Feb
21
2009
2

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

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

Jan
22
2009
--

Computer memories: Dave Stacey

We had a ZX Spectrum when I was young. And not just any old ZX Spectrum. This was the ZX Spectrum + and it had a whole 48k of RAM.

spectrum_plus

Well, it sounded impressive at the time.

To play anything you had to load the programmes from cassette tape, but there was no built in player. Instead you had to attach a standard tape player to the computer and ensure that the volume control was just at the right level (my Mum tippexed an arrow on ours). When you hit play this unearthly noise would echo around the lounge for however long it took for the game to load. If you’ve never heard a Spectrum loading up go and find the sound online. It’s one of those sounds that I suspect may be completely impossible to describe in words.

Of course, as well as playing games that someone else had written, you could programme your Spectrum to do amazing things. Like repeating words infinitely down the screen or (if you were willing to spend several hours on this) creating shapes that filled the screen. The one drawback was that could couldn’t save any of the work you’d programmed, so once it was done, and everyone had been invited in to watch the word ‘bum’ scrolling repeatedly down your tele, you switched it off and lost it all. Actually there was a second drawback. The Spectrum wasn’t the most reliable machine in the world. If someone knocked it as they were walking past, or the ball game at the other end of the lounge got a little out of hand and the soft spongy ball would roll over the keys, (or, seemingly when someone in the kitchen sneezed), the whole thing would reboot. And all your work thus far would be lost.

It’s probably no surprise that it took me another ten years and a move to University before I would have anything at all to do with any kind of computer programming.

Once the Spectrum had gone off to the great electronics shop in the sky, our next computer was a BBC Micro. I can’t quite remember how we ended up with it, but I think it might have been one that my Mum’s school felt was past it’s usefulness, but my Mum felt could still be put to good use entertaining me and  my siblings. By now of course, computers had come on leaps and bounds. This had a whole 128k of RAM and sported a floppy disk drive which not only loaded programmes, but let you save things as well. And these were real floppy disks, that really were floppy. I always thought the later, smaller, evidently non-floppy floppy disks really should have been called something else. Rigid disks probably wouldn’t have caught on in quite the same way…

chuckie_egg

I don’t remember many games for either the Spectrum or the BBC. I remember one for the spectrum having some really annoying intro music, a full listenable copy of which was included on the tape along with the game. I remember Chucky Egg and Sink the Bismark for the BBC. But what I remember more than any of that was being useless at the games (I still am rubbish at computer games) and getting easily bored and frustrated by the whole thing. I never ‘got’ how my friends could spend hours with their Amigas and their Commodore 64s.

Ironic I suppose given that now anything geeky is right up my street!

Dave Stacey
http://blog.mrstacey.org.uk/?p=77

Written by in: Memories | Tags: , , ,
Jan
22
2009
--

Computer memories: Andrew Field

zx_spectrum

The first computer I can remember using was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48kb in around 1982 / 83. My sister was given one for Christmas – it came with a few games and some programming manuals. It seemed amazing clever at the time.

At school at the time there was one computer lab with BBC Micros. I remember being shown the lab, but being too young to be allowed in it properly 🙁

Later on I was taught how to make a graphic move across the screen on a BBC. I still remember the lesson. There was a real sense of achievement in getting a white character to move across the screen.

I subsequently inherited my sister’s computer and was bought a printer for it. It wasn’t very powerful at all, but seemed really impressive when I was little. I remember creating a quiz program to help my sister revise her A-Level history.

za_spectrum128_2a

A few years later moved to a Spectrum 128k +2, a more powerful version of the Spectrum. My Mum and Dad also purchased a PCW 9512 – a dedicated wordprocessor. I used that to write a program that did my GCSE Maths coursework on quadratic equations for me.

amiga_500
However, my favourite computer when I was younger was the Amiga 500. This offered some great features – an impressive mixture of graphics, office-type tools, programming and games. I even wrote a few games using a program called ‘AMOS Professional’. I tried to buy an Amiga 1200 but we weren’t able to as this was the time Commodore went bust.

amos_pro

Since then I drifted into PCs having used them in the later years of secondary school and in earnest at University. One of my courses at university was even called “Computing for Historians” – it was much more interesting than the title and associated book suggest.

What’s your computer history?

Written by in: Memories | Tags: , , , , ,
Jan
20
2009
--

Resource: Overview of older computers

This is Mikila’s overview covering the BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Acorn Archimedes, Amiga 500 and the Atari ST.

Provides brief technical information together with additional dates and details.  A good start before producing more detailed leaflets 🙂

pdf_icon
 Overview of older computers.pdf

Jan
20
2009
7

Welcome to ICThistory.co.uk

zxspectrum_48k

This site has been created to provide both a glimpse into the history of computers but also provide some interesting and engaging ways to learn about the development of such devices.

It isn’t just about the technical details – but also about engaging learning games to support your study of the history of ICT.

Written by in: Main site | Tags: ,

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