Thirty years ago today the Sinclair ZX81 was introduced to the world. The world’s first affordable personal computer, it wasn’t in fact the first home computer I had owned. That had been a Nascom 1, a Zilog Z80 based machine with just 1Kb of RAM, which I built from a kit – all 1,400 soldered joints of it, using the same Antex soldering iron I still use today.
The ZX81 was also offered as a kit as well as a ready built version, so naturally I ordered the kit. I seem to remember it cost £49 – much less than the Nascom. I don’t remember how many soldered joints there were, but there were only four main chips. It was a much easier project to build. The ZX81 also came with just 1Kb of RAM. But unlike the Nascom, it had a built-in BASIC interpreter so you could still do more with that 1Kb and you didn’t have to program it in assembly code.
Innovative design was used to cut the cost of the ZX81. For example, instead of a dedicated display processor the Z80 CPU generated the display. Whenever your program executed, the screen went blank. The screen was an ordinary black and white TV. Programs were loaded and saved using a cheap cassette recorder. That was read and written by the CPU too, which generated wild patterns on the screen while it neglected its display duties. The keyboard was a plastic membrane type. It was horrible to type on.
Later I upgraded the memory to 48Kb using a third party RAM pack (the standard RAM pack sold by Sinclair was only 16Kb.) This, too was built from a kit. Like the Sinclair one, it fixed to the rear of the machine using an edge connector, with no other fixing. Every ZX81 owner is familiar with the term “wobbly RAM pack”. One accidental jolt could interrupt the connection and crash the computer losing all your work. Ah, those were the days!
As a radio ham, I naturally was interested in writing ham radio software for the ZX81. I wrote several programs including a morse tutor, which used a machine code routine for sending the actual code. I think I have written morse tutors for every type of computer I have owned – it’s amazing that I am still so bad at reading the code! An article describing the morse tutor and a memory keyer for the ZX81 was published in Short Wave Magazine and was one of my first published articles.
I can still remember the excitement of home computing in those early days. Today’s PCs, vastly more powerful and capable though they are, just aren’t as interesting. Back then, home computing was very much a hobbyist’s game. We were pioneers. Now everyone and his granny has a computer, and programming has become more or less a job for professionals. I do miss those old days!
Thank you, Clive Sinclair, for bringing us these wonderful toys. Happy 30th birthday, ZX81!