The 1980s marked the start of a computing revolution: bringing affordable kit into the home for a new generation of tech-hungry kids to dive in and explore. I know this, because I was one of them! Now, at the ripe young age of 51, I get to look back and share with you the impact of those years on the tech landscape we know today.
Space… the final frontier
We need to look just a few years before the 80s, to find the seeds of the home computing revolution. For me, it started with TV and the first moon landing in 1969.
Growing up, kids’ TV shows like Captain Scarlet and re-runs of Thunderbirds offered a science fiction view of the future. Star Trek was also a major influence on me. Made in the late 60s, it continued to be shown and merged with the backdrop of actual space flight. In 1974, Tom Baker became Dr Who, bringing a wonderful anarchic craziness to the role.
However, the biggest impact came in 1977, when, as a 10-year-old, I walked into the cinema to see the original Star Wars film. Not only was it brilliant, but we were also bombarded with adverts, toys, breakfast cereal tie-ins, curtains and clothes.
Star Wars’ success led to our home-grown TV shows like Blake’s 7 in 1978. The show saw Paul Darrow play Avon (the computer genius) rewiring, programming and doing lots of hacking. He had a hint of Star Trek’s Spock about him, trying to live logically, but underlying was that anarchic, quirky buzz of Baker’s Dr Who. It was not so much that I wanted to be Avon, but I wanted to be able to do what he could do, hack what he could hack; solve things with tech.
Enter the video game
In 1978, Space Invaders video game cabinets landed everywhere. With my Blake’s 7 Avon head on though, as well as playing, I looked at the pixels moving back and forth and wondered just how everything worked. Yes, there were buttons to push to try and beat the invaders - but what if I could do some tech wizardry to beat the machine? Of course I couldn’t. Not yet anyway.
I was lucky that, in my school, we had several teachers who were interested in computers and technology. The school had a computer studies class and this is where something really important happened for me.
In our lessons, we had to write short programs on coding sheets that were sent off to the town hall, typed onto punch cards and then run overnight. We would get a line printer listing back to show the results for the class the next week.
However, it was whilst trying to get our heads around PDP-11 assembler that the penny dropped. I understood what a variable was and how a loop would work. There and then, I could imagine Space Invaders’ pseudo code. This was the moment I grokked technology.
We were lucky that one of the teachers had a TRS-80 home computer and would bring it into school. These machines only shipped from 1977 (yes that year again) until 1981. It had come from a friend in the US, I believe. Rather than needing punch cards, trips to the town hall and week-long waits for results, the TRS-80 showed its magic on a CRT screen. It had a keyboard and a programming language called BASIC.
All this offered immediate feedback and easy experimentation. You’d simply type things in and hit ‘run’. After my epiphany for what programming was, seeing ‘10: Print “hello” 20: GOTO 10’ made understanding loops, variables and conditional branches very easy indeed. Now, I wanted to be
Doing it my way
Initially, I didn’t have a computer at home but eventually, I managed to badger my folks into buying one of the earliest home gaming consoles. I have no idea what it was called; it only played variants of Pong, and only as a two-player.
Then, in 1981, Sinclair hit us with the ZX81. This was a fully functioning computer that plugged into the TV and allowed you to type in BASIC, just like the mystical TRS-80. Again, I was very lucky to get the support from my parents and to get one of these – it cost £70 (which equates to £250 in today’s money) - but there was nothing like it. The machine had 1KByte of memory, but you could do a lot with that back then.
Beyond the ZX81
At school, I chose computer studies as one of my exam subjects. We now had RML 380Z machines with floppy disk drives. Around the same time, the BBC Micro arrived on the scene, along with a TV show all about programming to go with it.
The BBC Micro was way more expensive than the ZX81, but some friends and my school started to buy them (I was too busy upgrading the ZX81 with RAM packs and a fancy keyboard). All I wanted to do was write code - especially code that did interesting things, like games.
At the time, there were very few learning resources, bar books and computer magazines that contained printed listings of computer code that you typed in and tried to get working. Images moving on a screen was previously the stuff of Space Invaders and cost 10p a game, but now, with the ZX81, I could control basic characters on a screen.
My very small contribution to this industry came after the advent of the Commodore 64, It was a lunar lander game that I wrote and sent - on a tape - to Computer and Video Games, a multi-format magazine.
It was good enough to be published in Issue 28, 1984, for which I received £10 and a copy of the magazine. I had been paid to write code. I’d shared it with the world and all that - whilst I was still at sixth form. It seemed a pretty good indication to me that computing was a path to stick with.
I did my degree in IT at Leicester Polytechnic and went on to be a software engineer at IBM, starting with 3270 terminal based programming. This actually felt very like the early ZX81 days.
In the early 1990s, PCs arrived and we started on the road of client/server computing. It was generally those of us from the home coding background of the 80s that gravitated towards these machines and subsequent future technologies.
Elsewhere, you can see the legacy of these times and those machines. The open source movement, for example, feels like the fruit of that time. Those bedroom coders had grown up and were able to share their ideas and code with others via the internet. Maker culture, in general, comes from this generation of coders, too.
Where to next?
The buzz and the feeling of doing something new with technology has stayed with me for the past 35 years. Much of my attitude to coding, game solving and the ‘art of the possible’ spilled into my sci-fi novel series Reconfigure and Cont3xt.
At heart, I am still very much a gamer. Many of today’s biggest game titles were born in UK studios. And, of course, like me, many of the people who are now offering support and mentoring to future coders, are from the 80s generation of hackers.
The biggest change, for me, has been how accessible technology has become. The Raspberry Pi Zero, for example, was even given away on a magazine front cover. The Raspberry Pi B+ costs around £40 and Arduino boards are even less.
However, it’s difficult for anyone to make something today that looks, sounds and plays as well as modern mainstream games. In the 1980s, the technology gap was significantly smaller.
I don’t believe we should make the next generation of computer coding kids struggle with punch cards, PDP-11s or spend time typing in listings – as we had to. Instead, popular environments like Minecraft give a different, creative angle to playing and building. Even Fortnite now has its ‘build-your-own creative mode’ for a shared experience in a virtual world.
Who are you calling old?
I recently gave a presentation for our BCS Animation and Games specialist group entitled: ‘What’s with all the dancing in games today?’ The abstract said: ‘…There is also a serious business model behind this and other skins and perks available in games such as Fortnite, plus a rich second-hand market emerging, and who knows- it may end up being blockchain powered.’ Several university students came along and said directly to me: ‘we just came along because we wondered why some old guy would be talking about games.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘Let me tell you a story…’
Image credit: Sergey Galyonkin