Why did kids code in the 80's?

October 11, 2011 at 11:42 PM | categories: programming, kidscoding | View Comments

Caveat: This is my view. Your views/memories may be different. Please share them :-)

The Shark

They say that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. That's all well and good, but there's also the idea that if you watch Jaws and think the reason it succeeded was "shark", then you might think adding sharks always improves a thing. Sometimes remembering the past is fraught with missing the point.

This is why I raise this is the idea "Why did kids learn to write code in the 80's?". Some think it was due to the BBC Micro. Some think it was Sinclair, or Commodore, or Apple or Atari. There's a dozen possible answers to the question, and I'd be interested in hearing why you started coding in the 80's as a kid (assuming you did) in the comments. It was when games like David Braben's Elite took to the space ways, when small computers rode ontop of robots solving mazes for the first time, when men leapt of quantum leaps over bad ideas, and many more cliches. In amongst all this there were some real opportunities.

However, the reason other reason I'm picking the 80's is because they're viewed today through the rose tinted goggles of history, and because it's when I started coding. I'd like to argue that in terms of the home - where people really learnt to code - the BBC Micro was in fact the shark, not the story.

The era

So let's pick a rough date - say 1983. I would've been 9 (going on 10) or so, living in a caravan, on the outskirts of 3 villages in cambridgeshire, a year after my parents had done the whole Good Life thing (which was their way of working round the lack of jobs when 4 million people were unemployed). My bedroom was 2m by 1m. Suffice to say by UK standards we weren't rich, but we were happy :)

Back then, you could get a computer - a ZX81 for £50, and then lower as other better machines came on the market. It wasn't the world's best computer, and an arduino today beats it hands down, but it was a real computer, and with a 16K RAM pack it could play a mean game of chess. Probably the next up the food chain was the Commodore Vic 20 for another £20-£30. The ZX Spectrum was pushing the £99 price bracket depending on model, and Commodore 64 was getting towards £130 or more. (My memory is rather hazy) To put this into perspective, the BBC Micro was £299 and £399. A ZX81 would also, work on a normal television - even a black and white portable - whereas things like a BBC Micro generally had a composite monitor attached to them.

However £50 was a lot of money then. To give an idea of inflation, a monthly magazine that now costs about £4.50 costed 60p then. That means in today's money a ZX81 then cost the equivalent of £375, and a BBC Micro costed (in today's terms) around £3000 (or £2250 or so). Given the economics of the day made putting food on the table hard each month, why would we have a computer ? Even a "cheap" one ? Part of the reason is simple - parents of the day - like parents today - want the best they can afford for their children. You'll always hear many families scrimping and saving and putting aside just enough to do well by their kids. Aspiration is unchanging and universal.

That's only part of the reason though. There was an awful lot else going on. As hinted at, 4 million people were unemployed, a recession was happening, money was tight.

What else happened?


Well, Doctor Who for starters. In 1977, the Doctor gained a new companion in a story called The Invisible Enemy. In a story reminiscient of the recent one with the teselector, the Doctor was shrunk and went inside his own body, complete with fighting white blood cells. As a story it sticks in my mind, even though I was 4, primarily because as well as "explaining" the immune system it introduced a new companion - K9.

K9 wasn't created by the Doctor though. K9 was created by a human scientist - Professor Marius - on a space station because he missed his dog. For me that was the start of my interest in robots - since K9 was a human creation and therefore possible (from a 6 year old's perspective). This was followed by C3PO, R2D2, and other random "greats" (from a small kid's view) like Metal Mickey.

In early 1980, Doctor Who Weekly magazine started, and for a 6 1/2 year old something really fun was printed - "complete" plans and schematics for K9 were printed. Unsurprisingly then, I tried to build K9. Unsurprisingly then, I failed. I was definitely hooked on robots at that point. I read book after book on robots.

Unlike today, they actually made books for kids on robots - that you'd find in bookshops anyway. One of them, made the point that robots were programmed. They were controlled by a program written by people. It described essentially (in the broadest possible terms) what would now be called top down stepwise refinement. Over time my interest switched from robots to programming.

Kids, Computers in the 80's and the BBC

Not only that, this was a time when computers and kids was very much something which mixed. This is really where the BBC comes in, in a piece of the puzzle I only really understood in recent years. In my few years at the BBC, I've been lucky enough to have met a handful of those behind "The BBC Micro". However, the BBC Micro was really the tip of the iceberg for a more important project - the BBC's Computer Literacy project. The linked PDF (link found via Diane Coyle's blog) describes the project over the years of 1979 to 1983. In others words the crucial years leading up to the point where I personally started learning to code. That helped form the environment that I grew up in and learnt to code.

Not only that but the environment that many of my peers also grew up in.

Who does that project credit with the large take up of computers in the UK? Sinclair. This tracks with history as I remember it. A few years later when I was at secondary school around 86-88, as part of a maths project were all had to run a survey and produce stats on a subject, so being a geek even then, I ran a survey on home computer ownership in the school. Out of the surveys returned, a significant chunk had a home computer, the vast majority were ZX Spectrums, followed by Commodore 64's. There were then mainly Vic 20's. A couple of Commodore Plus/4's, a Commodore C16, a couple of Oric's (Oric 1 and Atmos) and a Jupiter Ace (Forth!). Out of the 100-150 people who said they had a home computer, about 2 or 3 people had a BBC Micro.

So the BBC Micro's contribution in terms of hardware was remarkably small at home. However, there was a target of at least one per school or something like one per class per school, which is where the impact in the classroom happened.

So, in this great heyday, kids learnt programming in schools, and kids learnt to write games, and develop software ? Sounds good, but no. That's not the case.

What did we learn? We used educational software, we learnt a bit of logo to control a robot turtle, and, um, things pretty similar to what we actually still get today.

So how the hell did we end up with an industry and heritage that (rightly) credits the BBC Micro so heavily? For one very very important reason - it legitimised micro-computers in the eyes of the mass public, in the eyes of it being an educational tool, in the eyes of publishers and most crucially in the eyes of parents.

There were TV programmes - such as those produced by Dave Allen (who has been welcome around BBC R&D since, and I've had great pleasure to be his assistant recording open days a few years ago) - which quite literally brought computers into the living room saying "hey look, they can do this!". There were reports of children writing games, and making thousands by simply recording them onto tapes and selling tapes. These things encourage a small cottage industry and that cottage industry bloomed.

Heck, if you're 8 and you hear that a 14 year old has made £2000 (in money then - the equivalent of £15000 today) for simply writing games, it makes you sit up and take notice. So do your parents.

Similarly, I'm pretty certain that without the BBC computer literacy project specifically legitimising micro computers that I wouldn't've had access to books like this:

And without books like that, I would've been left as a consumer using a ZX81 (if I'd been lucky enough to get one), rather than a creator. I'm pretty certain that it's due to the BBC Computer Literacy Project acting as a social and political catalyst in a time of economic hardship, that led to this environment.

Why kids coded in the 80's

So, given all that, the reason kids coded in the 80's was greed? No. The reason kid's coded is because they learnt it at school? Not really. Why then?

One thing about most of those books above is that they are full of listings. Not dry descriptions of "this is how a computer works", but pictures using robots as a metaphor for how things work, but also showing how computers and programs work, by providing programs for a child to type in. Given that when I was a kid I got these books out of the library, what did these books, programs, listings and games represent?

  • Free games
  • Free tools for modelling systems
  • Free tools for playing with graphs
  • Free tools for learning and understanding complex systems through play

Today, those 4 usecases are taken by the web. However, in the 80's the reason why you learnt coding really is because those books, bless them, had typoes. They had to deal with variants of BASIC on various systems, and in order for you to get your free games to work, you needed to make sure you entered the right variant. Most of the pieces of the puzzle were done for you, but not all, not quite.

From my perspective the real legacy of the Computer Literacy project was in legitimising micro computers, inspiring people to learn and encouraging the creation of resources that kids would want to play with to come into existence.

In case you're wondering the book "Computer Programming - BASIC for beginners" was the first programming book I ever owned. I didn't own a computer, but a friend of mine had a Vic 20, so I went round his house to type in the space invaders game to play round his.

Yep, back in the early 80's programming was social by default because you wanted to play games with your friends, and didn't have the money to buy the games.

It's really quite simple - kids learnt to code because they wanted to play and to play with their friends.

Kids still want to play games, and still don't want to be limited to what they can buy.

They still want to create their own games to play with their friends. To my mind, that's a window of opportunity.

A Modern Computer Literacy Project ?

And all this really makes me ask:

  • What is it that the BBC could legitimise in the eyes of parents, politicians, schools.
  • What would a modern BBC Computer Literacy project look like?
  • How do you make it relevant to a world where 75% of homes have broadband, and 25% of children in the UK live in poverty.

Personally, I think what we really need as a society is:

  • The useful aspects from computational thinking used to boost the curriculum
  • Concrete usage of that through instructing programmable devices (not just programming)
  • Make it work in the modern school

That last point is actually quite complex, since there are 8 main classes there:

  • Well equipped schools, with knowledgeable staff and well maintained kit.

And each of the other boolean options there where the inverse of each is:

  • Poorly equipped schools, without knowledgeable staff and badly maintained kit.

After all, these days kit is in most schools - either through the schools (or LEA) prioritising computers, or through schools getting Computers For Schools vouchers from Tesco and Sainsbury's...

The real killer point though is how to actually interesting children, today in today's environment, in learning to write code? Where it fits in with their personal desires and needs. With their homework and curriculum? With, quite frankly, the kit they DO have at home or school, today ? When they're used to 3D gesture controlled games, online social networks, and rich computer graphic systems? A world where even Blue Peter shows children working with dev teams to create Apps for iPhones.

I have no doubt that these questions all have answers and are all tractable.

I do think the questions need posing and answering though.

Anyway, comments welcome, and if you started coding in the 80's as a kid, I'd be curious as to why you did so. After all, I'm basing this on what I saw and I clearly wasn't everywhere, and people didn't blog then either :-)

The monthly magazine I'm using for inflation is Doctor Who Monthly magazine. It's not a bad metric because it's something that kids then and kids now would want to buy. And yes, it's also a terrible metric, but it's to give an idea of relative costs.

Later edit - it's struck me that someone could read this and think that I'm belittling the achievements of the BBC Micro - I'm not, not even slightly. What I'm saying is that the Computer Literacy project (which it was a part of) is the thing to not lose sight of and the thing to learn from. Now that I know what the BBC is like internally, it's more incredible to think it happened at all, let alone as successfully as it did.

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