Feb
21
2009

Computer memories: Alan Parkinson

At my Comprehensive School in the late 70’s, we had a Chemistry teacher called ‘Doc’ Humphries, and at the back of his teaching lab was a locked cabinet which contained my first ‘real’ computer: an Apple II, which presumably cost a great deal of money. At the end of the school day, as often as possible, I would sit at the computer alone and as the cleaners came and did their jobs, I would type in lines of code, patiently creating classics like the Lemonade Stall game (not much call for those in Rotherham) I would be kicked out by the caretaker locking up.

Apple II

Apple II

In 1979, I started my ‘O’ level in Computer Science, and in addition to the theory on AND, NOT OR, logic gates and the internal workings of a hard drive, we needed some “hands on” keyboard time, so that we could learn the basics of Basic. Every week, on Wednesday afternoon, we would catch an ancient double-decker bus, retired from the set of ‘On the Buses’ by the look of it, and make the journey to a local college which had a mobile classroom with Research Machines computers. Black screens and flashing cursors, and slow progress ! The machines were networked in some way but I can remember more about the frequent indigestion of the teacher than the intricacies of the operating system.

I also made a monthly trip to a GT newsagent in an alley off Fargate in the centre of Sheffield, which sold exotic magazines (no, not that type) from around the world. I would spend an inordinately large sum of money each month on copies of OMNI magazine. This was published in America, and featured science fiction short stories alongside imaginings of future worlds. I read, and reread them…

I still have a folder of clippings from these magazines, and was really pleased to see a website which had images of them. I particularly remember this cover:

Ominmag

Ominmag

It was in 1980 that I saw this very print ad while returning from a coach trip to London to the Science Museum, and later that year, took delivery of a shiny white ZX80, with rubberised “keyboard” membrane, and various connections. I used the tape recorder which had previously been used to record the Top 40 from the radio to load and save programmes, which I copied from a book (which had quite a few errors as I discovered) It had 1Kb of RAM, and 4Kb of ROM. My current laptop has 4Gb of RAM !

zx80 advertisement

zx80 advertisement - click to enlarge

There was no sound, and the computer had integer basic: 10 divided by 4 was 2, as was 9 divided by 4 – it only dealt in whole numbers. If the volume settings on the tape were not correct, you could spend 25 minutes listening to the squeals of the tape only to discover that it hadn’t loaded… And of course, when you switched the computer off, everything you had done was lost as there was no memory. But what else was a young boy to do.

My brother had a ZX81, which was much better, and also had a 16K memory pack on the back. Luxury – even if you did have to be very careful not to move it or you’d crash the machine. The keyboard was slightly better than on the ZX80 too.
As an undergraduate I had access to a mainframe which filled a whole room. Using this necessitated the creation of a ‘batch’ of cards: a stack of punched cards, each of which represented one line in a program of instructions. To produce a basic line map representing the shape of a county would involve the production of hundreds of cards, and if even one was incorrect, the whole batch would be stopped, and another day would be gone. The batch was punched individually, then wrapped with a rubber band and dropped into a tray. The “program” was run overnight, and the next day, if you were lucky, you would find a print out on computer paper with the answer to a data run, or perhaps a crude map.

By now I had a ZX Spectrum, and was amazed with the colour and graphics. I remember playing Knight Lore until 3 in the morning instead of getting on with my work – there are Flash based versions of this online now, and it’s an incredibly frustrating game. BBC Micros were appearing in the computer rooms, and I programmed a “software suite” to handle and visualise weather data. I gained an ‘A’ in Computer Science for that, as well as learning a bit of Pascal.

About the time I started my PGCE course, with Computer Studies as my second subject (Geography of course being my degree) I had an Amstrad PCW 8256, with its Locomotive script and dot matrix printer, which must have churned out 40 000 pages by the time I traded up to my first real PC.

And now, my daughter gets frustrated at the time her DS games take to appear once she puts in the game cartridge…

NB: All reasonable offers considered for the items described above, most of which are in my parents’ loft.

Alan Parkinson
Secondary Curriculum Development Leader
Geographical Association
http://www.geographypages.co.uk
http://livinggeography.blogspot.com

Image credits:
Apple II: Wikimedia Commons
Omni Magazine Cover: http://www.omnimagonline.com/
ZX80 Print ad and image of computer: http://oldcomputers.net/pics/ZX80-ad.jpg

2 Comments

  • Jon Rosling says:

    Hi Alan,

    So with Doc Humphries, I assume you went to Wickersley Comprehensive then?! I remember Doc Humphries from my GCSE Computer Studies – brilliant teacher!

  • Alan Parkinson says:

    Hi Jon
    Just caught this comment belatedly
    Yes – I did indeed… 1975-1982
    When were you there ?

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