My first computer: The ZX Spectrum

The Joy of Specs - in memory of our long lost rubber-keyed friend...

The Joy of Specs - in memory of our long lost rubber-keyed friend...

This article was first published in January 2002 as part of our 'Technologies That Time Forgot' series of articles. We are running the full series again to mark the recent re-birth of Commodore.

Ah, remember the 80s. Pat Sharp's mullet, Arthur Scargill's uncontrollable comb-over - OK, it was a grim decade. The only comfort in a world on the brink of nuclear annihilation was a small black box about the size of a video cassette with a rash of rubber keys breaking out on its surface - the ZX Spectrum.

It was an accidental brainchild of an inventor in the finest tradition of British eccentrics - Clive Sinclair. He had a track record of producing innovative but unreliable electronics stretching back 20 years, like a famous exploding calculator.

The Spectrum started off as just another half-baked scheme. Sinclair's company offered a batch of 2,000 simple computers, called MK14, for sale in kit form through a magazine. It was 1978, and no one really knew how big the market for home computers would be. But you can guess what happened - the MK14 sold out at once.

Over the next three years, Sinclair's company launched the ZX80 and the ZX81, both available only by mail order. The ZX81 became the first Sinclair machine available on the high street and despite having just one kilobyte of RAM, no colour and a keyboard that a cash till would be ashamed of, 350,000 units were sold in the first year.

Despite this success, Sinclair was still more interested in developing his pet project - the electronic car. But the money for that had to come from somewhere and the home computer seemed to be a cash cow just begging to be milked.

The Spectrum was a somewhat rushed follow-up to the ZX81. It replicated the ZX81's greatest virtue - being very cheap - and added a bit of colour, a slightly improved programming language, 48K of RAM and those strangely pleasing rubber keys.

Sinclair wouldn't have known, of course, that this was the formula for the ultimate games machine. He was initially surprised to hear people were playing games on his machines. Not unreasonably, in fact, since the ZX80 didn't support graphics and the ZX81 had only 1K of memory.

But by the time the Spectrum was released a bedroom games industry was already thriving. You could buy software on a tape by mail order or buy a book and type the game in by hand, line by tedious line of code.

Playing games on a Spectrum was a harsh aesthetic experience by today's standards. It could only handle two colours in any 8-by-8 square of pixels at any time. So if your blue on black character walked across a red background, either the background had to go blue or he had to go red. (It was usually a combination of both.)

Making an attractive and playable game with this kind of graphics and only 48K of memory forced 'Speccy' programmers to develop both creativity and economy - virtues which are still held by thousands of UK coders who cut their teeth on the rubber-keyed wonder.

Development costs were relatively low and users had no set expectations of what a game should be. So all kinds of different games emerged - from text-based football management to strangely beautiful 3D dungeon adventures like Head Over Heels, to military strategy and the wonderful sub-genre of athletics simulations. Who could forget the strangely addictive Daley Thompson's Decathlon where you make Daley run faster by hammering the "n" and "m" keys in turn as fast as possible?

Even though it crashed every hour and even though it took 20 minutes to load a game from a music cassette the Spectrum had a genuine user friendliness that no computer maker has really matched since. Even a relative beginner could program the Speccy themselves, either in the surprisingly easy Spectrum BASIC or, if there really was nothing on TV, in hexadecimal.

One of this writer's favourite programs generated random numbers and just shoved them into the memory at random addresses until the computer crashed with a multicoloured flashing mess on the screen. Then you pulled the plug out and started again. I wouldn't have any idea how to do that to a PC and I doubt a PC could survive it.

The great lie about the Spectrum - which enabled a range of teenagers (your correspondent among them) to convince their well-meaning parents into buying them their first one - was that it was an educational product.

The market for real educational computers was sewn up by Sinclair's old colleague, Acorn founder Chris Curry, and the computer that became the BBC Micro - this before Apple got in on the act. But you could learn more about how computers work and what you can do with them on the old Speccy than you ever could on a BBC Micro. Or a Mac, for that matter.

And for a few short years - that rather depressing period between the Falklands war and the Chernobyl disaster - the Speccy ruled supreme in the nation's playgrounds.

But Sinclair's real passion was the electronic car, not the home computer. So he passed up the chance to be Michael Dell and Bill Gates rolled into one, and brought us the C5 - contributing a little to the alternative comedy boom but not much to British industry.

He sold his computer business to Alan Sugar's Amstrad in 1986, for a mere £5m. If Larry Ellison had to sell up to Bill Gates it wouldn't be a bigger humiliation - at least not for the users, who had long sneered at their Amstrad-owning peers.

But the Speccy's place in history was already secure. People still play Spectrum games on their PCs, slowing the CPU down to replicate the performance of a machine with less computing power than their digital watches. And there is even a rumour of a Spectrum games comeback on upcoming 3G phones.

But the rubber keys - we hear of no plans to bring them back. All those urban myths about melting keyboards remind us that some technologies really are better off left in the past.