You know, I was just thinking about computers. I know, probably not the earth-shaking revelation you were expecting when you stopped by today, but hey, I’m only about as deep as a kiddie pool.
Anyhow, I wasn’t thinking about just any old computers. OK, actually I was daydreaming about old computers – I was thinking about my first two, and how far we’ve come since then.
Let’s take a little stroll down the information superhighway when it was just a back alley, shall we?
My very first computer was a Timex Sinclair ZX-81. I was ten or eleven years old at the time (circa 1981 / 1982) and I begged borrowed and, well, I didn’t steal, but there was a sketchy plan for a bank robbery jotted down on a napkin someplace to get one.
Turned out that with enough whining, birthday money, and grass cutting I was able to scrape together the $100 or so it took to buy that little computer. Mine looked like this, less the memory expansion kit that took the 1K of built in memory and cranked it up by a whoppin’ 16K, totaling 17K (BTW – 17K is about 1/60th of a Meg, but back then it was a seemingly infinite amount of memory to work with):
Although even the lowliest of calculators of today would consider it quite a pathetic little device, it was a dream come true for me. I remember taking it home, hooking it up to an old B&W TV (we didn’t use no stinkin’ monitors back then) and turning it on – and being greeting by a little cursor blinking up in the corner of a black screen.
Yup, no Windows, no fancy splash screen, no software – just a black screen with a blinking cursor. We’re talking the Model-T of computers here folks. If you wanted to make it actually DO something, you had to program it. It’s “operating system” was a primitive form of the BASIC programming language, and one that I became as fluent with as I could.
Before long, I was writing my own programs. Sure, nothing very fancy at first, just running infinite loops and giggling as it repeated “My sister is a dork” hundreds of times down the screen. Later, I started making a few primitive games, but as my programs became more complex, I wanted to save them. Just grab a disk, right? Uumm, no.
Grab a cassette recorder and a blank tape.
In order to save anything on this computer, you had to record it to a standard cassette tape deck! Yeah, not a computer tape backup device, just an average, everyday cassette deck. You’d pop out your WhiteSnake cassette, tape over the little holes cuz they sucked, then record over it.
Sounds strange, but it was actually pretty ingenious. The computer used a type of modem (or what sounded like one) to record to the tape. If you played the tape back and listened, it sounded the way a dial-up modem does today – squealing like a digital pig.
To load your program, yup, you guessed it – you simply rewind and play back. The unfortunate truth is this wasn’t an exact science (surprise), and it normally took 3 or 4 tries before it actually worked, and sometimes hours and hours of my little 10 year-old efforts were lost in an analog to digital conversion abyss.
After a time, I outgrew that computer and moved up to a RadioShack TRS 80 – that bad boy had 4K built in! – And 8 colors too! That old TRS 80 now only survives as a fond memory, but these two computers probably did more to contribute to my future than anyone could have realized back then.
The sad thing is, the little Timex / Sinclair ZX81 and its kin are only good for one thing now – doorstops (and it turns out they’re really not very good at that either)
The most amazing thing? When you think about just how far we’ve come in less than 30 years.
I know, you’re probably thinking that’s nearly 3 decades to come up with new technology, and what the heck did I think was going to happen, and haven’t you ever heard of Moor’s law, yada, yada, right?
Well, I’m comparing it to all the time we’ve been on the planet up till the birth of the ZX81.
From that point of view, it’s really pretty amazing how quickly things have progressed, ya know? No doubt 30 years from now we’ll look back on today’s powerhouse machines and be grateful we don’t have to deal with those old battle wagons…
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