I went on to work on a series of computer magazines. I was reviews editor on Sinclair User, and also edited both Sinclair Programs and Acorn Programs.
As the names indicate, they dealt with early personal computers and involved spending all day playing programs on cassette recorders, viewing them on tv screens, and struggling to produce program listings via tiny Sinclair printers. I worked on ZX80s, ZX81s, Spectrums, Electrons and BBC computers. In those days the full-colour 48K Spectrum was a top-of-the-range model, compared with the black-and-white 1K ZX80.
My job involved working through sackfuls of programs written by young readers and recorded onto cassettes. The best of these were printed out, and published together with an illustration and a brief description, for other young readers to type into their computers.
Here’s an account of the process from one of those young readers – published online in 2006, when he was executive director of the Free Software Foundation:
When I was a kid, I had a Sinclair ZX-81, with 1KB of memory. At the time — back in 1984 or 85 — if you wanted to play a game you couldn’t buy a CD, so you had to buy one of the listing magazines, like Sinclair Programs. You had to look at the listing of computer code and type it into your machine. The keyboard was terrible — it was simply a flat piece of plastic. At the end you would try to run the program, and if it didn’t run you would have to correct any syntax errors.
Over time, I slowly worked out why errors occurred and started to learn how to program in Basic. At one point, I sent a game I had written to Sinclair Programs, and they accepted it for publication and sent me a cheque for £25. As soon as I sent off the first game, I started writing the next one.
So, the magazine arrived and my game was inside and they’d drawn a nice big cartoon for it. Unfortunately, when I flicked to the editorial for magazine it said, ‘this is the last ever edition of the magazine.’ It was basically saying that in the future people will not share source code and won’t type code into computers — they’ll buy games on physical media instead.
What was funny was that this was the September 1985 edition of the magazine, which was a month before the Free Software Foundation was created, in response to the fact that people were taking [open] computer code and turning it into proprietary code.
Looking back at it now, overnight my world was destroyed, because the listing magazine was destroyed. It just became about playing code, rather than writing code. That was the last time I ever did any programming.