Friday, 5 November 2010

(My) History of Computing – Part II: Blue Feet and Astronauts

An early SAM Coupé promotional image
Due to money issues, I tended to be one step behind what was popular. I got my 48k Spectrum second hand when the 128k models had become the norm. I got my Spectrum+2 second hand when the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST were gaining momentum. When I spotted a SAM Coupé in a large news agents in Ayr, Scotland, I was very tempted (I think it was a Forbouys, but I couldn't swear to it). Back in those days it was much like W.H.Smith still is today, except those type of shops were also some of the few places you could get computer items back then. No dedicated shops the way we have now (Not that I remember, anyway!).

The SAM was intended to bridge the gap between those who had started computing with machines like the ZX Spectrum (As I had) and those who wanted to upgrade to a more powerful machine, but couldn't afford the likes of the Atari ST or Commodore Amiga which were at the high end of the home computing market. It was the most powerful 8bit computer, built with 'tinkerers' in mind. It had been designed for those who wanted to easily learn programming, as well as those who wanted to go that extra step and explore the creation of new add-on devices and the like.

The SAM Coupé Computer
It's an unusual looking machine, as you can see from the images. It had a large space in front of the keyboard that leant itself rather nicely to being a handy palm rest (something that still has to be bought separately for most PC keyboards), drive bays at the front, and blue rubber feet on either side that, along with its sloping profile, gave rise to its name. No one can say it didn't have a distinctive look.

'SAM' the friendly robot mascot of the
SAM Coupé
That year (1992, if my maths is correct) I was still living in Scotland with my mother, in order to finish my final year of Scottish Standard Grades. I think I was about fifteen, going on sixteen. The rest of the family had moved down south to Yorkshire due to my father's job, and he visited as often as he could. It was just at the end of this period, when we were about to move down to Yorkshire to be with the rest of the family, that I spotted the SAM. I had read about it in the Spectrum magazines at the time, and was curious. My father was with us when I first spotted it, and we got chatting about the possibilities. I had recently gained some inheritance money after the death of my Grandfather, and although I was still incredibly reticent to spend any, the door was open for the possibility. On that first visit, I still couldn't bring myself to buy something of that price (I think it was just under the £200 mark), but I was becoming increasingly eager to move onto a more advanced computer, and the other options were still far too expensive in my eyes.

The SAM Coupé logo
So it was, that with my father's encouragement, and convincing myself that I wasn't spending that much money just to play games, I made the decision. My first brand new computer. I only made the decision just as we were moving, and luckily it was still there when we went for a final visit into Ayr. So although bought in Scotland, I didn't get to boot up my new SAM Coupé till we were in Yorkshire. New home, new computer.

The 1st image I saw on the SAM Coupé
I had also paid that bit extra, and bought the internal disk drive to go with the SAM, but much to my dismay, the DOS (Disk Operating System) disk was nowhere to be found. I was able to contact the manufacturers who soon sent out the disk, but in the meantime, I was able to run the demo tape that came with the machine.

To every early SAM owner, there are usually two important images related to their first experience. One is a famous black and white digitized image of an astronaut on the moon, and the second is of Tutankhamen's sarcophagus face. Both of these loaded up gradually from the tape as my first experience with the SAM, and I can remember calling my father up from his study to see the astounding results. It was on my small 14” TV, and at the time it was like seeing my computer produce a photo-realistic image of incredible quality. I had jumped from the extremely limited colour possibilities of the Spectrum, to a world of fantastic graphical potential.

My 1st digital art
Before even the DOS disk arrived, I used the art package FLASH (that came on tape with the SAM, and was coincidentally programmed by Bo Jangeborg who had created Fairlight), and created a couple of images that I am still quite pleased with, given the limitations at the time (I was still loading and saving to tape, and had no mouse). One was Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, and the other was Beauty and the Beast, from the Disney film of the same name.

My 1st digital art
Although I had always been interested in computers, it was from that day I started down the route that would turn it from casual hobby to an eventual career.

In Part III, I'll talk about learning to program, the disk magazine that kept the SAM alive for a long time, creating my own computer games, and lots more...

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