Ben Hardwidge recalls how Sir Clive Sinclair’s rubber-keyed 48K computer ignited his love of computers and magazines.
On 16 September, I heard the sad news that Sir Clive Sinclair had passed away, aged 81. I can’t comment on Sir Clive Sinclair as a person, but I wanted to pay a personal tribute to the invention of his that permanently shaped my life.
One evening I came downstairs to find my dad at the dining room table playing a game he called ‘bat and ball’ on our old black and white TV (the ‘new’ colour TV we’d started renting was in the living room), while pushing the buttons on a small black box with grey keys. I was young, probably 5-6 years old, and I’d never seen a computer before.
I don’t remember my jaw dropping to the floor, nor it feeling revolutionary – I didn’t honestly even really know what a computer was, but I did find it fascinating that you could plug this little box into a TV and make things appear on the screen yourself, rather than just watching a TV programme.
I had a go on the bat and ball game, a Breakout clone called Thro’ The Wall – it was the first programme on side two of the Horizons cassette bundled with the computer, and I fell in love with it. Over the next year or so, I must have learned how to connect it all up and get it running, because I distinctly remember dragging the black and white TV to the dining room table, connecting up all the wires and getting the Spectrum all set up. I remember my Mum nervously asking ‘are you sure you know what you’re doing, Ben?’ as I did it, and I nodded as I hooked up the aerial and tuned the dial on the front of the TV to the correct RF channel for the Spectrum.
I sometimes feel like I was brought up in a parallel universe when pundits discuss video games from the 1980s. People talk about the NES and Super Mario Bros as being revolutionary, but I didn’t know anyone at school with a NES – I wasn’t even aware it existed. People also talk about heated playground spats between Spectrum and Commodore 64 owners – I don’t remember them either.
Most of my friends didn’t have a computer at home, and there was such a huge variety of systems available that when you did find someone else at school with a computer, it probably wasn’t the same one as yours. One friend had a Commodore 16, another an Acorn Electron, another a ZX81 – I was the only one with a Spectrum, so there was no playground cassette swapping.
Whenever I tell people I had a Spectrum, they generally reel off a list of classic games, including Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy and 3D Ant Attack. We never had any of them, but there wasn’t really a culture of must-have games then. One game we did have was The Hobbit, a text adventure with slow-loading graphics, which I loved even if it was brutally hard and I never managed to get past the trolls.
Another was Valhalla, which we got from my uncle when he became the PR manager for Legend Software. Like The Hobbit, it had slow-loading graphics and a text interface, but it also had stick characters based on Norse mythology with basic character attributes – you could summon dragons, fight gods and write rude words (which resulted in a dwarf called Mary being ‘not amused’ as she came onto the screen and prodded you).
This game dominated a large part of family life in the 1980s. My Dad drew up a full-colour map of all the locations, as we tried to solve it (we never did). Generally, though, if I wanted new games for the Spectrum, I had to hope for a £1.99 Mastertronic cassette in my Christmas stocking, or type them in myself from books and magazines – it was the latter that really kicked off my love of computers.
I never completed a single game on the ZX Spectrum, and I think that’s partly because I didn’t actually care about the games as much as marvelling at the computer doing things – watching the computer draw the castles in Valhalla was more interesting to me than actually playing the game.
For me, the Spectrum’s best feature was the BASIC language housed in its 16KB ROM. You had to input text in it to load a game in the first place, but you could also start writing your own program as soon as the computer started.
The obvious classic was to 10 PRINT “Hilarious statement here” 20 GOTO 10, and then watch your comedy genius cover the TV screen infinitum. The first program I wrote and saved was basically the same as this, but with some of the Spectrum’s on-board graphical blocks in the first PRINT command so it made a pretty pattern when it scrolled down the screen – I called it ‘Lift’.
After that, I was hooked. Over the next few years I checked various Usborne programming guides out of the library, so I could make the computer do more. My parents kindly started buying me Input magazine, a multi-platform Marshall Cavendish part-works publication that taught you how to write BASIC code.
The first issue showed you how to create an animated jumping frog and shooting tank with machine code routines (made from individual pixels rather than the standard on-board graphic blocks) that you could control with the keys. This then spurred on several experiments with graph paper to create my own custom animated characters, while my brain whizzed round with other ideas of things I could make the computer do.
I drank it all in – I even read the code for the other systems, so I could get an idea of how they worked – I was highly envious of the Commodore 64’s sprite system.
A flawed system for a good price
The ZX Spectrum was far from perfect, of course. It regularly froze and needed to be reset (by physically switching it off at the mains) – often when you were right in the middle of something. It took ages to load software from tape, often coming up with an error message after you’d already endured five minutes of the screechy noises it made when it was loading.
The code in the magazines was also frequently flawed – you’d type it all in, and then have to go through debugging it. Sometimes you’d made a mistake, but sometimes that mistake was in the magazine and you wouldn’t know until you received the ‘errata’ page in the next issue.
Let’s face it, the Spectrum wasn’t even that great for the time either – the BBC Micro had a far superior keyboard to the Spectrum’s rubber keys, and the Commodore 64 had a far superior colour graphics system, with none of the garish colour clash problems that plagued Spectrum games.
But then the Commodore 64 cost nearly twice the price of the ZX Spectrum 48K. Clive Sinclair’s genius was to create a programmable, full-colour computer with plenty of memory that was much more affordable than the competition. The 16KB ZX Spectrum cost £125 (around £450 today), compared to £235 (about £850 today) for the BBC Micro Model A.
There were still a lot of families who couldn’t afford a computer at all at this time, of course, but the Spectrum opened up the magic of video games and coding to a much wider audience. Without the ZX Spectrum and early computer magazines, I expect I’d be doing a very different job now, as would a lot of today’s game developers and software engineers in the UK. For that, Sir Clive Sinclair, you have my eternal gratitude. Rest in peace.
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