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How I started programming

12 March 2017 21:50

I've written parts of this story in the past, but never in one place and never in much detail. So why not now?

In 1982 my family moved house, so one morning I went to school and at lunch-time I had to walk home to a completely different house.

We moved sometime towards the end of the year, and ended up spending lots of money replacing the windows of the new place. For people in York I was born in Farrar Street, Y010 3BY, and we moved to a place on Thief Lane, YO1 3HS. Being named as it was I "ironically" stole at least two street-signs and hung them on my bedroom wall. I suspect my parents were disappointed.

Anyway the net result of this relocation, and the extra repairs meant that my sisters and I had a joint Christmas present that year, a ZX Spectrum 48k.

I tried to find pictures of what we received but unfortunately the web doesn't remember the precise bundle. All together though we received:

I know we also received Horace and the Spiders, and I have vague memories of some other things being included, including a Space Invaders clone. No doubt my parents bought them separately.

Highlights of my Spectrum-gaming memories include R-Type, Strider, and the various "Dizzy" games. Some of the latter I remember very fondly.

Unfortunately this Christmas was pretty underwhelming. We unpacked the machine, we cabled it up to the family TV-set - we only had the one, after all - and then proceeded to be very disappointed when nothing we did resulted in a successful game! It turns out our cassette-deck was not good enough. Being back in the 80s the shops were closed over Christmas, and my memory is that it was around January before we received a working tape-player/recorder, such that we could load games.

Happily the computer came with manuals. I read one, skipping words and terms I didn't understand. I then read the other, which was the spiral-bound orange book. It contained enough examples and decent wording that I learned to write code in BASIC. Not bad for an 11/12 year old.

Later I discovered that my local library contained "computer books". These were colourful books that promised "The Mystery of Silver Mounter", or "Write your own ADVENTURE PROGRAMS". But were largely dry books that contained nothing but multi-page listings of BASIC programs to type in. Often with adjustments that had to be made for your own computer-flavour (BASIC varying between different systems).

If you want to recapture the magic scroll to the foot of this Osbourne page and you can download them!

Later I taught myself Z80 Assembly Language, partly via the Spectrum manual and partly via such books as these two (which I still own 30ish years later):

  • Understanding your Spectrum, Basic & Machine Code Programming.
    • by Dr Ian Logan
  • An introduction to Z80 Machine Code.
    • R.A & J.W Penfold

Pretty much the only reason I continued down this path is because I wanted infinite/extra lives in the few games I owned. (Which were largely pirated via the schoolboy network of parents with cassette-copiers.)

Eventually I got some of my l33t POKES printed in magazines, and received free badges from the magazines of the day such as Your Sinclair & Sinclair User. For example I was "Hacker of the Month" in the Your Sinclair issue 67 , Page 32, apparently because I "asked so nicely in my letter".

Terrible scan is terrible:

Anyway that takes me from 1980ish to 1984. The only computer I ever touched was a Spectrum. Friends had other things, and there were Sega consoles, but I have no memories of them. Suffice it to say that later when I first saw a PC (complete with Hercules graphics, hard drives, and similar sourcery, running GEM IIRC) I was pleased that Intel assembly was "similar" to Z80 assembly - and now I know the reason why.

Some time in the future I might document how I got my first computer job. It is hillarious. As was my naivete.



Comments on this entry

icon Hubert Banas at 18:33 on 12 March 2017

Great story. I share similar experience but in my case it was Atari 800XL. I'm looking forward to read about how you got your first computer job.

icon Regis at 20:09 on 12 March 2017

You said the computer was a joint gift with your sister. Just curious: did she program at all?

icon Steve Kemp at 04:25 on 13 March 2017

I have two sisters, but no, neither of them had any interest in reading the manuals or programming.

The rest of my family just treated the computer as a thing to play games on, and that's all they ever did.

icon Roger Leigh at 21:59 on 13 March 2017

I see you feature on the Letters page as well! (Are you still addicted?) Wish I still had my YS collection!

icon Steve Kemp at 04:13 on 14 March 2017

I don't recall ever writing letters, other than submitting POKE, but if you found one then it was probably me!

I was always a little sporadic when it came to buying the magazines, but yeah I wish I still had mine too.

icon Duke at 08:54 on 14 March 2017

I had a 16k version of the rubber key specturm modded by my uncle to 48k, with the motherboard half burned and two more hacks for video/audio out. i was 8 yo, so it also have my stickers on. i still have it i've also given it a name "Edgar". Lol, it was there that everything begun :) so fascinating machine!

icon Chris at 08:56 on 14 March 2017

Amazing story!

I don't live far from thief lane in York so was weird to read that address in an article linked form hackernews.

All the best Chris

icon Steve Kemp at 09:05 on 14 March 2017

Chris, what a small world!