Off Topic: Memories of the ZX81

At Thanksgiving yesterday a family friend was asking how I “got in” to computers…   Wow, this took me back.

My parents bought me my first computer for a joint birthday and Christmas gift (a common scenario when your birthday is 5 days before Christmas day!).  It was my 8th birthday, just over 22 years ago – urgh.

The computer in question was a Sinclair ZX81.

For those that never saw the machine, it boasted such features as:

-          Sleek, black design!   (with none of the melting problems of it’s predecessor – the ZX80).

-          Touch Sensitive Keyboard!  (which made touch typing near to impossible)

-          8k of ROM and 1k of RAM!  (1k of RAM is approximately ½ a page of code on a TV screen)

-          A 16k RAM pack!   (Secured to the computer with Velcro!  If you took it out when the computer was switched on, it fried the motherboard)

-          A thermal printer (optional)!   (Think:  Cash register printer.)

On Christmas morning I unboxed the machine, plugged it in to a portable black and white television and tuned it in to 36 UHF.  I was staring at a blank white screen with a flashing K (the prompt to start typing in some code)!  Now what?

There were two ways to get programs onto the device – either through a tape recorder plugged into a mic socket in the computer, or you typed the code in by hand.  This is what I think kids today are missing out on!  Sure, the quality of games typed in from a magazine isn’t up to much – a flashing star on the screen that you had to guess the co-ordinates for maybe - but because you had to type it in, you learned so much from it, not to mention the sense of accomplishment.  At age 8 I was learning FOR loops, IF statements, random numbers (RND), math (SIN, COS, TAN), variables, screen display etc.  Something you don’t get these days from an Xbox game.

I have another 7 and a bit years before I’ll see my son unwrap his 8th Christmas present.  Who knows what he’ll be plugging into the TV then?  Hopefully, with any luck it will be as educational and inspiring as my Sinclair.

Comments (4)

  1. Aussie says:

    totally agree – I had a ZX81, Vic 20 and C64 while growing up and spent hours and hours programming in Basic then Assembly on them. My two boys will likely miss out on the joy of taking the paper rouote money down to the store to pick up the latest Compute’s Gazette magazine to see what new and exiting programs are available to type into the machines. Great memories

  2. Michael says:

    Yes, that was a different time … today if a young person set up to write *his* *great* game he will find it most depressing due to his lack to understand that other games are only better (well optics do count today) because the company that made it had a few millions lying around…


  3. Ian says:

    Man, that takes me back to my Amstrad CPC464 (With colour monitor no less – but still the same thermal printer!).

    I used to love that machine, I learn Amstrad basic on it and probably scared my mum with the amount of time I spent in front of it.

    Heh, I can still remember the weeee,werrrrr,weeee,wererer of "oh mummy" loading!

    good times..

  4. Yes, I had one too. Ah, PEEK and POKE. 🙂

    I still have it somewhere in my basement. Some day I’ll turn it on again and try to feed it with some of the audio tapes. I remember that restoring from tape was a matter of having the volume turned up to exactly the appropriate level, which differed among tape recorders.


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