Computers Appear in Homes

Sinclair ZX80 computer

In the 1980s many other designers were at work as well as those at IBM. In England, Clive Sinclair produced a small computer for people to use at home. It was called the ZX80 (right). It was fairly affordable and 50,000 were sold. You connected it to the aerial socket on your television set which provided a screen.

Sinclair ZX81

Just one year later he launched an improved version called the ZX81 (left). This model was cheaper, better and it went on sale in high street shops. 1.5 million were sold. It also connected to your TV aerial socket and, like the ZX80 before it, had a black-and-white screen and text was all uppercase. The ZX81 also had some very chunky graphics which were used to create computer games such as the 3D maze game, Tyrannosaurus Rex. You can see an animation of it in the sidebar (right)


Just a year later, in 1982, the ZX81 was replaced by the
ZX Spectrum. It also connected to your TV aerial socket but it had 256 colours and text in upper and lower cases. 

These devices joined a growing range of computers designed for home use. The interesting thing is that no-one knew quite what to do with them, but early enthusiasts found themselves programming using the BASIC computer language, or loading simple games from cassette tapes.

Very soon, a market for computer games emerged and shops like WH Smith had a large display of cassette tapes with brightly coloured inserts.

spectrum games

Typical games created for the ZX Spectrum and sold on cassette tapes

The BBC Computer Literacy Project

Also in 1982, the BBC broadcast a series of ten programmes called the BBC Computer Literacy Project with a specially commissioned home computer to support it - the BBC Microcomputer, or “Beeb”.

bbc project

Ian McNaught Davis presenting the BBC microcomputer on television

The series was very successful and introduced millions of people to computers and, in particular, the BBC BASIC programming language. 

It’s important to note that in those early days, there were very few computer programs in existence so the main purpose of the machine was to learn how to program it. In the intervening years, millions of programs (and latterly “apps”) have appeared; and whereas the BBC computer started up with nothing but a “prompt”, modern computers have a user interface that means most people never see the programming side of things at all.. 

How things go full circle. Computing in schools is now focussing on teaching children how to program computers.

Next Page: Computers Appear in Schools

© Brian Smith 2015