Old computers

I know there’s not much more boring than people going on about how much computers have changed. But having just bought a new computer, I’m in the mood to do it anyway. The very first computer we had in the house was my brother’s ZX81:

[picture of ZX81]

The ZX81 came with 1Kb of RAM. As a comparison, my current computer has 512Mb, so that’s approximately 500000 times more powerful. However, help was at hand if you needed to do more demanding tasks – we had a memory expansion pack for the ZX81 that boosted it to a heady 8Kb of memory. No hard disk, obviously – it used audio cassettes to store software.

Despite 3D Monster Maze, which seemed genuinely scary at the time (yeah, I know, it seems a bit pathetic now, but I was only about 8, and computers were still a brave new world for all of us) the appeal of the ZX81 was basically the idea of having a computer at home and learning how to do simple programming. The next computer, a Spectrum, actually had some quite good games. Relatively speaking. But then it did have a mighty 48K of memory, and a colour display. There’s a review from 1982 which you can read here that draws attention to its “powerful colour and sound commands”. As you can see, we were easily impressed in those days:

Anyway, my brother and I did eventually (1988, probably) buy a proper computer – an Apple Macintosh IIcx. We shelled out a bit extra to get 8Mb of RAM and the ability to display 256 colours; I can’t remember exactly what it came to, but it would have been three or four thousand pounds, so my new computer has 64 times as much memory for less than a third of the cost. Not even allowing for inflation. Those were the days when I was pretty excited by the very idea that you could store samples of sound on a computer, and we used to have all these little two or three second snatches of dialogue from Monty Python and 2001 and suchlike. The idea that one day you’d be able to store your entire music collection on your computer’s hard disk, let alone on a little thing like an iPod, would have astounded me. Or at least, even then it was pretty clear that things were moving quickly, so perhaps I wouldn’t have been astounded. Impressed, though. Still, even if I wasn’t able to edit movies on it, it was up to the job of running Freehand and Word and so on – all of which I naturally pirated from my school’s computing or design departments. In fact, I imagine we got a Mac in the first place because the schools we went to used them. Those were the days when Macs were much much nicer than PCs (which were referred to as ‘IBM compatible’ at the time, before Microsoft took over the world), because PCs still made you do everything through the command line.

Anyway. About the only relic I’ve got from that time is this self-portrait from 1989 (when I was 14), which I did on a piece of software called Digital Darkroom. I didn’t actually use DD for photo-editing; apart from anything else, I didn’t have a scanner and digital cameras hadn’t been invented. I just used it as a painting program. The picture is in black and white, not because of any aesthetic choice on my part but because with only 256 colours to play with, it was bloody difficult to work in colour. It seems to be slightly posterised – I’m sure it originally had more shades of grey – but I can no longer open the original file and this version is the only one I’ve got:

[self-portrait]

I may try to do a new self-portrait in Gimp; it would be a good way of getting a feel for the software. I’m not sure I’ve still got the knack of drawing with a mouse, but computers are so much more forgiving than, for example, paints.

One final thought – I appreciate that computers have come a long way since then, and I’m very much enjoying my lovely fast new machine, but is it really necessary that the built-in calculator is using 15Mb of memory? 15Mb? I used to run Word and Freehand together on a machine which only had a total of 8Mb.

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