The Sinclair ZX Spectrum: happy 30th birthday

As the pioneering ZX Spectrum computer reaches its 30th birthday, we salute the machine’s contribution to videogame history…

“…in your impatience, you will probably already have started pressing the keys on the keyboard, and discovered that this removes the copyright message. This is good; you cannot harm the computer in this way. Be bold. Experiment…”

So read page seven of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum introduction booklet, which aimed to gently settle the reader into the strange new world of computing. It’s easy to forget that, back in 1982, when the ZX Spectrum first launched in the UK, computers were far from the ubiquitous creatures they are today. Thirty years ago, computers were expensive, chunky, and for some people, rather mysterious.

The British company Sinclair Research attempted to change all that. It aimed to produce computers which were affordable, simple to use and, by the standards of the day, relatively svelte. The ZX80 (released, as its name implies, in 1980) was its first attempt, and just under a hundred quid bought you a rudimentary computer with 1KB of RAM and a rather grim membrane keyboard. The ZX81 arrived in the following year, which used the same Z80 processor as the ZX80, offered up the same paltry 1KB of RAM, but was cheaper (an assembled machine was yours for around £70) and came housed in a stylish black case.

For most, it was the ZX Spectrum that sparked off a home computing revolution in the UK. Released on the 23rd of April 1982, it was cheap (£125 for the 16KB version, or £175 for the 48K) and exquisitely designed; Apple products have long been praised for their fusion of functionality and elegant form, and the Spectrum was no different. Compact, lightweight and unobtrusive, it was the kind of thing you could easily sit under the television in the living room without upsetting your parents too much.

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Most importantly, the Spectrum was accessible. You didn’t need a monitor – any black-and-white or colour telly would do. And while the use of cassette tapes as a storage medium might sound like madness to modern ears, their ubiquity made them extremely cheap.

Owning a Spectrum brought with it a range of experiences which have passed into electronic legend; the seemingly eternal wait for a game to load from a tape, as the screeches and beeps poured into the Speccie’s memory (for a computing generation, the sounds of “Beeee beep. Beee diddly-diddly-diddly” will never be forgotten). Swearing as you lost yet another life during a lengthy tussle with Jet Set Willy. Lenslock. Kempston joysticks.

R Tape Loading Error.

10 PRINT “Hello”

20 Goto 10

Scroll?

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Then there were those magazines with type-in listings which never quite worked. The extraordinary range of games, some of them expensive and housed in big boxes (including that lavish white elephant, The Great Space Race), many of them extremely cheap and sold by the rack load in Boots. Some of them were, according to their own inlays, absolutely brilliant.

Even things like attribute clash, a unique quirk of the Spectrum’s make-up which meant that only two colours could be displayed in any 8×8 matrix, gave its games an unforgettable, individual look (a look often tittered at by Commodore 64 owners). Programmers such as Don Priestly found cunning, often quite wonderful ways around the computer’s flaw, producing such masterpieces as The Trap Door in the process. Others took an easier path and made their games entirely monochrome. Still others simply attempted to make full colour games regardless, resulting in such migraine-inducing nightmares as Double Dragon or Altered Beast.

In spite of its technical deficiencies, the ZX Spectrum earned a devoted following which still exists. Other computers of the day were more powerful, but it was the community that sprang up around Sinclair’s diminutive machine that made it unique. It was the Spectrum, perhaps more than any other computer, which coaxed a generation of youngsters into learning how to program, and hastened the construction of a healthy UK games industry.

And then there were the magazines, such as Your Sinclair, a publication so full of irreverence, vitality and non sequiturs that it could even be enjoyed by readers who weren’t all that interested in computers.

It’s impossible to write about the ZX Spectrum without feeling a pang of nostalgia. So much so that, as part of this wistful retrospective, I decided to drag my ZX Spectrum out of the cupboard to see if it still worked. And even after 30 years, the original Speccie, with its rubber keys and distinctive rainbow stripe running across its case, is a handsome, stylish bit of design. It’s possible to imagine just how exciting it must have been to unbox one of these things back in 1982.

The manuals – a thin introductory one quoted earlier, and a thicker one full of BASIC programming commands – have strange, orange illustrations on the front. Place the manuals side by side, and it forms a sci-fi landscape: a vast city floating in the clouds, like Laputa, with the sun rising in the distance – a hint at the new vistas the machine could open up.

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My childhood reminiscences came to an abrupt end the second I plugged the ZX Spectrum into the mains. An audible pop emerged from its tiny case, and the distinctive odour of burst capacitors filled my nostrils.

It’s not quite the send-off I’d have liked for the 30-year-old machine, but then again, the Spectrum’s already done its job. The machine’s soul lives on in a legion emulators, its games now playable on almost any mobile phone, tablet or device you can think of. The contents of its mouldering tapes are now preserved for posterity in online archives, as are its unique range of magazines, each page now lovingly scanned and filed away. Programmers are still busily creating new games (the Spectrum’s vast archive of titles currently stands at around 27,000 and counting).

Most of all, the Spectrum lives on in the memories of the thousands of people who owned one. And it deserves to, because the computer’s a genuinely important moment in British design and engineering. So as Sinclair’s revolutionary machine celebrates its 30th birthday today, let’s take a moment to remember that strange sound which sums it up in all of its adorable underdog glory…

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