Robert Hampton

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1st May 2014

It’s all geek to me

According to The Register, the BASIC programming language is 50 years old today. Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code was designed to be an easy to learn language for the masses. With BASIC, even unskilled programmer could knock up a useful program quickly. It also enabled a generation of bored teenagers to go into Currys on a Saturday afternoon and set the shop display ZX Spectrum to print something rude.

Originally designed by staff at Dartmouth College in the USA, BASIC went on to conquer the world, largely thanks to a small upstart company called Micro-Soft (whatever happened to them?), which ported the language to multiple home computers in the 1980s.

Sample C64 program to play a tune

My first tentative steps in computing were taken using Commodore BASIC. The Commodore 64, like most 8-bit home computers of the era, booted straight into a BASIC prompt. At this point, the typical user hit SHIFT-RUN/STOP (or, if you were posh and had a floppy disc drive, typed LOAD"*",8,1) to load up a game. I, naturally, ventured into BASIC programming, diligently typing in the example programs from the user manual and then, later on, from Commodore Format magazine.

Unfortunately, Commodore BASIC was, to use a technical term, piss-poor. Doing anything remotely interesting (like moving sprites on screen, or playing music) needed arcade POKE and PEEK commands to do anything useful. I was glad to move on to an Acorn A3010 with the far superior BBC BASIC. Not only was it much more powerful, but it was now possible to edit programs in a GUI editor. Cutting and pasting code was a lot easier than faffing around with cursor keys.

BASIC was often derided for encouraging bad programming habits. In particular, early versions of the language often required use of the GOTO statement, which caused execution to jump to another part of the program. Careless use of GOTOs caused programs to become a mass of “spaghetti code”, difficult to understand and debug. I’ve heard it said that anyone moving from BASIC to another programming language first needs to “unlearn” everything they’ve been taught about BASIC. I think that’s true to a certain extent – when I started coding in C, there was a steep learning curve to negotiate.

Still, BASIC lives on, in a much changed form. Over two decades after I first typed in my first PRINT command, I’m studying at the Open University, and currently learning Microsoft Visual Basic. It’s a long way from the 38911 BYTES FREE of the Commodore 64, but the Rem keyword is still in there, and the principle is the same – to allow programmers to produce working applications with the minimum of effort. Microsoft have also produced Small Basic, a simplified version of the language designed to teach children programming.

So, happy birthday, BASIC. If anyone is feeling nostalgic and fancies playing around with BBC BASIC, a Windows port is available.

6th August 2012


Commodore 64An icon of computer geekery turns 30 in August. No, not me (that’s next month). I’m talking about one of the most popular home computers ever built – the Commodore 64.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the time when computers finally moved out of university laboratories and corporate payroll systems and into people’s homes, as computer manufacturers – including Apple and Atari – introduced the first generation of microcomputers. These small self-contained systems could be connected to a TV set, giving Joe Public a window into the world of computing, in a limited fashion. By 1980 the Apple II and Atari 400 were well-established, although with a price tag of circa $1,000 they were still rich people’s toys.

Commodore were, perhaps, slightly late to the party – their earlier computers, the PET series, were mainly used in small businesses and schools. That policy changed in 1981 with the advent of Commodore’s first machine targeted squarely at home users, the VIC-20. Its capabilities were limited even by the standards of the time: only 5K of RAM and 176×184 screen resolution, meaning some very chunky graphics. However, at $300 it was substantially cheaper than its rivals and in its first year on sale it sold over 1 million units. This was partly thanks to a memorable TV ad campaign featuring William Shatner, who implored parents to buy this proper computer for their kids instead of a mere video game.

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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

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12th April 2010

VICtory is mine

It’s probably not escaped your attention that I am something of a computer geek. What you may not know is where it all began. For that we need to go back to 1989 or thereabouts, when my seven-year-old self was thrilled to see that my dad had been able to source a computer second-hand for me.

Enter the Commodore VIC-20:-

VIC-20 keyboard
This picture released under Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence. Original by Pixel8/Cbmeeks.

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21st March 2008


Hurray for the BBC Micro! Sadly I never owned one, so I had to settle for occasional goes on the one at my primary school. Then I would go home to my Commodore 64 which, while technically superior in some respects, was cursed by a primitive BASIC interpreter that couldn’t do anything remotely interesting without a long chain of POKE commands.

I salute you, BBC Model B, for encouraging a generation of geeky youngsters to use their bedrooms for programming instead of any less pure activities. May your cheery red function keys and chunky MODE 2 graphics earn you a place in the highest echelons of Silicon Heaven.