Things We Owned

The computers and peripherals we owned in the 1980s.

Sinclair ZX81

My world of computers began in 1981 when I was 9 years old. The Sinclair ZX81, named after the year it was produced, was our first computer. Dad had brought home microcontroller based prototype boards from work before, the kind that could be programmed from a hex keypad. But it was really exciting to be getting a real computer.

We got the kit that had to be soldered and built by hand, which heightened the excitement as I watched patiently as Dad soldered all the components. It didn't work on the first try – only after hours of cross-checking against the build instructions did we discover that a resistor pack was the wrong way round.

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The ZX81 with notorious RAM pack and ZX Printer

Next came the challenge of learning what we could do with it. As I recall, the manual was good at explaining Basic and at opening up the possibilities ahead. We pretty quickly hit the 1K memory limits and built a 16K RAM pack from a kit. It suffered the same wobble problem as the official RAM pack so ended up being rigidly fixed to the ZX81 case with aluminium brackets.

Our ZX81, with an Analog to Digital converter board, served as a weather station for many years – with terrible low-resolution graphs.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum was hotly anticipated in our house, from the moment of the first press release. It took a great deal of persuasion to get my parents to fork out for one so soon after the ZX81.

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The original ZX Spectrum arrived in 1982

My dad used the Spectrum as a word processor, using Tasword to write his travel journals. We ended up getting all the accessories, including Microdrives and the very dubious ZX Printer.

I have very fond memories playing games like Atic Atac, Jetpac and Manic Miner as well as starting to learn Z80 assembly language.

Interface 1

The Microdrives came with an adapter module called Interface 1 that also had an RS232 serial interface. This opened up the world of communications to us and with an Acoustic coupler we were able to dial up bulletin boards.

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A ZX Interface 1 with attached Microdrive and a cartridge

I remember long evenings at computer club meetings where we'd take turns with the phone line, trying to connect to bulletin boards and share our achievements with the world.

Teletype

One day Dad came home with this hulking great Teletype that he had salvaged from a skip at work. It was slow, noisy and only had an upper-case ASCII character set, but it was still a huge step up from the ZX Printer.

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A Teletype Model 33 with punched tape reader and writer

The Teletype had a punched tape reader and writer, which was an entertaining but painfully slow way to save and load programs. It was a noisy beast and I recall it had a sound deadening enclosure which quietened it down to merely being noisy instead of deafening.

Amstrad CPC 6128

After the ZX Spectrum we had various upgrades including a Spectrum+ but things really stepped up when we bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. This was considered a proper computer because it could run CP/M.

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A Schneider branded version of the CPC 6128

The Amstrad CPC also had an integral 3 inch floppy drive so we finally entered the world of fast, reliable loading and saving. There was also better graphics and an actual sound chip.

Amstrad PC1640

And then came the Amstrad PC1640, our entry into the IBM-PC compatible world and MS-DOS.

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An Amstrad PC1512 with twin floppy drives

Like all our computers before it, the Amstrad PC was relegated to running as a weather station when it eventually got superseded. The weather station was expected to run 24/7 and this exposed an unfortunate bug in the BIOS. After a certain amount of time, maybe 2 or 3 days – I can't remember, the machine would lock up. After doing the maths we figured it was an integer overflow in the BIOS clock code. As a workaround I managed to develop a TSR that would wake up and reset the counter before the overflow occurred.

All this in 5 years! Happy days.

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