Clive Sinclair: Geek of the Week

Although most of the geeks of the IT industry are famous for their software, it was the geeky entrepreneurs that changed society by bringing cheap microcomputers to the market. Sir Clive Sinclair is most famous for applying his background in electronic engineering to provide a whole generation, both in America and Europe, with their first taste of programming.

2343-c399ea76-348a-4ee9-96df-19456bddb75 For all of his great successes over the years, Sir Clive Marles Sinclair has eschewed the fast-living, international life-style. He avoided the path of becoming a media ‘personality’ taken by his one-time business rival Lord Alan Sugar; a rivalry which ended in 1986 when Sugar bought out Sinclair’s Personal Computer business – A deal thrashed out, according to popular legend, over dinner in a Japanese karaoke restaurant. It is not recorded if either of them sang ‘I did it My Way.’

The takeover of his microcomputer business must have been quite a drama; but then, Sir Clive has had quite a few dramas.

Some years ago, the BBC broadcast an unsubtle play called The Micro Men, which showed the extent to which rivalry and animosity drove technology forward in the dark days of the 1980s.

The Micro Men charted the volatile relationship between Sir Clive and his former protégé Chris Curry, who went on to found the rival company Acorn Computers.

Back then, Sir Clive was a household name in the UK for his microcomputers, and many of the current generation of British developers cut their teeth on a Sinclair ZX81. However, his ambitions ranged across the whole spectrum of consumer electronics, including pocket calculators, amplifiers, radios, multi-meters, digital watches, the TV80 pocket television and C5 electric vehicle,

“The price was crucial.
It made it all happen

Clive’s first enterprise, Sinclair Radionics, made its name in the early sixties by producing a range of cheap hobbyist electronics. They were mostly kits. The company then diversified into producing the first ‘slimline’ pocket calculator until it grew into Europe’s biggest calculator manufacturer by 1975. However, the company subsequently struggled against competition in the electronic calculator market from Japan.

By turning his attention to the design and marketing of Personal Computers Clive Sinclair became the shiny-topped entrepreneur, the future of the British technology industry, the man who helped transform the city of Cambridge into a world capital of computing. The home-brewed version of Silicon Valley, where magic happened, and dreams and fortunes were made from turning high technology into commodity products. Sinclair is keen to credit his small team at Cambridge for the success of the Sinclair computers, not least Nine Tiles, the company that made the Basic operating software for his series of popular computers.

2343-a579c002-96c4-40a7-8258-902befe2197 The first of these microcomputers, the Sinclair ZX80, looked, and some cruelly said performed, like a sawn-off typewriter. It had 21 chips on its motherboard, representing the pinnacle of affordable personal computing.

The great promise of this 8-bit machine was, according to its marketing material, that it could do ‘quite literally anything, from playing chess to running a power station’. The phrase went into the language, though with some ironic overtones.

The price of this omnipotence? Just $100 in kit form (perfect for those handy with a soldiering iron) and $150 fully assembled, about one fifth of the price of other home computers.

This then was the boom of the home computing craze. The ZX80 (named after the year the computer appeared) sold around 50,000 units and the ZX81, which replaced it, sold over 1.5 million units.

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There was a waiting list several months long and as demand outstripped supply; Sinclair’s ZX81s with its 1K memory were selling at two to three times the retail cost in periodicals that specialized in selling by mail order.

The machine was especially popular in the United States, sold under license by Timex, who manufactured all the ZX series for Sinclair..

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Of course everyone over the age of 40 will point out that the average 2GB laptop of today has around 2,000,000 times more memory than that offered by Sir Clive’s machines, which tipped the scales at a mere 1 KB of memory. However, it was there and available when society wanted to get hands-on experience with computing technology and for that, the ZX81 was timely and well-designed.

Sinclair is keen to emphasise that computing ability is not everything; you have to judge the Sinclair micros in the context of the time it appeared.

CS:
“Our machines were lean and efficient. The sad thing is that today’s computers totally abuse their memory, totally wasteful, you have to wait for the damn things to boot up, just appalling designs. Absolute mess! So dreadful it’s heartbreaking.”
RM:
“Why do you think your machines were so successful?”
CS:
“We were cheaper than anyone else in the market. The first Spectrum was hell of a good price. The price was crucial. It made it all happen, and dramatically boosted our sales.”

Sinclair adds that one of the more, important aspects of his computers was that they were adaptable, easy to programme, and allowed the users to understand the technology and think about its implications. It was a time when games such as Atic Atac, Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner were responsible for a large slice of our culture. By contrast, though there were plenty of games around for it, the ZX series was all about coding, improvising and tinkering. It was an educational tool.

Clive Sinclair had already introduced calculators and digital watches, but it was the little keyboard in a box that caught the public’s imagination.

RM:
“Did the ZX series and the later Spectrum (the first colour computer) make you richer rather than the calculators and digital watches than had gone before?”
CS:
“Oh my lord, yes; Oh goodness, yes. I’m speaking very much from memory but within a short space of time, within two or three years we made $18m profit in a year.”
RM:
“What led you to change your product range to compete in the microcomputer market?”
CS:
“I think part of my motivation of personal computing was the thought that if you could get computer power into the hands of a lot of people, it could provide some counterweight to corporate power. Never in my wildest dreams could I have predicted the evolution of the Internet and I would never have predicted the degree to which corporates have changed the Internet’s character over time.”

His favourite version of the Sinclair models was the Spectrum ZX81, mostly because of the achievement of the motherboard using just four chips: Quite a feat of engineering.

RM:
“Yes, it was a very exciting achievement. It was a very popular computer until very recently. It was extremely popular in Eastern Europe and Russia because it was easy to programme.

Everything was so much simpler back then, there was very little complexity. I feel we have lost so many programming skills until recently.

With that machine, we had several routines you could be doing within minutes. People could tap in a few keys and make the display do some strange things. All very exploratory.

We had a small printer, and there was someone right at the start, who came out with the program that generated hypothetical dinosaurs. It invented their names, and printed out their pictures, and it could go on doing this indefinitely. Then very soon a huge number of video games came out and the whole thing just mushroomed.”

RM:
“How then did things go wrong implode? When did other companies begin to catch up and carve up the market between them?”
CS:
“I don’t think they did catch up, actually. We never had any serious competition in the sense of making machines that were cost-effective by comparison.

The BBC’s Acorn machine was quite expensive, and only succeeded because the BBC put its name to it, which was quite outrageous for a public broadcaster.

Then the IBM machine took over the market. Not because it was a good machine, it was a completely appalling design, but it was IBM, so the name mattered, you know.”

RM:
“Do you think programming languages are getting better, is it much easier now to writing the sort of programs people were trying to write around 30 years ago?”
CS:
(Sinclair muses for a while before answering) “I think our ambitions have grown tremendously so I think programming is probably a more difficult activity than it was 30 years ago.

We have people who are just as clever as people were three decades ago but the real difference is that it is not possible to understand everything that goes on anymore.

Or even to think you can understand it. The programmers of today are up against a much more difficult environment, still exercising the same amounts of ingenuity but in an environment that is harder to understand. We try to make more elaborate languages to help them deal with the uncertainty of those particular environments.”

Like many people in technology including Don Knuth, Sir Clive does not email because someone does it for him.

In Knuth’s case, his mind is purely on the task in hand. In Sir Clive’s case he rather disarmingly says he does not email out of sheer laziness and prefers to communicate by phone.

Sir Clive’s laziness towards email has not extended to his determination to continue with business. Recently he crowdfunded an updated ZX Spectrum which reached its $140,000 target within a matter of days. It comes pre-loaded with 1000 licensed Spectrum computer games.

Retro Computers, a business based in Luton, and part owned by Sinclair, is behind the project.

Sinclair’s intellectual property meanwhile is owned by a company linked to the Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch. He in turn grabbed the rights from Lord Alan Sugar’s Amstrad. Quite an irony, that.

Fresh from the fundraising for the 21st Century ZX Spectrum, Sir Clive has put his considerable goodwill and charm, not to say genius behind the A -Bike (named because of its A-frame) which has the claim of the world’s lightest, safest and most compact electric bike. 

In essence, it is an upgrade of a prototype launched ten years ago. Thus the wheel (if you pardon the pun) has come full circle. Perhaps it is outlandish to describe Sir Clive Sinclair as messianic. He has had his fair share of successes and failures. This is a man who has spent an entire career making headlines, and once forced the technology industry to come to his doorstep.

He does not quite have the same allure as Alan Turing but who knows? One day, perhaps,  the culmination of everything he has done and achieved might one day be portrayed  in cinemas in all the places where his computers still find a fan base. That will be his greatest creation.

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