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You don't need a flux capacitor and a DeLorean to revisit your youth. Mark Pritchard gets a Proustian rush with the £27 time machine otherwise known as the Raspberry Pi.
I was on a business studies and computing course at college back in the early 80s. We were learning to program in Basic, and I had a project to finish. One of my mates had a Sinclair ZX81, so I went round to use it. This bad boy came fully loaded with 1K of RAM and a thermal printer. My mate explained that he was going to order a little block of magic - a pack with a huge 16K of RAM, later to be held in place with Blu-Tack.
He offered me a game of "Hunt the Wumpus". I should quickly point out that this was one of the first arcade games available on home computers, rather than anything else you might think. The amazing thing was that the game could run in 1K of memory.
"Does it have colour?" I asked.
"No, it doesn't, but there's a new one coming out which will do. It's…"
"Don't tell me - ZX80, ZX81, therefore ZX82."
"No, it's called a ZX Spectrum, because it has colours."
"OK." That put me in my place.
To smooth the process of paying his 150 employees, Mitch had set up the MASH payroll to send data to Porkshire Bank. MASH has a plug-in for each bank and Mitch had, he said, installed the one for Porkshire. “Doesnae work,” he said. He’d received an error message from Porkshire saying the data file was in the wrong format. He’d talked to the auditors who sold him the system and, being IT experts (sarcasm), they were baffled. He’d talked to his hardware suppliers whose response was “dunno”. He’d talked with MASH tech support, who said the plug-in was fine so it must be his system or Porkshire at fault. Porkshire customer support said the file was in the wrong format. Mitch was piggy in the middle. We were the last resort.
He pulled out a magazine and showed me an advert for the new machine. It was a thing of beauty and looked enormous.
"Wow!" I was hooked. I ordered a ZX Spectrum 16K and waited... and waited... and waited. I waited all summer long. Eventually, three days after I was back at college, it turned up.
It wasn't that much bigger than the ZX81, and I somehow felt slightly cheated because I'm sure the advert showed it to be as big as the average child. However, learning to use it was quite the experience. Obstacles to overcome included how to find the right channel on the TV to get the Sinclair logo to display, and setting the volume on my mono tape recorder correctly to load the first program.
All right, I admit, this first program was a game, but a game I could play on my very own computer. It was a version of Break Out. All those flashing lights in the arcade were finally going to be in my own home. Not a dream but reality... well, with a bit of imagination.
The feeling of being able to get under the bonnet and program was magical. I grabbed every magazine I could get my hands on and entered religiously every piece of code I could find.
Then, as the 80s faded away, I bought an Amiga and its graphical user interface replaced the raw text of Basic and DOS. From this point I moved away from being the mechanic and became more the driver.
Thinking back, the early 80s were great; not just for computing but also for giving us one of the best Dr Whos in Jon Pertwee, and Blake's 7. Both shows gazed into the future, but the glimpse that has always stuck with me was from the latter show.
In Blake's 7 there were two computers. There was Zen, who couldn't do enough for you, and Orac, who wouldn't do a lot for you unless you begged for help. But Orac came in a cool clear case with flashing lights. Both offered a glimpse of the future that, despite my unfailing patience, had so far failed to arrive.
I went to see one of my IT mates the other week, and was discussing the best thing for hooking my TV up to the virtual world of television catch-up and the web.
He looked at me and laughed. "You ought to try a pie." Being partial to pies I was immediately all ears. I'm sure there's a football song that sums up my love of pies.
"Apple?" I asked.
He looked at me oddly. "No, Raspberry."
Then he presented me with a Raspberry Pi, which wasn't what I expected. But, there in its clear case was a small piece of magic that took me back to a time when I was young, mortgage and child-free. There, in front of my eyes, was a miniature Orac, and when I plugged it in, an LED lit up. To say that it felt like Christmas is an understatement.
As you can probably guess, I am now reading up on everything Pi and discovering all the things it can do. As to my IT mate; am I depriving him of his little slice of heaven? No, because he has three more all doing different things and running different operating systems.
I read recently that the creators of the Pi weren't sure how successful it was going to be, and have been amazed at the positive reception the Pi has received. This is hardly surprising. The Pi is a little box of magic that we can get our hands and minds on and make into whatever we want it to be. It's the Lego and Meccano of the IT world and for me it has put the passion back into computing. The Pi has aroused feelings that, as I approach my 50th birthday, I thought I would never again have towards a circuit board.
My wife looks at it as just another computer to add to all the others in the house. Little does she realise that it is, in fact, a time machine, ready and waiting to take us back to those halcyon days of the 80s. Spectrum Basic here I come.
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