Tuesday, 21 September 2021

RIP Sir Clive Sinclair


Last week brought the sad news of the death of Clive Sinclair.  He had a huge impact on my life through the computers he invented with his Sinclair Research company.  

I was 8 years old when we got our first computer - a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.  It had 48k of memory, and cost £175.  The photo shows me holding it in my hand (picture taken last week).  It makes it look very small!  I had no idea what a computer was when my dad told me we were getting one, and I asked about playing games on it.  He explained that yes you could play games, but you have to tell it how, or program it first.  I remember wondering if that meant that latent inside it was a more-or-less fully-formed version of Space Invaders that somehow needed unlocking. Of course, it's not quite like that, but I was completely fascinated by the computer and what could be created inside it.  It came with a big manual of how to program it with the built-in Basic interpreter.  I went through a lot of that manual, and typed in lots of programs from books and magazines and learnt the rudiments of programming.  

As I grew older, I mainly just played games on it, often with friends from school - and my weekends were spent cycling to a friend's house to play on their computer or have them come to mine to do the same.  The ability to use a computer to create worlds in one's imagination seemed to me easily to rival that of any other medium.  It was also a very cultural phenomenon at the time, at least to my peers and me.  We had ridiculous rivalry between computers with a kind of understanding of what owning each one meant.  The Spectrum was in some sense at the lowest end of the technical pecking order, and it had social associations with its mass-market appeal and vast base of games, while better-off parents with good intentions for their children would get the recommended BBC computer for their children, and there was a kind of (middle) class-related badge to having one.  The Commodore 64, much better technically than the spectrum, American, and with an ample supply of games signified a better-off family with the populist strain that the Spectrum embodied.

Sinclair as a businessman seemed at once both astute and reckless as he quickly turned great success into failure and the company - at least the computer part of it - was bought out by technically and socially humdrum rival Amstrad who brought out a souped-up "Spectrum +2" which we got to replace our original Spectrum.  I still used that computer to exclusively play games on, and gaming was my main motivation for getting a Commodore Amiga when I was something like 14 years old.  My Dad had said, when I got it, that he hoped I would do more than just play games on it, and in fact I did really start getting to grips with a lot of how it worked and how to program it.  It came with AmigaBasic, but I wanted something a bit more powerful.  Unfortunately commerical compilers for languages like C on the Amiga were quite expensive.  The affordable option, because the technology was much simpler, was to get a machine code assembler which required one to directly program at the level of the CPU's native instruction set, but at least did not involve the "hand-assembly" of converting the maching op-codes into numbers.  So it was that one of the first languages I really wrote complete codes that I shared was 68k assembler.  That became my go-to language for doing anything, and with the library routines of the Amiga's operating system to assist, one could write quite sophisticated things in a modest amount of machine code.  I used to solve mathematics problems from my GCSE class on it, and sometimes submit answers alongside computer code.  I have no idea what my teachers made of it, but I suppose I assumed that if I could understand it, so could / should they.  I was never told to stop, and did the same in my GCSE "Technology" exam, which I now see would have flummoxed the examiner, who graciously erred on the side of giving me a high mark.

I remember very little of 68k machine code now, but have been programming in one language or another since about that time, and it is a significant part of my work as a physics lecturer and researcher..  It all started with that Spectrum, though, and even if I ended up using it for playing games on, I did get the seeds of programming at that time, and thought of using typed computer language instructions as a perfectly natural way of getting computers to do what you want them to.