The Sinclair ZX Spectrum is 30 years old
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It’s time for a little break in our regular programming. Today, April 23rd, marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum – Britain’s largest selling home computer of the 1980′s. The Speccy was my first exposure to an actual computer – I still remember as a 9-year-old in 1982 when my dad brought one home. I clearly remember the smell of the polystyrene inserts as we opened the packaging, and being amazed at what this stylish little black box could do.
Perhaps more importantly, the Spectrum introduced me to programming and, I think, laid the basis for my current involvement with Linux. I started with Sinclair BASIC, an interpreted language built in to the machine, and quickly grasped the fundamentals. Fast forward two years to 1984. Margaret Thatcher and the National Union of Mineworkers were engaged in a vicious power struggle, and my father was on strike with the other miners in Britain. No longer able to afford to buy any games for the Spectrum, I saved up every penny and bought the book “Mastering Machine Code on your ZX Spectrum” by Toni Baker. Amazingly by today’s standards – where all programming is done from the boxed-in safety of an IDE – you had to write your own assembler in Sinclair BASIC. Opcodes were firstly written on A4 ruled sheets, and graphics were designed on graph paper from school.
With only 48Kb of RAM (41.5Kb usable) space was at a premium. Programs had to be tight, and no instruction could be wasted in order to get the most out of the 3.5Mhz Zilog Z80 processor. This taught me programming discipline that I still try to use on projects today and, just to put a Linux spin on this post as well, Linus Torvalds (I really don’t need to tell you who he is, do I?) cut his programming teeth on the successor to the ZX Spectrum, the Sinclair QL.
It’s not just misty-eyed nostalgic exaggeration when I say that this humble machine, with less computing power than the weakest smartphone, affected my life more than anything else I’ve ever owned. It taught me fundamentals of computer architecture that are still the same today, and started me on a 30-year journey with computers that I’m still enjoying today. I hope that projects like Raspberry Pi can create a whole new generation of people who get into programming and computer science for the sheer fun of it, just like my generation did back in the 1980′s.
Even today, I still own the 48K, rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum (well, two now actually, along with a 128K Spectrum+2 and a 48K Spectrum+), such is the affection that I have for the little machine. So before I do descend into misty-eyed nostalgia, I’ll finish by saying a huge thank you to Sir Clive Sinclair and the world-changing ZX Spectrum. Happy 30th anniversary.
Some Spectrum links: