Weekly Pic | 5 Dec: That Time I Was A ‘Computer Whizz’

40 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor, UK | ??th December 1982

In 1982, we opened a shop next door to a computer store and I was a regular visitor to this new and beguiling place. It may now seem a little laughable to talk with wonder about the Commodore 64 or the ZX Spectrum but in the early 80s, this was quite a heady thing to be able to say. The world was on the cusp of a home computing revolution and ‘computer whizz-kids’ was a phrase that started to appear everywhere in the media and wider culture.

Better still, we got to borrow a demonstrator model of a ZX81, which we immediately hooked up to the ageing black-and-white portable TV in the dining room – the only telly we had other than the main 24″ rental in the lounge.

With it, my Dad and I began to immerse ourselves into this brave new world, anticipating the many doors of wonderment that would open before us, as all the hype was suggesting. The reality was, I’m afraid, not entirely the kind of valuable experience we were hoping for.

We soon learned that we couldn’t just “replace the typewriter” or “control household budgets” because that would require “software”, which came separately (and which we couldn’t borrow). I seem to remember there being a “graphics package”, which was the digital equivalent of attempting to create an image from two-inch painted blocks. In mono. Oh, how our ambitions were stymied – bot on we persevered.

The thing was written on BASIC, which immediately put me at an advantage over my Dad because, aged 8, I’d done one term of night school on BASIC programming, which meant I could do the following:

10 PRINT “Paul is ace”
20 GOTO 10

And for the first time in my life, I learned that new technology was a perfect arena for kids to out-smart their parents. With every derisory sneer from our own 18yr-old, I’m still ‘benefitting’ from that early insight.

The valuable introduction to computing it did give us, was to lower our expectations, engender limitless patience, expect things to go wrong for no discernible reason and always have a Plan B. Not quite what we were hoping for but perennially useful, nonetheless.

As I type this on my MacBook Pro, surrounded by a variety of tech with unimaginably greater levels computing power than every item in that shop combined, the value of those formative lessons remains. Early 80s computing was crap – but it was necessarily crap.