April 9th, 2012


1024 into 1981 Will Go

At my mother's house I came across some old books pertaining to my Sinclair ZX81 computer, bought when I was a first-year university student. As those of you who are old enough will remember, the ZX81 was the Raspberry Pi of its day, and came with a stunning 1K of memory. This may not seem like much by today's profligate standards, but as The Cambridge Collection: 30 Programs for the ZX81 puts it (in caps lock) "IT IS POSSIBLE TO DO LOTS OF INTERESTING THINGS WITH ONLY 1K OF RAM".

There's no date on that particular book, but if the year weren't already incorporated into the computer's name I think we might still have been able to deduce it from internal evidence. For example, one of the programs is called "Biorhythm", and usefully allows you to align your intellectual, emotional and vital cycles. In the '70s, my father owned a mechanical biorhythm calculator much like this one (I wonder what became of it?), but it's a craze that fell precipitously out of fashion at the turn of the decade, as this ngram illustrates.

Another program, "Vols", is described as "a useful conversion program that will tell you how many glasses of beer you can drink after we go metric, and still drive home". In fact, the nightmare world in which British beer was sold in litres never came to pass (it has actually been illegal to use that measure since 1988), giving this program an alternative-history frisson similar to that provided by Went the Day Well?. The casual incitement to drink driving, like the fag-proffering Shirley Temple lookalike in Come Back Alive, also gives a shock to the system, of the past-is-a-foreign-country variety. (Gene Hunt isn't fiction, kids. Nor is it a cutesy name for the Human Genome Project.)

On which note, my mother told me today of a game she used to play in the 1920s with her elder brother and sister, in which they would take up a loose floorboard in their house and crouch in the dark, confined space beneath. They called it "Togoland": make of that what you will.