Around the start of the 1980s my Mum, being a teacher in the UK, went on a ‘computer course’. She took me to someone’s house, specifically I think, to check out their Commodore PET one of the first home computers to market. Computers, you know, were the future.
For Christmas 1981 I received a Sinclair ZX81, I went downstairs and there it was, plugged into the telly with the words ‘Merry Christmas Andrew Love Mum and Dad’ on the screen screen. Shit. My mum could code!
A friend who was older than me (called Big Matt to differentiate him from my younger brother, Little Matt) told me he’d come round and we’d make a game on it. Pac Man was the game of the moment – my son is amazed at how good I am at PacMan 😉 – so he said he’d show me how to code that. We sat down and he went to write ‘A small round yellow ball with a mouth eating ghosts’, believing (obviously utterly naively) that the computer would interpret this into a game of PacMan. Of course when we pressed the A button the ZX81 wrote ‘NEW’ on the screen. So we had to pick up the manual and thus began the first lessons in BASIC.
By the time I got a Spectrum a couple of years later me and Big Matt were coding kings. Saturday’s favourite passtime was being dragged around town by Mum and Dad. At the time Boots sold computers, so whenever there was an opportunity I’d sneak to the computer section and tag the machines, trying in as little time as possible to make as many computers as you could flash, make psychedelic noises and show graphics of flying saucers blowing up cities or writing my name ad infinitum:
The only time I really ever got hit by a teacher was because of a computer too. We had a library lesson and our progressive headmaster had bought a bunch of Sinclair QL’s and Spectrum+’s (computers were the future you know). WIth 10 minutes to kill at the end of the lesson I asked Mrs Webster if I could play on the computer and was told there wasn’t time. Now I knew there was plenty of time, so I figured **** Mrs Webster, I went and did it anyway. Of course in 5 minutes I was making colour and noise and had attracted the attention of half the class. WHACK! Mrs W delivered a world class smack to me around the back of my head. I must have been 10 or 11 years old. (I got my revenge a year later when she was caught speeding outside the school gates and my friend and I quickly published a school magazine with that news as front page story.)
At 12 (in 1985) I was handing in computer animations for homework assignments. The sentiment of MJ Hibbet’s awesome Hey Hey 16k was true; “It made a generation who could code”. The internet kind of came along for ‘normal human beings’ as I was leaving university in ’96. In my very first half decent job I hacked the company website together from instructions in a magazine article. When I went for a really good multimedia designer’s job at Brand New Media (no, not that one, this one) the fact that I’d actually published a commercial website at all was more than most. There I started working with a bunch of people who were using computers to make creative things and because we understood them, from the ground up, we were never afraid to experiment. In fact, the restrictions of the world wide web, with its web safe pallets, tiny file sizes and limited resolutions (640×480 – remember the Spectrum was 256×192, the ZX81 64×48, no kids, that’s NOT a typo) we were right at home. Those adults who in 1980 were insisting that ‘computers were the future’ could not have dreamed that in 20 years time there’d be a global network of supercomputers that has pervaded our lives the way that it has.
I think Big Matt sold his Spectrum to buy a fishing rod, but I do remember his mum insisting that he write one big game or program before she allowed him to do it. Fishing, she must have thought, is not the future.
Just for fun: The World’s Smallest Pac Man Game