You’ve probably seen that it’s the Sinclair Spectrum’s thirtieth birthday today. There are lots of great retrospectives — this is probably the best single source I read — so I’m not going to rehash all that. But I thought it might be worth a few words of my own.

Like many Brits my age, the Spectrum was my first computer. Technically it was the family computer, but after a few weeks I was pretty much the only one who used it.

I remember some of the first few hours using it. I remember, for example, ignoring most of the preamble in the manual and diving straight into typing in a programming example. Those who have used a Spectrum will realise that you can’t just type in code; you need to use special keyboard combinations to get the keywords to appear on screen. I didn’t know about that.

After a while I managed to persuade to let me type in the code. The computer didn’t really understand it and I didn’t know why. I can’t remember whether I found the right section in the manual before having to go to bed but even in my confusion I knew that I was hooked.

And really that was the start of my career in IT. I started really wanting to play games but I ended up spending more and more time programming and less and less loading Bomb Jack. Usually I saw something neat in a program and though “How do they do that?” Then I’d try to figure out what they’d done. I was quite proud of making some text slowly fade into view and then gradually disappear again. Obviously that was after the obligatory:

10 PRINT "Stephen was here!"
20 GO TO 10

I remember all that surprisingly well. Which makes the following line all the more shocking:

It may have been startlingly modern once, but at 30, the Sinclair Spectrum is as close in time to the world’s first commercial computers of the 50s as it is to the latest iPad.

The first commercial computers where created in the early fifties. The first computers — at least computers you’d kind of recognise as computers — were only built a few years before that. Computers are so powerful and connected these days that it’s difficult for me to remember what I even did with them. I wonder what we’ll make of the iPad in a few decades? I’m sure it’ll look just as dated.

The last thing I wanted to mention was about that weird, unique program entry system. In short, each key had a number of different keywords printed on it. The J key, for example, had LOAD (used to load a program from tape), VAL, VAL$ and the minus sign. When you entered code, the editor would be in one of a number of modes and, in addition to shift, there was a key called “Symbol Shift.”

I’ve never seen a sensible explanation for this. They all seem to say it was “easier” or a cue for users so they’d know all the valid keywords to Sinclair Basic. I never bought this. Is it really easier to remember a bunch of non-standard keyboard shortcuts rather than just type? Don’t think so.

And then when I was at university I did a course on compilers, the software that is used to turn human readable code into the binary gibberish that a computer can actually run.

The interesting bit was all around the grammars and recursive descent parsers and the mental challenge of writing a program that wrote other programs. But the first step of the process is called lexical analysis, which takes the jumble of letter that is your program and converts them into “words” that can be processed more easily, so PRINT is a keyword, 123.4 is a number and “Hello” is some text.

Given the resource limitations of writing a whole operating system and BASIC interpreter in 16k, my guess is that it was easier to write a strange keyboard entry system than a lexer.

Can anyone comment on the accuracy of this guess?

But back to nostalgia. From hazy memories, to university, to wild speculation and the iPad. We’ve come a long way. But it was the Sinclair Spectrum that started it all for me. Thank you Clive Sinclair!