Do we need another ZX81?

Sinclair_ZX81

I must confess as a child I was obsessed by how a computer worked or more accurately I had a habit of taking things to bits to find out how they worked. The trouble was I didn’t pay adequate attention as to how I had taken the chosen victim of destruction apart. The end result was a catalogue of defective items concealed around my bedroom, which I hoped no one would uncover and subsequently reveal the fruits of my labour.

In my early teens Sinclair Research released a new affordable home computer, it was the ZX81. This wasn’t the first offering from the Sinclair technology stables, however it was my first computer. With limited memory (only 1KB without a Ram Pack) it was a challenge to write a program of any great utility however, I couldn’t get enough of the experimentation that programming a computer could offer. One of the major advantages of this new preoccupation was that there were no longer any casualties of my explorative ventures.

Up until this point a computer of any sort was not available to the masses, partly due to technological inadequacies and partly due to excess costs. Now that there was a new kid on the block, a lot of the other kids (me included) wanted to find out what they could do with it. This gap of knowledge was quickly identified and filled by magazine publishers and so the newsagent shelves were populated with an array of programming oriented education material.

I regularly bought the latest computing issue(s) and proceeded to type in the program listings that could be found within the glossy leaves. After many hours of typing and on occasion having to start over due to the computer randomly resetting, I could finally witness the magic of what programming can achieve.

My career has been based on the knowledge I have gained and continually built upon over the years working with computers and programming. The trouble is the kids of today don’t have a similar set of circumstances to nurture any talent for programming.

Without doubt there are some great examples of software on many devices that young people are familiar with today. Unfortunately these are often beyond the reach of a novice programmer to replicate. The graphics, music and content included in the latest games are the product of teams of highly skilled people, whereas the magazines available to me and my contemporaries were a source of consistent, basic information with a clear goal within reach of my abilities of the time.

The Internet has an abundance of information and examples for beginners to work with; the problem is often the fragmented nature of this information, which can quickly confuse. A single consistent source of information with easily attainable goals seems to be the answer; otherwise kids easily become overwhelmed when faced with too much in one go and just give up. That’s why the magazine format worked for me and probably so many others.

The magic of programming is difficult to convey when the end result of the students efforts has to compete with the giddy heights of Xbox games and similar. The point is not so much about what can be achieved in the early days of learning, but more importantly that the student is aware of what they have produced by their own hand and the sense of achievement and creativity this brings with it. This is surely the magic of any learning.

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