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The unwitting theatre of the ZX Spectrum, and the improbable patience of a twelve year old boy

May 6, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, the ZX Spectrum turned 30. Being one of the generation that grew up with Sir Clive Sinclair’s rubber key marvel, it was a chance to wallow in nostalgia. There was much to be nostalgic about. The Spectrum was a smart and attractive piece of industrial design, and far more artful than anything manufactured by Apple. It hosted a wonderful range of quirky, even mildly deranged games (there’s a good list of them on World of Spectrum, even if, criminally, Nodes of Yesod is  only at no. 91). It also introduced many people to programming; although in my case the apogee of my coding career was the ability to make the display machines in Woolworths reel off GOTO loops declaring that ‘Woolies is rubbish’.

But there was one aspect of the Spectrum that I didn’t spot in any of the features and commentaries surrounding the anniversary: the software loading sequence. If you didn’t get to experience it at the time, this You Tube clip provides the entire loading and attract sequence of Manic Miner, one of the Speccy’s most famous games:

I hadn’t experienced this for some time, and I was surprised at how fondly I remembered this. Waiting nigh on five minutes for a piece of software to load seems an unbearably languorous process compared to modern devices But here’s the odd thing: I don’t recall this being much of a problem when I was a child. These days, waiting for my PC to boot is enough to drive me to tears, and that probably only takes half as long at most. Could it be that as a twelve year old boy I was a far more patient person than the present father of two on the cusp of 40?

I doubt it. When I was a kid, my daily use of the Spectrum was rationed by my parents to two hours a day. Those five minutes were precious. Having looked at the clip, and experiencing the load time in real time, I don’t think my memory is playing tricks on me.  The long load was, curiously, all part of the fun.

How come? Well, first off, five minutes is a good time to wait for something, especially if you’re at home. You could set the game loading, go off and get a drink, read a comic, talk to your mate who has come round to play. 40 seconds or a minute for an app to load is not enough for that; but it is enough to stare at your iPhone screen with mounting annoyance. The five minute load time of the Spectrum was not directly demanding, but it was enough to build anticipation.

On top of this, the Spectrum load sequence was exciting. How busy it was! Flashes of colour, like a furious rainbow trapped in a jar; squalls of noise, like the feedback on a Jesus and Mary chain record: the Spectrum loading sequence left you in no doubt that exciting stuff was going on under the hood. This was raw data being pulled from magnetic tape into a metal box and magic was about to happen. It was like sitting in a dark theatre, the stage curtain down, listening to the orchestra tuning. Waiting for Windows to load is more akin to queuing in a lavatory and hearing the half-suppressed groans of the cubicle’s constipated occupant.

I’ve no idea whether the load sequence was deliberately designed for this effect. I rather doubt it was. But Sinclair Research pulled off the brilliant trick of taking a piece of inherent friction in the user experience, and turning it into a lo-fi dramatic device. Had it just silently flashed ‘Loading…’ with extensible ellipsis, it would have been a more elegant experience, but utterly dull.

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