Before we get to the juicy stuff, I’ll fill in the few years between borrowing computer time at school, being the proud owner of a second-hand BBC Model B (with a disk drive! Sadly I cannot claim extra geek credit by bitching (in a misty-eyed nostalgic way) about what it was like waiting for tapes to load) and then owning my first PC (which was also rather fun).
Money was always tight at home, but I compromised by buying the other things that I could afford. I read the magazines and imagined all the cool stuff I could get one day. The multi-page ads for Watford Electronics are something I’m sure many people from that time would remember. Pages and pages of software and upgrades. I remember being at little upset when in later years they started to sell PCs as well, and advertise the fact in the BBC magazines. Sacrilege! I searched for them recently to see if they were still going. Seems not.
So over the years I collected boxes of magazines and books and also began to buy some software. There were one or two shops locally that sold some Acorn related stuff for a while, but mainly it had to be shipped from England, and with everything done by snail mail it was a slow and relatively expensive process. Still, this only made the anticipation more prolonged and exciting.
Before long I had a small collection of games, and when my dad came home one day with a computer tucked under his arm it may have been the high-point of my younger years.
Now I could finally go beyond playing games – I could write my own! I already had pages of code scraps and heaps of ideas for games. I had graph pads full of designs for levels and game characters. Some games were original, others were my attempts to convert the arcade games that I loved to the Beeb. I’ll try and scan some in soon.
I also designed a GUI ‘desktop’ and a fascination with 3D graphics lead me to try and write my own ray-tracer. Don’t try that at home kids! My maths was pretty good back then but it was mind numbing stuff, and it took hours to run on a computer running at about 1Mhz (BBCs were widely recognised as one of the fastest home computers too). After waiting hours you usually ended up with bugger-all due to some tiny miscalculation that meant your image was rendered off the screen 😦
I managed to make good progress on a drawing application too that even allowed you to select a section of the image and then deform it arbitrarily by moving the four corners (with the cursor keys unfortunately – you could get a mouse but it wasn’t cheap).
All in all it was great fun, and there were plenty of worse things I could have been doing. Programming a computer was still seen as a bit weird and not many people got the fact that these programs had to come from ‘somewhere’, and it was actually a decent career path. The fact that I naturally do not tan, despite the fact that I spend a lot of time outside, didn’t help disavow people’s opinion that I spent ‘too much time indoors and should go out and play sport’.
Ten years later, I wonder how many parents rushed out and bought computers in the hope that their kids would grow up to become internet millionaires…
While I loved the BBC (and wasn’t at all jealous of more well-off people who had Amigas and Macs (while the Mac GUI was cool, the fact it was black and white was amusing to my eyes)), there was something happening in Acorn land in the late 80’s that was impossible to ignore.
Recognising that the BBC was aging, the clever folks at Acorn had leapt past the 16 bit word straight into 32 bits and released a new machine based on a new processor of their own design. Thus the Archimedes was born, and boy, I don’t think anything before or since has inspired so much techno-lust in so many people. Watching full motion video in a window on the desktop on a computer in the late 80’s was a breathtaking achievement.
Still with local prices over $1,000, it was as distant a dream as any, but this didn’t stop me building a small collection of software and magazines for it either. It was kind of inevitable anyway as the magazines started to reduce their coverage of the BBC and move to the new shining star. My school at the time had an A3000 I think, so I still got to play around.
One think I did miss from the Amiga and Atari ST were the Soundtracker modules. To my delight people quickly wrote compatible players for the ‘Archie’ and I collected these modules as well. I definitely have a soft spot for the demoscene back in the Amiga days, even though my exposure was limited, and the electronic soundtracks accompanying these demos I still love today. Watch out, I’ll be posting my favourite picks some time soon.
I think my only regret is that I didn’t hook up with some other people and collaborate on some projects together. I didn’t really ever finish anything, and if I came up against a technical issue it was hard to get past it with no-one to ask questions of.
So the 80’s came to a close and early on in the 90’s I took delivery of my first PC so I could continue some more serious programming (Borland TurboPascal was the start and then Borland C++).
The BBC and associated paraphernalia was packed away and except maybe once, has never been seen again.
Until now …