Sinclair Research created the hardware, and Timex Corporation manufactured it. It was a small injection-moulded black wedge-shaped box. Its keyboard was a pressure-sensitive membrane. It was nothing more than a stripped-back cheap version of what a computer could be. It had no right to be as successful as it became. It was the Sinclair ZX81.
I had grown up playing cabinet arcade machines and the Atari VCS. The print adverts for the ZX81 promised something more: a personal computer that you could program in a language called BASIC. You could write software on it, program your computer to do whatever you wanted. Or, you could buy the software instead to turn your computer into a useful tool. And, of course, you could buy and play games on it. You could even make your own games if you learned how.
I used those adverts to show my parents that the ZX81 was a real computer. It could be much more than a games machine. I told them I would learn about computing and how to program. I told them it had the potential to be able to do almost anything.
In a lot of ways, the ZX81 lived up to the hype. It rewarded time spent learning, but it was not easy. The computer’s manual was well written, in-depth and incomprehensible to me. The first time I wrote a program that drew my name on the screen and made it scroll forever was something I’ll never forget. Many computer magazines of the day printed full-text listings of programs. With a lot of patience you could type them in: by inputting words and symbols in a specific order, you could make the computer do something new. You didn’t need to know nor understand what you were doing or what it meant. It was like magic.
One of the main reasons I yearned for a personal computer had more to do with the ‘personal’ than the ‘computer’ part. I wanted something that was just for me. Going to the arcades or playing on the Atari, although brilliant, were shared experiences and family affairs. Although I would never swap that time for anything, the ZX81 would be just for me.
I needed a bit of autonomy, a bit of independence, by then. The personal computer would give me that. I saved up and bought myself a small black and white portable television and a ‘shoebox’ tape cassette player to accompany the computer. I shared a bedroom with my brother, but we cleared enough space at the end of my bed to squeeze in a chair and a narrow desk. I arranged the computer, cassette player and TV just so.
It was my space.
I learned how to set up the ZX81 on my own. I figured out what to plug in and what to press and what to do. I was able to express myself and enjoy my interests and my own company in a way that I had not been able to before then.
I lost myself in the games. They were different than what I’d played in the arcades or on the Atari. They were primitive in their graphics and presentation, but they more than made up for that with their inventiveness and imagination. It required the player to become invested in the game and fill in the details. I particularly liked the text adventures and any game with an overriding narrative (however skeletal it might be).
The ZX81 helped me find things out about myself during a difficult time. It provided me with a feeling of infinite possibility, and introduced me to the world of computing. It laid the foundation for much of my life. I have such fond and happy memories because of it.
Because of that little black wedge, I will always make a little corner of my home into a space just for me.