Me as a kid

Remembering My Childhood Computers

Duncan Riach

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Readers have asked me how I became a software engineer. As I started to write about that, I realized that the first thing I really want tell you about is the computers I had as a kid.

I was lucky enough to have been growing up when personal computers were new, and I had a mother with enough money to buy them for me (thanks, Mum).

My first computer was an Electron, from Acorn Computers (known as the “British Apple”), a company that was founded in Cambridge, UK in 1978 and dissolved in 2015. Nevertheless, Acorn’s processor development group was spun-off into a separate company in 1990, which became Arm Ltd., whose processor technology can now be found in most modern modern mobile devices (such as those from Apple and Samsung) and in Apple’s latest M-series desktop processors.

On that Acorn Electron, probably at around age nine (in 1983), I learned to program in BASIC. I don’t remember what programs I wrote, but I loved the feeling of creative power that a programming language provided: a limitless number of massless building blocks that could be snapped together into infinite combinations to create mechanisms that continued to do my bidding even whilst I slept.

That machine had 32 kilobytes (16,384 bytes) of memory, 0.000095% of the memory in a contemporary 16GB computer.

Acorn Electron. Image by Bilby (license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Unported)

I have a strange memory from that time of my stepfather, with his Coke bottled glasses, leaning forward so that his eyes were an inch or two from the face of the cathode-ray tube, trying to read and understand what I was doing. I remember feeling annoyed by him and wanting him to get his head out of my way. Reflecting on it now, I realize that he was, for once, actually curious and perhaps even wanted to encourage me. As I now require glasses to see my screen, I realize that he probably just needed a different set of spectacles.

As a child, I went through several different computers, including a few models from Sinclair Research, a company that was founded in 1973, also in Cambridge, by the recently deceased Sir Clive Sinclair. I’m looking at a picture (see below) of the ZX Spectrum 128 (released in 1985)…

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Duncan Riach

Top Writer. Self-Revealing. Mental Health. Success. Fulfillment. Flow. MS Engineering/Technology. PhD Psychology. duncanriach.com