5 Lessons from the ZX Spectrum

I was delighted to speak (along with the passionate & entertaining Eleanor McHugh) at the recent joint Sci-Fi-London and London Girl Geek event, celebrating the anniversary of the ZX Spectrum.

The slides don’t make a whole lot of sense on their own, so here’s a summary of what I said:

I wasn’t lucky enough to have a ZX personally: my first computer was an x86 that I hacked and soldered together from a number of broken ones thrown out by my dad’s work. I often joke that the permeating scent of my childhood was solder and the soundtrack the sound of bloody Gideon falling off the path on the trek up the mountaintop to the wizard’s castle in King’s Quest III. But since I was growing up in South Africa (where everything arrived a few years late), there were certainly some highly prized Spectrums around, and some of us were very jealous of the folks who had BASIC as a third language.

I think the culture the Spectrum created shaped the experiences of a couple of geek generations. Something (relatively) affordable, that you could code your own programs on and share them (though a couple of folks in the audience highlighted that writing to tape in no way guaranteed your ZX would ever read it again…) really was revolutionary. And there is something special about first interactions with computing being about CREATING rather than just using or consuming. I’ve done a lot of training redesign in recent years and this need to move away from consumption to creation in order for adults to really learn has been a key theme.

The (again relative) openness of the ZX Spectrum was important too. Partly since there had been an “assemble it yourself” version, circuitboard diagrams were available, and though Sir Clive probably didn’t approve, the vast proliferation of personal “build from scratch” grey copies and manufactured (cheaper) copies, especially in places like the old Soviet Union, contributed to the number of people building things, and so the sheer scale of programs being written and shared. The fact that much could be shared in written form (computer magazines printed code!) speaks to a more innocent age … and the storage medium being a normal audio tape meant that code could be broadcast over the airwaves (this is the Channel 4 logo piece on lesson #4).

Removing barriers, both reducing cost and making it easier to create & share programs (especially games!) was key to the success of the Spectrum. I remember being taught Java at university and how for those of us who could already program, we were appalled at how many lines of Java it took to get a simple “Hello world”. For those who this was their first introduction to programming, no surprise that they were lost. Many left the course, or really struggled through the next few years. There is great power in something simple enough that a kid just a few years old can write and get something to run — it’s why I’m a fan of Python as a teaching language, since you can get something that DOES SOMETHING in just a few lines.

And so, I have great hopes for the Raspberry Pi. We need another generation of kids that play WITH computers as well as ON computers/Playstations/Xboxes. Some people have criticised the Pi coming as just a circuitboard, but I think this is part of the beauty of it. Understanding the hardware is important, and much as I love my iPhone (and iPad!), it kinda sucks that you can’t break them open and have a bit of a look round.

We build better stuff if we understand it from the circuits up, and we all learn more if we create rather than just consuming. So viva la Raspberry Pi!