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back to article Sinclair ZX81: 30 years old

Tomorrow, 5 March 2011, marks the 30th anniversary of the arrival of the machine that did more to awaken ordinary Britons to the possibilities offered by home computing: the Sinclair ZX81. While its successor, the Sinclair Spectrum, got the nation playing computer games, the ZX81 was the tipping point that turned the home …

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Heart

I still have mine!

It still works greats.

Two words to get fellow owners nostalgic:

"RAMPACK WOBBLE!"

Gawd bless ya Clive and all who sail in yer.

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Unhappy

Re: I still have mine!

Me too, but alas the keyboard ribbon cables are completely knackered (too much opening of the lid to admire the insides...). Oh well.

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Anonymous Coward

My collection...

I added one to my collection of "antique" computers a couple of years back. I was at the tip and they had one in the electronics recycling area, fully boxed, in really good nic. I spoke to one of the rubbish-nazis, sorry, Civic Amenity Centre Employees, and he gladly accepted two quid for it.

No collection of old computers is complete without a ZX81. The BBC master + music 500 still kicks it's ass though.

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Happy

Me too!

And it still works! I lent it to my cousin many moons ago and I got it back as a wedding present at my wedding. It had the wanted effect of turning me red with embarrassment. The only thing missing was the wobbly ram pack. 30 years on from getting it and I am still making a good living out of learning how to PEEK and POKE :)

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Rampack wobble

fixed with a match jammed in for anyone who didn't buy a vastly more stable memopak

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Happy

Keyboard Ribbons

If your keyboard ribbon tails are broken, it is quite easy to get and insert a replacement - we offer them for sale on sellmyretro.com

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Rampack wobble

I am informed that the use of a piece of Blu-Tack, about the size of a runner bean, will resolve the problem.

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Silver badge

Sounds familiar...

I was gifted an old '81 a few years ago, it had already had a "real" keyboard (kingston?) added in a bigger case, and the ram pack connected with good old fashioned solder!

My BBC I've had for almost 30 years is still with me. PSU upgraded to switch mode model from it's original linear jobby. Board upgraded from model A to B with all the trimming. Solidisk sideways RAM, CPU upgraded to 65C02, and of course the Music 500 you mention... And it all still works! How on earth that happened after the number of soldering iron adventures I had inside that case in my teenage years I do not know!

I never did manage to make head nor tail of composing with the Music 500 though!

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Blimey, the Atom was ahead of it's time..

.. if it was launched in 1908 ;)

</pedant>

Nice article, takes me back to the good old days of ribbon cables to keep the RAM pack in place...

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Pint

Legendary

A truely legendary computer.

I can't believe how far we've come in just 30 years. IT's fine to understand Moores theorum academically, but to look at a ZX81 and then look at a modern super gaming rig is just mind blowing!

Just think though, without this (and of course others liek the VIC20) we'd have no UK games industry to speak of.

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re: Legendary

Not even that... Look at a ZX81 and then look at the mobile phone in your hand!

I've been doing some work with microcontrollers recently, and even those £3 chips have 32k of EEPROM, 2K of RAM and run at 16Mhz! It does amuse me no end, but the tight assembler programming habits I picked up from years of 2Mhz 6502 coding on my BBC micro has stood me in good stead.

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Funny you should mention that

"Not even that... Look at a ZX81 and then look at the mobile phone in your hand!"

My phone actually runs a ZX emulator. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am that sad.

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Re: Funny you should mention that

It came to mind as I had just been playing about with the Speccy emulator, Marvin on my HTC Desire!

Now if you don't mind I've just got to get past Eugene's lair...

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Pint

It got me started

The original Spectrum 48K got me started on computers at a very tender age, mucking around in BASIC. I've now got three of them, a ZX81, the very same 48K (still working) and a Spectrum plus, with the solid keyboard. Think I'll dig out the ZX81 tomorrow and hook it into a big widescreen TV in honour of its birthday. I owe a lot to those little black blocks with the gigantic overheating power bricks.

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A Happy Coincidence

Walked into a charity shop today and found a hardback copy of The Complete Spectrum. Score!

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Happy Birthday!

so they say... Well, after all those years I'm still wondering (i.e. if I could be bothered) what the ZX81 was about (yes, I owned one and probably still do). You can't really compare the two but the TI-59 calculator turned out to be much more practical and I even used it till the 90s.

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My first computer

I still have my ZX81 and Spectrum kicking around, my later mother got me the ZX81 as she could see that computers would be the future.

I remember my ram pack wobble and my first ribbon cable as well, plus the Thermal printer.

Nothing better than using that sodding keyboard to manually type in games programmes from the magazines for hours on end, only for the ram pack to wobble before you saved it.

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on the wall

I have a magazine advert for the white Z80 framed and on the wall at home.

My old ZX81 died and gave it to a friend as a present - it's fixed to his wall with a 6" nail through the middle.

ps, anyone want 10 rolls of thermal printer paper?

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Micro Men

Just caught that on the Beeb the other day (missed it first time around). As they had the Chris Curry character say, "If we'd stuck together then we could have been the British IBM".

It's amazing to me how Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar are acclaimed as visionaries. They were (and are) nothing of the kind. They were just lucky in happening to release the right product at the right time, pure and simple. The fact that both men subsequently ran their companies into the ground with a long series of crap decisions makes that pretty damn clear. The only reason AMS is a millionaire today is that he offloaded some of his money to other people to invest - everything he personally touched turned to shit in pretty short order.

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Doing down a rare success

I'm not sure anyone's claimed Alan Sugar as a visionary. There's loads of tales of his early days and some of the interesting bodges used to make Amstrad products 'better' - but that's a separate post.

As for Sinclair - yes, he was lucky, but he was in a market where there were hundreds of other people trying to be as lucky, and failing. It's easy to forget in these days of near-two party OS politics, that alongside the ZX81 and Spectrum were devices from Jupiter Cantab, Oric, Tandy, Commodore, Newbrain, Dragon, Elan, Atari, MSX and a dozen others - each completely unique and incompatible.

Sinclair's skill at the time was getting more bang for less buck than virtually any of his competitors. He pushed components beyond their limits, made use of quirks in their specs and pulled together innovative technologies to deliver something unique. It was a scattergun approach that had as many failures as successes, but before commoditisation removed much of the advantage, he was putting home computers into the home. There has to be huge credit to the teams that worked on the machines - from Rob Dickinson's wonderful industrial design through to the FPGA and OS that ran inside.

Of course the industry changed massively and that shook Sinclair, Acorn and most of the others back down to nothing. I'm not sure that makes them less significant, nor necessarily less visionary. Very few technology companies have survived from those early days to present times, and even those have had disastrous moments alongside the successes.

It's a huge pity that these days we're so risk averse and so keen to ridicule people who're willing to try something different that we have trouble producing such exciting technology. Hold an iPad in one hand and a ZX81 in the other and think what could have been.

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Pint

So many memories ... it was such an amazing inspiring & enthusiastic time :)

@"I'm not sure that makes them less significant, nor necessarily less visionary."

Another very significant aspect of the ZX81 (along with the ZX80 and the ZX Spectrum) is that Sinclair Research computers were the first computers available to so many people. That in turn spawned the UK games industry, which has for almost the past 3 decades, been able to compete at a world level in a multi-billion dollar per year global industry. That is a massive legacy that none can ever take away from the work of Sinclair Research Ltd. Their computers were hugely influential in starting the careers of so many programmers. Sure they moved onto so many other platforms but Sinclair computers were the first computer for so many programmers.

I have so many memories of the ZX81 and of that amazingly inspiring & enthusiastic time. It really did feel like the future was happening now kind of moment in time.

Happy Birthday ZX81!

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re: Doing down a rare success

I wouldn't quite say the changes shook the businesses down to nothing, more like they evolved, some died, some lived on... Have you heard of ARM? (clue, there's one in that ipad you're holding).. You do know where they came from don't you?

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@Andy73

It was not called FPGA, although the technology was similar. The real name was a ULA, or Uncommitted Logic Array, which was a bleading edge technology in 1980/81, invented by Ferranti, a British company.

The ZX81, Spectrum and BBC Micro all had ULA's in them, to consolidate the function of dozens of 7400 TTL chips into a single large chip.

Unfortunately, the technology was still immature, and the production problems that Ferranti had were a large part of the shipping problems for all of the systems mentioned. I waited for nearly 6 months to get my BBC model B that had been ordered as soon as Acorn would take orders.

By the time later systems came along, it was possible to have your own design of chip fabricated moderately cheaply, so the ULA died an ignominious death

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Headmaster

Nitpick

FPGAs weren't invented until 1984. The Sinclair machines used plain old gate arrays aka ULAs.

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Oh all right

My fault, yes of course it was a ULA rather than FPGA.

And yes, I do know about ARM. I've been lucky enough (!) to work with Chris Curry, Sophie Wilson and some of the Sinclair crowd - as others have said there are plenty of stories about the things they got up to. The BBC4 doc was a great dramatisation, if it took a few liberties for the sake of pulling the various strands into a coherent story.

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Boffin

Where many of us began...

... in my case in 1982, when I got a ZX-81. Many a happy hour was spent punching type-ins from Sinclair Programs magazine ... though I never had a RAM pack wobble because I didn't have the Sinclair RAM pack. My RAM pack was the Centronics 16K, which was laid out to fit the shape of the computer's rear and came with a velcro patch to hold the far end in place.

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I remember the kit because

My big brother bought one of the kit versions with his birthday money and savings from his paper round. A week after he bought it they dropped the price on the pre-built verion to be the same as the kit version, oh how I laughed.

Then after assembling it with the help of a neighbour with a soldering iron, it didn't work, I laughed more.

It got sent back to the factory, where it was tested and it turned that several of the components were duds, so they sent back a fully built one.

So all the effort, grief and waiting to try to save a few pounds, which didn't really happen either. Still makes me smile.

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Birthday drinks!

I'll dust off my old ZX81, and raise a glass or two in its honour...

It's been about 20 years since I last fired it up, but hey.. Time to experiment again, and see if it'll work with a modern TV..

Takes me back!

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Nobody move

I am typing a game lol

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Happy

"Micro Men"

One of the finest programmes ever shown on the Beeb, hope they show it again over the weekend and BBC4 does some sort of theme night in its honour.

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Happy

Micro Men

I really wish the BBC would release Micro Men on DVD. Every few months for about two years I've tried to see if its going to be released and still they don't. :(

Its a shame Micro Men wasn't longer, so it could show more background than mostly just the creation of the ZX Spectrum vs the BBC B, so maybe show more about the ZX80 & ZX81 (and Atom), but anyway, it was pure unending nostalgia from start to finish. A real joy to watch. :)

Please BBC, release Micro Men on DVD! :)

30 years... wow, I feel old! :)

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I bought the kit....

...and put it together with the help of my brother who was an electronic engineer (conveniently).

Worked first time. Then I added an aftermarkey 16k RAM pack as it was cheaper than the Sinclair one (drive to London to buy it from a shop). Later I put it all in an ugly oblong plastic case with a keyboard on it, which I bought just before the company in question went bust. It took me several lengthy phone calls to harass them into sending it to me but it was worth it!

I spent many a happy hour playing games from a small company in Portsmouth (where I live) called Automata who produced early software for it and later the Spectrum.... anyone remember Pimania, the treasure hunt game? I was so close to cracking that one..... turned up on the right day but went to Greenwich instead of Hurstmonceux.

Ah those were the days - 3D Monster Maze anyone?

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3D Monster maxe = best computer game ever

Nuff said

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Happy

Mr Westwood

I had the pleasure of working for Jim Westwood in my previous job at Amino Communications. (He is still working for them).

Some of his stories of what they did in the 'Good Old Days' were truly amazing.

I was happy to see his cameo role in the BBC TV "Micro Men" film , made everyone at work laugh. (That and the picture of him on Planet Sinclair showing him when he was 34).

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You never forget your first computer.

I spent probably thousands of hours on my ZX81, learning BASIC and Z-80 machine code (didn't get a proper assembler until the Speccy came along).

It's a shame kids today don't have that immediate access to a programming environment. Lots of fun to be had once you get your head around variables, reading keyboard characters using INKEY$ and moving things around using PRINT AT and SCROLL.

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Title

"It's a shame kids today don't have that immediate access to a programming environment. Lots of fun to be had once you get your head around variables, reading keyboard characters using INKEY$ and moving things around using PRINT AT and SCROLL."

They do, although potentially a bigger can of worms than BASIC if exposed to all of it at once. All browsers support Javascript and it only needs a text editor to use. Add in the <CANVAS> element and you can do pretty much anything a ZX80/81/Speccy could do.

The bit that is lacking is resources to teach it at such a simple level. Most JS tutorials either assume prior programming knowledge and jump straight in to talking about objects and anonymous functions, or are aimed at designers so focus on DOM and HTML interaction. I haven't seen anything aimed at using it as an introduction to general programming.

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Voodoo

----

I haven't seen anything aimed at using it as an introduction to general programming.

----

Perhaps the closest thing might be "Voodoo's Introduction to JavaScript" - which is still around on teh intawebz (Google it); was the closest thing I had to a bible when I was first learning JS. It's way out of date now really (JavaScript was "a new scripting language which is being developed by Netscape" when it was written) but it has basic concepts in it like "what is a function?" "what is an event?" and so on...

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Bronze badge

Not quite.

Everybody has access to dozens of totally free well documented programming languages today. Free C compilers, Free Python, Java, C++, you name it. And a bunch of more off beat graphical programming languages. Not to mention pretty good game creation kits bundled with many games. If you go looking, one problem you will not have, is a shortage of options. There has never been such good resources for even a lone teenager to learn how to program.

Problem is.. We also have access to pretty much every program or game we could want. How many kids even think that writing a program might be possible? .. And lets be honest. A GUI based program is not going to be nearly as easy as bashing out a few lines of BASIC to get a black square to move across the screen. Unprecedented access, unprecedented availability of help, but the least motivation ever. Sad really.

Back when I had a ZX81, I had little choice but to type in programs. Not a lot available for the 1K machines. And as I had to save up for the cassette deck too, I spend the first month or more typing everything in if I wanted to use the program. No way you could avoid learning a little something in such an environment. And just about every kid with a ZX81 was also a dabbler in programming at the very least.

You wanted to do something with the computer back then, you paged through the stack of magazines you kept under the bed(Not that kind of magazine... ), and hoped someone wrote an article on how to do it, or you figured it out yourself.

Now.. If you want something, just type it into Google and you get a whole slew of pretty much any program for pretty much any OS..

About the only hope is for kids to get interested in cell phone app programming. But to be honest, even that is a long shot, and again, a temporary thing. Give it a few more years, and the simple cell phone apps will be as complex and demanding as the PC apps are today.

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You're right

Though you can still get kids into programming if you show them Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) which is a drag and drop programming language which lets you do graphics, animations and sound very easily and teaches you the fundamentals of program design. Say it quietly and you can even use it to do message passing and parallel processing (of a kind).

Sooner or later they'll hit the limits of Scratch, but by then they might be hooked enough to go on to a more powerful language like Alice.

And kids today have LEGO Mindstorms which really is far too good for them.

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That Mk14 thing

Wow, I actually used one of those at university in about 1992. I never realised it was an actual product, looked like something the lab technicians had knocked up.

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@stucs201 re. MK14

Are you sure it was a MK14? Many universities used a KIM-1 (produced by Commodore, at least at the end), which was a similar product but used a MOSTEK 6502 rather than the Nat. Semi SC/MP which is what I believe was in the MK14.

I remember having to write a sine-wave generator on a KIM-1, and I managed to get a higher resolution wave than everyone else by having a lookup table with just 1/4 of the whole cycle in the lookup table, whereas everybody else had at least a half cycle (and some of them stupidly coded the whole cycle). Fitting it into 512 BYTES was a real challenge. But then I also managed to write a simple lunar lander on the Sinclair Cambridge programmable calculator in just 32 program steps!

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Happy

That's nothing.

I bought a Nascom 1 in 1977, and a Nascom 2 two years later.

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Atic-attac

Manic Miner, Wizards Lair, Chequered Flag, Chuckie Egg, Jet Set Willy, Sabre Wulf, Avalon and many more. Ah such sweet memories

http://www.zxspectrum.net/

have fun

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hehe...

Oddly enough I was just playing Manic Miner... On a spectrum emulator on my mobile phone! I bet it's got loads of delay looks to stop the 800Mhz ARM processor running the emulation of the 3.5Mhz Z80 too fast!

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Firebirds

I spent so much of my life on Firebirds that it's actually quite scary. That and AD Astra, Trans Am, Hunchback...

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Still an active ZX81 Retro Community

People are still writing software for the good ol' ZX81

http://www.rwapsoftware.co.uk/zx812.html

and

http://www.rwapservices.co.uk/ZX80_ZX81/forums/

Go on, bathe in the nostalgia!

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MrT
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Don't forget the retro marketplace...

... at http://www.sellmyretro.com

I've an unbuilt ZX81 kit in the attic - apparently they go for around £100 these days ;-)

And do check out the rest of the stuff on Rich Mellor's site - lots on the Sinclair QL there too.

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Pint

And so it began ...

I started my programming career (I'm at my office PC typing this whilst working as a developer for a major ecommerce company, thanks Uncle Clive) when I bought a 2nd hand ZX80 in 1981 when I was 16. I soon followed it with a 2nd hand ZX81 and loved them both.

My weirdest/'most inventive' use of the ZX81 was when a friend and I soldered electrical block connectors (the plastic blocks with the screws for fixing mains cables together) via a ribbon cable to the 81's keyboard matrix solder points on the board. That meant that a virtual external key could be created by connecting a switch to the block connectors and using INKEY$ to detect it in BASIC. I then took my classical guitar, covered the frets in a matrix of aluminium foil, taped wire in all the right places and used the strings as a conductor via the bridge, connected the wires to the ZX81, programmed it to make suitably pitched beeps based on the incoming INKEY$ detection and bingo, one very primitive and early digital guitar!

Those were the days!

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