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30 Years of the ZX Spectrum and ZX Printer

From the Printware Blog on Monday 23rd April 2012 in Fun Stuff

The ZX Spectrum was one of the earliest widely-available home computers and the best seller in its day. A generation of computer users remembers the sleek, black machine with the rainbow motif and rubber keys. The very essence of minimalism, the Spectrum was designed to work with a normal television set (a cathode-ray tube in those days) and an audio tape player, which was used to load games. No-one that's ever used one will forget the electronic sound made by the Spectrum when it was loading a game from the tape player. (If you've never heard it, it sounded like a fax or modem signal).

Anyway, this is Printware, not Computerware or PCWare so, as much as we'd like to reminisce about childhood memories of our first PC, we're more concerned with one of the Spectrum's peripheral devices; the less well-known ZX Printer. The Sinclair ZX Printer was actually launched in 1981, a year before the Spectrum, and designed for use with the Spectrum's predecessor, the ZX81.

Print quality was crude to say the least, with 256 dots making up each vertical line on the 4in wide paper. The paper was black, coated with aluminium oxide which was electrically altered during the printing process to reveal the black paper underneath. If you had 16k of memory spare (which meant using an additional RAM pack if you had a ZX80/81), you could run a program which used a square of 256 x 256 points to give 4 times better resolution.

Back then, computers and peripherals required users to be a bit more 'hands on' and actually input the necessary programs themselves, as this set of instructions for the ZX Printer shows. Before the advent of Windows-type operating systems and ready-to-run applications, it was necessary to be somewhat more familiar with the way things worked and a generation of programmers cut their teeth on machines like the Spectrum. Imagine having to input a program to enhance the resolution on your HP or Xerox printer!

Although initially designed for the ZX81, the ZX Printer was also compatible with the Spectrum (and with the ZX80 if you added the 8k ROM upgrade), which meant that it could be used with the world's most popular home computer. There were printers before the ZX and plenty of better ones that came later but, in tandem with the hugely-popular ZX81 and Spectrum, it introduced people to the idea that printing at home could be practical and affordable. Before the early 1980s, few people imagined that there'd be any need for personal computers in the home, let alone printers and now most of us couldn't imagine being without either of them.

by Anthony Morgan

Posted in Fun Stuff

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