For no other reason than spotting that it was the 31st anniversary of the launch of the ZX81 recently I decided to take a trip down memory lane at the computers I’ve owned, loved, and not-quite-loved and how I became the rich, world-famous web developer still waiting to become famous or earn any riches that I am today.
Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K
Oh, how I loved this small, warm computer with its rubber keyboard! This computer taught me to program and, since I’m a web developer these days, that means I owe it and Sir Clive Sinclair a great deal of thanks. But not money because, if you’ll remember, I don’t have any. In fact, since I knew I was getting this computer months in advance I started teaching myself how to program before I even had it, writing lines of pseudo-code guessed from program listings in magazines down in little orange notebooks, waiting for the day to arrive when I could finally realise I was way off thinking that’s how software worked.
It had some issues, of course, but only if you compared it to the big rival of the times: the Commodore 64. But why would you? Sure, the Speccy’s sound wasn’t that great (single channel, BEEP heaven!) and the 8×8 sprites were limited to a single background and foreground colour which often meant blocks of colours changing as characters in games passed in front of the scenery, but even still, it was a wonderful machine. I wrote a text adventure game engine in my teens on this thing, capable of parsing input into verbs and nouns and working out valid or invalid responses; just thinking about it makes me want to do the same thing now! Note to self: do that.
And speaking of games… this here is nostalgia overload, my friends:
I moved from the BASIC I’d already learnt to Z80 assembly language coding, directly PEEKing and POKEing parts of the memory to do things you couldn’t otherwise do in an effort to reproduce some of the things I enjoyed playing so much but, eventually, something interesting popped up on the market and I was able to persuade my parents that it would make a lovely birthday present and Christmas present rolled into one.
Amstrad CPC 6128
Gone (well, not really, but almost) were the tape cassettes of the Spectrum era as the Amstrad came complete with a built-in floppy disk drive. And not just any floppy disk drive! A three-inch floppy disk drive! None of your three-point-five inch or five-and-a-quarter inch nonsense for Amstrad users!
I almost loved this computer with its Locomotive BASIC but two things quickly became apparent after I’d had it for a little while: firstly, choosing the green screen monitor over the colour (an enforced choice because of the price difference) did hinder certain games even if it did simultaneously seem movie cool (green screen monitors = the future!); secondly, the CPC 6128 was really targeted at business users rather than teenagers and the ability for it to run CP/M programs was lost on me. It’s still lost on me. I still have absolutely no idea what CP/M is or was and I can’t even be bothered to look it up.
When I’d had the Spectrum I was firmly anti-Commodore because, well, it was the done thing. However, many years of green screen usage on the Amstrad had warped my mind and when the Commodore Amiga hit the stores I knew I had to have one.
What do I remember fondly about the Amiga? The sensible-sized floppy disk drive and picking up cheap diskettes from a place in Waterlooville that contained sound and animation demos and early open source software for ray tracing (which I loved) and writing C (which I ignored); the forerunner to Windows’ blue screen of death, the Guru Meditation screen; a fascination with red-and-white checked bouncing balls; an introduction to the world of fonts; the ability to display two different display modes on screen at the same time; AMOS and the Graphic Adventure Creator; double-buffered output; playing Kick Off for hours at a time.
I took my Amiga to university and it was while sharing a house with three other students that I became introduced to someone who had a PC. I’ll admit that it looked impressive; the monitor was huge, the case was impressive, the whirr of fans was exciting… but DOS didn’t really look that good compared to the pretty things you could do on my machine. Still…
Packard Bell DX2/486
I finally bit the bullet and decided to try one of those growing-in-popularity PC things that were being advertised in the papers and magazines and electrical appliance shops with frightening regularity.
The Packard Bell DX2/486 was big, heavy, expensive, came with a colour monitor and speakers that hooked into the side of it, a CD-ROM drive, and a hard disk! Ooh!
This machine was an incredible disappointment in so many ways. The games were really bad. Really bad. It seemed so hostile, so difficult to do anything with it. And, thanks to something called “8k of onboard L2 cache” it was abysmally slow at doing the anything it was already difficult to do at all. Especially in the Windows 3.11 desktop operating system that it was initially powered by.
But… slowly… things changed. I discovered you could replace parts, upgrade bits and pieces, even change the operating system. CD-ROM speeds improved, the hard drive increased in size, Windows 95 appeared, a new motherboard here, a case there, graphics cards, sound, peripherals, Pentium class processor, multi-core processors… the machine was completely changed and yet it had happened gradually through an evolutionary process that also saw me finding myself loving it. The emergence of the internet didn’t hurt.
It was on the PC that I finally taught myself how to write in the C and C++ programming languages and spent endless hours finding all those special display modes and vendor-specific codes to do weird and wonderful (albeit pretty useless in hindsight) things that nobody’s interested in. I might even have stuck with C++ if Microsoft hadn’t released Visual Basic and put a demo copy on a CD on a magazine I picked up. From there to ASP and PHP, and from there to C# and ASP.NET which is where I am now.
Computers I’ve Not Owned But Used
Those were the home computers I actually owned but I did have the pleasure of using a great many others too. Some belonged to friends, some were in college, some in university.
- Commodore Vic 20
- Commodore 64 (my jealousy at Kentilla having a long, awesome Rob Hubbard soundtrack on the C64 while the Spectrum sat silent rages still to this day)
- Commodore C128
- Oric 1
- Oric Atmos (at school people were either Commodore or Sinclair people, with one exception who was, for some bizarre reason, an Oric person; I sort of liked using his computers when he brought them around, though)
- BBC Micro B (the computer of the classroom; it had Logo and Turtle graphics, really heavy keys, and not much else going for it)
- Acorn Electron
- Atari 520 ST
- Apple Mac (I’m saying nothing)