Friday, 27 April 2012

The legacy of the ZX Spectrum

Image from Quagmires's Photos, under a CC
Attribution-No Derivative Works license

This week saw the 30th anniversary of the release of the ZX Spectrum. This made me realise that I’ve lived virtually all my life with a computer in the house - my dad bought one when I was a small child, and so I don’t remember a time without one. Obviously, though, they were very different to today - kids today don’t know they’re born having computers that don’t take fifteen minutes to load a programme (and that’s only if the horror of the “R: Tape loading error” message doesn’t turn up), and are spoilt with their screen resolutions beyond 256x192, and colour palette beyond 15 shades...

It's been amazing in my lifetime to see computers evolve, from the rubber-keyed wonder of the Spectrum, to the shiny laptop I'm typing this on.

So, in a blatant and shameless way to shoehorn writing about retrocomputers into the L&T blog, here’s five things about the early days of home computing that still resonate today.

Computing was always a pricy business, but the ZX Spectrum brought that down to an affordable level. It was still a major purchase, however. On launch, a 48K Spectrum cost £175 in 1982, which translates in today's money to about £528. Don't forget on top of this the country was in the midst of a bitter recession, and households didn't necessarily have the best spending power at the time - it shows how exciting the prospect of home computing seemed that so many people would part with hard cash in difficult times.

In comparison, a BBC Model B for home purchase was £335 in 1981 - a staggering £1132 in today's money*. If today's computers ever seem pricy, have a thought for what those early adopters were getting for their cash...

*Inflation workings out done using this site, if anyone's wondering...

Gadget-freakery among computer users is not a recent thing, with the Spectrum having a range of add-on hardware available. Some were useful - joystick interfaces, microdrives and even a LAN interface - but others were a bit more frivolous, such as SpecDrum drum machine and, perhaps most bizarrely, the Currah Speech Unit, a speech synthesis machine that basically turned your humble spectrum into the world's most rubbish-sounding robot. For reasons I still, 30 years later, cannot fathom my dad bought one of these, and my enduring memory of it is the speech-filled RPG-style game it came with, the most memorable line of dialogue being "The aardvark licks at you and misses".


During the 80s, home taping was busy destroying music, and of course programmes on cassette tape were just as simple to copy, leading to major problems for the games companies. I remember my household being guilty of this, and having a C90 stuffed with games from some friend or another, although finding the gap between the games to actually load them was an absolute nightmare...

Inventive methods were needed to counter this, and the hugely popular Jet Set Willy was one of the first computer programmes to use anti-piracy methods, packaged with a complicated colour code chart that had to be inputted before the game would start. As colour photocopying was beyond the capabilities of mere mortals, it made an effective anti-piracy method, but, reflecting the lax attitudes to piracy at the time, high street magazine Your Computer actually published a method of circumventing the colour code.

Game-based learning
Game-based learning is something being talked about increasingly these days, but the early days of home computing was already there. While the Spectrum was the king of the home market, however, Acorn's BBC Micro was the machine found most widely in British schools, created as part of the BBC's Computer Literacy Project.

Adventure games such as Granny's Garden tricked children into learning by play, not only teaching them problem-solving using logic puzzles, but computer literacy skills too as they did so. In America, The Oregon Trail was incredibly popular, on a range of machines including the Apple II. It was a game that also added a history lesson into the mix, and perhaps remains to this day the only computer game where in which you can die of cholera.

At a time now when the Observer newspaper is campaigning for coding skills to be taught in schools, lessons could be learnt from the 80s, when developing the skills to create your own games was as exciting to many as playing them yourself. Computing magazines came with type-in games and programming tips, and anyone with the skills could produce a game good enough to release. It led to a cottage industry of gaming, with an anarchic streak and distinctly British sense of humour, stuffed with Monty Python and Hitch-hiker's Guide references.

Eccentric geniuses sprung up, perhaps typified by Matthew Smith, author of the game Manic Miner, and later the aforementioned Jet Set Willy. At the tender age of 16, and in just six weeks, he wrote a truly groundbreaking programme (flicker-free graphics! Constant background music!), and even became a minor celebrity (at least in computing circles) to boot.

So that early home computing explosion had far-reaching legacies that we still feel today, and some of the same issues are still with us. But most of all they represent a charming time when computers were new, and exciting, and not just taken for granted. The simple pleasures of making a miner successfully leap over a poisonous bush, or getting one over on the terrifying witch in Granny's Garden, fired the imaginations of children, and inspired young people to create their own programmes themselves, fuelling the computer revolution that has led to where we are now.


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