It has now been over 30 years since I first had my hands on a computer keyboard, oh how far we have come. In this article I'd like to look back at what started it all for me, my first hesitant keystrokes to a career as a one man IT department. I'm doing this from memory but I'll try to get my facts straight.
I remember that it was in my final year at secondary school when the school got its first computer. Mr. Hedges was our form room teacher and I think the one behind the purchase. It was just a punch card unit, I don't remember much about it as we were not allowed to touch the device. One thing I do remember is a lesson in logic that has stuck with me all these years. A simple task, draw a flowchart that describes how to make a cup of tea. Simple at first but the steps had to be precise, each task checked yes or no before moving on. You can't turn on the kettle without plugging it in, each task in order. I think back at this lesson and mark it as where I learned logical thinking.
It was all Sir Clive Sinclair's fault! In 1980 it was his vision, a genius in my eyes, that put that first plastic box with a keyboard in my hands. I was 19 and working in a hotel bar at the time so didn't have a lot of money. And here was a computer, that one could program, for under 100 UK pounds.
Sinclair ZX80 (1980)
No color, no sound, 1k of memory and plugged into the TV but I could enter commands and it would do stuff. There were no programs except what you wrote yourself. Of course there wasn't much one could do in 1024 characters but it was a start. I remember writing a very simple space invaders type program, just one invader with a launcher at the bottom which fired missiles at the scrolling @ sign.
Around the same time Compukit came out with this single board computer. I don't remember too much about it but it came as a kit or ready built. I got mine ready built used after selling the ZX80. It did have a 'real' keyboard instead of a membrane but no case.
Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982)
Now I was moving up, 48k of memory, a few colors and rudimentary sound. Still plugged into the TV but now I had a cassette tape recorder to store programs. Now I could write more complex programs and home computers were becoming more popular. Magazines came out which had listings in them, programs you could type in and run. Often these programs had mistakes or typos so I learning a lot by having to fix these. Written in BASIC it wasn't too difficult to read a listing a figure out what was happening. Later it started becoming possible to buy software on cassette.
Now I was up to 64k and I got my first dedicated monitor, a green screen to start but later in full color. This machine came with a built in cassette recorder. And it was here that had my first taste of professional programming. I had approached a company called CRL Computing and got a contract to convert a game called Handicapped Golf from the Spectrum to the CPC-464. I finished this and got paid 200 UKP for my trouble but it never went any further. Programmers were turning to Z80 machine language which was faster than BASIC and I couldn't get my head around it. There was no Internet classes, no Google to look stuff up, and I had no friends locally who understood. I was living on a small island north of Scotland, cut off from it all.
Actually, I ended up with two of these computers along with a few peripherals. At first, because of the programming I was doing my dad loaned me the money to get a disk drive and a printer. The disk drive was Amstrad's own design utilizing a 3" floppy disk which held 170k, this was a lot faster and easier to use than the cassette tape. The printer was dot matrix and used tractor fed paper. Then I remember getting two RS232 serial devices that plugged in the back and introduced me to networking. I had both computers sending packets to/from each other and I wrote a couple of games to make use of this. Battleship was the main one, I could set up a shot on one computer, fire and the packet of information would be sent to the other computer. It would then calculate the result and send a hit or miss back to the first computer which would play an appropriate sound and mark the board. Two players could play a complete game, it worked very well.
Once basic home networking was started the next step was communicating across the country. This is when Bulletin Board Systems started becoming popular. These were, to use modern terminology, the websites of the time. One could design pages with a menu and other users could dial-in with their modems and view those pages. It was ASCII based so it was all basically text or graphics made up using blocks. For a time I had the most northerly BBS in the UK. People from all over the country would dial-in, one at a time, and view my pages and even chat with me if I was available. A shout out here to Andrew Keeley who sold me my initial BBS software and became a long time friend although we only ever met once.
Sinclair Z88 (1988)
Here was my first portable computer. Its LCD display was 80 characters wide by 5 lines and it had a whopping 32k of internal memory. This was the time that I learned to type properly. I recognized the importance of getting away from two-finger hunt and peck and signed up for a night class at a local school. I think I only went to about 5 sessions, it was enough. The techniques used during the lessons quickly taught me what I needed to know, then it was just practice. I had bought a movie book, a thick tomb with thousands of listings. I decided I would type in the title, the year and the first 3 starring actors into the Z88, then I could cross reference looking up an actors work history. This took several weeks, I forced myself to use all my fingers and by the end I was fairly proficient.
Thus ended my time with 'Home Computers' and I bought my first PC, a 286 beige box. It was the first computer I had with an internal hard drive. The hard drive was actually mounted on a card that plugged into an expansion slot, before the days of IDE ribbon cables. I remember it came with a 5mb capacity, no, not 5 gigabyte, 5 megabyte! I remember this because I remember upgrading to a 20mb card, wow massive, who could ever use this much space! Today it would hold about 5 mp3 files.
** Update ** I found the receipt for my first PC back in 1991, I have scanned it into a pdf you can see below. Note that the amounts are in UK Pounds so add about 20% for US Dollars. And check out the price of the mouse!