How Lord Sugar taught me to hack stuff

This piece was originally published on a now-defunct website for general audiences. It now lives on here in vaguely inappropriate perpetuity

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, most likely bought at Dixons in Worthing, England, circa 1986. But that's not the one I'd like to talk about, because it was defective and went right back to the store.

Dad, convinced by Clive Sinclair's legendary quality control that you get what you pay for, opted for the expensive Amstrad CPC over a replacement or a Commodore 64. Together, these three machines were the ruling triumvirate of 8-bit home computing in Thatcher's Britain. The Amstrad wasn't much different to the Commodore -- brighter graphics, tinnier sound -- but came with a built-in tape deck, a crisp color monitor, and a decent warranty.

I got my parents' money's worth over the next few years, but their value was not my value.

The rationalization my folks cultivated was that I'd use the computer "for school." It was to be educational, not fun. This once-common parental delusion fostered a generation of unmonitored, pre-Internet computer use. The result: lots of gaming. As soon as I had the boxy charcoal-gray Amstrad hooked-up and powered on, it was to the "free fun pack" that I went.

The machine was a good nanny. Immersed in pixelated classics like Elite and Jet Set Willy, I found friends with the same platform to share gaming war stories with. We copied one anothers' games with double-cassette decks, and bartered them in schoolyards like seasoned day traders. It wasn't long before the idea of using computers to learn geography or math slipped into the guiltless lapsed duties of being a kid, like taking the dog for a walk every day: solemnly promised, but only ever performed on demand.

It didn't help that the Amstrad's free educational titles were the most boring things on Earth. There was Animal Vegetable Mineral, a text-only knockout pill that tried to guess what you were thinking of. Then, Wordhang, a version of hangman that now sounds like a Mitchell & Webb joke. Particularly disappointing was Timeman One, whose name suggests a gripping existential sci-fi drama, but which turned out to be a method of learning how to read analog clocks. All of these horrors were produced a company called "Bourne Educational Software," whose impact on software history was insufficient to earn a Wikipedia entry.

So, games.

The important thing to know about games, at least back in the olden days, was that the machine schooled me anyway. By owning my own computer and having free reign to do with it as I pleased, it cultivated an interest in how complicated things work -- in this alone, it offered more of an education than anyone ever got from those terrible 'edutainment' packages.

Perhaps it was just the general cultural and technological impact of home computers in the Eighties. Perhaps it was the relative ease back then of flipping up the hood and tinkering around: the real rules emerge from the system, not its creators' intentions.

When you give a kid the power and the freedom to explore a system, they'll discover unexpected ways to manipulate it, faster than most grown-ups will. Youngsters are selfish and impatient, refusing to defer gratification for arbitrary or social reasons. It's a learning strategy that works well, even if sometimes favors people who don't work well with others.

Moreover, games offer particularly engaging systems to play with--especially oldschool ones where technical limitations forced a creative minimalism onto their developers. Show-stopping bugs in titles, often too-quickly translated from other computer platforms, encouraged us to seek our own shortcuts. You could fix it yourself. Facilitated by the fact that old computers were open as pie (many loaded a programming language as soon you turned it on and exposed access to the entire system) enormous creative power was at the user's disposal.

Computer mags served as the gateway. In the old days, magazines printed short programs which screwed with games' internal logic, to increase the number of lives, say, or reduce the damage inflicted by enemy weapons.

Almost all such programs were essentially the same, a loader that would run the game as usual, but sneakily edit variables after they'd spooled off the tape into RAM.

These "pokes", named after the BASIC command for directly inserting data into memory locations, were often completely opaque--think 50 lines of hexadecimal nonsense--but framed by more easily-read code that hinted at how it worked. The reward system was perfect: learn this and you beat the game by legerdemain, impress your peers, and experience the power of creation. The universe has sneakily taught you the basics of algebra, and you didn't have to complete a single line of homework. Compared to traditional education, that's an intoxicating thing, at least if you're a geek.

Even screwing computers up builds a confidence often lacking in our dealings with the machines. The delicate thing loses its intimidating mystery and is revealed as a blunt tool, easily reset to its factory settings. Letting yourself fail makes everything better.

I doubt that Lord Sugar knows much about computers. Unlike Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, he was a business opportunist who moved on to other things when the market for 8-bit computers faded. But in its hands-off approach to technology—Amstrad released much of its intellectual property under a free-ish license after the system's withdrawal from the market—is a permissiveness often lacking at today's anxious market-grabbing tech titans, whose ostensibly open products tend to come in curiously horselike shapes.

So that's how Amstrad founder Lord Sugar inspired me to do strange things to boot sectors. I was never smart enough to code much, but it ultimately got me interested in making tiny chiptunes on the Commodore Amiga, and I was pretty good at that. Thanks, Sugar!


  1. (might wanna fix that em tag)

    Nice piece! I was ZX81->Vic20->Spectrum+, so I recognize the trading of tapes in the playground.
    “We bought it to help with your homework…”

  2. Weren’t both the Spectrum and the CPC a bit long in the tooth by 1986? 16 bit machines like the Amiga and Atari ST were already out by then.

    1. Maybe for rich kids! The second-generation Amiga 500 was the breakthrough 16-bit in the U.K. I think it was xmas 1990 that saw serious uptake, with package deals that included Shadow of the Beast II.

      1.  pssst…

        The Motorola 68K CPU in the Lisa, early Macintosh, Amiga 1000/500, and Atari ST was a 32 bit chip with a 24 bit address bus.

        1. But a 16-bit external data bus, among other things. These machines were widely held to be “16-bit” at the time, and trying to move the goalposts now is kinda pointless.

  3. Although I was part of the Spectrum generation, it wasn’t until I started using an Amstrad word processor circa 1990 that I started getting deep into computers per se, as its general crappiness obliged users to learn all sorts of weird tweaks and workarounds. I still remember the joy I felt when I took a chunk of the case out with a hacksaw blade to fit a 3.5in floppy drive – the machines shipped with a drive that used horrible, expensive, low-capacity 3in disks… And I still miss its DTP program, MicroDesign, which had some lovely features that it’s impossible to replicate in modern DTP software.

    1. Don’t you badmouth the 3-inch disk!
      When I think about all the 3.5-inch floppies I had the metal “shield” bend and come off (sometimes inside the drive), it would have been a better world if the 3-inch form factor had taken over…

  4. My hacking starting with a “Leading Edge” brand (I remember the multi-color triangle logo) 386 running DOS.  I was 8 or 9.  Games were sufficient motivation to learn command line syntax, deal with problems with mounting floppies and special RAM modes, and ultimately programming/hacking via both hex editing game files and the super accessible BASIC stuff that came with DOS.  Actually, the very first lines of code I ever saw were in plaintext BAT files, which was a really exciting moment, contrasted with the scrambled mess of characters inside binary files that I would learn about later.  Oh the joy when I edited that first echo statement and made the script output something entirely different.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Rob.

  5. I’ve commented about this before. Back when computers were first shaking the scene, the applications were just horrible. People assumed that we were going to use them to program things. My brother and I had a TRS-80 and we spent most of our time programming a “Wall Street” game. We taught ourselves all sorts of BASIC commands and programming trying to make our really stupid game more interesting. Now kids can’t program at all because the applications are too much fun!

    1. I got a coco in 1981 because I was spending too much time on my fathers trash80 and impacting work. Lol. Tandy ftw.

  6. Yes hexadecimal “peeks” and “pokes” are the only two statements that any *real* hacker needs.  All of this new-fangled assembly language stuff is for wimps!

    Someone in my building tossed out a complete owner’s manual and some sort of Basic developer’s kit for an Amstrad system.  I fished it out of the garbage room as I was amused by it.  I put it up on eBay but no one was interested in it so I re-tossed it.  The oldest thing I have now is the Apple IIe version of F.C.M. (Filing, Cataloging, Mailing!) from someone  called “Arrays Inc./Continental Software”.

  7. No BBC/Acorn love?

    My parents got my the Electron (in ’84, I think) in preference to the Spectrum that everyone else seemed to have because of the educational ‘benefits’. Still have it somewhere, actually. Aside from having very few people to swap games with, I loved it. Went from that to an Amiga 500 in ’90 (Flight of Fantasy pack – Escape From The Planet Of The Robot Monsters FTW!). 

    Nobody seemed to have Amstrads or C64s at my school.

    One kid seemed to have a knack for getting the odd computers, he had a Spectrum +3 and then an Amiga 600. Never knew anyone else who ever had either.

    1. You beat me to the punch. “Ruling triumvirate” nonsense, the BBC B was the true ruler. I’ve still got one kicking around somewhere in the spare room, must dig it out again some time soon to see if it still works.

    2. BBC B? Good grief, by 1987 I had an ARM powered Archimedes; 10 mips, 4Mb ram and whopping *huge* 20Mb disk drive. It was one of the hand made prototypes and it’s still around somewhere. Seem to have lost the weird keyboard.

    3. You must’ve gone to a posh kids’ school. I went to a slightly posh kids’ school, and it was speccies to the max.

  8. I bought up a bunch of remaindered Sinclair QLs from Dixons and the like in about 1986, about 10 in all, and managed to shift the lot to friends and colleagues of mine.  The QL was a *much* underappreciated machine, all in all.

  9. About computers for homework…I was already ‘grown” when the Apple II hit, so I had to buy my own computer. Back then the US airwaves were flooded with ads trying to sell parents computers to help their kids with school. The TV ad I’ve never forgotten was for the Coleco Adam…a lugubrious soft-focus story of how little Johnny(?) was failing in school. His parents consult in hushed tones with an earnest education expert. They follow his guidance. The sun breaks through and the camera slips into focus as Johnny’s mother fervently tells the boy, “Johnny, we’re getting you an Adam!” (Even though it’ll be orphan technology within two years.)

  10. The BBC Micro ruled because it was designed from the ground up to be totally hackable, hardware firmware and software.

    The graphics capabilities were flexible and advanced for 8-bit. BBC Basic included relatively advanced features like WHILE-WEND and DO-UNTIL, there was a 6502 assembler built in, you could drop PROMS in to the mainboard’s ZIF sockets to instantly add either other languages (Forth, Fortran, Lisp, Pascal) or office software.

    The case was openable, you could easily do repairs and upgrades yourself, even to adding a second processor. You could use cassette-based storage or floppies, a television or an RGB monitor. It was a bit more expensive than either the Spectrum or C64, but its capabilities knocked them both into a cocked hat.

    I frankly don’t remember even seeing an Amstrad at the time, but the C64, Spectrums and Beebs were everywhere.

  11. Now-defunct websites for general audiences are the new now-defunct hardware for general audiences. I hope you will write as eloquently about how the early web facilitated the unspeakably difficult task of learning (while avoiding formal education).

    1. The internet still needs tags for sarcasm – I really have no idea if you’re being sincere or bitingly sarcastic (for no good reason).

        1. Ah, good.  :)

          The  downside to the short, written, form of internet comments it that sincerity and sarcasm is hard to tell apart; a long-standing joke is that it would be nice to have an HTML tag for it, much like we have <em> for emphasis and the like. (Of course, it would be as successful as  RFC3514.)

  12. If you’d hung on a bit, you could have got an Amstrad-made Spectrum.

    I recently read an amusing anecdote about Amstrad (presumably Sugar himself) phoning a UK software developer and demanding free copies of all their products on the grounds that ‘we didn’t become millionaires by buying software from people
    like you’.

  13. Aah brings back memories; at 7 years old I was rushing through my school work so the teacher would let me go to the computer room, where I messed around on Amstrad CPCs – eventually talked my parents into getting me one (yes, for “school work”), and great times were had.  Locomotive Basic that shipped with Amstrads (it booted to it, in fact), was pretty advanced for its time, especially compared to the pile of crud you got on a C64.  Direct access to graphics and sound (including simple basic commands to create volume and tone envelopes), in-built interrupt timer, multiple independent text windows, the ability to use “add-on” bar command libraries that ran machine code routines…  I got one one a cover-tape on a magazine that operated the CPC as a simple 1-bit sampler, using the tape drive.  Having a 6128, I plugged a microphone into the tape input socket, wrote a BASIC program that repeatedly sampled the microphone for a noise, and set off an alarm if it detected one.  Left it running one day when I was at school, and scared the shit out of my mother when she came into my room.   Goood times.

  14. The BBC/Acorn Micro was an ancient tank that succeeded because schools bought it.

    The BBC/Acorn Achimedes computer, though, now that was a damned fine computer. But again, if it hadn’t been for schools buying it, it would be even more obscure than it already is!

  15. In the 1980’s, as the Timex/Sinclair Z80 was declining in popularity, I bought one at a clearence sale for $20.  I was so excited that I could afford a real computer.  I was in my first year of college and it provided me with hours of entertainment.  There was a Sinclair magazine and lots of books as well.  I also purchased a book on the Z80a microprocessor so I could program the chip directly and completed many of the exercises in the book.  One of the books I had was about the operating system and the computer’s system architecture.  I devoured all things Sinclair.  Eventually I redesinged the operating system so that the graphics subsystem went from 32 characters across by 24 lines down to something like 10,000 pixels that I could individually address.  I needed the 64K memory pack for that and could not afford the compiler for the machine.  So I wrote a HEX loader in Basic and wrote direct HEX code using the Operating system book and the Z80a Microprocesor book.  It took me about 2 days to complete.  I would generate a graphic and store them in upper RAM at about 41K.  I would generate as many “Frame buffers” (as they would eventually be called) as I could in RAM.  Then I would change the address of the systems display address and make full motion video from the frame buffers.  It was wonderful.  I did many other projects as well.

    Thanks for the memories.

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