back to article ZX Printer's American cousin still in use, 34 years after purchase

Emails are still trickling in with readers trying to trump the almost nineteen-year-old server we found was just being decommissioned back in January. A recent missive from reader Ian piqued our interest because it said he's still running a Timex Sinclair 2040 printer bought in 1982! The 2040's a thermal printer based on the …

  1. Lee D Silver badge

    No, but I work at a school and yesterday morning was stopped by a teacher in the car park (happens a lot when you're the IT guy for everything from "My car's making a funny noise" up to "Can you build me a website?").

    "I found this in my mother's loft," they said, and handed me a box. "Do you want it?"

    Inside a working BBC Model B with disk drive and disks. Obviously I snapped it up.

    Then they mentioned "Oh, and I have a Mac at home that's a few years old and we've had repaired but don't need, I suppose you want that too?"

    "Not really," I said, walking off and eager to plug in and hear the Boop-Beep.

    I think they were quite taken aback.

    1. Mage Silver badge

      I have a Mac at home that's a few years old

      But what if it was the ROM based 68000 Mac?

      Or the rather crazy tinted plastic box with CRT iMac?

      1. Lee D Silver badge

        Re: I have a Mac at home that's a few years old

        Then I'd stand by my assertion, but it's unlikely they would have had it repaired so recently.

        I mean, honestly? I'd still take the BBC above both of those.

        1. ThomH

          Re: I have a Mac at home that's a few years old

          I considered a joke about the Mac Pro being a tube processor but decided against it; it'd just be a distraction from finally figuring out how on earth to tackle Repton 2.

  2. Dan 55 Silver badge

    I think the Timex Sinclair 2040 found its way back across the pond to the UK as the Alphacom 32, they look suspiciously similar.

    The print didn't take long to fade and red pen ink written on top came out black, which the Chemistry teacher found interesting.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "the Alphacom 32"

      Thank you! That's the name that was on the tip of my tongue as I watched that video. I was fairly sure there was never a Sinclair branded thermal printer. The original ZX Printer used sparks from the print head pins to burn through the conductive layer.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Good tip

    But is there anywhere in the world outside the USA where faxes are still so common that you can actually find the paper?

    1. Mage Silver badge

      Re: Good tip

      Fax not common, but paper still sold. Thermal POS is very common.

      As is pointed out, this isn't a Sinclair printer.

    2. Chris Hawkins

      Re: Good tip

      We can get thermal fax paper here still in Portugal from various office supppliers.

      That having been said even the staff in the local Telecom Operators are to young to know what a fax is! ;)

      I think my wife now uses it twice a year to communicate with an old German friend in Munich who refuses to upgrade to the Interwebs!

      1. Down not across

        Re: Good tip

        That reminds me I need to stock up on thermal fax paper for my HP150 touch screen's integrated thermal printer before thermal paper becomes too difficult to source.

    3. Nicholas Nada

      Re: Good tip

      Japan - they love their faxes over there.

      1. caffeine addict

        Re: Good tip

        There's a fax in my office at the moment. No idea who uses it, but it burbles in to life a couple of times a week.

        The main thing it has done is force me to change my ringtone - a recording of the old force9 dial-up handshake. It's the only ringtone I've ever had that I've been able to hear in crowded places.

    4. Paul Cooper

      Re: Good tip

      Faxes are often used when exchanging contracts between organizations, as a fax is regarded as legally valid where an electronic copy isn't. Of course, the fax is backed up (a week or so later for transatlantic affairs) with a pukka printed and signed copy.

      1. BurnT'offering

        Re: Good tip

        The first electronic contract was exchanged much earlier (unless you already know this 'interesting' tidbit) than you might think

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: Good tip

          We've got a family of feral faxes round our way. They keep rummaging through the recycling bins. I think they escaped from a local business park around the time of the millennium.

      2. GlenP Silver badge

        Re: Good tip

        I'm old enough to remember when Faxes weren't accepted as legally valid, you had to use the Telex for that!

        1. Kernel

          Re: Good tip

          "I'm old enough to remember when Faxes weren't accepted as legally valid, you had to use the Telex for that!"

          Which is somewhat odd, given that the first commercial fax was sent in 1860 and the first commercial telex system was introduced by Reichspost in 1933. Prior to that telegrams were sent by morse code - even in the early 1970s my wife's training as a telex (Gentex) operator included learning to send/receive morse at at least 20 wpm.

          1. caffeine addict

            Re: Good tip

            Pretty sure that in law firms that's still the case. Certainly, the last time I checked my solicitors' letterhead they had a telex address listed on it.

    5. phuzz Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Good tip

      Most receipt printers that I've seen use rolls of thermal paper, there might even be a type which fits straight into the Spectrum printer.

      (after a quick look, there's several places that sell rolls of 100mm width, so it's just the internal diameter you'd have to check).

    6. StripeyMiata

      Re: Good tip

      Undertakers still use them in my experience.

  4. SimonL

    The article is slightly wrong - Dan 55 has picked up on it.

    The printer pictured most definately was not a version of the ZX Printer, it was - as Dan 55 points out - an Alphacom 32 printer in the UK.

    The paper was different for a start, whoever wrote the article did not do enough research (Unlike Sinclair ;) lol). The Alphacom 32 and the one pictured uses a white coloured paper and the result looks a lot like a modern cash register receipt. The smaller ZX printer used the silver faced printer the article mentions.

    They were two different printers, available at the same time IIRC?

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      I think there must have been more differences.

      The ZX Printer, using metal covered foil, plugged directly into the ZX expansion port via the board-edge connector. When used with a ZX-81, it had a pass-through port for the RAM pack.

      If this printer works in the same way, I am interested in what he was driving it with, because the ZX-81 and the original ZX Spectrum were the only machines capable of driving it. Anything else would require a box of tricks to emulate the ZX-Expansion bus.

      I suspect that this is an RS-232 printer, which would have been plugged into a ZX Interface-1, and thus could be used with any other computer with a serial port and the correct cable (IIRC, the serial port on the Interface-1 used a non-standard [not that there were standards back then] pin layout, but it was documented, so within the ability of anyone with a soldering iron to make a cable).

      If he is actually using a Spectrum (sorry, Timex-Sinclair 2068), then I suspect that would be much more newsworthy.

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        You're right, the paper was different, I forgot that.

        The Alphacom was a driven by the edge connector, like the Timex Sinclair. Nothing fancy like RS232.

        IIRC whole lines were sent by an OUT to some port (forget which one, but there weren't many). Each line was 256 pixels long, the Spectrum sent the bitmap for the first row of pixels (32 bytes), then the second row of pixels, and so on down to the eighth. I can't remember if a linefeed was a code or just 8 empty rows.

        If you can get hold of The Complete Spectrum ROM Disassembly that will show you the printer driver code.

        1. William Towle
          Thumb Up

          > Each line was 256 pixels long, the Spectrum sent the bitmap for the first row of pixels (32 bytes), then the second row of pixels, and so on down to the eighth

          Indeed. And while those 32 bytes got you 32 characters per line of normal characters, if you had the Tasword editor you could edit and print at 64 characters per line. One of the enthusiast magazines had a set of pokes with a more readable version of the font with the default.

          If memory serves, the buffer was 8*32 bytes - suitable for one row of normal height characters. I frequently had small code routines there (mentioned previously).

  5. paulc

    Not a 'thermal' printer...

    it used sparks to blast the silver conductive film off... there was a distinct smell of ozone when using one...

    Just had pointy bits that were pulled across the paper on a continuous loop of wire and the printer discharged where each 'pixel' was...

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: Not a 'thermal' printer...

      The UK ZX printer caused a lot of radio interference when it was printing. There is no way it could have been marketed in the US because of the FCC rules on interference.

      1. /dev/null

        Re: Not a 'thermal' printer...

        Yep, that's what I read too - Timex couldn't sell the ZX Printer in the US, so they got Alphacom in California to design the TS2040 (aka Alphacom 32). As previously noted, this was a thermal printer, unlike the ZX Printer's peculiar spark-erosion technique, but the interface was the same and was software-compatible. I used to have an Alphacom 32 for my Spectrum - think I flogged it on eBay years ago.

    2. BurnT'offering

      Re: Not a 'thermal' printer...

      So, could it be used to print paper circuit boards?

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Not a 'thermal' printer...

        Vaporised aluminium is NOT something that you want to be breathing in. See the thread about vaping and Alzheimer's.

        1. BurnT'offering

          Re:See the thread about vaping and Alzheimer's.

          "Importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that aluminium exposure increases your risk of dementia."

          1. TRT Silver badge
            1. JeffyPoooh

              "...therefore 'prove' anything that we want to."

              The Internet proves, and simultaneously disproves, that:

              1) You can prove anything you like via the Internet, and

              2) You can't prove anything via the Internet.

              I trust that this clears things up.

              Now excuse me, I've got a conference call with Russell and Gödel in five minutes...

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    An acquaintance made a foray into the market for cheap printers in the early 80s, The "Cricket" was to retail at the psychological barrier of GBP99. It used a dot matrix thermal printing head on white paper. Its main design economy was to avoid the use of stepping motors. It would get the print head travelling at a reasonably constant speed over the width of the paper - so it could print each complete line on the fly.

  7. Ol'Peculier

    ZX Printer

    Ah, memories. I had a ZX Printer and if I looked hard enough in boxes in my parents loft could probably find stuff printed using it. The printer is long gone, but I found an unused roll a few years ago which promptly ended up being sold on eBay. If it helps somebody out, I'm happy!

  8. Mark J Thompson

    Yes I had an Alphacom 32 printer back in the day and it does look suspiciously similar. Got rid of it several decades ago though and I'm pretty sure it was on its last legs even then. Very impressed to see one last 34+ years.

  9. jake Silver badge

    Old kit.

    I still have a Panasonic Senior Partner luggable ... all 33 pounds of it. Why I still have the silly thing is beyond me. After over a quarter million miles of air travel together, you tend to get attached to the daftest things :-)

  10. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    "It took a licking, but it kept on ticking!"

    Sorry. Just had to do it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      More memories of the slogan

      I am glad that someone remembers Timex's ads (for watches). Remember the watch that was strapped to an ice skate blade, or the one strapped to the propeller of an outboard motor? Ah... the good old days of ads...

  11. Just Enough

    still works <> still in use

    I refuse to believe that anyone is running an office where they print labels by firing up the ZX81 and code PRINT statements.

    It's neat that this still works (and it is not, as advertised, the ZX thermal printer), but not a massive surprise and not as if it is part of any real work.

  12. NightFox

    Much more entertaining was my Commodore 1520 Printer Plotter - watching the thing hand-write every character with a miniature biro, in the choice of black, blue, red & green. I've still got it somewhere but I guess then pens will be long dried out by now.

    1. Mike 16 Silver badge

      Those pens...

      That printer (From Alps, IIRC) was used in a number of printers at the time. At least Atari and Radio Shack as well as Commodore. Also in the Brother Type-A-Graph, a "portable electric typewriter" that would run on wall-wart or dry cells. Anyway, one can still find the pens, New Old Stock. I'd tell you where, but then you would buy them and I'd be unable to replace the ones I currently have. The clock starts ticking as soon as you open the sealed package.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ruddy hell

    I can still remember the smell from these printers.

    For a grin, i printed the REM lines from 3d monster maze onn the zx81.It ran to about 5 feet long and took about 3 hours. Oh the halcyon days of fledgling technology.

  14. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Sinclair MK14

    I fired mine up recently but to no great effect. Did a little research - including building a widget to read the proms - and discovered that the proms are suffering from bitrot. Kind of to be expected after nearly forty years, I guess - but now I need to either find some replacement proms, and build a programmer, or (more likely) build an interface for a modern eeprom.

  15. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

    "Cheap-as-chips ZX81 computer"

    It may have been cheap for its time, but still around £70 in 1981, equivalent to £270 today.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: "Cheap-as-chips ZX81 computer"

      Well, to be fair, the main part of the cost was the actual chips, so "cheap as chips" still applies. It's just that chips cost more in those halcyon days so maybe the "cheap" part doesn't really apply :-)

    2. paulc

      Re: "Cheap-as-chips ZX81 computer"

      "It may have been cheap for its time, but still around £70 in 1981, equivalent to £270 today."

      it was £49.95 in kit form... I ordered mine when seeing the very first advert in the Sunday paper supplement that week... It arrived within 3 days!!! and I had it assembled and working that very same day...

      What impressed me was the use of chip sockets rather than expecting the person to solder the chips in directly... cost more, but would have a massive effect in reduced returns...

      1. SealTeam6

        Re: "Cheap-as-chips ZX81 computer"

        I bought mine for £79.95 in 1982. The next cheaper computer was Spectrum 16K at £125.

  16. jimmyj

    CliveS education

    still have both the ZX81(s) & that printer in my 'museum'. was a major forward step to learn 'Basic' programming. was ~$30 CDN back then so cheap indeed. also have a collection of utilities & games including the loved Flight Simulator. most valuable though was(is) the tape (yep-cassette) ZX ASSEMBLER 16K . I'm an inventor.. & need servo software that will react in 'real time'.. so, although a lengthy pain to write.. assember works fastest. thanks Clive !

  17. Gareth Perch

    I still have all my Speccy stuff and I've collected a LOT more since (for my own "museum"). My original Timex 2040 printer worked the last time I used it and was definitely thermal, as I found out after printing a map of a game (using the Multiface 1 - graphics came out beautifully - much nicer than in the video) mounting it on a board and putting it too near to a fan heater. I've since bought a brand new boxed Alphacom 32 for my collection.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wow. Pro choice. It's not like you can't pick up a BBC B on eBay for £50

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