School and the Amstrad

The Amstrad CPC 6128

By 1985 the limitations of the MPF-2 were becoming obvious and Dad decided to purchase a new computer. We were living in rural Queensland at the time and there was not a large range of computer stores or models on sale. Dad settled on the Amstrad CPC 6128, which he bought from the electrical retailer Chandlers.

The British designed Amstrad was most popular in its home country and Germany with only limited appeal elsewhere. Like the MPF-2 the 6128 used a command line BASIC interface, although it could also run Amsdos and a version of CP/M. It had double the MPF-2's memory, 128KB, but could only directly use half of that without a special memory manager. The unit included a 2.5" single-side disk drive and a separate monitor. We later purchased a light pen, joystick, data tape player (the previous Amstrad version used tapes so there was still a lot of software available) and Epson MX-80 9-pin dot matrix printer.

The Amstrad was superior to the MPF-2 in many ways. Graphics was much easier and I enjoyed using the 26 available colours to liven up my programs, which is something I do a lot of now as a web site designer.

Games continued to be a major use for the computer. Many games were ports of Commodore 64 software. Dad developed an interest in flight simulators with an F-15 game that frustrated me with the difficulty in landing the plane. Theatre Europe was a Third World War game that was simple to play, but very fun (except when the computer went psycho and started a full nuclear exchange).

The first game I bought with my own money is probably my all time favourite. Microprose's Gunship was an AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship simulator. Sure the buildings and vehicles were wireframe graphics and the landscapes were plain, but nothing has matched the gameplay for me. My family would smile at the sight of my entire body moving as I wrenched the joystick, struggling to get the damaged chopper back to base. We came to trust Microprose when it came to great games.

Commercial software was, and is, in general, expensive. Thanks to the Open Source movement and the Internet it is generally possible to freely download programs for most tasks today, but we had no such access in the 1980's. Dad joined the Amstrad Users Group, receiving a monthly magazine and disk's worth of software. The quality of the software varied enormously, from basic drawing software to a Zork text adventure clone and a platform game with great graphics.

Probably the most useful program of all to come from the AUG disks was called the Poor Man's Wordprocessor. This simple wordprocessor lacked the page layout, tables and other formatting capabilities standard in modern versions of Microsoft Word. Bold, italics and text size all depended on the printer, control characters bracketing the text to be formatted. No modern WYSIWYG here!

Despite the simplicity, the Poor Man's Wordprocessor ushered in a revolution for me. I hated writing draft copies of essays, always reviewing and correcting, making a terrible mess of my paper. Suddenly, I had access to a delete key, spellchecker and the ability to shift chunks of text around on the screen. No more worries about messy handwriting, as everything was output on the printer. Thanks to the wordprocessor I gained the confidence to write, which, without doubt, made a huge impact on my schooling and post-school life.

High School

At high school the only time we used computers was in mathematics. The school had two computer labs, one with BBC's (roughly akin to the Amstrad), the other with Sperry IBM compatible PC's. Initially we only used the BBC's, mostly for "educational games" and simple BASIC programming. The BBC's were networked and we would wreck each others' concentration by popping up messages on another person's screen.

In year 10 we had to learn to use a database running on the Sperrys to store information in a thinly disguised anti-drug project. It was just a card-file program, so didn't involve SQL or other complex query languages. However, these small projects served to provide a basis for understanding more complex processes later on. The computers themselves were only slowly being upgraded at school, and I had the misfortune to be in the last Business Studies class to manually write ledgers and type on real typewriters. Neither are missed!