Happy Birthday, ZX81

Thirty years ago today, the ZX81 home computer was launched in the UK. Nobody could have even guessed what an avalanche this little machine would produce – within a few years, every teenager in Europe would be playing computer games…

The ZX81 can easily be credited as the milestone that launched the computer revolution in Europe – Apple IIs and Atari 800s were very expensive in Europe at that time, and there wasn’t much else yet that could inspire young people to take an interest in computers.

And on March 5th 1981, everything changed. The ZX81 was ridiculously cheap, about $100 – a feat only possible by accepting some hair-raising compromises: 1K of RAM, which was also used as shared video memory. A tiny, flat pressure sensitive keyboard. Memory extensions that were plugged straight onto exposed copper on the main board. A tape drive mass storage system that had to be operated without feedback. No sound. No color.

But the machine sold incredibly well and it introduced a generation of teenagers all across Europe to programming. It would be superseded within a year by the much more advanced ZX Spectrum, but for that one glorious year it was a roaring success and Sinclair could hardly produce enough of the little black boxes.

It was the first computer that I owned, and I have happy memories of spending nights typing game listings in Basic out of computer magazines into the little machine, always careful not to push the keys too hard to avoid kicking loose the memory extension. We’ve certainly come a long way in 30 years…

Happy Birthday, ZX81!

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