In the beginning

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away I graduated as a Software Engineer. I know, jokes ahoy right? Well I did, so there. However this came at the end of a journey that started with the Sinclair ZX81, and made its way through gaming in seaside arcades in pretty much the glory days of arcade machines – an empiric mile of fan fold A2 tractor paper – a symphony of green and orange on black terminals, and ended with a bit of paper saying “We say you are good at this” and a smile.

By the time I was out of Primary School I was evolving the tron-like-drive-the-snake-around-the-obstacles and the whole plane-that-bombs-the-randomly-generated-city-below, while going a line lower on each pass with an element of rather questionable collision detection. Of course, when I say ‘plane‘, ‘bomb‘ and ‘city‘ – what I mean is ASCII art at best and the ‘graphics’ mode blocks for buildings.

I am not the worlds biggest fan of books. In fact, I have issue with writing, more specifically reading – so books are not a fun thing – have never been. However – standing out from the works of fiction are two instances that have had more of an impact than anything else. The Usborne programming guides (around the same time as Input Magazine), and the ZX81 programming Manual

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Amidst my early journey of discovery came these books from Usborne, presented to me by my parental processes. I had moved then from the ZX81 to the Spectrum+ (a spectrum with an almost proper keyboard (assuming you typed with pole like fingers from squarely above)). The Space Games book had a series of concept games allowing introduction to a number of basic constructs – allowing you stand on these to understand larger concepts… and the Island of Secrets…. which was just an immense, everlasting, painful, mission to type in.

With this came memories of being sat at a small table, higher than the armchair I perched on the edge of. The black and white portable TV balanced at the back of the table. Channel tuned (manually back then) into the mute, limited colours of silent nothing, and the .. what seemed like at the time .. endless entry of code.

The keys were more keyboard like than that of the spectrum and its chicklet rubber – however they had to be hit squarely from above, and me not being able to touch type back then was no big deal, as coding for that platform was in key presses that were syntactically relevant – saving on memory in terms of storage (j = LOAD, p = PRINT, and so on).

I am not even sure I played it for that long to be fair… with the likes of The Hobbit already consuming a tonne of my life, a second rate text only adventure… that I had put together… the journey was more in the writing, and seeing how others put code together.

So – digressing – I saw these Usborne Books posted online today in a thread, and watched programmers, admins, engineers alike of “a certain age” excitedly / wistfully flooding the thread with comments. A real flood of emotions and memories.

Before this there was really only One Ring To Bind Them All. For me the go to really had to be the ZX81 manual in all its ring bound, large fonted, simplistically worded goodness. Also relevant to later Sinclair machines as their OS hardly strayed far from the beaten path – just to include such fripperies as sound and colour.

I am not sure a single document has ever been as much a starting point for anything computing in my world.

It was both something I made my way through, and something I referred back to – in a manpage style.

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The contents of the Sinclair ZX81 BASIC PROGRAMMING manual, looking back were simplistic – but so were the machines, and as far as we were aware at the time the things that could be achieved. I owe a great deal to the authors of all of these books. Chapeau.

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