A Trip Down Memory Lane: Recreating “I Was Here” in ZX81 BASIC

A simple ZX81 BASIC program turns into a nostalgic tribute to the past. Explore the journey of ‘I Was Here.’

A recently posted meme reminded me of the silly things we did on computers. In the early eighties, most computers came with BASIC as their default OS. A common starting point was a s simple “hello world” program. But almost as often, someone wrote something a bit more personal. This is my tribute program to the “I was here” concept of those days.

# A retro trip in time.

This started with a meme. Humor is often a common bond amongst society and the tech culture isn’t any different. A member of a BASIC group I follow on Facebook posted the meme below. To be honest, it took a minute for me to grasp the full context.

“Mark woz ere” programming meme.“Mark woz ere” programming meme.

For those not familiar with BASIC, the pride the bear feels adding a space is misplaced. It did nothing to the program. In most BASIC dialects, PRINT will add a newline after displaying the text. Thus, what the bears changed is, well, invisible. Think of it as an inside joke. That I got.

What was a bit more obtuse was the whole context. I hadn’t thought about how people would approach computers in the eighties. For many, BASIC or any sort of programming was foreign. To use a computer, you usually bought software. But all these home computers let you write software too. There was an entire cottage industry writing books to help you get the most from your computer.

Of course, getting your most from an 8-bit computer wasn't easy. Besides slower processors and graphics, the BASIC implementation weren't aways the greatest. Memory was also very tight, think kilobytes instead of gigabytes. The world shifts quite a bit with that in mind. This simple meme conjured up the whole idea of digital graffiti for me. Bored kids walking up to computers would type in this simple program. For many consumers, breaking out of the loop would have been a monumental task. These computers were not easy to use.

What threw me off was the way the spelling of the words. I could forgive "woz" as slang for “was.” Plus it invoked a bit of the Apple flavor of the time. The “ere” seemed weird though, until it dawned on me. The subtle meaning is that the proud bear should have corrected the spelling. Sigh. Perhaps it being late at night and having spent a day in higher thought finally caused my mind to shut down.

In any case, meme’s aren’t all meant to have singular meanings. They mean what they want to you and if you get something different from it, that’s perfectly okay.

# Taking the less worn path.

Reading through the comments, it reminded me of my childhood. Growing up in the military, I didn’t always have access to shops where computers were out for testing. The PX where were did sell computers, but I rarely saw them running. They were usually IBM clones, expensive and for business. The common home computers weren't there. Instead, they had typewriters of all shapes and sizes. It wasn’t uncommon for me to walk up to them and start typing.

Although on occasion I did put my name in what I typed, it was usually something more akin to a poem or song. “Now is the time for the world to begin again,” and such nonsense. I often do the same today when creating filler text. But the concept, if not the execution, was the same. Unlike the computer graffiti, those words didn’t repeat.

I did have older friends and learned that there were computers at the Junior High. My friend Edmund would share his printouts of pictures with me. After seeing them I would rush home and recreate them on a old typewriter my dad found for me. Hooked on the on the idea of using computers, I couldn’t wait to try them out myself.

That next school year, I did finally get a chance in the 6th grade. My school had an old PDP of some sort with teletype machines connected to them. Not waiting around, I joined the computer club and spent my free time learning BASIC. My programs weren’t great, but they worked. I was able to build pictures that I could save to disk and print out whenever I wanted. It was a start.

# Building something new.

Less than a year later, my Dad bought me a ZX81 computer. I took over the family’s tiny black and white TV so I could program on it. This really got me programming. Yes, some of the first programs were about the same as the meme: simple and boring. Often the first thing you learned on a new computer was how to write “hello world” that would print forever. I had a computer that I could do that with.

Now one of the comments in the group gave an example where he printed the “I was here” in a sine wave pattern. I’d done this a few times in the past on my own ZX81, a common troupe of the era. But it struck me. What if I made it a joke?

Here, ZX81 screenshot, 2023 by Steven ReidHere, ZX81 screenshot, 2023 by Steven Reid

Never passing up the opportunity to program, I got to work converting his example into ZX81 BASIC. The code was very straight forward. After some trial and error, I had the guts of the program working. One oddity of the ZX81 is that it doesn’t automatically scroll when you hit the bottom of the screen. Thus, it was the first thing I had to adjust during conversion. The other was to accommodate for the different screen width and BASIC syntax. The concept, otherwise, it is the same.

Except it isn’t. I made a subtle change to the code. The joke was to change the phrase to “you were here” in the middle of the wave. It was my way of pulling the audience into the program. Read into it what you will. I promptly shared to the group and got a few likes. Worth it.

Could it better, I’m sure of it. But in the end, it was a short and simple program to burn an evening. Enjoy it, or not. I was here.

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