It's 2011 and I'm writing this blog post on an Apple MacBook Pro. It cost in the region of £1500 and comes with a 15" screen, a dual core 2.66 GHz CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 300GB internal hard drive and an internal battery which lasts around 7 hours. It's probably the best laptop I've ever used but it's evolutionary and hardly revolutionary.
Now look back to 30 years ago. The Internet existed, sort of, the World Wide Web didn't, home narrow-band connections were rare and broadband hadn't been invented. But if you had £49.95 to spare you'd be able to buy a small home computer which you plugged into your TV set, used black-and-white graphics only, and came with a 3.26 MHz CPU, 1KB of RAM, no internal storage (you used a cassette tape recorder) and no internal battery (mains power only). Did I mention you also had to assemble and build it yourself? If you weren't so moved, the fully assembled version would set you back £69.95.
The home computer in question is Sinclair's ZX81, the second home computer I ever owned (the first being 1980's predecessor, the ZX80), which celebrated its 30th anniversary yesterday. It wasn't the first computer I ever used, that honour is reserved for the Commodore PET. But both the ZX81 (and the ZX80) taught me my first programming language (Sinclair's version of BASIC), taught me rudimentary electronics and, most importantly, taught me just how hot solder was when molten.
Yes, the 16KB RAM pack had such a loose edge connector so that merely typing too hard could dislodge the connection and crash the machine. Yes, the thermal printer was slow, quirky and frequently overheated and let's not even talk about the Microdrives, which came along with the successor to the ZX81, theSpectrum. Despite all of this, 30 years ago the ZX81 was truly the first, almost affordable home computer for many and I was one of the many.
The Register has a much more comprensive retrospective of the ZX80 and ZX81, including some vintage advertising as well .Happy 30th. Birthday ZX81!
Finally, by way of comparison, 1981's prices of £49.95 and £69.95 work out to at today's prices in excess of £219.00 and £307.00 respectively, based on how average UK earnings have progressed. So if my MacBook Pro had been on sale in 1981, that would cost in excess of £6500.00 today, which made the ZX81 even more revolutionary.
Photo Credits: Rick Dickinson and Mario Klingemann on Flickr.