June 20, 2013

The Smell of Rubber and Ozone

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 4

By Dermot Daly

December 25, 1984 was a day that would change my life forever. My family had a tradition that I still honor with my own children. On Christmas morning, everyone had to be up before we went downstairs—we went together, as a family. Six kids and my parents all went to see what Santa brought.

Okay, I was 14, but I had a 7 year old brother, so we kept up the charade. I had asked for a computer. Specifically, A 1k Sinclair ZX 81. A monochrome, membrane keyboard, piece of crap that would be my first computer.

I went into the room, and there was no sign of a ZX 81. Sinclair had updated its offering, and there in the middle of my sitting room, just under the tree was a 48k 8-Color Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It was 3.5MHz of Zilog Z80 waiting to be programmed.

I squealed and I clapped. My dad still tells the story and describes it as the best reaction of any of his kids for any Christmas.

One thing that has always stuck with me was the scent. A rubber keyboard, and the smell of soldered electronics. To this day, there is no other trigger that causes me such evocative memories.

Sometimes I come across some old electronics, and it takes me back to that very morning. I can remember the cardboard box; the polystyrene casing with Sinclair’s distinctive logo in the molding; A single tiny machine, and a power supply.

Of course I spent lots (I mean LOTS) of time playing games on it, but slowly, I started getting through the BASIC manual, and teaching myself how to write code.

I used to write code with my friends—adventure games mostly, but I dabbled in the odd utility too. I wrote a program for building user defined graphics, and saving the results to cassette. I wrote code for the best reason in the world to write code: For fun.

There was two single manuals supplied. An introduction to BASIC, and a more in-depth tutorial, which included some reference guides to system variables (which you’d PEEK to inspect, and POKE to change).

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