Wherefore Art Thou, ZX-81

1981…  The heady times of Thatcherite Britain.  Deep in the industrial north…

A vast private-equity fund is assembled for the sole purpose of the deployment of 21st Century technology. 

Well okay, it was actually my brother and my sister and I that pooled our hard-won Christmas cash to spend 80 quid (about $160 for most of you) on the supercomputer known as the Sinclair ZX-81.

And we bought the thing upstairs in WH Smiths (think: Barnes and Nobles magazine section as a high street store).


A Z80-compatible processor running at 3.25 MHz and an unbelievable 1 KB of on-board RAM.  And a black and white display running at 64×48 pixels!  Was there nothing this machine could not accomplish!

Well actually, as I recall, the first two we bought failed to boot.  But third time was a charm.  We didn’t purchase the 16K RAM pack because (a) we had no idea what we would do with that much memory and (b) our fund was tapped out.  In the interests of historical accuracy, (a) was a satisfactory excuse after (b) was discovered.

It also took a while to get the funky old TV to pick up the signal.  But we got there in the end.

Hello World.

Some months later, when we had progressed to buying magazines and typing in programs (!) we found out that the tape in/out didn’t work.  For those of you confused at this point, you backed up or loaded your programs on audio tape via the line in/out on a chunky old cassette player.  Or at least, you did on any ZX-81 except ours.

And that marked the beginning of the end for the trusty ZX-81.  The last time I saw it, the z-key of it’s membrane keyboard had become irreparably indented, so every boot produced a screen full of perfect Z’s, in all caps, of course.

So long ZX-81.  Fare thee well.


3 comments for “Wherefore Art Thou, ZX-81

  1. August 10, 2007 at 5:03 am

    W.H. Smiths actually did make it over here to Raleigh. In the 80's there was one at North Hills Mall.

    Also, wherefore, translated to modern English, means 'why'. 😛

    "Why are you ZX-81?"

  2. DisMonkey
    August 10, 2007 at 10:07 am

    You should know better than to argue English with an Englishman. Even if we’re wrong, we can sound good about it 😉

    1) The archaic form can also mean “for what” as well as why

    2) If you ever owned one, “why” does eventually strike you as a good question

    3) The popular misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s line (as seen in many a Romeo & Juliet production) is that wherefore means “where”. In the spirit of Colbertian truthiness, I’m saying it can mean “where” this time too…

    (although actually, I think I know exactly where it is, but that’s another matter entirely).

  3. August 10, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Nice! We had the American version: the Timex Sinclair 1000 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timex_Sinclair_1000 ), with the 16KB memory pack that stuck out the side. I wish I knew whatever became of that.

    I had been exposed to programming at school on their TI-99/4A and after having the TS-1000 at home spent two summers at a “computer camp” learning to program first on the Apple II+ and later the Apple IIe. I spent my last two years of high school at a boarding school where I was introduced to PCs by way of the Tandy 1000 EX ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tandy_1000#Tandy_1000_EX ). When I went to college, though, my first year their they ended up buying an original NeXT cube, which is probably why my laptop today is a MacBook. 🙂

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