Deborah Wise


by Deborah Wise

Deborah Wise is the former East Coast editor of-InfoWorld and is currently a staff editor at Business Week. She has a cat named Ben, but no home computer to call her own.

When the review model of Sinclair Ltd.'s original $150 ZX81 arrived at my office one chilly fall day, I was delighted but skeptical. I had just started as a reporter for InfoWorld, a newsweekly devoted to personal computers, and I didn't know anything about the subject. People I interviewed spoke in strange acronyms, and they didn't supply a glossary. Working with a real computer seemed like the best solution. But, I questioned, was the ZX81 a real computer?

Because of it's speed, accuracy and, most important, its ability to manipulate, the computer greatly enhances the production, processing and recording of ideas. Once you become proficient at working with a computer as a thought processor, going back to a typewriter is comparable to forgoing your electronic calculator in favor of pencil and paper to multiply 9,784 by 7,148 to arrive at 69, 936, 032.


    It did say "computer" on the box. It did come with BASIC built into it. And it was developed by a scientist-Clive Sinclair, the madcap British inventor responsible for one of the first pocket calculators. But still I had my doubts. Could one of the greatest technological achievements of the postwar era resemble a one-pound box of Black Magic chocolates with a typewriter keyboard stenciled on the top?
    Back home in the privacy of my living room, I set the scene for my first encounter with a computer. I changed into jeans and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the black-and-white TV, the Sinclair cradled in my lap. Like a hard-core computerist, I was determined to hack until dawn or at least until I had my first computer program written.
    At first the experiment went well. I studied chapters 1-4 in the manual, which covered setting up the machine. To my delight the cables, cords, power supply and RF modulator box that links the computer to the TV were all clearly marked. My Sinclair and I were up and running well before midnight. Miraculously, the K marker that the manual said would appear in the bottom left-hand side of the screen did appear-a little fuzzy, but that was the TV's fault.

Just as the camera is an extension of the eye and the wheel the extension of the foot, the computer could qualify as the extension of, not the brain or mind, but the ego.
    Think about it. More than just number crunching is going on here. A computer handles words, numbers, data of all kinds, but it does this in the way we would like it to. No sooner is our home computer out of the box than we start wiring it, configuring it, programming it to suit our convenience. When a computer has anything to say on a computer network, it is in the words and thoughts of whoever is sitting at the keyboard. And to how many computers do we tell our most secret secrets?
    Our love affair with this machine is a variation on an old theme. What we ultimately find most fascinating about the computer is its reflection of ourselves.

DOUG COLLIGAN, senior editor of Omni magazine

    I began ploughing eagerly through the rest of the manual. The language was readable, but the results were rather mundane. I learned how to add two and two. After several tries the computer coughed up the correct answer. I was less than thrilled. Was this really computing? After two more hours I had managed, with great difficulty, to write four lines of code that made the screen display HELLO DEBORAH nonstop until I pulled the plug. I was still less than thrilled.
    More problems began to appear. It's hard for anyone, and particularly hard for an inaccurate touch typist like me, to use a membrane keyboard. It felt like producing a term paper using the controls of a microwave oven-and I couldn't even come up with dinner. The keyboard was also getting tired of me. When you use one key too much on the Sinclair (and I had a necessary weakness for the DELETE key), it gives up. You can prod and push but the mistakes won't go away and you get interminable SYNTAX ERROR messages.
    After four more hours of thumping away at the Sinclair, the burning desire to be computer-literate gave way to an equally warm desire to abandon the whole idea. I began to wish hacking meant picking up the nearest meat cleaver and using it.
    More disasters followed. When I decided to give up on programming and play the computer games that came with the machine, I hit another brick wall. Theoretically, software is loaded into a Sinclair computer using an ordinary cassette tape recorder. I tried. I tried for about two hours. I followed the instructions to the letter, but the screen remained a blank. The noises that were supposed to indicate the program was loaded never sounded.
    Frustration! What was the use of this "real" computer? With commendable restraint, I unplugged the box, turned off the television, closed the manual and went to bed.
    I had wanted to become computer-literate and instead I became a ZX81 hater. Next day I asked Eddie, a young lad in the office, if he wanted to try out the discarded machine; I didn't say a word about my night of horrors. A week later he found me as I was finishing up a diatribe against membrane keyboards. The ZX81, in his opinion, was wonderful. He was learning BASIC and loving it. In under an hour he had managed to write a program that created an American flag, line by line, on the screen.
    The ZX81 and its reincarnation as the Timex/ Sinclair 1000 (a slightly souped-up version that Timex Corp. marketed for as little as $49) have sold very well worldwide. There are, in fact, about a million of the machines out there somewhere. But you have to wonder how many owners of the cheapest "real" computer ended up loving it like Eddie or hating it like me.

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