Robert Hampton

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29th February 2012

Pi in the Face

The tech world is getting excited about Raspberry Pi, a new low cost computer, which has launched today after several years of development. For under £30 you can have a simple but capable computer – just add a keyboard and plug it into your TV, then boot it off an SD card.

The Pi has been created with educational purposes in mind. The device’s creators want to get it into schools, so kids will have something they can tinker with to their heart’s content. They will be able to write their own programs and, hopefully, learn that there is more to computing than Facebook and cutting and pasting Wikipedia articles into their essays.

In many ways, this is an attempt to turn back the clock to the 1980s and the heyday of hobbyist programming. The computers of the day were very different beasts – turn on a Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum or BBC Micro and there were no fancy icons or windows to click on, just a text prompt and a flashing cursor. To make it do something useful you had to type something.

C64 boot screen, showing READY prompt and blinking cursor

A lot of people didn’t progress much further beyond learning how to load their favourite game (SHIFT-RUN/STOP, anyone?), but for those who wanted it, there was a BASIC interpreter built into the computer, waiting for your programs.

Programming was encouraged by the computer manufacturers. At the age of six I got my first computer – a Commodore VIC-20 that my dad rescued from a skip outside a house he was renovating. I remember the manual had a few pages containing the standard instructions for setting up the computer and plugging in the tape drive (tape!) but the remaining 200 or so pages were dedicated to the art of BASIC programming. The implication was clear – if you can’t buy software to suit your purposes, roll your own instead.

Program listing on a Commodore VIC-20Even at that tender age, I worked through the book rapidly. It wasn’t easy – especially with the VIC’s 22-character wide display which rendered even the simplest program a jumble of chunky text when viewed on screen – but getting the computer to bow to your will was a satisfying experience.

It didn’t stop there – the shelves of WHSmith sagged under the weight of computer magazines. They didn’t just review games – many pages were devoted to technical articles and type-in programs. I spent many happy evenings squinting at Commodore Format, typing in long lists of DATA statements to poke a program into memory, before typing SYS 49152 and hoping the machine didn’t crash.

Schools also used to teach simple programming. I remember coming across an old secondary school maths textbook from the 1980s. Alongside trigonometry problems and logarithms, there were BASIC program listings to demonstrate mathematical principles, and it was clear that the pupil was expected to understand how they worked.

A lot of people dipped their toes in the programming water, and those who persevered with it ended up producing some remarkable, groundbreaking programs. Notably, Philip and Andrew Oliver (the Oliver Twins) produced their first commercial game at the age of 13, going on to develop the iconic Dizzy game franchise for Codemasters before starting their own games company in 1990, when they were still just 22. Matthew Smith was 16 when he wrote the famous Manic Miner for the Spectrum, completing the coding in just six weeks.

Somewhere along the line we lost that willingness to experiment. PCs are infinitely more powerful than the typical home computer of the 1980s, but that power is not accessible to the average user. Microsoft QBasic was quietly removed from later versions of Windows. There is a free version of Visual Basic targeted at hobby programmers, but it’s a hefty download. In any event, casual tinkering with computers is no longer encouraged, lest the careless user accidentally delete their System32 folder or something. Schools don’t teach even simple programming – instead, children are making pretty Powerpoint presentations. That’s useful for a future of time-wasting meetings at the office, but not so good as an inspiration for the next generation of coders.

Last year Google’s Eric Schmidt criticised UK schools for not teaching programming. The Government has promised change, but whether the reforms will be effective remains to be seen.

Will Raspberry Pi help to reverse the trend and get Britain programming again? Early signs are encouraging – the first batch off the production line sold out within minutes, and a group of school pupils, interviewed by the BBC, gave it an enthusiastic reception. It’s now up to the powers-that-be in education to shake up the ICT curriculum and encourage the next Jet Set Willy.

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One Response
  1. Comment by Jamie
    29th February 2012 at 9:06 pm

    SHIFT-RUN/STOP? You filthy Commodore pervert. *Normal* people in the 80s typed J SYMBOL-SHIFT-P SYMBOL-SHIFT-P to load programs on Spectrums.