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Sinclair ZX Spectrum celebrates 30th anniversary

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Thirty years ago on 23 April, Sinclair Research launched its iconic home computer, the ZX Spectrum, a device that went on to become one of the biggest selling models of all time and is even credited with kick-starting the modern UK IT industry by getting a whole generation of kids interested in computers.

The ‘Speccy', as it was affectionately known by owners, was by no means the most powerful or advanced computer available to consumers. In fact, it was decidedly basic when compared with contemporaries such as the BBC Micro or Commodore 64.

However, the Spectrum cost a fraction of the price of those two models at launch, and was easily the most affordable colour computer on the market for a long time, with a 16KB model at £125 and a 48KB model for £175, and it turned inventor Sir Clive Sinclair into a household name.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum

In many ways, the basic nature of the device became an advantage, since a whole market sprang up to provide add-ons to expand the memory and connect the computer to other hardware such as disk drives, joysticks and even keyboards that replaced the famous "dead flesh" rubber keys the computer sported.

Like many youngsters who grew up in the 1980s, this writer got much of his early experience of computers on the ZX Spectrum, which made it easy to get into software programming through its built-in BASIC language that allowed you to experiment with on-screen graphics and the primitive sound support of the Spectrum, before moving on to more advanced stuff.

A thriving market in games software grew up around the Spectrum, and programmers found they needed to come up with inventive ways to get around the rudimentary graphics capabilities of the device and cram ever more complex games into the 48KB memory available (few people bought the 16KB model).

In fact, it was rumoured that developers would only pursue a game concept intended for multiple platforms if it could be made to work on the Spectrum first.

Many of these live on and are available along with Spectrum emulator software for modern platforms such as Windows PCs.

As a cheap and cheerful computer for the masses, it is interesting to compare the Spectrum with today's Raspberry Pi, which has been created with the explicit purpose of developing technology skills among students.

Both systems are fairly basic (the Raspberry Pi is currently an uncased system board) with limited memory, but have all the facilities required to get started with programming.

In an echo of the Spectrum launch three decades ago, there is also much excitement about the Raspberry Pi, which looks set to be similarly well served with add-ons and software. And hopefully, it will inspire the next generation of UK tech entrepreneurs as well.

20 Apr 2012

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