Your Spectrum
Issue 14, May 1985 - Circe
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Publisher, journalist and author of over 50 computing books, Tim Hartnell reckons he owes it all to Uncle Clive. Sue Denham finds out why ...
"Read All About It!"
"I guess it all started soon after I came to London from Australia back in 1979. You could 'feel' that computers were going to be the 'next big thing', but there was no way I could afford a second-hand Commodore PET for £400! But then, in 1980, Sinclair Research launched the ZX80 for £110 and it all became possible."
Five years on, Tim Hartnell now runs the publishing company, Interface Publications, and has written over 50 titles for many micros, including six or seven for the Spectrum. But his main claim to fame must be the uniting of Sinclair users under the banner of the ZX8O/ZX81 Users' Club, complete with its own computing magazine, Interface. It was the first magazine solely dedicated to the home computer user.
"I think it's funny to look back on those days - I remember writing in Interface that there was no point in giving users more than 1K as no-one needed that much memory! It was all so expensive then anyway. Sinclair Research was charging £16 for a gadget to hold the RAM packs and £12 for each 'K!"
"The Users' Club was first advertised in a three-line entry in the back of PCW - and I remember thinking it might take a few months to take off and not to be too disappointed. That's how little I knew! Within six weeks, the club had over 3,000 members!
"For the first few months, I did a small newsletter and approached a publisher with a view to bringing out a 'proper' magazine. But they turned out to be a bunch of crooks who just wanted to bleed the membership dry, so I ended up doing the whole thing myself.
"The whole operation was run from my home - wherever
you looked there was a mess of typesetting and computer printout! It became so difficult to run that in the end I went ex- directory and used a mailing address. Anonymity is a wonderful thing at times!"
Of course, being a computing personality does have its advantages. "I remember being one of the first people to get a look at the ZX81 and Spectrum. When I got my hands on the Spectrum, there were only three in existence outside Sinclair Research and two had already broken. During the time I had it, I was half-way through a program and I'd lost the power pack - I ended up wiring up to the power pack from an Acorn Atom. Of course, as soon as the smoke started appearing I unplugged it all ... but it still worked!
What do you reckon to Sinclair Research's approach to its products? "Well, if I was to tell you that way back in 1980, I was asked to check out the machine that was to become the ZX81 and I had a few problems with the 16K memory add-on, I doubt you'd be surprised. But, at the time, I was a bit upset to find I'd lost all my programming in what was probably the world's first ever recorded 'white-out' ... to the point that I phoned up Altwasser (the main designer of the ZX81 and Spectrum) and told him. He said, "I think you're asking too much of it, Tim.", so nothing was ever done and for a year, users had to put up with losing their programs. Of course, the boffins up at Sinclair Research had the device bolted down on the bench and operated with an industrial power supply - in other words, it wasn't designed for human beings!"
"I suppose I know why
people like me go along with the situation, though. I enjoy being part of the whole Sinclair 'discovery process' ... I think Sinclair users just want to help the company get it right. But it's a fast-moving industry and these things should be put to rights nowadays before the product comes out. But, in its defence, it's also a young industry ... and, although we're talking about the ZX8O and ZX81 as if they're part of ancient history, in real terms it was only a couple of pairs of sneakers ago!"
How about all the books you've written? "Well, I guess that my success as a publisher and author is all down to Uncle Clive's ZX80. Once I'd written Making The Most Of Your ZX80, I never looked back. I haven't had a really good review of one of my books in the UK for years... and it does hurt me. On the other hand, it's pleasing to know that I've encouraged a lot of programmers."
And what of the future? "Well, the Spectrum will be with us for many a year ... in whatever form! But I'm not sure programming will ever be like the 'old days'. It may sound silly, but I used to enjoy finding out all about the ZX80 while I balanced a frozen milk carton precariously on top to cool it down!"


YS is taking a break from cornering computer celebrities, but we'll be back with a vengeance, with your very own questions! Let us know who you want us to ambush, and suggest the five big questions you'd like us to fire away! People and Questions on a postcard to: P's & Q's, Your Spectrum, 14 Rathbone Place, London W1P 1DE.

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