Usborne Releases 1980s Coding Books As Free PDFs

I’d missed Usborne’s plan to turn its 1980s computing and coding books into free PDFs but the fruits of that project are now available on their website. I suspect they might offer up a nice jolt of nostalgia for this Monday morning (or you could actually build the games and play them)!

As it goes, I don’t actually remember these from the first time around but I suspect that’s because I only knew the Usborne books that were stocked by my local library. My life was less about creating The Mystery of Silver Mountain and more about reading Time Train To Ancient Rome. But now I’m looking through these old books and the explanations of how the program works feel lovely and simple. Programming is something I have absolutely no affinity for and no wish to learn but these make sense to me. Also I learn better when monsters and friendly ghosts are explaining things to me.

That said, I’m still far more interested in the illustrations than the processes. Look at this mosaic-floored hall!

Here’s what’s on offer:

Introductions
Programming Tricks & Skills
Machine Code For Beginners
Computer Programming (BASIC for beginners)
Practical Things To Do With A Microcomputer

Computer Game Listings
Computer Spy Games
Weird Computer Games
Creepy Computer Games
Computer Battlegames
Computer Spacegames

Adventure Games
The Mystery Of Silver Mountain
Island Of Secrets
Write Your Own Fantasy Games
Write Your Own Adventure Programs

First Computer Library
Computer Fun
Simple BASIC

You can download any/all of the PDFs from this page (or investigate the more modern lift-the-flap coding options the company now makes). I’m currently considering picking up The Usborne Official Astronaut’s Handbook for when I become an astronaut.

From this site

30 Comments

  1. Optimaximal says:

    When they made the PDFs, I hope they did OCR so we can just copy and paste the code out, rather than having to type it all by hand…

    • apa says:

      We typed it by hand back then so it would be only fair that copypaste is not supported! Now, if someone would upload the sources to Github…

  2. FrenchTart says:

    But then we would be missing out on the original fun experience.

  3. trashbat says:

    Did anyone ever type up and share, or god forbid modernise, Island of Secrets?

    It’s one of the first games I remember, and I never could complete it.

  4. Vurogj says:

    Huge nostalgia hit here, especially using what I learned from those books to peek into the workings of commercial releases and change a few things here and there. Good times.

  5. Collieuk says:

    These books were great. Many a bedroom programmer started their craft with these and other such books. I remember going to my local library as a eight year old kid and getting out as many programming listings books as possible and then spending hours inputting them onto my ZX Spectrum. Half the time they wouldn’t work or be complete and utter tosh. But the fact you could make a game from scratch in a hour or so was enough to wow my young mind between watching Mysterious Cities of Gold and Dogtanian cartoons. Now in my thirties I still have no more programming knowledge than I did back then…but I can still remember the words to those cartoon theme tunes!

  6. LionsPhil says:

    Oh, awesome. I still have some of these stashed away.

  7. jnik says:

    My parents brought home a copy of Introduction to Computer Programming which changed my life…got me programming at a fairly early age. I am sad that Practise Your BASIC is not included.

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    Harlander says:

    Ooh, I remember Write Your Own Adventure Programs. I don’t think I ever got the procedures described therein to work…

  9. Gus the Crocodile says:

    Oh wow. Looking over them, I’m pretty sure I had (or read) Computer Fun and Introduction to Computer Programming at some point, and possibly some of these others.

    I just don’t know why or where I had them! We never had a computer that I could have done this stuff on at home, so this may have been at school..but it doesn’t feel right; I only really remember Logo at primary school, and though we fiddled with QBasic at high school I think these books were earlier. The oddly-still-likely alternative option is that my parents picked the books up cheap in a box at a flea market or something, and I just read them without ever actually doing any of the examples.

    Second lovely Usborne nostalgia dose from RPS, thanks :)

    • phlebas says:

      Indeed earlier than QBasic – this was the era of the Home Computer, before standardized PCs took over. They all (ok, almost all) came with different flavours of BASIC as their native language, so the listings are in a kind of generic BASIC with footnotes instructing you to change certain bits to get the right dialect for your Spectrum/BBC Micro/Vic 20.

      • CdrJameson says:

        I typed one of these into QBasic a few years back and it worked pretty much without having to change a thing. I think it took about ten minutes, which was a shock as I seem to remember it took approximately three ice-ages to type even the simplest one on a ZX81.

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          Harlander says:

          I hope you’ve got a better keyboard now than the ZX81 had!

  10. chuckieegg says:

    Oooh, lovely. The Computer Spacegeames and Computer Programming books are the best Christmas present I ever got. I did very nicely out of them in the long run….

  11. Meehrrible says:

    Wow, these books (or rather their translation to my native language) taught me to write programs in elementary school. It definitely factored in me getting into IT.

  12. Unruly says:

    Oh how I wish I had had something like these in the mid-90s, when I was just starting to fiddle with computers as a kid. By the time I hit junior high right around the turn of the millennium I was trying to teach myself BASIC through mostly trial and error with my dad telling me what few commands he knew.

    I tried buying books on C, C++, and Python, but they were all aimed at people who either had some degree of understanding already or were in a classroom setting with an instructor. Definitely not something for a 13 year old kid to try teaching himself with. By the time I had a chance to learn in a classroom in high school, I had mostly stopped caring and the teacher was just a body filling a seat while the class tried to teach itself around her.

    But oh what could have been…

    Who am I kidding? I would have had to move to a large city to find decent work, and I hate large cities.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      I get where you’re coming from, it wasn’t that the tools didn’t exist and weren’t accessible, it was more that there was nothing aimed at teaching them to kids.

      In the mid-late 90s I made a bunch of game clones in VB 3.0 on the PC. The early 90s were all about STOS and AMOS on the Arati ST and Amiga respectively, and I guess there was also QBasic and Blitz BASIC on the PC too.

      But I wouldn’t have even known what BASIC was, or why I would want it, if it hadn’t been for the immediacy of programming on the Speccy and the books that were avilable to teach programming to kids that were marketed as “learning your computer” books rather than as “programming” per se.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Oh but on your last point, you could always work remotely from a tiny village on the Austrian/Czech border for a games company based in a large city ;)

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      And I know it’s a little bit late right now, but the book you needed in the mid 90s was this: link to amazon.com

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      alison says:

      Programming is very different these days. In the 80s a lot of games were made by solo developers, and although they were masters of machine code, when you did a type-in you could almost believe that if you had the creativity you could make a smash hit on your own. Hell, Rebelstar (ancestor of UFO/X-COM) was written in BASIC.

      The software world had changed a lot by the mid-90s, when gaming became dominated by big software houses with whole teams dedicated to art, sound, story, engine etc. I was in my mid/late teens by then. In that peak of the PC demo scene, even as a kid who grew up in the home computer era it was very difficult to casually create anything that hit those levels with Turbo Pascal/C++.

      I grew up to be a successful business software developer, but i am not sure if we will ever see the same kind of excitement about programming amongst kids as we did in the 80s. Certainly you can pick up languages like Python and JavaScript these days and learn real marketable skills in the job market by writing plugins and extensions, but it isn’t anywhere near as sexy as the dream of persevering with BASIC to become a rockstar game programmer. I think if i had grown up a few years later i honestly wouldn’t have bothered.

      Programming is a great job – it pays a lot of money and it’s very portable, but it’s definitely not satisfying the dream i had as a kid, and i think most kids today are aware of the fact that it’s basically just part of a 21st century production line. That’s not a bad thing, but it definitely doesn’t deliver the same fantasy it did back then.

      • LionsPhil says:

        A lot of the immediacy and joy seems gone these days, too.

        Partly that’s because expectations have risen such that
        10 PRINT "WHAT IS YOUR NAME?"
        20 INPUT $NAME
        30 PRINT "HELLO "; $NAME
        isn’t impressive any more, because commanding the futurebox doesn’t mean a great deal when it’s an everyday item that brings cat videos into our homes. The minimum threshold to go “neat” at has risen above what you can do without having to start worrying about some kind of interaction framework.

        Partly it’s because you can’t just turn it on and type 10 PRINT "BUM "; : 20 GOTO 10 any more. Bare minimum you’re going to have to open a terminal and fire up the scripting language REPL of your choice, and that’s assuming you’re on Linux. Or are happy to play within a browser’s development tools or something.

        The bar raised, and we took away the springboard.

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          alison says:

          I remember the DOS days when a lot of sysops “compiled” batch files in a competition to create the best ANSI art BBS ads. But we still couldn’t hold a candle to the hardcore Scandinavian nerds who were doing Gouraud shading and whatever crazy 3D mathematics shit was on the cracktros to our favorite games (much less consider making a game ourselves).

          In some ways i think the early days of mobile briefly took us back to before those years, because if you could make an app where you clicked a button and it played a fart sound, that was the 21st century’s 10 PRINT "BUM": 20 GOTO 10. But then apps got more complex too.

          I dunno. Maybe there are kids out there who are modding a Minecraft pickaxe to mine poop instead of gold (sorry if this is way off, i’ve never played Minecraft). My optimism says there is always a way for kids to hack software to tell dick and fart jokes. Even still, there’s a difference between breaking existing software to do silly things and dreaming you could build the whole thing yourself. Like i said, i don’t think it’s a bad thing, because the software of today totally shits over everything we even dreamed about back then, but i do think it makes it harder for kids to dream of being rockstar developers themselves, which is a shame. Of course, i don’t have kids, so maybe they have other, better dreams now.

      • Unruly says:

        While games were my dream when I first started trying to learn back in my early teens, by the time I was in high school it was just a small part of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a sysadmin at that point. I know, it’s a weird shift to go from “I wanna make the next Quake/Baldur’s Gate!” to “I wanna manage headless servers!” but it’s what I wanted to do. At that point I’d also heard the horror stories of game programmers, like the EA Spouse stuff, so I had fewer illusions and that’s probably what made me realign my dreams to something more realistic.

        The sysadmin dream didn’t happen either, for various reasons that range from personal failings to being screwed by schools. So now I’m a clerk for city government. My dreams have been fully crushed.

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    phuzz says:

    Never mind the Usborne astronaut book, I got this book for christmas and it’s really good.

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    alison says:

    Heh. I remember loaning these books (and others) from the local library in the effort to type in games that were written for other platforms than my CPC. The pure BASIC ones i could usually wrangle into working, but as soon as there was a PEEK or a POKE things got hairy. In fact, most of the time they just didn’t work at all. And when they did, they were never as awesome as i imagined. But i typed them in away, in the hope of becoming the next Raffaele Cecco. I didn’t. I write B2B software in Java. Those were optimistic times.

    • phlebas says:

      In case it makes you feel better, Raf Cecco now does web programming:
      link to shop.oreilly.com

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      I similarly wanted to be the next Matthew Smith, was tough when I got to 16 and realised I still hadn’t the faintest idea how Manic Miner really worked. B2B C# for me (unless you count MUD coding) until I had another crack at it in 2009 :)

  15. Alex says:

    Interesting set of books, kids of the 80s must have been very different I had a laugh at one of the exercises to write a inflation calculator, with a bubble box stating “Inflation rate are often published in the paper, if you can’t find them there ring up a bank”. The computers and the programs sounded extremely limited and the BASIC language is horrible to read! Still interested to see how things have changed.