More than 40 years ago it was possible to download video games over the radio

In the late 1970s, computers like the Apple II saw software piracy explode. These ancestors of today’s game consoles and computers have been at the center of a large print run of copies of proprietary software, as well as enthusiasts’ inventions. At the time, however, the best way to spread this piracy was simple: the radio.

Software on tape

In 1977, some of the first personal computers are emerging as the Apple II and the Commodore PET 2001. There is also the TRS-80 model I from Tandy RadioShack. At that time, the whole world discovered the “power” of the personal computer and its microprocessor. Like PET 2001, the Apple II was equipped with a 8 bit microprocessors at 1MHz. The TRS-80 Model I had a processor clocked at 1.77 MHz.

Obviously, these computers are light years away from today’s devices and were of very simple use. Indeed, users could only program in BASIC and install some software to learn and play. And yet the release of these machines is synonymous with an explosion of piracy. Lovers exchange extensively copies of licensed softwareas well as internal software.

As Interesting Engineering explained on March 8, 2021, amateurs exchanged these programs through the only storage medium available back then: the audio cassette (K7). Soon the engineers of the audiovisual broadcaster Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (NOS) became aware of something important by asking themselves a simple question. Since the software is on audio cassettes, why not? transmit data streams on the radio so everyone can save them?

computer Commodore PET 2001
The Commodore PET 2001 and its slot for audio cassettes.
Credit: Branch/Wikimedia Commons

Many programs downloaded over the air hertzian

So the sound wave download (BASIC signal) is born. Very quickly the broadcaster NOS made a radio program called Hobbyscoop. The goal is to broadcast proprietary programs to listeners who had only one thing to do: connect the audio output of their radio set to the input of their computer. This simple manipulation made it possible to: transcribe radio data on the K7 band. For those with no knowledge of the schedule, the sounds the radio broadcast played didn’t make sense. Today, the same sounds would resemble those of modems at the time of the early generalization of the Internet.

Since nothing is ever quite perfect in computers, of course, each set of data had to be broadcast four times. Above all, the download was incomplete in the event that the slightest signal interference occurred. In 1982, undermined by the incompatibility between the different machines, NOS engineers developed a translation standards BASIC for any device. It will be Basicode, whose nickname was Esperanto for computer. This will form the core of two major developments, in 1984 and then in 1986. In about ten years’ time, the NOS will broadcast about sixty programs including many video games.

In Europe, the Hobbyscoop show will make several small ones, including Fan 202 in Yugoslavia, which is no less than 150 software between 1983 and 1986. We should also mention the Datarama program on Bristol Radio West (UK). Unfortunately for all listeners, the end of the 1980s marked the end of freedom. Indeed, the floppy disk and the 16-bit processors make the programs too imposing to be spread on the waves.