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ZX81: Small black box of computing desire

The Sinclair ZX81 was small, black with only 1K of memory, but 30 years ago it helped to spark a generation of programming wizards.

Packing a heady 1KB of RAM, you would have needed many, many thousands of them to run Word or iTunes, but the ZX81 changed everything.

It didn't do colour, it didn't do sound, it didn't sync with your trendy Swap Shop style telephone, it didn't even have an off switch. But it brought computers into the home, over a million of them, and created a generation of software developers.

Before, computers had been giant expensive machines used by corporations and scientists - today, they are tiny machines made by giant corporations, with the power to make the miraculous routine. But in the gap between the two stood the ZX81.

If you had an extension pack you had to hold it in place with Blu-Tack, because if it wobbled a bit you'd lose everything”

It wasn't a lot of good at saving your work - you had to record finished programming onto cassette tape and hope there was no tape warp. It wasn't even that good at keeping your work, at least if you had the 16K extension pack stuck precariously into the back.

One wobble and your day was wasted. But you didn't have to build it yourself, it looked reassuringly domestic, as if it would be happy sitting next to your stereo, and it sold in WH Smiths, for £ 69.95.

"It started off a proud tradition of teenage boys persuading their parents to buy them kit with the excuse that it was going to be educational," recalls Gordon Laing, editor of the late Personal Computer World and author of Digital Retro. "It was no use for school at all, but we persuaded our parents to do it, and then we just ended up playing games on them."

The ZX81 was a first taste of computing for many people who have made a career out of it. Richard Vanner, financial director of The Games Creators Ltd, is one."I was 14," he says, "and my brain was just ready to eat it up. There was this sense of 'Wow, where's this come from?' You couldn't imagine a computer in your own home.

The machine could get very hot, recalls Vanner.

"The flat keyboard was hot to type on. If you had an extension pack you had to hold it in place with Blu-Tack, because if it wobbled a bit you'd lose everything. You'd have to unplug the TV aerial, retune the TV, and then lie down on the floor to do a bit of coding. And then save it onto a tape and hope for the best.

"But because it was so addictive, you didn't mind all these issues."

Many a teenaged would-be programmer spent hours poring over screeds of code in magazines.

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