The Home Computer

Sinclair ZX81

Thomas John Watson, Sr. was president of International Business Machines (IBM) who was responsible for the company’s growth into an international force from 1914 to 1956.

For a man who achieved all this it is perhaps surprising that he made one of the least accurate predictions ever when he said in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” . Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977 must have been reminded of this when he said “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Well they were both wrong and in 1981 Sir Clive Sinclair launched his home computer and almost thirty years later almost every house has one. The Sinclair was small, black with only 1K of memory, and it would have needed more than fifty-thousand of them to run Word or Excel, but the Sinclair changed everything. It didn’t do colour, it didn’t do sound, it couldn’t remember anything and it didn’t even have an off switch. But it brought computers into the home, over a million of them, and created a generation of software developers.

Up until this moment I, like most people, hadn’t given a lot of thought to owning my own computer. There was a mainframe machine at work which clanked and whirred away in a mysterious sort of way in an air-conditioned room at the back of the building but I didn’t get to use it and I didn’t even have a terminal on my desk.

Cory Environmental Contract Manager

Cory Environmental Contract Manager

Anyway, when this thing arrived at W H Smiths for £69.95 (or £49.95 if you built it yourself) I was quickly convinced that it was something I really needed. I visited the store a couple of times and just touched the box and poked a finger at the demonstration machine but this was just a bit of tyre kicking of course because I had no idea why I needed it or what I was going to do with it. On the third visit I made up my mind and bought one.

It came in a pack with an instruction manual and some software, some games including space invaders and chess and some geeky stuff that I never used like ‘make a chip’. It had to be connected to a cassette recorder and the software downloaded whilst making a reassuring screeching noise to confirm that there was actually some data transfer taking place. Eventually the tape would clunk to a stop and if you were lucky the software began to work.

The Complete Spectrum

After a while magazines started to print code for new games and applications and I would spend hours typing them in via the flat plastic keyboard but just one mistake – which might have been a typing error in the magazine – and it didn’t work. Typing this code into the machine made me realise that there wasn’t much to this programming malarkey at all and I quickly learned that you didn’t need to be a computer scientist with a brain as big as Mount Everest to be able to do some BASIC programming for yourself.

I am absolutely certain that I will never ever be able to follow a knitting pattern or flat pack furniture assembly instructions but I discovered that when it came to BASIC programming I was a bit of a natural and I became consumed by the thing.

This product was so successful that just over a year later on 23rd April 1983 a new, bigger and better looking model was launched called the Sinclair Spectrum. This had 4K of RAM so now programming possibilities were almost infinite.

I would spend hours hooked up to a portable TV set creating and designing my own programmes and doing everything that I could to squeeze every last bit out of the memory.

There were two programmes that I was most proud of both of which I submitted to a magazine and had them printed. The first was a game of Connect4 played by two players or against the computer itself; I was proud of that and my friends and family were really impressed. My favourite however was a database programme for recording and storing cricket averages. Even though I say so myself this was a neat little programme that I used for a couple of years to keep the office team records.

Rugby Rural District Council Cricket Team

Rugby Rural District Council Cricket Team

We all owe so much to Sir Clive Sinclair because the introduction of his home computer was one of those moments in history when social change and human development goes through a momentary period of rapid acceleration and without the Sinclair ZX81 and the Spectrum I would not be sitting in front of my Packard Bell writing my blog!

Sinclair Spectrum

31 responses to “The Home Computer

  1. Memories flooded back as I read your post.
    The sealed room at the back of the office that no one except the very special were allowed to enter.
    Uni assignments with punched cards where just one error meant it didn’t run!. BASIC and then my first sighting of an IBM PC and then a few years later our first office PC.
    I never had an Atari or Commodore but have had many iterations of the PC. I also had a client who ran their quite successful business on an Atari until the early 2000s!

    Great post!

  2. Oh my word. That is something I missed out on big time. But I am impressed that you made early progress in keeping Cricket scores. At least then you knew computers were useful for important things and not just for playing games.

  3. A fascinating snatch of social history – and yours

  4. BASIC! I taught myself QBASIC on MS-DOS 6.22 running on a Toshiba 486 laptop that my father’s work issued him and refused to recall when they had EOL’d it! I still have the shattered parts in a box for spelling tests from 1960? and it DOES boot still! (too many ! I’m hyperventilating)

  5. Thieves broke into my school in 1981 and stole my ZX81 so I was a very early victim of computer crime. My abiding memory of the time is the unbridled enthusiasm for computers in education of the some of my educational advisers which was accompanied by none of the necessary finance or training to make it become actually useful. Still my 10 year old pupils and I designed and built (out of Lego) a computerised conveyor belt which it seems to me has been widely copied since by Amazon.and others.

  6. Yours might be only the second blog I have ever “got”. Thank you!

  7. Just stopping by to say…
    Please go by and visit LordBeariOfBow’s WP site…comment section! There is a good news update!!! 🙂
    HUGS!!! 🙂

  8. Andrew:
    Emilio, Sue, and I got an e-mail from Sarah with an update on LordBeariOfBow and Emilio shared the update on LBoB’s WP site in the comment section.
    Not good news. 😦

  9. Andrew, what a beautiful essay. I bought my first computer somewhere in 1990s, but I still remember it. That gigantic machine helped me to make some money and support my family.

  10. Did you see that Sarah (Brian’s daughter) put up a post on LordBeariOfBow’s site?
    I thought I’d let you know in case you didn’t know. 🙂

  11. But that was such as long, long time ago 🙂

  12. Yeah! Great to come across someone else who owned a ZX81! It was my first computer too aged 12 and I loved to do some simple coding but never did get the cassette and chess game to work – in spite of all the hours trying! A few years later my mother had one of the first Apple computers at her company and I was hooked!

  13. Difficulties with my eyes, limiting the amount of time I can spend staring at a computer screen. Also limiting my participation at blogs, but I stumbled into some good memories here. The brain is aging and memories starting to slip, so there’s that, too. But this post dredged up memories of my first encounters learning to run a drafting program back around 1978/9 on a mainframe. Then, back in school with a teacher who was writing a program similar to AutoCad.
    As you said: “The good old days. No internet, no spam, no viruses, no adverts.” The engineers were already working with the government precursor to email in the early 70s. It’s come a long way since then, bringing both the good and the evil. So it goes! 🙄
    I just thank heavens for autofocus on the camera these days…. ☺️
    Hope you’re holding up well. 🙏

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