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Type In Computer Listings

Posted by Big Boo on July 1st, 2009

print helloIf you had an 8-bit computer when you were a kid then chances are this image will bring back many happy memories of going into all the shops that sold home computers and making them run this little program.  Of course, you may have made it display something other than just “HELLO”, but whether it was just extended to include your name (e.g. “BIG BOO IS COOL”) or something a bit ruder was up to you.

In those days just about every computer you could buy had a built in version of the programming language BASIC (who will be first to post the answer as a comment I wonder?).  This meant that you could write your own programs (which normally meant games) if you could be bothered to learn all those weird commands like PEEK, POKE and GOSUB.  For those that didn’t want to learn all that rubbish, there was always the type in listing.

Back then magazines such as Your Computer (remember that computer buffs?) printed pages of listings for you to type in yourself at home.  Normally these were written in BASIC but occasionally they were written in machine code, as it was referred to, which was the native instruction set of the central processing unit.  On many computers this meant typing in a BASIC listing first which then let you type in thousands of hexadecimal numbers.  What joy!

There were also entire books devoted to computer listings, many of which had titles like “50 Amazing Games for the ZX Spectrum“, which had a picture on the cover of some awesome looking game, which you soon found out wasn’t one of the games from the book, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

So, you sat there typing in page after page of gobbledy gook, searching the keyboard to see how to produce that checkboard graphic or the image of a white heart on a black background.  If you were lucky you could coax someone into reading out the listing for you so you didn’t have to keep looking back and forth, which sped things up a bit.  I remember my Dad helping me on many occasions, which was quite amusing as we invented our own shorthand for some of the characters, such as “dog ears” for speech marks, “wiggly A” for the @ sign and the rather less clever “comma with a dot on top” for semi-colon.

Several hours later you had typed the entire thing in and it was prudent at this stage to save everything to a blank cassette before entering the magic word “RUN” and pressing enter.  There was a hush from all around, followed by a groan as the screen displayed:-

SYNTAX ERROR IN LINE 450

Great!  What the heck did that mean?  So it was back to the listing to find line 450 and enter it again.  Wind the tape back, save again, enter RUN and up would come a title screen saying “PRESS A KEY”.  You pressed a key and…

UNDEF'D ERROR IN LINE 630

Nice.  So the cycle repeated re-entering lines until finally you had them all correct and the game could finally be played.  And what a disappointment that was.  You usually ended up with some poor Space Invaders or Pacman clone (if you were lucky) or failing that a game of Hangman.  The graphics were made from whatever built in graphical characters your computer had, and if there was any sound at all chances it would just be the odd beep.

The thing that was most amazing though was that although that game would keep you enthralled for all of five minutes, you would then reset the computer, and for some unfathomable reason, start to enter another listing, in the undying hope that maybe, just maybe, then next game would be as good as the ones you bought from W.H.Smith.