My Actual First Computer vs My First Real Computer

I write about old things here quite a bit.  Games, gear, memories, anything from the past.  And occasionally I will get as far back as the Apple ][+, which I think of as my first computer, trotting out this picture from 1983.  There is a story about getting it, because of course there is.

Apple II+ on Day One… nice digital watch on the left floppy drive!

Actually, I usually go with this picture from a couple months later because it has the joystick I ended up buying and a familiar game title on the screen.

Apple ][+ The Upgrades Begin

In addition to the joystick I have stacked the drives in the more conventional manner of the time and there is the ubiquitous power supply cooling fan hanging off the left side of the case now.

Otherwise it is the same room, same curtains, same folding card table with the same cigarette burn in it somewhere under the computer.

But what if I pulled out this picture instead?

Oh Jesus what is this mess?

Same room, same curtains, same card table, but what the hell is going on there?

Seriously, if I hadn’t of run across this picture I might have completely blanked out this bit of my story.

For a brief period of time I had a Timex Sinclair 1000 computer, a derivative of the Sinclair ZX81.  And when I say “brief,” I mean about a month.

How did I end up with one?  It was a Black Friday purchase.

I’m not sure if we called the Friday after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” back in 1982 1983, but it was clearly the first day of the of the Christmas shopping season still and the adds in the paper before then were full of deals, and one of them was for the Timex Sinclair 1000.  Payless Drugs had that listed in their ad for $99.  My grandmother, knowing I was pining for a computer, pointed this out to me.

Payless was a drug store, which meant it had a pharmacy and lot of general merchandise, but wasn’t quite a grocery store and wasn’t quite a hardware store.  The one by us had a large garden department and was the sort of place you could buy cheap patio furniture and beach umbrellas and a lot of stuff that didn’t quite fit into a some of the other “genres” of retail stores at the time.  They have since been bought by RiteAid, which with Walgreens (which now owns RiteAid), and CVS, make up the drug store triumvirate out in our area.

Anyway, computers and electronics were on the list of what they sold as well, which wasn’t all that odd.  I bought many of the games for my Atari 2600 at Longs Drugs, which had an electronics counter that also serviced watches and handled photo processing.  It was a different time.

My grandmother suggested I get out there and buy it, the whole thing being cheaper than the aforementioned Atari 2600 from five years before.

So I got out there early on Friday morning… not too early, the store opened at the normal hours and not at midnight or anything crazy because we were still civilized back then… and stood in line… because civilized or not we were still idiots and online shopping was decades away… until they opened the doors.

I walked over to the electronics counter, where they seemed to be in ample supply, and bought one… paid cash I’m pretty sure… and brought it back home.

What came in the box was the little black square with the membrane keyboard, a few of the cables, and a manual.  So I had to scrounge up an old B&W TV… kind of surprised there was one about, but there it is in the picture… in order to start doing anything.

There were a couple of test programs you could type in, but not much else, and you couldn’t save them.  When you turned off the unit everything went away.  You have to save everything to cassette tape, which explains why my old Sanyo dual deck boom box is on the table and wired up to the unit.  I am pretty sure that is the same unit I used to record this Dr. Demento tape.

Recorded off the air, circa 1980

It was a less than ideal situation and I would estimate that I could save to tape and then subsequently successfully restore a program to the unit maybe 1 in 4 times.  That may have been related to a few factors, but I was working with what I had to hand.

I went out and bought a couple of magazines dedicated to the ZX81 which had some programs you could type in.  However, I quickly came up hard against the 1Kb memory limit.  So you can see a black box hanging off the back of it which contained an additional 16Kb of RAM so I had some space to work with.

I toiled away on the little machine for a couple weeks.  I will admit that I did like that the keyboard had all the BASIC operators on it, available via a function key, and I probably learned some rudimentary programming in having to type in literally everything by hand at least once.

The ZX81 magazines were, of course, full of additional hardware and upgrades you could add on to the little computer.  More RAM.  Full keyboards.  Real floppy drives.  Computer magazines were like that back then.  It was very much a hobby with all sorts of little companies supporting the ecosystem.  If somebody could wire something up and make it work they could sell it to somebody else.

And while I enjoyed imaging what I might add to the unit, when I got that check for Christmas a month later, my first action wasn’t to start ordering a bunch of stuff for it out of the back of magazines.  My first action was pretty much to arm sweep what I had off the folding table to make room for the Apple ][+.

It was honestly the right choice.  I was very happy with the Apple and have a lot of fond memories of my time with it.

As for what happened to the little Timex Sinclair 1000, I have no memory of that either.  It was an era when used computers and equipment had value.  I bought a few items from a used computer store down the road called Interstate Computer Bank.  But even in that era the little unit was below the threshold of having any resale value as it was.  It probably ended up in a landfill.

9 thoughts on “My Actual First Computer vs My First Real Computer

  1. bhagpuss

    I skipped the ZX81 and went straight to the ZX Spectrum. Indeed, to the 48K Spectrum, not the 16K. I always thought the ZX81 looked pretty useless although it certainly sold enough units and generated enough magazine pages.

    The Spectrum, though, was an amazing games machine. I’m sure it had other purposes and I’m certain Clive Sinclair didn’t plan on filling the idle hours of a million teenagers but a games machine is what it became. Of course, by the time it arived I was far from being a teenager. I got mine after I left university.

    After the Spectrum came that great, long black thing I forget the name of. Hang on, it had a Q in it… QL? Yes! That was it. It had a built in disc drive and 128k ram as I recall and I wanted one for a long time but I was sensible enough to see it didn’t really have many games and it was quite expensive.

    I did eventually get one. I think I got it cheap from someone at work. I barely used it because by then I had an Amiga 512, which played excellent games, let me write comfortably on a real keyboard and also worked as a very good music sequencer with the sampler I’d just bought.

    After that came my first PC and that was that. Of all those machines the only one I stil have is the Amiga. It’s buried in a cupboard not three feet behind where I’m sitting. What happened to al the others I have no idea. like your ZX81 they probably ended up in landfill.

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  2. Brenda Holloway

    Wow… you could afford an Apple ][ :-)

    In 1980 I was in college and not affording anything. Years later I managed to afford an Atari 800, which was my first computer, real or actual. Then the story is a lot like yours — typing in programs from magazines, buying add-ons, heading down to Service Merchandise (a weird department store where you chose items at a counter and they came at you off a conveyor belt) for new hardware…

    My first “real” computer was an Epson QX-10. Look it up.

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  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Nostalgic though I am, I did not hang on to a lot of old hardware. There was a time, as noted, where a decent used market existed. I traded in the Apple ][+ for credit towards an Apple //e and later sole the Apple //e for most of what it cost me to get a Mac SE via the developer discount program. It was a different time. My PCs of the last 20 years or so have all gone to some sort of e-waste recycling as they retain no value anymore.

    @Brenda – Well, the point of the story was really that I couldn’t afford an Apple II, at least not until I happened into some money, which I squandered on one rather than buying something sensible. The story of that money is linked in this tale.

    Also, my current computer desk, which is just a durable 5 foot folding table… it has lasted me since 1986 or so… came from Service Merchandise. Odd store indeed. I recall having to type in a part number at a terminal then waiting for the item to come down the belt at the front desk. My friend Bill from the last week’s Mojo Nixon Road Trip story worked at the local one for a while.

    The Epson QX-10 looks familiar, but it was an era of a lot of vaguely familiar yet incompatible machines and operating systems. My nose was often in the back pages on magazines like Byte or at the local computer hobbiest show to look at the wide variety of options on display. I stuck with the Apple II, though there were even some clones of that which tempted me. I recall one that had a 2 MHz 6502, double the clock speed of the standard Apple models.

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  4. Alli

    My first computer was a Tandy, and I don’t remember the model number or anything like that. It needed a disk in it to run. I was obsessed with it. Then we got a Mac Performa (again, I don’t remember the model number) and that was a lot more fun.

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  5. Kanter

    My first computer was a TI 99/4A. I eventually got the expansion system pictured at the link below and I used it as my Word processor with a dot matrix printer when I started college in 1983. I didn’t think I could afford a Apple II or Commodore 64 but the Apple II would have been a better investment. Eventually I started using the IBM compatible computers at college and bought myself a 386 when I could afford it.

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  6. Redbeard

    When I saw that pic I blurted out “Oh wow, a Timex Sinclair!!” before I even read that part of the story.

    Yeah, they were only a little better than, say, the Hewlett-Packard calculators of the time in terms of raw horsepower, but people could actually program with them.

    We used the CPU found in the Timex Sinclair in our Digital Electronics class in college to experiment with Assembler programming; it was a step up from building a variety of different circuits using some basic IC chips and transistors. Boy, those were the days…

    In my freshman and sophomore years in college the two most prevalent computers in the dorms were the Commodore 64 and the Apple 2e or 2c, so that was yet another trip down memory lane for me.

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  7. flosch

    Those are the kinds of stories I love to read here! I’m a bit younger than you, so most of the 80ies were gone by the time I got my first computer (technically, I only got it in the 90ies, but it was a 286, so squarely 80ies technology).

    Just one thing I’m not sure about: did you mix up the years at some point? You mentioned Black Friday 1982, then Christmas 1983, and then a month between the two events. Is 1982 a typo?

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  8. Liambp

    I know the ZX81 was a sorry excuse for a computer in comparison to the much more expensive offerings from Apple / Commodore etc but it had an enormous impact in the UK precisely because of its very low cost. The sheer ingenuity that people demonstrated getting it to perform tasks it had no business being able to do was incredible. Its successor the Spectrum was still very cheap and much closer to a “real computer” but the spectrum quickly gained mainstream acceptance as a very successful gaming platform. The ZX81 was for hackers and spawned a generation of them. It was the Raspberry pi of its day.

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