig’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from ‘Peer Gynt’ but because the Spectrum needed to dedicate CPU time to the beeps the tune became fractured, menacing, and ended up fitted the surreal atmosphere of the game superbly.
Smith would return with his even stranger sequel ‘Jet Set Willy’ which featured a drunk lord who wants to go to bed after a right royal knees-up but whose housekeeper demands he clears up the mansion first. The party must have been wild because the house is awash with flying pigs, possessed egg whisks, and the kind of room design that would give Laurence Llewelyn Bowen a heart attack.
Graphical issues would also challenge the prospective Spectrum programmer. The way the machine displayed an 8x8 pixel character allowed for a background colour and a foreground colour. This was fine by itself but when another colour was introduced - say when aforementioned character walked in front of a building - then the result would be a psychedelic freak-out. On football games like Match Day this became a problem as two players challenging for a ball would instantly turn into a rainbow, leaving the user with no idea what direction, or even what reality, his player was facing.
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These seeming imperfections only proved to bring the Spectrum community tighter together. It was a true DIY computer, one of the first of its kind, and bedroom programmers embraced the ideals with more and more outlandish concepts. In 'Ah Diddums' a teddy bear tried to escape it’s toy box so it can comfort its crying owner; Cookie had a chief trying to subdue his unruly ingredients, while Potty Pigeon cast the player as a bird trying to building its nest armed only with exploding poo to destroy any cars that get in its way.
This free-spirited nature even spread into publishing. Crash magazine began life as a mail-order games company in Ludlow, but after deciding to try its hand at writing it became the true herald of Sinclair’s baby. Games reviews were written by local teenagers, the covers were incredible paintings by artist Oliver Frey, and they wisely steered clear of the pages of code that magazines such as Sinclair User and Your Sinclair printed for readers to learn programming (or, more accurately, learn how to bang their heads against a wall until the corrections were published in the following issue).
Alongside the madness there were also some truly innovative games being written. Ultimate released hit after hit, including Jet Pac, Lunar Jetman, Atic Atak, Sabre Wulf, Knightlore, and Alien 8. Kevin Thoms invented a genre when he wrote the original Football Manager, while Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight took the graphical limitations of the Spectrum and turned them into a positive advantage with beautiful wireframe illustrations marking his Lord of the Rings-style epic. Text adventures flourished, none better than those written by Level 9 Computing, and combat games were shown the future when Way of the Exploding Fist arrived.
The BBC Micro would also generate some classics, with one in particular standing out above all others - Elite. The space trading game had a sense of scale and freedom that gamers had never experienced before. Developed by Ian Bell and David Braben, it allowed the player to trade goods between space stations, buy improvements for their ship, and dabble with the moral choice of smuggling if they wanted. It was an instant classic that had some reviewers saying it was worth buying a BBC Micro just to play.
Other systems tried their hand at breaking into the home market. Amstrad’s CPC made a respectable stand, as did Acorn’s 'BBC-lite' effort: the Electron. Meanwhile, the Oric Atmos, Dragon 32, Jupiter Ace and others fell by the wayside. From overseas, the Commodore-64 was undoubtedly the Spectrum’s strongest rival, causing many a schoolyard dispute over which was the better machine, but the tiny Sinclair was always able to hold its own in bigger company
As the eighties progressed and new 16-bit machines started to appear on the horizon, the Spectrum went through a couple of minor revisions with the Spectrum+ and +2, but its time at the top was drawing to a close. When Sinclair sold the brand to Amstrad in 1986 it was merely a temporary reprieve and finally in 1990 the little machine, which did so much to bring computers in the homes of Britain, was gone. The BBC Micro also retired gracefully around the same time having amassed sales of more than 1.5 million units - a respectable showing, but one dwarfed by the Spectrum's 5 million sales.
Now, 30 years on, the legacy of those early British machines is still keenly felt. Professor Steve Furber CBE and Sophie Wilson were early pioneers working for Acorn when they built the BBC Micro. While researching its successor, the Archimedes, they developed what would become known as ARM processors. These chips now power most smartphones, tablets, and hand-held electronic devices. David Braben, co-author of Elite, is now working with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to support the £25 computer aimed at encouraging people to learn programming and to build cool things with the system. Software legends Ultimate became Rare and continued to make games for a variety of platforms, while Codemasters (another Spectrum alumni) has gone on to develop titles such as Colin McRae Rally, and Lord of the Rings Online.
While the games industry has become more corporate, and development costs have risen to dizzying levels, something of the Spectrum’s ‘you can do it’ spirit is also to be found in the strong independent software development that is growing once more. Outlets such as the Xbox Live Arcade and the mobile platforms of iOS and Android are giving bedroom coders the chance to make an impact, while freeing them from the restraints of corporate identity and over-cautious legal advisors looking to protect their intellectual property. Hopefully this will lead to consumers being given a choice that offers gameplay and invention over glitz and high production values - something Spectrum programmers learned a long time ago.
Indeed, if you truly want to visit the glory days then a range of emulators are available for the PC and Mac, while even iOS has apps that include classic Spectrum games like Skool Daze, Trashman, Jet Set Willy, and Jetpac. Not bad for a machine that had dodgy graphics, ropey sounds, but a ton of personality. In many ways the ZX Spectrum feels a little like that other old classic...Bagpuss. It was a bit ragged, and loose at the seams....but we loved it.