Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Report on Spectrum 30 anniversary event, Saturday 8th – Sunday 9th September 2012, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK

The following article was written for Jogos 80, a Brazillian retro computing magazine. It appears in issue 10, December 2012.
 
http://www.jogos80.com.br/

Two months have passed since I attended the Spectrum 30 event at Anglia Ruskin University here in the city of Cambridge. In that time I may have forgotten a few minor details but the overall impression left on me was strong enough to recall the main points.  The Spectrum was actually launched on 23rd April 1982 and there had been an earlier event in the year celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Spectrum which was named after the introductory cassette which came with the 48K Spectrum, i.e. Horizons. This event had whetted my appetite for some good old fashioned Spectrum nostalgia and I knew that the Spectrum 30 event in Cambridge was a much bigger event, hence I was greatly anticipating this event.

Credit goes out to Thomas Eberle of Sintech (www.sintech-shop.de) and the other organisers for putting the event together; not easy when you are based in Germany and you are dealing with an academic institution (Anglia Ruskin University) in another country to put on an event in premises you have never seen in person. Myself I have lived in Cambridge for many years and visited ARU on a number of occasions, but to my embarrassment I had never had the occasion to check out the Sinclair building, as it is now named, where many great Sinclair innovations were created back in the 1980s.

The event was held over two days, Saturday being the main day of talks and exhibitions and Sunday being a more laid back, informal affair with a coding competition and more opportunities to look at the exhibitions and shop with the various retro dealers offering their products and services at the ZX Microfair. Many people, including the organisers, had come from quite far to be at the event (Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, even some from the USA) and so they had booked hotels and had planned to make a long weekend of it.

In contrast to the Horizons event at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank earlier in the year, this was not a UK-dominated event. Although there were plenty of people from the UK, in no small part because of the ease of getting to Cambridge and the Spectrum’s origins as a UK designed home computer, as far as I could tell the UK visitors were outnumbered by foreign visitors, particularly on the second day. Some UK visitors had opted to travel on the Saturday and return on the same day, whereas for the European visitors, they were typically travelling on the Friday before the event, staying in hotels in Cambridge on Friday night and Saturday night and therefore present for both days.

Saturday started with an introduction and a live performance of Hey Hey 16K by M.J. Hibbet, which I was not present for, before moving on to the main hardware design talk given by Rick Dickinson and Chris Smith. Hibbet’s piece has been on YouTube for several years now, a tribute to the early days of 8 bit home computers in the UK and the justifications used by children (and parents) for why they should be bought them.

It is worth remembering in the early days of the Spectrum, indeed the days when the 16K version was still available, it was not entirely clear that the Spectrum was to become a games machine. Many of the early Sinclair customers were in fact electronics hobbyists not children, and (Sir) Clive Sinclair himself is known to have had no interest in the Spectrum as a games machine. My own first Spectrum, which was in fact borrowed from one of my father’s work colleagues, was a 16K model and this caused some frustration back in 1983 / 1984 when we tried to run some 48K software on it. I was only six years old at the time and fascinated by the new machine but also somewhat put off by the setback; I couldn’t see what I was doing wrong! After some deliberation my father realised the “48K” mark on the cassette packaging meant that this software (I think it was Splat! by Incentive Softare) would not run on the borrowed machine. Later in 1984 my parents bought the 48K version and we finally had access to the software we had bought earlier.

Rick Dickinson and Chris Smith gave excellent talks, compered by Simon Goodwin of Codemasters and Crash Magazine (among many other things). Rick gave a talk about the Spectrum from the industrial design point of view; how he chose the materials, the look and feel of the case, the keyboard, the placement of connectors and so on. To be listening to the very person who had designed my beloved 48K Spectrum all the way back in 1982 was really rather special; I hung onto his every word as if I were being given religious instruction by a prophet of a world religion, a semi God-like figure, and many other people in the room seemed to be doing the same!

Rick explained that the design work for the Spectrum was essentially shared between him on the industrial design side and Richard Altwasser on the electronics side; unfortunately Richard Altwasser was not at the event but Chris Smith provided a lot of technical explanations on his behalf. Chris has reverse engineered the entire Spectrum ULA chip and written a book about it (The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to design a microcomputer, available from his site www.zxdesign.info). I had seen Chris earlier in the year at the Horizons event; this time I came armed with a few more questions and intending to buy a copy of his book off him! Unfortunately Chris ran out of copies of his book but he did answer a few ULA questions I had and also gave an update on the status of the SpectraStick project he is working on.

Having reverse engineered the Spectrum ULA and derived the logic functions for the chip, the next thing for Chris to do is produce a modern day hardware version of the Spectrum, similar to the C64 Direct to TV joystick by Jeri Ellsworth. This project is still in its early stages, with many technical and commercial hurdles to overcome (producing a real product for a low price in large quantities is not easy!) but I have high hopes that Chris will succeed.

The next talk was by Kevin Toms (of Football Manager fame) and Jonathan Cauldwell (of the Egghead series of games). Unfortunately I missed most of this talk, owing to the temptation of looking round the exhibits in the other rooms. Kevin has carved out a successful career in the computing industry, having started out as a professional computer programmer in the 1970s before turning his attention to games programming in his spare time. After a lot of success with the Football Manager series of games, both on the Spectrum and other computers, he sold Addictive Games to Prism Leisure Corporation  where he stayed to work on Football Manager 2 for 8 bit and 16 bit computers as well as Football Manager World Cup Edition, designed to tie in with the Italia ’90 World Cup.

Unfortunately the development  timetable for this latter title was too tight, resulting in a rushed and unfinished product. Toms, being unhappy with the result and the breakdown in relations between himself and Prism, left to go back into corporate computing and Football Manager 3 was designed without any input from him.

I would love to know what Jonathan Cauldwell had to say about Egghead and Spectrum software development. Jonathan has been one of the more prolific Spectrum games authors in recent years. For anyone who doesn’t know, the original Egghead was included on the cover tape of the February 1990 issue of Crash magazine, along with Eskimo Eddie, Apache Gold and Jason’s Gem. The other three titles were older commercial games, by Ocean, Incentive and Mastertronic respectively, whereas Egghead was an original title never released before. On the cover tape it was credited to “PowerTape”, i.e. Crash’s own label of Spectrum games. Anyone who may have been sceptical about the quality of own label games would be surprised by Egghead; it is in fact the best game on the February 1990 cover tape.

Since the first game, Jonathan has gone on to write four sequels. Egghead II (Egghead to the Rescue) was featured on the December 1990 cover tape of Crash, and Egghead 3 (Egghead in Space), Egghead 4 (Egghead Entertains) and Egghead 5 (Egghead Round the Med) are Cronosoft releases dated 2003, 2006 and 2007 respectively, which are still available to purchase from the Cronosoft website. (cronosoft.orgfree.com)

Lunch followed the Kevin Toms and Jonathan Cauldwell talk, lunch which was provided by the Anglia Ruskin University catering staff though fortunately many take away restaurants were available on the road opposite ARU! There was a LAN game set up in one of the rooms to demonstrate Spectranet, an Ethernet interface for the Spectrum. This uses the WIZnet W5100 single chip Ethernet device. WIZnet provides hardware support for the TCP protocol, so that the Spectrum software need not deal with issues such as TCP timeouts and retry mechanisms. The interface runs on all Spectrums from the rubber key versions through to the Sinclair Plus models and the Amstrad versions. The game being played was Spec-Tank, a competitive tank game designed to provoke competition between four players!

After lunch Kevin Toms gave a talk on coming back into the games industry 30 years after writing Football Manager. This covered issues of the modern day games industry, dealing with large development teams, huge budgets and much greater sums of money riding on the success or failure of any particular title, hence the modern day tendency to try to manage this risk within a games development organisation, sometimes at the expense of creativity. Kevin has a blog at blog.kevintoms.com where you can keep up with his current  projects – an iPhone / iPad Football Manager type game and his day job working on the software development kit for Philips Hue, a personal wireless lighting system.

Following Kevin’s second talk Steven Goodwin gave a talk on Digital Archaeology. This was the exact same talk given at the Horizons event earlier in the year and ostensibly focused on emulation and preserving the software of old systems, but also went into some depth on how to write emulators. Steven has written EMF, Emulator Framework, to describe in a structured way the actual hardware old software was written for. Using tools to parse a description of hardware written in EMF, an emulator for that hardware can be automatically generated in any programming language, and also an assembler, disassembler, monitor and so on.

After Steven Goodwin's talk a group of us gathered outside the lecture theatre to be taken on a tour of the Sinclair building. While we were waiting, a Sinclair C5 was on hand from the Museum of Computing History in Haverhill near Cambridge. The trick was to ride the C5 around the university corridor without getting caught by the security staff; unfortunately one appeared just as I was riding the C5 particularly fast and he was not amused!

Anglia Ruskin University (previously known as Anglia Polytechnic University and before that Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology) is one of two universities in Cambridge, the other being the much older University of Cambridge. ARU occupies a site to the east of East Road, one of the major thoroughfares in the city. In 1982 Clive Sinclair used profits from sales of the Sinclair ZX81 to convert a former mineral water bottling factory called Barker & Wadsworth into the new Sinclair Research offices. This remained in use by Sinclair until 1985, when financial difficulties caused Sinclair to sell the building to the university.

1985 was a particularly bad year for Sinclair, the exponential growth in sales of the Spectrum in 1983 and 1984 had flattened off and the company found itself with excess stock, lots of staff to pay and not as much revenue as had been expected. The 128K Spectrum was conceived to rescue Sinclair from this situation, but it was held off from sale until 1986 while remaining stock of Spectrum + machines was sold off. In the meantime CCAT as it was then acquired the building and it has been use ever since by the university. The building occupies land between Bradmore Street and Willis Road; hence although the 'front' of the building is accessed from Willis Road (it is no. 25 Willis Road), it can also be accessed from Bradmore Street which is next to the rest of the university and hence this is the side which is most commonly accessed by university staff today.

Inside the building has a large atrium with offices on one side and a single staircase in the centre of the atrium leading to offices on several floors. It was a delight to be able to walk up and down these stairs, onto the fire escape at the top of the building and to peer into the modern day offices on each floor. The top floor was used as the design office between 1982 - 1985 and it was easy to conceive of the QL, Spectrum + and possibly even the 48K Spectrum itself being designed in this room. Although in use today for administration
purposes, the university has kept the Sinclair building largely as it was in 1985 so the top floor still looks very much like a design office.

The rest of the day was devoted to informal discussion of Spectrum related topics in the various exhibition rooms and shopping at the retro dealer stands. Because quite a number of people were staying in Cambridge overnight, a delegation including myself headed off to the Baron of Beef public house, site of the infamous Clive Sinclair v Chris Curry fight in 1985. This fight was documented in Sinclair User magazine at the time and apparently related to Acorn advertising debunking the Spectrum’s return rates. It was also featured in the Micro Men documentary made for the BBC Four television channel in 2009. We did our best to re-enact the legendary fight using a rolled up newspaper and various people took turns to “be” Clive Sinclair
hitting Chris Curry with the paper!

Sunday was an informal day consisting of more exchanging anecdotes about the Spectrum and people’s history with the machine, shopping at the retro stalls and a gaming competition. The idea of the gaming competition was to write a game with an Olympic theme; various concepts were demonstrated on how to do this and the winner determined by the volume of applause from the other participants. I cannot remember precisely who won the competition, partly because I was engaged in conversation with one of the other attendees over how to tidy up the Spectrum +2 composite video circuit, and with another of the attendees over the extra video modes of the Timex Computer 2048 and 2068 machines. Suffice to say the competition was taken in good humour by all and was a fitting conclusion to a very enjoyable weekend.

Here’s to the Spectrum’s 40th anniversary in 2022!

Richard Atkinson

1 comment:

Richard Atkinson said...

There's a video of the hardware talk by Simon Goodwin, Rick Dickinson and Chris Smith at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLuajVKQr1I