History Z88 Magic and background of this manual

By Vic Gerhardi, Rakewell Ltd

Little did I know that when I walked into the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham at the end of the 1980's, that it would be a life changing moment for me. I was on the lookout for this new product, the Cambridge Z88.

It is difficult now to explain to people in the 21st century, used to using graphical devices, what that was like to see this A4 size black block rubber keyed lump of a computer. Only ten years earlier, to edit text with a computer I was using a line editor with a teleprinter which was connected by a serial port to an 8-bit Motorola 6800 D2 Kit. Files could be saved and loaded using paper tape and being a large mechanical device portability and quiet operation was not on its list of features.

Pretty girls were at the stand hanging onto probably the only 10 Z88s that worked. We were only allowed 10 minutes each to use them and these girls were just not going to let go of these devices. I remember pressing the HELP key and was surprised to see the help screen for the INDEX pop up. Little did I know it was the 'only' help screen that had any text on it. I did manage to get onto PipeDream and type a few words and say hello to Clive Sinclair. It was such a short time and there was nothing else at the show, I just had to get one of my own.

At this time there were a number of computers coming onto the market. Sinclair products were not known for reliability or for getting products to the market place in a reasonable time. The demand for Z88s were high and I remember getting my first one and marvelling over what it could do. All right, it did seem to be expensive at £200 and it needed more RAM and accessories to make it really useful, but I loved it (and still do). Having a propriety Operating System (OZ) confused the marketplace at the time. Users were more used to getting computers with a well known names. IBM, Apple, BBC Micro, Amiga using different operating system like MS-DOS. Fortunately Cambridge fought back by providing computer links for the Mac and IBM PC, so that files could be transferred to and from the Z88. It is still the machine that you wonder whether you can do something and then you find you can using the built-in applications.

Z88 Training Days introduced a number of people without computer experience to the Z88 and it helped me to understand what people wanted to get out of it. Not surprisingly, Pipedream's word processor and spreadsheet was the most popular application, but users also needed additional help with the rest of the machine. Z88 Magic was written on the back of these courses using the skills of two additional authors and using the Z88 to write it on.

Other companies were becoming to be involved with the Z88 providing Disk Drives. Although files could be stored on EPROM cards, these were not ideal as to erase them, a separate EPROM Eraser was required. This all changed when Flash cards were made available, they could be be erased in the Z88 itself and rather than taking 20 minutes, this time was reduced to seconds.

A hook in the original built-in OZ operating system allowed the Z88 to boot off a card in slot 1. This opened the possibility of re-writing OZ. Introducing new features, removing and re-introducing new bugs, speeding up the serial port. Thousands of man-hours have been put into this labour of love and it is now time to document all the changes that have been made.

Is it possible to combine all these original works into this Z88 User Guide? Will anybody be out there still using the Z88 when it is finally finished?

These are all questions that at this point there are no answers.

All I can tell you now that if anyone had asked me at the beginning whether I thought there would be a dedicated team of Z88 programmers and that I would be still writing about the Cambridge Z88, I would never had believed them. You only need to look at the successful portable computers. They are of a similar size. Yes they have got additional features that the Z88 may lack like  connecting to the internet and are graphical in nature. The Z88 main features of being

  • battery powered,
  • no boot up time,
  • a built-in word processor and spreadsheets
  • transferring files to other computers

are still as important today as they were in the 1980's.

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