The Toshiba MSX and 64Kb of RAM – A Trip Down Memory Lane

When I was young, I grew up surrounded by old computing (and electronics) magazines, issues from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, a majority of them being the popular publication “creative computing”. I used to read them (and re-read them) voraciously during a time period where people around me were working on PCs running Windows 3.1, which were just emerging into schools, offices, and to a somewhat rare extent, homes. I remember being quite an antiquarian when it came to these old computing magazines and publications, but I enjoyed reading and learning about how the very first computers looked and operated, about the DEC PDP-11, the Macintosh, the IBM PC with all the Charlie Chaplin adverts, and how the landscape of personal computing was constantly evolving to become what it is today…

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When remembering all those old computer magazines and articles, what I really miss and remain nostalgic about, is my dads Toshiba MSX home computer which he had bought during the 80’s and was the first ever computer that I learned to program on. I was introduced to programming at a very young age, as I was always curious about this machine that my dad used to work on, where the display was a television set connected via RF cable and programs were stored and loaded on audio cassette tapes. The Toshiba MSX home computer was first announced by Microsoft in 1983, and conceived by the then vice-president of Microsoft Japan, Kazuhiko Nishi. The MSX computer was quite famous for being an architecture that major Japanese game corporations wrote games for, before the Nintendo era (the first version of metal gear was written for the MSX architecture).

Kazuhiko Nishi and Bill Gates in 1978:


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The MSX HX-10 model which my dad owned was an amazingly simple machine by today’s standards, having no internal storage or hard drive, instead relying on an external audio cassette recorder to load and store programs on cassette tape (there was a cartridge slot, but audio cassette tapes were widely used as they were a cost effective medium, with plenty available). The HX-10 model was based on a Zilog-Z80 processor and came with 64Kb of RAM (user space was about half that, giving about 28Kb for the user with the rest used by the system), which was basically what you had to work with. The machine used a version of the BASIC programming language known as MSX BASIC, which came pre-installed in the ROM.

A Toshiba MSX HX-10 model with packing and user manuals (the cartridge slot is on the upper right of the machine):


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The rear of the HX-10 (You can see where the television RF cable and audio cassette recorder connect to):


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A cassette recorder of the type used to save and load programs for the HX-10:


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What you see on the television screen once the MSX fires up:


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An early game for the MSX home computer (Blockade Runner):


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My dad used to program a lot as a hobby, and taught me a lot about coding and computer internals using the MSX HX-10 machine we had at home. Nowadays, I look back and remember my dad learning and coding certain sprite based games and programs in (Z80) assembly, as the graphics processing was quite slow when programmed using plain MSX BASIC. Programming in assembly language is generally considered a time consuming, complicated, and unnecessary feat today in the developer community, but back then it was pretty much the norm, as it was the only way to write games with fast and smooth graphics on machines like the MSX HX-10. On top of that, there was no internet to search for solutions when stuck on some problem, all references and troubleshooting were done through books and manuals:


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Looking back, it was a very interesting and influential time period for me in life where I was exposed to the technicalities of how computers worked, and got so used to working with the MSX HX-10 that it was a strange feeling when working on a Windows (v3.1 and up) machine for the first time (I would assume it’s simpler to switch from a terminal based 80’s machine to the Windows PC with its slick GUI and internal/external drives at the time, but trust me, I was still used to the whirring tape recorder and the television set as a monitor for a long time).

Anyway, computing today has evolved to the point where (at times) fundamental concepts of how computers work, and simple programming fundamentals, are considered too low level or unnecessary. This is one symptom of the many abstractions, tools, and software that have been built layer by layer on top of the computing machine over the years, which has made it incredibly easy for everyone to use computers, but maybe not understand them well. This is a far different picture from the home computer owners of the 80’s, a majority of whom had to learn how the machine worked and programmed it on their own in order to use it, and even more contrasting from the 70’s, during the days of the Altair 8800 for example, which had to be programmed using only switches. In my case, it was a rewarding experience to have learnt a lot about computers and programming at a very young age, which is a main reason as to what I am doing today in terms of my career. In spite of all the new hardware advances, latest programming languages, software tools/applications, and computing abstractions (all of which I love, and work with everyday), I am still drawn to vintage computers, old programming languages, and historical software systems, in a large part due to my experience with the Toshiba MSX during my younger days. That part of my life and experience is something I can always look back on, and count myself lucky to have been through, and is something which inspires and motivates (and continues to motivate) my love of technology, computers, and coding.

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