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For Sinclair Fans, The ZX81 Lives On

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the sweet-pain-of-memory dept.

United Kingdom 196

An anonymous reader writes "The ZX81 Museum was set-up to preserve and showcase a private collection of original Sinclair branded ZX81 hardware, software and literature. The museum has since expanded to include ZX81 software from other publishers of the time and a variety of other ZX81 peripherals and reference books. The collection dates from 1981 to 1983 and features the complete Sinclair-branded software series. The activities of the museum are regularly reported via Twitter, along with updates from the ever growing ZX81 fanbase. There is even a YouTube channel for the diehard 8-bit fans out there, of which there seems to be many!" This was one of the first computers I ever used; I suspect it's still buried in some deep stratum in my dad's basement. As is often the case, the old advertisements are great.

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16K-Byte expansion! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833129)

Wow! Four of those and I could run the Java Update Scheduler! (52K according to task manager on my office PC)

Only if you are a Jenga champion (2)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833193)

Wow! Four of those and I could run the Java Update Scheduler!

Given how careful you had to be with just one 16k expansion, I can imagine typing with four attached without causing a crash would take some very steady hands indeed!

Re:Only if you are a Jenga champion (2)

PCM2 (4486) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833579)

Given how careful you had to be with just one 16k expansion, I can imagine typing with four attached without causing a crash would take some very steady hands indeed!

Oh hell yes. I remember clearly trying to port a text adventure game from some other dialect of Basic, hammering away on that dodgy membrane keyboard, and having the 16K cartridge fall out while I was trying to suss out the syntax errors. (Result: Crash, memory wiped.)

Re:Only if you are a Jenga champion (4, Informative)

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834573)

I used to beat those crashes by taking a bunch of ice cubes, double-bagging them in ziplocs, and placing that on top of the ZX81 where their crappy thin aluminum prong "heat sink" came up from the board to meet the upper case interior. I never had "unreasonable" crashes after that but I went through a lot of ice cubes with that little thing.

Re:Only if you are a Jenga champion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38835127)

I used to beat those crashes by taking a bunch of ice cubes, double-bagging them in ziplocs, and placing that on top of the ZX81 where their crappy thin aluminum prong "heat sink" came up from the board to meet the upper case interior. I never had "unreasonable" crashes after that but I went through a lot of ice cubes with that little thing.

The heatsink in the ZX81 was attached to the 7805 voltage regulator and it was located under the keyboard. Are you thinking of another computer?

Computer from kit is a great way to start (5, Interesting)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833157)

My first computer was the ZX-81 kit where you had to soldier it together.

Although in a lot of ways I know this is simply not practical for most people to do, I have to say it was a really awesome way to be introduced to a computer. It's probably just nostalgia but I feel a little sorry that almost no-one going forward will be introduced to computing in that way...

It's nice to see someone keeping the history of this very unique system alive.

Re:Computer from kit is a great way to start (4, Funny)

Jawnn (445279) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833227)

My first computer was the ZX-81 kit where you had to soldier it together.

Well there's yer problem. Me, I just used solder.

Re:Computer from kit is a great way to start (1)

mcgrew (92797) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833317)

I think what he meant was you had to "soldier on" and write all the programs yourself, because I, for one, had a damned hard time finding any. ;)

Was the ZX-81 the same as the TS-1000, or was it the same as the one that came after?

At any rate, I probably still have casettes with TS-1000 programs on it. Are there any emulators for modern PCs that will run Sinclair BASIC or TS-1000 machine code and will read the tapes? If so, I'd love to get a copy.

Before (3, Interesting)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833413)

Was the ZX-81 the same as the TS-1000, or was it the same as the one that came after?

I also had the TS-1000. The ZX-81 came before, I ordered mine from England. The Timex-Sinclair was the U.S. version, already assembled for you.

Yes, there was not a lot of software, though there was some you could buy on cassette as you say, or type in from magazines. It was however a great way to get into programming. I won my first programming contest with it, writing a crossword generator that won me a Timex-Sinclair 2048...

There are definitely emulators for both the ZX-81 and TS-1000, though I've not enough nostalgia I know where any are. I'm sure Google can find them.

Re:Before (5, Informative)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834385)

Was the ZX-81 the same as the TS-1000, or was it the same as the one that came after?

The ZX-81 came before, I ordered mine from England. The Timex-Sinclair was the U.S. version, already assembled for you.

There were three distinct "original" ZX machines sold on the UK market:-

* ZX80 [wikipedia.org] came first in 1980. Black and white, text-based display, 1KB RAM, 4KB OS ROM with integer-only BASIC. Yes, it was very basic, but it was also very cheap- first computer under £100 back when even the Apple II cost many, many times that. Apparently it was also sold in the US in both kit and assembled form. (I don't know if the pre-assembled version was ever sold in its native UK?)

* ZX81 [wikipedia.org] came next and was even more popular. Essentially an improved and cost-reduced refinement of the ZX80 design. Still black and white with 1KB RAM (expandable to 16KB) and a new improved 8KB OS and BASIC ROM. The Timex Sinclair 1000 mentioned above was an NTSC version with 2KB and other minor differences for the US market, but to all intents and purposes the same machine.

* ZX Spectrum [wikipedia.org] followed on in 1982. Colour, high-res graphics, sound (albeit crude single channel). There was a US machine based on the Spectrum design (the failed Timex Sinclair 2068) but unlike the TS1000, it made significant changes and improvements to the original design.
.
There were very many clones and variants- both authorised and unauthorised- of the above machines in various countries. In part because their architecture was based around clever design using cheap off-the-shelf parts (e.g. the ZX80's inability to compute and display at the same time was because the display was primarily generated in software). This made them easier to rip off than (e.g.) the Commodore 64.

The ZX81 replaced the ZX80 as it was essentially a refined and improved version of the latter (better OS and moving graphics possible- the ZX80's display flickered and went blank whenever it was busy) and at a lower price (18 chips in the ZX80 replaced with a single functionally equivalent chip). In fact, the ZX80 could be almost upgraded to a ZX81- minus the steady graphics- simply by replacing the ROM OS.

The Spectrum was a slightly more expensive machine with colour and high-resolution graphics and (very crude) single-channel sound. It was sold alongside the cheaper ZX81 for some time. (I think they stopped making the ZX81 in 1984?) In the long term the Spectrum was the most successful as it was usable for games- its success quickly spawned rivals, but its early lead had already established a network effect [wikipedia.org] (i.e. users led to support and software which led to more users, which led to more support...) and it survived until the early 90s.

Re:Before (1)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834483)

Thanks for the timeline - I got on board with the ZX-81 (ordered from England, sent to the U.S.) then after that I was with the U.S. versions - the Timex-Sinclair 1k (forget why I had that since after all i had the ZX-81), the the Timex-Sinclair 2048 (which was the U.S. version of the Spectrum). Or I might have got the 2068, can't remember exactly.

Too bad the line didn't continue into modern days.

Re:Before (1)

dkf (304284) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834649)

Too bad the line didn't continue into modern days.

The successor was the QL (based on the Motorola 64k IIRC, instead of the Z-80 of the older machines), but that basically failed. Too expensive for the market, and not nearly enough of the software that people wanted (games). In some senses, the real successors to the Speccy were consoles and the PC, depending on how much money you had and whether you were just playing games or were determined to write software as well.

Re:Before (5, Informative)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835205)

The QL was based on a Motorola 68008, which was a 68000 but with only an 8-bit data bus (instead of 16-bits). (*)

Anyway, AFAIK, the QL partly flopped because Sinclair aimed at the business market instead of hobbyists.

Even then (apparently), IBM PC compatibility was quickly becoming more important to such people. Also, I'm assuming that the quirkiness and flakiness of Sinclair products would have been less tolerable to business users in the quickly-maturing mid 80s market than it would have been to grateful first-time hobbyists a few years later.

In some senses, the real successors to the Speccy were consoles and the PC, depending on how much money you had and whether you were just playing games or were determined to write software as well.

Not quite, or at least, not directly. The late-80s and early-90s successors to the Spectrum were really the Atari ST and Amiga, the latter of which may have flopped in the US, but was massively popular in Europe around the turn of the decade. It wasn't until circa '92-93 that the ever-falling price of PC clones and the Mega Drive (AKA Genesis) and later SNES took over and *really* started to dominate the home market.

(Remember that the original NES was never as big a deal here as it was in the US at the time- it was even outsold by the Sega Master System in the UK).

(*) Sinclair sold the QL on the basis that it was a 32-bit machine, which the 68008 *was*... internally. But then, the Amiga and ST's 68000 was generally considered a 16-bit processor (not 32-bit) due to the size of its data bus, so following the same system the QL would only be an 8-bit machine. It depends what slant you want to put on it!

Re:Before (1)

cliffjumper222 (229876) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834611)

A friend's Dad bought a ZX80 when they came out and then first thing I did was program a home-made "breakout" game into it. The screen flashed every time the ball went up and down, and then the game ran out of memory.

Re:Computer from kit is a great way to start (1)

Just Some Guy (3352) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833461)

I think what he meant was you had to "soldier on" and write all the programs yourself, because I, for one, had a damned hard time finding any. ;)

I didn't. There were cardboard crates full of jumbled discount tapes at the local bargain store. "Ooh, look! A coupon manager!"

Are there any emulators for modern PCs that will run Sinclair BASIC or TS-1000 machine code and will read the tapes?

I can't imagine it'd take more than 50 lines of Python.

Re:Computer from kit is a great way to start (4, Informative)

Colourspace (563895) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833543)

Try www.worldofspectrum.org (yep on /. 13 years now and still haven't found out how to do embedded links - sorry - geek card in post) It's primarily a site for the 1982 UK/EUR ZX Spectrum machine but IIRC there are plenty of ZX80/ZX81 links and emulators for many platforms discussed. A good jumping off point if you do want to enjoy some nostalgia, and a massive library of legal dumps. I think the Timex-Sinclair 2048 *might* have been the US version of the ZX Spectrum (colour, 48K compared to the mono 1K ZX81)....

Re:Computer from kit is a great way to start (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38834073)

It's okay, they didn't have hyperlinks back when you got into computing. I hear wearing an onion on your belt was fashionable...

either use the

http://

prefix or

<a href="http://www.example.com"></a>

or

<URL:http://example.com/>

If you use the old discussion system it gives you a hint below the post area.

Re:Computer from kit is a great way to start (2)

gamanimatron (1327245) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833755)

Was the ZX-81 the same as the TS-1000, or was it the same as the one that came after?

The TS1000 had a slightly different motherboard, with an NTSC RF modulator and twice the RAM (2K!) built in. If I remember correctly, you couldn't get TS1000 kits either.

Re:Computer from kit is a great way to start (1)

TheGoodNamesWereGone (1844118) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833549)

It was my first as well, although I bought the Timex ready-made version. My wife divorced me once she learned I loved it more than her..... Ahhhh, those were the days....

The old ads ARE great! (3, Funny)

kkaos (1310781) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833169)

"Finally you can afford to satisfy your lust for power." Well, it's about time!

Re:The old ads ARE great! (2)

RDW (41497) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833487)

...but I don't see my favourite piece of ZX81 ephemera, the promotional poster that placed on some sort of darkly psychedelic space opera lectern:

http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/userdata/images/large/PRODPIC-9064.jpg [computinghistory.org.uk]

I actually learnt the QWERTY layout from a free copy of that, while waiting excitedly for the actual computer (an expected Christmas present). Yes, I would tell you to get off my lawn, but I actually have a hedge maze patrolled by a dinosaur:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKvd0zPfBE4 [youtube.com]

WWRDD? (1)

Colourspace (563895) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833581)

What Would Roger Dean Design?

Re:The old ads ARE great! (2)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833749)

"Finally you can afford to satisfy your lust for power."

Well, it's about time!

I love looking at old advertising. Shows what a crotchety old geezer I'm turning into now that was when a programmer was a programmer - fit a whole suite of applications in 16K of memory and stored on cassette tapes .. kids these days have it easy .. sloppy bloated code with no optimization .. hmmph! I have a small stack of Apple Insider magazine from 1980 and 81, alas, binned the heavy old Byte magazines from the mid-80's, which showed blistering performance of 6 MHz!!!* and you could get a 5 Meg HDD for a few thousand zorkmids.

The one thing they do convince me of -- you can have fun with pretty much any generation's hardware and software, because I know I stayed up late at night coding or playing games on computers which my cellphone could utterly smoke.

Re:The old ads ARE great! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38834093)

It's got nothing to do with having with any given set of HW/SW, it has to do with when you were YOUNG.

hey! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833175)

i built one of those!

and it sucked moose schwanze - big time

I've still got one! (1)

Grindalf (1089511) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833179)

I've still got one of these, they're indestructible! They're absolutely tiny too ...

My First Personal Computer (5, Interesting)

lazarus (2879) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833247)

I was 12 years old. I worked for a summer and made enough money to buy the unassembled version. It was essentially a bag of parts that you soldered together yourself. Add an old black and white TV, a cassette tape recorder and you were on your way. That way back when "built your own computer" meant that either you assembled it or actually designed the darn thing. Today it means you connected the major components together and hoped everybody followed spec.

The best part of the ZX81 was the fantastic instruction manual it came with that essentially taught you how to program (in BASIC). Very well written. I eventually left basic behind and started programming in Forth.

I don't have mine anymore, but I wish I did. The membrane keyboard was truly horrible to use, the RAM (1K) insufficient (I eventually purchased the 16K add-on), and the entire thing painfully slow. But it was an affordable, functional computer back when that was a rarity. I owe it and it's designers a great debt.

Re:My First Personal Computer (1)

mcgrew (92797) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833853)

I wore my membrane keyboard out playing two player battle tanks (I wrote it in assembly and hand-assembled the machine code because BASIC was too slow. Had to put loops in to slow it down enough to be playable in assembly).

But I was 30 (damn but I'm getting old).

Re:My First Personal Computer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38834115)

either you assembled it or actually designed the darn thing.

Therein lies a huge difference. The ZX81 kit was Heathkit-simple. You populated the PCB by following instructions and didn't have to know anything about electronics, never mind digital logic.

Sure, it's a little more challenging than assembling the components of a DOS box, but the gulf between both of those and actually designing your own is enough to make them virtually the same thing.

Just wanted to make that clear for younger folks reading along. Kit assemblers our age were not of the same ilk as the hobbyists who designed their own. Assembling a ZX81 is more like making a mint-tin headphone amp, following any of the easy howto articles online. Good fun, but didn't make us grey-beards.

Gateway Drug (2)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834511)

Just wanted to make that clear for younger folks reading along. Kit assemblers our age were not of the same ilk as the hobbyists who designed their own.

True, but the brilliance was that it could get you interested in going further. Even though I did no design originally in putting it together I did have to look at pinouts to hook up a real keyboard... kits are a great way to get comfortable with putting things together at all, then you start questioning what the components do and what changes you can make.

Re:My First Personal Computer (1)

element-o.p. (939033) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835059)

Likewise. I was just slightly younger than you (6th grade) when my dad bought a ZX-81 kit. That computer was my introduction to programming and computing. I definitely second your review of the manual. I used to pore over it for hours trying to learn what all of the functions did, and how to use them. In particular, I remember the sample programs they included in the manual for drawing sine curves and asymptotes. I remember taking pre-algebra in 7th grade and the light bulb clicked in my head. "Oh...so that's how they generated those graphs!" and I've loved math ever since.

I still have that computer, after finding it my parents garage after my dad passed away a few years ago...

Re:My First Personal Computer (1)

Spacejock (727523) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835463)

I saved enough pocket money for a ZX81 in 1983, and then my dad told me I wasn't allowed to buy one. He was worried computers were a bad influence on youth (unlike, say, drugs and alcohol). It took a few weeks but I finally won. Then I used my paper round money to buy a ZX printer. I still have both of them in the cupboard.

Why? (4, Insightful)

The Grim Reefer (1162755) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833267)

I had one of these, and you couldn't pay me to to use one again. Well you could, but it would have to be a hell of a lot. I can understand why people would be nostalgic about a C64, or even a TI994/A. I had both of those too. But I don't really remember much to like about the ZX81. Even the keyboard/tiny plastic membrane was awful. It was sold by Timex in the US and the "keys" were about the size of calculator buttons. I shelled out the $200 (IIRC) for the 16K RAM pack too. I'm probably suppressing the memory, but I seem to remember there being some issue with it, but I don't remember what it was specifically. It was a big (in relation to the system) clunky thing that plugged into the back. It probably didn't seat correctly or something. Some things should just be allowed to die and be forgotten.

Re:Why? (4, Informative)

abigor (540274) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833373)

The ram pack was prone to wiggling a bit and you'd lose the entire contents of memory. You had to prop it on a book or tape it in place. Kind of a nightmare really. I also hated the ultra-fiddly tape storage, where you had to have the volume and tone adjusted just right to get those weird black bars that showed the program was loading or saving correctly.

Re:Why? (1)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833545)

I also hated the ultra-fiddly tape storage, where you had to have the volume and tone adjusted just right to get those weird black bars that showed the program was loading or saving correctly.

Yes but the bars were very helpful, because you could see if the tape was going bad and had the volume fluctuating... then you could adjust the volume on the fly to adapt, and read in even very worn tapes.

By "great" I mean at the time of course, it would not be "great" today to have to adjust an analog knob while you were downloading elements of a web page. :-)

Re:Why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833667)

I also remember that the memory unit seemed to be hot enough to fry an egg on it.

Re:Why? (1)

Colourspace (563895) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833765)

Many stories about putting a cold milk carton (pint of) on it to achieve thermal stability. These overclockers eh? Don't know how good they have it. Both ways, in the snow.

Re:Why? (2)

dkf (304284) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834695)

I also hated the ultra-fiddly tape storage, where you had to have the volume and tone adjusted just right to get those weird black bars that showed the program was loading or saving correctly.

I never had any trouble, but that was because I had a really cheap and nasty tape recorder without any fancy auto-level circuitry that would try to make the data "sound nicer" (hah!). Wasn't nice to use for playing anything to listen to, but was perfect as a cheap-ass storage device.

The thing to like was what you put into it (5, Interesting)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833499)

The cool thing about the ZX-81 in particular (kit version) was how when you built something from scratch you really felt not a care at all about modification to it.

You didn't like the chiclet keyboard? Neither did I. That's why I replaced with with a spare TI-994A keyboard (real keys). After all, when you were the one that personally attached the keyboard connector you feel no trepidation in taking it out.

Or the wobbly 16k ram pack. The problem was the thing was as you say rather bulky, and would with some vibration work its way off the connector just enough to crash the system.

Again when you were the one assembling the case you have no issues attaching struts to the case to make the 16K expansion far more stable.

That's why there is still as much nostalgia for the ZX-81 as other more popular computers like the Atari or Commodore models that were easier to set up and use, because it was generally a more personal attachment and level of effort involved for those that really got into it.

Being mass market things I didn't keep any of the other early computers - but I did keep the ZX-81, because a lot of personal effort had gone into it.

Re:The thing to like was what you put into it (1)

The Grim Reefer (1162755) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834251)

Actually I did something similar with the 9900 processor from the TI. The board that it originally came in had a crippled RAM bus or something. So there was a kit that you could build that took better advantage of the 16-bit processor. That was actually a pretty good processor in its day, or so I remember.

Re:The thing to like was what you put into it (1)

Sulphur (1548251) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835199)

Actually I did something similar with the 9900 processor from the TI. The board that it originally came in had a crippled RAM bus or something. So there was a kit that you could build that took better advantage of the 16-bit processor. That was actually a pretty good processor in its day, or so I remember.

It was called grom (graphics rom). You wrote an address to it, and then subsequent reads returned bytes from the file. There was also a gram, but I don't know if that was used on the 99/4A production machine.

Re:Why? (1)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834479)

Most of the shortcomings of the ZX81 that some people like to get snotty about were forgiveable because they were what made the computer affordable.

For example, a real keyboard would have been nice, but it would also have massively increased the price.

However, the notorious "RAM pack wobble" (and yes, this was very common- there was even a joke on Red Dwarf about it!) was just crap design. One explanation I heard was that they reused the RAMpack case from the ZX80 for the ZX81 (whose own case was a different shape and wouldn't have fitted as snugly). Don't know if that's true, but it might be:-

http://www.cosam.org/images/zx81_ram_closeup.jpg [cosam.org]

http://www.polymathperspective.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/ZX80-RAM-Pack1.jpg [polymathperspective.com]

Extremely Relevant XKCD (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833301)

The Sinclair is not a big deal (-1)

na1led (1030470) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833349)

It's not the most popular 8 bit computer made, and you couldn't do a whole lot with it. I'm sure there are fan sites for many different 8 bit systems, why make a big deal about the Sinclair? The Commodore 64 is the most popular 8 bit computer ever made, and I'm sure has about 100 times more fans.

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833421)

Because it predates the C64 and was one of the first, if not the first, computers available on the high-street. In the UK this was sold in WH Smiths, which is basically a newsagents.

And around here it's a big deal because this is one story that will difficult to post a comment with some MS bashing.

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (2, Insightful)

na1led (1030470) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833493)

The Atari 800 came out in 1978 and was 10 times the computer! When I think of the Sinclair, I think of an oversized calculator, my Magnavox Odyssey could do more. I'm sorry, but the Sinclair was a POS back then and still is today!

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (1)

Osgeld (1900440) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833695)

with a really shit keyboard

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (4, Informative)

nogginthenog (582552) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834097)

Well, the Atari 800 was 10 times the price of a TS-1000 ($999.95 vs $99.95)

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (2)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834645)

The Atari 800 came out in 1978 and was 10 times the computer! When I think of the Sinclair, I think of an oversized calculator, my Magnavox Odyssey could do more. I'm sorry, but the Sinclair was a POS back then and still is today!

Well, the Atari 800 was 10 times the price of a TS-1000 ($999.95 vs $99.95)

You said exactly what I would have! The Atari 800 was an absolutely fantastic machine for the time it came out- I owned a later version called the 800XL, so I've no axe to grind- but it was also damn expensive when first released (late 1979, not 1978).

Everything I've seen indicates that even at the time people knew damn well that the ZX81 was a pretty basic machine in most respects. Yet it fulfilled the essentials of computing for the hobbyist market, for people who couldn't have afforded a computer before, and for that and the fact they figured out how to build a simple but nevertheless "proper" home computer at such a low price deserves respect.

Actually, I'm guessing that this is why the ZX81 (and its US version the TS-1000) generally doesn't get as much respect in the US. It wasn't the difference between "having a computer and not having a computer" over there.

Partly (still guessing) because the TS-1000 didn't come out in the US until over a year after the ZX81 was first launched in the UK, which is a *long* time when the market is evolving as fast as it did in the early 80s. (The ZX Spectrum was already out in the UK by that time). Partly because Americans generally had more disposable income. And also (I assume) because the Vic 20 was cheaper in its home market over there(?). Also, I understand there was a shortage of the RAM packs needed to make the most of the TS-1000, and they weren't that cheap.

Still, in the UK, it was a milestone machine despite its limitations, and for good reason.

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (1)

na1led (1030470) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835001)

You get what you paid for. I'd rather save a little and get something useful. When I was a kid, I had the choice of buying a piece of crap now, or saving for something worth while. I chose to wait and purchased my first computer - an Atari 800 xl. Still have it today.

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (2)

element-o.p. (939033) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835109)

Be that as it may, it was many peoples' introduction to computers, including me. You never forget your first... ;)

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833537)

It's not the most popular 8 bit computer made, and you couldn't do a whole lot with it. I'm sure there are fan sites for many different 8 bit systems, why make a big deal about the Sinclair? The Commodore 64 is the most popular 8 bit computer ever made, and I'm sure has about 100 times more fans.

Yes the C64 was better and has more fans, but for a lot of people the ZX81 was the first affordable and usable home computer. I spent a lot of time typing in code from magazines and hoping the tape recorder would actual save it properly.

Progressed to a VIC-20 - cartridge slot for RAM pack or even GORF, followed by C64 although my brothers got a Speccy for games.

All that typing of code and debugging the typos in the magazine must have suited me as I went on to be a developer. Feel sorry for the kids these days - buy a game, plug it in - what are you gonna learn like that?

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (2)

kiwimate (458274) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833547)

1. ZX81 was available in March 1981; C-64 was almost a year later.
2. The ZX81 was several hundred dollars cheaper. People who couldn't afford a Commodore 64 could afford a ZX81. It helped to bring computing to the masses.
3. A bit of a fuss was made that it only had four ICs inside it. I think the ZX80 had 21.

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833963)

... and in the UK, it was more like a couple of years, and factor of 6 price difference (£400 compared to £70 - or £50 if you bought the DIY version).

And - also in the UK - if you had that kind of cash, you were buying a BBC Micro, not some foreign nonsense! :-) The BBC was just an amazing machine - it had "good engineering" carved all over it. Properly separated OS vs Language ROMs etc. I built a video format converter in 1990, and I was able to test the input timing conformance using a BBC, because there was one of those *VIDEO commands for directly screwing with the video timings. Amazing.

I never owned a Beeb - I went ZX81 and Spectrum instead, and never regretted it (I wrote this game [worldofspectrum.org] ). But the Commodore 64 was nowhere on the scene. YMMV, of course :-)

Re:The Sinclair is not a big deal (1)

whosdat (2551450) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834095)

"The Sinclair"? ZX81 was just _a_ Sinclair.

ZX Spectrum, on the other hand, was big - at least in Eastern Europe and USSR. There was a dozen or so clones, with schematics printed in the magazines, and later a whole lot of extension tucked on, like whopping 1M RAM, modems, IDE controllers and so on.

It still has a significant community and demo scene presence.

BBC Micro Men (4, Informative)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833381)

If you haven't seen the movie Micro Men about Clive Sinclair, it is very entertaining. Now playing at your nearest torrent.

Re:BBC Micro Men (3, Interesting)

Colourspace (563895) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833637)

Yes, mod parent up - the UK's Bill Gates (Sinclair) versus a young Steve Jobs (Curry/Hauser - discuss?) in 'silicon fen' and don't forget the Acorn story is the seed of the ARM story. Pun intended. And if anyone is keen to see the actor Martin Freeman, due to play Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming Hobbit films, you can find him here as one of the main protagonists (Curry). No indication on how he might smoke a clay pipe though.

Re:BBC Micro Men (1)

Colourspace (563895) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833653)

But of course Job and Gates were of similar ages..

Re:BBC Micro Men (1)

BasilBrush (643681) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834443)

Yes, mod parent up - the UK's Bill Gates (Sinclair) versus a young Steve Jobs (Curry/Hauser - discuss?)

I've never really thought about it before, but yes there is a big similarity. The cheap, market share leading but clunky Sinclair computers, vs the high design values at a higher price of the Acorn computers. And then there's Clive Sinclair's phone throwing echoed in Ballmer's chair throwing.

Re:BBC Micro Men (1)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834897)

If you haven't seen the movie Micro Men about Clive Sinclair, it is very entertaining. Now playing at your nearest torrent.

I've a couple of points to make about the programme. It was okay in some respects- nitpicking aside [wikipedia.org] , I knew most of the details already and it seemed to get them broadly right.

However, I did have a problem with how "Clive Sinclair" was played. Whatever one thinks of the guy- and I've heard some things said in the past that don't cast him in the greatest light- I think he deserved a fair portrayal. Whereas all the other parts (including Acorn's Chris Curry) were acted pretty much straight, Alexander Armstrong's portrayal of Sinclair was- IMHO- not merely tongue in cheek, but an outright comedy-sketch type figure of fun, portrayed in a manner that would have been more at home in one of Armstrong and Miller's [wikipedia.org] own shows. He was basically a foaming-at-the-mouth borderline nutcase with an unconvincing ginger hairpiece, and I doubt that the real Sinclair was ever anything like as ludicrous as portrayed here. It was the contrast between the "comedy" Sinclair and the "straight" everyone else that made this all the more jarring.

Secondly, not really a criticism, but bear in mind that while the programme might have given the impression that the UK market was just about Sinclair (and the ZX Spectrum) vs. Acorn's "official" BBC Microcomputer, it wasn't. While it's true that there was rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn to get the BBC contract- which the programme focuses on- Acorn's machine (which became the official BBC Micro) ultimately wasn't the Spectrum's rival, as it was far more expensive and ended up selling primarily to the educational market.

For example, the Commodore 64- although it's not mentioned at all IIRC- was still a major player on the UK market and far closer a rival to the Spectrum, albeit with both machines having niches at slightly different price points.

Acorn's BBC Micro meanwhile was a great machine, but also too expensive for most people. For all its shortcomings, one wonders if the mass-market, affordable Spectrum wouldn't have been a more suitable candidate for the BBC's aim of computer literacy. Ah well, everyone ended up buying the Spectrum anyway(!)

Obligatory Hendrix Perm (2)

Ackmo (700165) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833385)

My VIC-20 beat up your ZX81 and stole its lunch money.

Re:Obligatory Hendrix Perm (0)

TheGoodNamesWereGone (1844118) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833533)

Your Gohill's boots cannot stand up to my ZX-fu!

Re:Obligatory Hendrix Perm (1)

Anne_Nonymous (313852) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834159)

As a former ZX81 user, I can attest to the veracity of this statement.

Not my idea of an 8-bit computer (3, Interesting)

Just Some Guy (3352) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833395)

There is even a YouTube channel for the diehard 8-bit fans out there

8-bit? 2-bit. Good grief, that thing was painfully limited except relative to its immediate competitors. Prior to my parents buying my a ZX81 for Christmas, my home computer was an Atari 2600 with a BASIC Programming [wikipedia.org] cartridge. It had 62 bytes of code memory.

Let me repeat that in case you thought I misspoke: it had 62, sixty-two, 2^6-2 bytes of memory.

The ZX81 came with a whopping 16KB, which seemed mansionlike to my very inexperienced mind. But that's like having a better civil rights record than North Korea. It wasn't the worst of the worst but it wasn't far from it.

Re:Not my idea of an 8-bit computer (2)

Nerdfest (867930) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833525)

I'm pretty sure the ZX-81 only came with 1K (I think the TS-1000 same with 2K). There were expansion boards out to take it up to a whopping 64K.

Re:Not my idea of an 8-bit computer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38834465)

Yep, 1K it was.

Re:Not my idea of an 8-bit computer (1)

Just Some Guy (3352) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834577)

My ZX81 came with an external 16KB RAM expansion. When I said "the ZX81", I meant "the ZX81 my parents bought me for Christmas in hopes that I'd stop bugging them for a computer".

Re:Not my idea of an 8-bit computer (1)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835081)

The service manual explains how to fit a 2kB or 8kB RAM chip and jumper it to suit. Many people did just that, or even a stack of such chips to make 16k.

Re:Not my idea of an 8-bit computer (1)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833701)

Yeah, when I first read Racing the Beam (a book about the 2600) I thought that had to be a typo. Programmers had to do some heroic things to program that hardware.

Re:Not my idea of an 8-bit computer (1)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835085)

Prior to my parents buying my a ZX81 for Christmas, my home computer was an Atari 2600 with a BASIC Programming [wikipedia.org] cartridge. It had 62 bytes of code memory.

I read a bit about that "BASIC" cartridge a while back. It's obviously a ludicrous idea.

But then, I'm not attacking the VCS / 2600 in itself for that- it's clearly *not* what the machine was ever intended for. The machine has 128 bytes of RAM but supports up to 4KB ROM cartridges- obviously designed such that the program was stored on ROM, with the precious few bytes of RAM being used for data storage. (And *that* was using assembly language, and it was still apparently damn hard to develop "regular" 2600 software).

I imagine the BASIC cartridge is concept is actually impressive in a "singing pig" way- the amazing bit is that you can get the pig to sing at all, not that it sings remotely well. But you still wouldn't want to listen to it for long(!)

Similarly, it's somewhat astounding that they could write a system that left enough RAM to hold *any* program at all once the overheads have been taken into account, but 62 bytes is still.... wow.

Ironically, I'm guessing that they probably sold this to complete newbies expecting to be able to do *something* with it. Ironically, such people would have been least aware of the potential limitations, least able to get round them, and the most likely to have been put off their first programming experience by something so limiting and unsuitable.

The ZX81 came with a whopping 16KB, which seemed mansionlike to my very inexperienced mind. But that's like having a better civil rights record than North Korea. It wasn't the worst of the worst but it wasn't far from it.

As others have mentioned, it only came with 1KB- the 16KB was with the RAM pack. But 16KB was actually quite a decent amount for that time- the Vic 20 only had 3K by default with another 16K using an expansion, so that was in the same ballpark.

yay (4, Insightful)

samjam (256347) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833431)

I learned on a ZX81, and I still have one.

I learned Z80 machine code by reading other peoples listings and comparing to the mnemonics at the back of the ZX81 manual.

I programmed a cool morse-code decoder, and a music program that played sound out of the TV speaker (along with a load of junk).

I also beat someone elses implementation of read, data & restore.

Then I went on to a CPC6128, then BBC Micro with econet and advanced programmers guide. Then hacking MSDOS with debug and edlin. Then Windows 3.1 and Delphi; win95, then moving to winXP and Linux and sticking with Linux - for the freedom you know.

For a while I had a ZX81 emulator on my android phone, but like the other guy said, you couldn't pay me to go back to it.

It was awful. At the time it was great and helped make me, but I won't go back. You can't make me!

Re:yay (1)

Nerdfest (867930) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833555)

The really nifty part is that the Z80 processor is a superset up the 8080, meaning that most of your Assember code would still run on a Pentium.

Re:yay (1)

Yvan256 (722131) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833693)

If it's a Z80 that's any similar to the one in the first GameBoy, there's nearly 1024 opcodes in that CPU. There's register bit set/bit clear/bit test for all bits of nearly all registers.

Re:yay (2)

rev0lt (1950662) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834043)

8080/85 and 8086 have different instruction sets. The 8085 had about 78 opcodes (original Z80 had 153, if I'm not mistaken, including all from the 8085), but 8086 has completely different instructions and register sets, so if you want it to run on a Pentium, you can - but you'll need an emulator :)

Re:yay (1)

Nerdfest (867930) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834685)

Thanks, I thought they were source level compatible.

Memories (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833491)

I started out on a Commie but remember the ZX81 well... Nothing like 300bps! I designed my first war dialer, bbs, bruteforce hacker, and 'raw' data copier in BASIC on a 64... Back when line #s were mandatory and gotos were acceptable. Ahhh, the memories.

This is why the Raspberry Pi will be the new ZX81 (3, Interesting)

Master Of Ninja (521917) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833495)

The ZX81 was one of the main reasons the UK had a great generation of programmers (and especially games programmers). The computers were cheap, easy to tinker with and allowed endless modifications. I know that a lot of people are very sniffy about Basic, but the BBC Basic taught in schools at the time was the gateway to self taught computer programming. This is why I think the Raspberry Pi will herald a revolution in computer programming - $25 (?£) compared to the £50 in some of the advertisements for the ZX81. With a keyboard and mouse the raspberry pi will be equivalently priced.

As an aside I never had the ZX81, only the later Spectrum +3. But those were the glory days of British computing...

Re:This is why the Raspberry Pi will be the new ZX (2)

Osgeld (1900440) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833745)

price is not the only factor

for one the time had a lot to do with it, now YOU could have a computer without breaking the bank, much more impressive in 81 vs 012, next all you had to do is plug it in and your computing, PI well your going to have to choose and install a linux distro on the thing before it does more than sit there, which sad to say is still a challenge for most people today.

I didn't realize (2)

bugs2squash (1132591) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833515)

That the French version still had a QWERTY keyboard layout. I guess internationalization wasn't its strong point. I learned a lot with mine though, like how to type in endless amounts of machine language in comments.

Ahhh...memories (1)

aaaaaaargh! (1150173) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833517)

The ZX-81 was my first computer, too.

I really liked the little Basic book and 10-line games. Unfortunately, my 16K memory expansion had this annoying feature that it would reset the machine when you knocked on the table -- not so nice when you had entered a long program and it happened before you had saved it to cassette tape. :-)

And yeah, the keyboard really sucked.

Re:Ahhh...memories and Blutack (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833567)

You mean you never had a roll of blutack between the rampack and the computer?

Solved rampack wobble in an instant!

I've still got my ZX81. The keyboard still sucks......

1k Chess (2)

mccalli (323026) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833521)

How many k? One. One k. Not two k, one k. And here it is [ox.ac.uk] .

Cheers,
Ian

Still have one (1)

tickticker (549972) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833561)

My buddy had one when we were younger. Years later a neighbor said he had one, brought it over, and it was still unopened in the box! I have it in storage for when it's worth millions... Someday...

Memories (4, Interesting)

hAckz0r (989977) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833593)

Back in 1980 my counselor at University of Maryland informed me that I would be unable to graduate on time because I was not unable to get into my last course. That was because for 5 semesters I was unable to get a prerequisite course called "Intro to Computer Science". All the engineering and computer science majors had over booked the available computer lab time and the closest I had gotten was 73'rd in line. Yes, you got it, if 73 people dropped out of that class, in the first two weeks, then I could take the class. Problem is if the course is that bad I'm not sure I wanted to be in that class!

Oh well. At that point I realized that I had already been screwed by this thing called a computer and I didn't even know what the heck it was yet. Not to be beaten and then kicked when down, I forced the University to 'creatively' come up with another way for me to graduate (a semester late, but graduated none the less), and then went out and I bought this Sinclair kit and built my own computer in my dorm room.

I had to buy all the solder, wire, and stuff, to be able to build and assemble it, and then I went down the dorm hallway knocking on doors until I found someone that actually had taken that computer science class and dragged him down to my room and had them explain what they did. With a three line program printing out my name in a loop I allowed him to go back to his party, and it was history from there. The local electronics swap shop had numerous visits as I bought a second hand teletype keyboard, power supplies, and odds and ends, and rewired them all to interface with this little computer. It morphed over time to have more memory than it was ever designed to have and lots of relays and controls for all sorts of things. The creation kept growing in both size and complexity. Every peripheral that was ever designed for the Sinclair, and later the Timex version of it, was in there somewhere, and then many many creations of my own.

After graduating I began taking courses in microprocessors and digital electronics and was part of the manufacturing engine that built the next generation of computers. Eventually I became a Computer Scientist, now with fond memories if those simple days, when it was fairly easy to see how something worked and to find ways to improve upon it. Its nice to see that others have fond memories as well. The Sinclair was one of a kind.

Where is the 6502 museum? (1)

NikeHerc (694644) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833609)

The second type of microcomputer I programmed in assembler was the 6502-based Kim-1. For eight bits, it wasn't a bad instruction set, and it made me a fan of the 6502. I bought a Rockwell AIM-65 and loved it. I even bought a bare circuit board for the Motorola 6802 from Peter Stark (anybody remember StarKits?) and modified circuit traces to make the board into a 6502 system. I was very, very proud that the modified circuit board and a monitor (e.g., EPROM-based "o.s.") of my own designed worked the first time I powered it up!

So where is the 6502 museum?

Built mine in high school and used in physics (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833673)

I built mine as an electronics project in the high school. I learned programming on it including basic computer graphics programming. Later I used it program rudimentary simulations for physics class and better understand the formulas and equations. Biggest problem was reliably storing and re-loading programs from the cassette tape player.

I discovered the Mac (original 128K) when I met my freshman roommate in college and was blown away. What a ride.

Me & MY ZX-81! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38833783)

The year was 1981 and I knew BASIC before but armed with my trusty Timex Sinclair 1000 I learned machine code & assembly. On a TV!
http://jetcityorange.com/faq/Timex-Sinclair.jpg

Re:Me & MY ZX-81! (1)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833973)

Glad you have that with the RAM pack facing up or it would be on the floor for sure! Good stuff.

ZX81 BASIC and FORTH (3, Interesting)

turgid (580780) | more than 2 years ago | (#38833953)

I cut my teeth on the ZX81 when I was 8 years old, and I've still got it... I had a 1k ZX81 which later got upgraded to 16k with a "proper" keyboard. My dad mounted it on a wooden base and fixed the RAM pack to eliminate wobble.

By the time I was 9 I was a confident BASIC programmer, writing my own (very slow) games, and was learning Z80 machine code (note all you commodore people: the 6502 sucked in comparison).

When I was 10 I got a multi-tasking FORTH ROM. It was a replacement for the built-in Sinclair BASIC ROM and was 8k. It contained a Real Time multi-tasking threaded-compiled (as opposed to interpreted) FORTH system.

You can get a ZX81 emulator for *nix and the ROM image is out there somewhere. I downloaded a copy a year or two back. Google for "zx81 husband forth rom".

Some Sinclair staff who had worked on the ZX81 left to form their own company to make a computer called the Jupiter Ace, which was somewhere between a ZX81 and a Spectrum in terms of hardware (no colour, but high-res graphics and more RAM than the ZX81). The FORTH in that was more conventional.

Those were the days!

Re:ZX81 BASIC and FORTH (1)

jedwidz (1399015) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835333)

Somewhere I have a book consisting of documented source code for the ZX81 ROM.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not volunteering to scan it and build a ROM image from it...

I always prefered Sinclair over (2)

unassimilatible (225662) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834019)

Sheridan. Never figured out why Michael O'Hare left Babylon 5 though.

The manuals (1)

david.given (6740) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834249)

I never had one (although I wanted one). Now, after reading about the horrible hacks that Sinclair's engineers did to make it all work (did you know that they repurposed the Z80's DRAM refresh circuit as a video generator? 'strue) I suspect I'm glad I grew up with the BBC Micro instead.

But I cannot deny that the set of standard manuals had the best cover art on any computer reference book, ever. Mmm, those lovely John Harris paintings [alisoneldred.com] ... and he sells prints!

*yawn* (1)

nurb432 (527695) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834559)

Many of us have larger collections.. Why is this 'news' ?

No more Bandwidth ... dead (1)

bpsheen (957313) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834635)

Slashdotted..... 509 Bandwidth No more error

Re:No more Bandwidth ... dead (2)

agulliford (682381) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834867)

They are using ZX81s to run their webserver

Really fond memories (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38834933)

Pretty impractical for real purposes but a great learning tool. I read the Chinese bought something like 200,000 for schools and it was probably a good investment. There was at least one book published on creating sensor and control interfaces with the ZX.

Hard-wired a ZX81 into a case with a real keyboard, power switch and LED, reset switch, hardwired the 16K expansion in so I could reverse the connector for a bus that ran a tone generator and the thermal printer. Had a "stringy floppy" with microcassettes that loaded programs about as "fast" as a Commodore. Adapted a Commodore joystick for the flight sim. Yes, still have the setup.

Lucky enough to be in a metro where I could pick up the Brit magazine ZX at the news stand. Had to enter the code yourself of course but some of the programs were way better than what was available on cassette.

I split the warm fuzzies about 50-50 with the Commodore because that was my first real production home computer with quality printers and modems but the ZX was a really fun learning ramp-up nonetheless.

Ah, yes... but it was the TS1000 for me... (2, Informative)

King_TJ (85913) | more than 2 years ago | (#38834943)

I recall magazines selling the ZX-81 in kit form, but at that time, I had no interest in spending a whole $100 (after shipping and/or sales tax, anyway) for a bag of unassembled parts. I really wanted my own home computer though, so the assembled Timex-Sinclair 1000 version was just the thing for me.

I even owned a very rare plastic carrying case for it, that I had to order direct from Timex with a special coupon to get. As I recall, it held 4 cassette tapes in their plastic cases, the computer and AC adapter, TV converter box, and maybe a spot for that 16K RAM expansion pack (it had 2K internally).

Good times!

Gawd that keyboard sucked! (2)

billybob_jcv (967047) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835237)

Be nostalgic if you want to - but that keyboard really was horrible. We're not talking Samsung proximity touch screens - this was as painful as the weird old lady who works at Burger King punching a special order into the funky membrane keyboard point-of-sale system.

It was a blessing that you only had 1K - it meant your Basic program probably wouldn't be very long.

Noteworthiness aside, that computer sucked (1)

Sloppy (14984) | more than 2 years ago | (#38835311)

Before I upgraded to the C64 and became more of an asshole with my-computer-is-better-than-yours flamewars with the Apple IIe and Atari 800 dudes, I had a VIC-20. Even at the time, I knew how bad the Vic was, and there was no one I could snobbishly look down upon, like the douchebag antagonist of any of a dozen early 1980s movies. No one I could look down upon, that is, except the poor TS-1000 / ZX-81 guys.

"You're running out of memory, so your display is starting to get smaller?"

"Nice keyboard you've got there! Ha ha ha ha!"

Good grief, what a piece of shit that machine was. Check this out:

  • "I adore my sixty four"
  • "I grapple my Apple"
  • "I am sorry for my Atari"
  • "I am sick of my Vic"
  • "I ICBM my IBM"
  • "I .. uh .. I .. uh .. something something my Tee Ess One Thousand"

That junk of junk couldn't even rhyme!

I'll say this, though: you people got that piece of shit to do what you want, are heroes. I later took a perverse pride in having stretched the capabilities in my 5K (3.5K available to BASIC) Vic, but that's nothin' like the constraints a TS-1000 programmer worked in. You had to be real bad ass to even try, and badder-ass to not give up in despair. TS-1000 programmers rule. I am not worthy to lick your boots.

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