Jan
24
2009
1

Computer memories: Russel Tarr

My first computer memory consists of my dad showing me (when I was about 9, I guess) a very flash (as in “bling” rather than “Macromedia”) digital watch. This was a chunky gold-plated monstrosity which lay so heavily upon his right wrist that he needed to use his left hand to lift it up and show it off. Not only that, but you had to press a button on its side to light up the red LED display of the time because it used so much battery power that it would otherwise last about seven seconds before dying out.

commodore_pet

My second memory is of the time I was sent to the local supermarket to get my dad some cigarettes and, instead of typing the price into the cash till, the John Player Specials were simply “swiped” across a Star-Wars type laser and the bar code did all the work. Then, before I had time to take this in, my junior school purchased a Commodore PET with a breathtaking 3K of RAM, around which a whole “computer club” would gather every Thursday evening. Since then, I have never lost my sense of bewilderment at the wonders of technology: which is why I avoid trying to think about it (or anything else) too much. For example – the fact that my mobile phone can pick up a call from anybody, anywhere in the world, implies to me that at any given second of the day I have an infinite number of conversations whizzing around my head. That’s just too weird.

zx_spectrum1

Anyway, to get to real computers, like many people of my generation my first experience of a home computer was the legendary Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which I retain so much affection for that I just this week bought one on Ebay to frame and stick in my work room (at the time of writing it hasn’t even arrived yet). I remember the sense of shock and awe I got from typing in my first line of code (copied from the manual) which drew an arc on my television screen (“Circle: 0, 40, 60” or something like that). From that point on, it was a slippery slope: an invoicing system for my dad’s roofing business, a “rummy” card game simulator for my nan, and before you knew it I was drinking black coffee and practicing the dark arts of Z80 machine code with my own version of the game “Gauntlet” – which if I remember was like Pacman, except the ghosts were a bit more clever.

250px-micro_live_logo

The result was playground divisions of the first magnitude. Forget Montagues and Capulets, or Mods and Rockers: you were either Spectrum 48, Commodore 64, or a pitiable nonentity who insisted that an Acorn or an Amstrad was in the same league. Many bitter arguments ensued – both at school and on the TV show “Micro Live” – about whether the superior “sprites” of the Commodore outweighed the crisper sound of the Spectrum (the fact that the “48” actually had more RAM than the “64” was a truism that both sides silently accepted). My loyalties, I am proud to say, never wavered – although they came close when Clive Sinclair himself invented a zany electrically powered personal vehicle called the C5 (what was the matter with the man? This was the 1980s, there was still plenty of fossil fuels left to burn!).

lunar_jetman_1

Lunar Jetman

knight_lore_3

Knight Lore

The phase of my life which was characterized by endless hours loading (and even occasionally playing) Manic Miner, Chuckie Egg, Lunar Jetman, 3D Deathchase, Psst! and Knight Law came to a very abrupt end when my brother stuck an AC power cable into the wrong hole in the back of the computer and blew the bloody thing up. From that point I did not use a computer until I was compulsorily obliged to learn word processing as part of my teacher training course. But from the moment I printed off my first essay and saw how professional it looked, I was transported back into geek heaven and have never looked back (and never, of course, had the social confidence to look anyone straight in the eye, either).

Russel Tarr
www.ActiveHistory.co.uk
www.ClassTools.net

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