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How People Used to Download Games from the Radio (2014) (kotaku.co.uk)
124 points by panic 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 40 comments

When I was a kid with my TRS-80 Color Computer, there were computer magazines that had plastic "records" as inserts with programs on them [1]. You could snap out the thin plastic disk and play it on your record player so you could record it to a cassette tape to load onto your computer.

I never got it to work, because the programs were (mostly) for Commodore computers. Didn't stop me from trying. Also tried to make my own "modem" by connecting wires from the serial port directly to an old phone. (No schematics or anything... Just red to red, blue to blue, etc.) Looking back, it would have been nice to have had an adult around to help me out a bit.

Considering the crackles, pops, etc. that are normal audio artifacts of record players, I'd be surprised if the records worked for anyone, actually.

1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flexi_disc

That's nice! On a related note, I just recalled the magazines with code listings in them - pages upon pages.

And yes, I would spend hours typing them all in. Even before I got my tape drive. :p

> And yes, I would spend hours typing them all in.

You'd get 90% of the way through and someone walking down the next road would cause the RAM pack to wobble and your Spectrum / ZX81 would reset itself. Or it'd be a page of hex printed at 72dpi dark grey on black 6pt font and you'd misread one of the Es as an F and nothing would work but you'd spend hours trying to figure out which one it was.

Ah, kids of today, they've got it easy.

Aye sir, I laughed with familiarity! Yet we didn't have social media, so I guess that they can't have it both ways.

Yep, my first computer didn't have any storage, so I typed over games from magazines, played them and left the computer on. When it switched off, the game was gone and I typed in another game. It definitely gave me a lot more quality playing time as this was the only thing the magic machine gave me. When bored with the game I would start changing things in the code; first randomly and getting many errors, but after a while it started to make sense.

Very true. Yes that is what it was like! I vaguely remember that the TV I used was the family TV as well, which led to some contention. Of course the computer could be left on, but accidents did happen..

> I never got it to work

There was an Thompson Twins game[1] distributed as a flexidisc for the Spectrum. Never got it to work - just couldn't get the disc to play reliably.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thompson_Twins_Adventure

OMG! You have to find a Spectrum emulator and find that game so you can play it! You can't go through life with that unfinished! I may do it myself just out of solidarity!

Years ago I found a bunch of my old CoCo tapes and loaded them up in an emulator. It was cathartic to say the least: https://www.russellbeattie.com/blog/letter-defender-my-big-p...

Thanks. What a lovely nostalgia trip!

Ways of 'downloading' in my childhood, in decreasing order of unreliability:

* Via the television, holding a cassette recorder microphone to the tele speaker, after staying up till after midnight to catch it.

* Buying a magazine with a bendy plastic 45 record stuck to the cover and playing it on a record player, again probably using the microphone because you didn't have the right leads.

* From the radio. Woohoo, straight to the integrated cassette recorder. Although even then I don't think I ever got even that to work. Mind you it was pretty hit and miss loading an 'original' tape on the ZX Spectrum.

* Typing it in from a magazine. It took an afternoon, but at least you got to correct your mistakes. Unless it was a particularly crashy mistake.

And, wow, out out nowhere I've suddenly recalled having one of my own, a wordsearch solver, published in one of them. My first upload! Those were the days, I'm welling up!

Oh, those dodgy copies of black dots on silver thermal paper scrolls they copied into the those Spectrum magazines. Good times, but not for that reason :D


And now people are hawking essentially those same printers (albeit with less shiny paper) as "Personal Bluetooth Printers" for ££. The world of technology is bonkers.

Correcting the errors after my kid sister spent a couple hours typing in the listing for some game she liked the look of is exactly how I learned to program in BBC Basic in about 1983. Doing beats reading, then as now

One of my first experiences with microcomputer hobbyists was in 1977 when I heard someone call in to WBAI late at night and playing music generated from his TRS-80 over the radio. He used the radio frequency interference from the computer to make signals that were picked up by an AM radio. Then he held the phone to his radio when he called in to WBAI to demonstrate.

After that the radio host was intrigued, and the caller said he could play the program over the radio, too, so people with TRS-80s could record the program and load it into their computer. So for the next few minutes over New York's WBAI, listeners heard the sounds of a TRS-80 cassette program being broadcast over the air.

I was so interested in these computers that I did some sleuthing and found the caller, Nat, who introduced me into an entire seedy underworld of phone phreaks, hams, pirate radio station operators, and electronics hackers. Back in these days, my parents didn't think it was odd for a 14 year old kid to hang out with people in their 20s and beyond. And that's how my 35+ year career in computers and electronics, in New York, Silicon Valley, and Israel, started.

That brings back memories long forgotten. I'm never going to miss my Vic20/C64 tape drives, ever.

Except when I first got my Vic20 as a child the tape drive was half a year away. When I got it: Pure bliss. I could save my programs.

In a weird way I feel sorry for my son who never gets to experience such wonders. But then again maybe it is just good that IT will never again be the obscure, ostracised (from a child's popularity in social groups point of view) thing it once was.

"I'm never going to miss my Vic20/C64 tape drives, ever."

I recently had my childhood C64 fixed up by one of my employees (turns out they are good for something). It now has virtually every game released on a SD Card via a rather modern interface to the cartridge slot. This beast used to have a floppy drive and I remember how amazing that was compared to the tape drive.

There's a fascinating report about how Dr. Horst Voelz (the most popular computer scientist in Eastern Germany) for the first time in 1987 (edit: 1986) sent BASIC programs "illegally" (meaning without notifying government officials) in a live broadcast from his living room on the GDR "national school radio", which quickly became the most popular radio show in Eastern Germany (the all-in-all 60 radio shows received 50,000 letters which was unheard of), all despite attempts from the Ministry of Education to shut it down.

Here's the PDF of the report written by Dr.Voelz himself:


Reminds me of a system Nintendo endorsed in the 90s using satellite radio as a subscription for games and related broadcasts. I'm surprised such a niche like add-on gained so much traction to last 5 years! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellaview

I saw a video recently where someone got Slack working on a SNES using that:


This is a good time to link to Apple Disk Server, which supplies audio files that Apple ][s can load with their built-in cassette ROM routines, bootstrapping a program that loads a compressed image, then formats and writes it to floppy disk: http://asciiexpress.net/diskserver/

( This is one of the few ways to transfer data to a vintage computer without additional hardware, at least until devices started showing up without a headphone jack :^P )

I added a similar feature to my 8bitworkshop IDE that lets you upload your own C/asm programs to your Apple ][ via cassette port: http://8bitworkshop.com/v3.2.0/?platform=apple2

Basicode was quite a thing in the Netherlands when I was young; it is a BASIC dialect which is cross platform, which was quite a thing in those days. You had a 'library' of common subroutines which were above line 1000 (10000?) which you gosub'ed to. Also it defined the sounds to use for storing & transmitting so it was cross platform.

Basicode programs came on cassette, floppy disk, records (not vinyl, but flexible plastic you put on your record player and play once or twice only to get the program off and then store it on cassette or floppy), magazines (you had to type it in yourself) and radio. There were multiple weekly programs that sent over Basicode.

I used to get them and put them on my BBS if I didn't get them elsewhere yet.

A lot of countries had their own educational computers for a while - like the BBC in the UK.

I wonder if there's lingistic study that could be done on modern programmers working in today's standardised languages that could identify differences in their coding style stemming from the local language they played with at school.

Pete Shelley's XL 1 album came with a final track on the album that was a programme for the ZX Spectrum. You ran the programme while playing the song and it would play visuals that (roughly) went with the music and display the lyrics.

Here you go:


They did this in New Zealand, and I hauled a tape deck out to the garage to record it as Mum wouldn't have that loud screeching in the house.

I never got a single recording to work on my computer. Never would even find the program let alone load it.

Shameless plug: If you want to try out a modem in your browser, check out https://quiet.github.io/quiet-js

The Nintendo DS game _Bangai-O Spirits_ did something similar to allow copying user-created levels between game systems.

Turns out that there was a vulnerability in the transmission format, so this can also be used as a way of running unsigned code on the DS.


The legacy of loading programs from audio sources can be seen in the PS/2 keyboard connector. The 6-pin Mini-DIN was chosen as a more compact alternative to the 5/180 DIN used for the PC-AT keyboard. There was another of the same type of connector on that computer for hooking up a cassette recorder as it was a standard for audio equipment going back to the 60's. It was also re-purposed as the standard MIDI connector.

Just posting to say Me Too! Those were such exciting times!

I recently tried to explain some of this period to my kids and did poorly.

It does make me wonder if every period has these exciting times and are also hard to relate to future people. We get a very low fidelity recounting of history compared to real life.

ATSC has a data rate of about 20MBit/s net of FEC (it transmits 2 data bits for every signal bit at 32mbit/s). That works out to 9GB/hour or 15MB per minute. Might be able to do some cool things with that during the late hours.

Do you mean 150MB per minute? That's impressive. Few years ago I didn't had this.

no 15 Mega bytes per minute which is 20 mega bits per second.

They had these programs in the United States, too. Usually very late at night on stations with powerful signals.

It's been a long time, but I believe the one that carried it in New York was WNBC (now WFAN).

I remember my neighbour recording radio broadcasts for his Commodore 64. One glitch in the broadcast because of some noise on the antenna and the program failed to run :P

We used to copy C64 digital tapes on a double cassette deck, using analog copy, running at double speed. Most times it worked, sometimes not.

I’m amazed by this. I would have thought quality of radio was so low that the program would be unrecoverably corrupted.

It helps that tape drives were really low-speed/low-density, which makes things more robust. See this RFC on Ultra Low-Speed Networking: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1217

Back in those days, cassette equipment could be loosely divided into two categories: (1) hifi equipment for listening to music and (2) voice quality battery operated portable cassette recorders with a handle and a built-in speaker. (Walkman and knockoffs also existed as kind of a hybrid of these two.)

There were also hifi and voice quality categories of blank cassette tapes.

The voice quality stuff was generally good enough for 8-bit computers.

FM radio was probably somewhere between the two, at least given good conditions. So it seems like it would have worked fine. I never tried it myself. I did hear a news story about it, but it never became available in my area.

I saw the comment in the article about FM being less reliable and my brain went immediately to "yup, that'll be the compressor"

I could never get these recorded basicode downloads to work on my vic-20

My father used to "download" things this way. Unfortunately given the poor quality of cassettes in communist countries rarely anything arrived in one piece.

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