back to article Sinclair’s 1984 big shot at business: The QL is 30 years old

In May 1983, Sinclair Research Managing Director Nigel Searle began briefing the press about the successful British micro maker’s next big release. It was 13 months after the company had launched the Spectrum and although that machine had become a huge success, punters and market-watchers were keen to hear about what Sinclair …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Dick Pountain


    My favourite memory of the QL was that when our review machine arrived some of the key caps had fallen off in the box, making it a bit like a game of Scrabble.

    1. Ancientbr IT

      Re: Scrabble

      I read the article and expected to see that quirk reported - I recall the early units didn't have the keycaps glued in place to save time and money, so one cruel trick was to take a new owner's machine and turn it upside down to hear the gasps of horror :)

      (And at the risk of being OTT, all hail Dick Pountain and PCW's Calculator Corner :) Remembered with much fondness.)

    2. tony

      Re: Scrabble

      That was the fun you could have WHSmiths.

      That was before they became a purveyor of fine carpets.

  2. Elmer Phud

    It bodes - ooh, it bodes

    According to someone I know who was writing a book on the QL, it was a bit of a sow's ear.

    One pointer to future problems was that the QL had a 12 semi-tone octave.

    I also remember the OPD and the BT All in One (or whatever it was called by whichever name the phone peope were using at the time).

    1. Will Godfrey Silver badge


      How many semitones do you think are in an octave?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I was given one in the late 1990s. Worked perfectly.

    But the article just shows how bad British engineering can be. Acorn seemed to be the more quality UK computer company.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Obsession with cost engineering

      The typical British engineering problem has always been about trying to make things too cheap, because we don't have the sales people that can get a fair price for the product.

      Arnold Weinstock famously sank the British television industry by (a) trying to stay all valve when the Japanese were already using transistors in the low voltage circuits and (b) trying to reduce the number of valves. There comes a point where cost reduction simply makes things perform worse or be less reliable, both of which hit sales.

      Other examples are Triumph Motorcycles, which kept trying to increase power output to compete with the Japanese while not strengthening the bottom end (I remember a conversation with Harry Weslake late one night in which he admitted that his 4-valve head was a step too far for the Bonneville; I had the impression that he hoped its popularity would provoke Triumph into fixing the bottom end, but no such luck), and of course the unlamented British car industry.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Obsession with cost engineering

        sales people that can get a fair price for the product

        Sorry, fair prices don't exist.

        The above means either that there are simply no customers for that particular product (demand is filled by cheaper products that are good enough) or that one cannot compete with other providers because the production costs are simply too high (demand is filled by equally good or even better products that are cheaper).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Obsession with cost engineering

          You are assuming free markets with perfect information, which don't exist. In fact, if your post was correct nobody would need more than GCSE Economics in order to understand the business of making and selling consumer products.

          In the real world, products sell on brand image and perceived quality and reliability as well as performance and value for money. As a result, Apple is able to achieve a higher gross margin than others on its iPhone, while BlackBerry and HTC seem to be making a loss on every phone sold. BMW is able to get very high prices for its Mini range, even though reviews consistently suggest that they are not better than the competition. To put it another way, the price and sales of consumer goods are affected by a range of nontechnical factors, including emotion and confusion (e.g. nostalgia for the old Leyland Mini, which is a completely unrelated product to the one made by BMW).

          Sinclair presumably believed that he had to achieve a certain selling price to make sales. If the achievement of that selling price meant a product with inferior performance, that wasn't a viable business plan. Competent marketing and sales people create a climate in which people will buy at a price which ensures a reasonable level of profit, taking into account the necessary costs of production to ensure a satisfactory level of performance and reliability.

          The time to cost reduce a product is often once its market success is assured, since it is possible to see the tradeoffs based on customer and vendor feedback.

          I didn't mention that one of the factors in excessive cost reduction is the traditional unwillingness of British banks and shareholders to take on any risk in new product development, but this of course is a factor in preventing an orderly design and development cycle. Which is why we as a country continue to struggle in industries that don't attract inward investment, and why the biggest British car manufacturers are now Honda and Nissan.

          1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

            Re: Obsession with cost engineering

            You are assuming free markets with perfect information, which don't exist.

            I assume no such thing. Well, okay, I assume somewhat free markets otherwise the plan is to buddy up to some politician for some protectionism, quotas, regulations or creation of a "free trade 'zone'". But for that you need to be a big fish.

            All of what you say is included in the statement "there is no such thing as a fair price"; you have to find the market and the correct price for that market (or the market has to find you). Yes, taking risks is part of the package.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Obsession with cost engineering

              The concept of a fair price is one that makes an adequate return on effort for the vendor while leaving the buyer happy with the purchase. It's a convenient shorthand for a lot of underwater paddling, and I think to say it doesn't exist is quibbling. "You have to find the market" - well, if it's a really new product you may have to create the market. And in any case you often have to tell the market what you think is a fair price for your product - by making an offer.

              Sinclair always tried to make offers of very cheap products, thinking this would create a mass market. Apple demonstrated, rather neatly, that if you want to make leading edge electronic products it's probably better to start off aiming at people with more money.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Obsession with cost engineering

            Replying to my own post to correct an error - I should also have mentioned the now successful Land Rover Jaguar company, which is Indian owned.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Obsession with cost engineering

              Also succesful and foreign owned: Toyota, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Rover Cowley (the Mini factory), etc.

              In many cases the companies in question have the same workforce as when they were UK owned.

              They simply have different owners and managers, who understand the meaning of words like "invest", "train", and "leader", rather than the usual:

              "the floggings will continue until productivity+morale improves".

              1. Vision Aforethought
                Thumb Up

                Re: Obsession with cost engineering

                Not to mention, quality control and attention to detail.

                European companies, French and Italian included, may offer innovative industrial design, but their reliability is rubbish. Glad finally to have two built like a tank Nissan's in the family. (Year 2000 Micra and 2002 X-Trail.) No rattles, everything works, engines drive like new. (Same for my former 1991 BMW that lasted 21 years, and is still on the road I believe!) BMW get quality too. It's in their DNA.

          3. Vision Aforethought
            Thumb Up

            Spot on!

            BTW, I was involved externally in the design concepts for the One Per Desk, about to contact the author of this article. Started with me winning a competition in August 1982 to predict/conceive ideas for the - ZX-82! My prize was a Spectrum from Sir Clive himself. Scanning in all my correspondence and drawings right now, most from 1983.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Obsession with cost engineering

        You are correct about the Bonnie but by contrast the Trident/Rocket-3 had a rock solid bottom end.

        My T160 has been brilliant. 650cc Bonnies likewise as my 68 T120 has more than 300,000 miles on the clock using the same big-end and mains.

        As for Sinclair, I worked for them for a time in the early ZX days. The only design mantra was 'one less chip today'. Sinclair was made in the GEC/Weinstock mould as far as cost reduction went.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Obsession with cost engineering

          Fair comment. (I wanted a Trident but I'm simply physically too small to manage one safely). The 650 Bonneville in standard trim was adequately engineered, so long as you didn't get one with defective cylinder castings. But it was, as I noted, trying to increase power to keep up with the Japanese, that was a step too far for the design.

          The Bandit, now...not enough money in the kitty to finish it off and get it out the door, and the banks didn't want to know. It wasn't just the miners and the unions that sabotaged UK PLC, but the money people who were convinced that anything made in Britain was doomed to failure.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Obsession with cost engineering

            Spot on. That is why Triump is better off in the hands of John Bloor than at the whims of the stock markets.

            I ride a Tiger 1050 almost every day. Great bike, lots of fun and made in Hinckley. Anyone who doubts that we can take on the Japanese at Motorcycle manufacture should take a trip around the factory.

            BTW, the old bonnie Cylinder castings issue could be solved with a simple re-lining.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Obsession with cost engineering

        True, plus the obsession with getting the initial price to be good instead of having a high cost for early adopters and then reducing it as the product takes off.

        The cheapness of Sinclair meant popularity but also meant later on that they didn't have a quality premium product as people wanted more from their computer.

      4. Jim 59

        Re: Obsession with cost engineering

        Good point but as I recall Japanese TVs were cheaper than British models, not more expensive.

        One thing the Japanese did have was good management and good worker relations.

        1. Robert Baker

          "One thing the Japanese did have was good management and good worker relations"

          That's two things. :-)

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    They sank it, surely a design decision which even Dr (failed) Flawed, of Flawed Consulting Inc., the inventor of the mine detector which consisted of a metal plate that bounced up and down on the ground in front of the operator, would have surely rejected. What was it about the British computer industry and its obsession with not using 90mm floppies like everybody else?

    Other than that it was a useful little machine. I was able to port an industrial application that ran on a Thomson VME based system costing around £10k, to the QL, which turned a very expensive bit of test and measurement equipment into a comparatively cheap one - till the tape gave out.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Microdrives

      Clive was interested in Microdrives as then, as now, tape was cheap.

      When all the problems were finally ironed out, Microdrives were a decent tape based storage system. Indeed people are recovering data off of them 30 years later!

      By the time Sinclair actually had them working properly they were totally discredited and nobody would touch them.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Microdrives

        Partly it was Sinclair NIH and need to show that they were innovating .

        But a big problem for Sinclair seems to have been negotiating parts, a normal manufacturer assumes that the price he is quoted for a one-off unit now will drop over the year it takes to design the machine and then will fall with ordering bulk.

        Sinclair always seems to have taken the cost of a component and decided it would be cheaper to design their own alternative.

      2. Shonko Kid

        "people are recovering data off of them 30 years later!"

        True, microdrive cartridges did tend to fall into two categories, those that would last about a week of usage, and those that would see out the heat death of the universe. The problem was that if you bought a box of ten of them, you'd likely only get one that was in the latter category, and it wouldn't be the one that you'd saved that important file on!

    2. Chika

      Re: Microdrives

      "What was it about the British computer industry and its obsession with not using 90mm floppies like everybody else?"

      As I recall it, the problem back then was that not everybody did use those 3.5" jobbies, mostly because more than one company was trying to come up with something to replace the last truly floppy floppy, the 5.25". Indeed Amstrad's all-in-one unit mentioned in the article used the 3" alternative and don't get me started on the various addons you could get for the BBC Micro at the time! All Uncle Clive was trying to do is what he always tried to do - invent stuff that could, given a chance, corner the market.

      As we all know, however, he didn't in this case. The "microfloppy" eventually became the "microdrive", an endless loop that didn't really cut it, whether you were a QL user with built in drives or one of the few that added them to your Speccy. Someone tried a similar approach on the Beeb with a drive known as the "Floopy", though I never heard of anyone actually using one in anger.

      But then hindsight is always 20/20.

  5. Anthony Hegedus Silver badge

    I had a QL and I seem to remember getting one of the JS ROM versions, which was the least buggy of the lot. Oddly, I never really had trouble with the microdrives, but I managed to purchase (out of my own money - I was just 16) a floppy drive. This was fantastic. For just £40 more I purchased 10 floppy disks and had a storage capacity of 10MB! This was amazing, it was like, the capacity of a WINCHESTER but for a fraction of the price, and only the slight inconvenience of having to change disks. Still, I managed to keep the thing going till I started university and I used it to do coursework in the first year or two. I had a Centronics GLP ("Great little printer") that could actually print on A4 sheets!

    At one point I had purchased a multitasking programming language called QBasic or something - can't remember - but it did allow for inter-process communication. I also had a mouse, which was useless, as it only worked with one specific and rather bad "paint" program.

    I also did various bits of coursework in Pascal using a compiler I'd bought and it overall a bloody useful tool. In those days we put up with buggy software, unfinished hardware and lies from manufacturers. It was just part of what you'd expect from home computers at the time. Especially sinclair. Compared to today, when software "just works", it was a different world...

  6. dajames

    The dongle ...

    I met Tony Tebby sometime early in 1985, and he led me to believe then that the reason for the dongle was a cock-up at Sinclair. He told me that he'd ben asked whether QDOS was ready for manufacturing and had said that it was, but later discovered that someone had sent a set of EPROMs that contained an old, incomplete, version as masters for ROM production.

    Having a new set of ROMs made would have delayed the release, so the "dongle" mechanism was used to replace the ROM code with sufficiently working code to get the thing to market.

    My QL is languishing in the attic somewhere (with a dead keyboard) but by chance I have the dongle here (I was supposed to return it when I returned the QL to have its ROMs upgraded, but I "forgot") ... it contains a single 27128 (128kbit) EPROM so it can't have replaced the whole ROM image.

    Beer for the whole QL team because, for the money, it was a fantastic piece of kit at the time (even the microdrives weren't the total disaster I expected).

  7. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    An rousing story of unbridled capitalism!

    ...but 30 years already? This is bad.

    Did anyone ever find any documentation about that machine in real life in continental Yurop?

  8. Bladeforce

    OOOhhh maaan!

    Pascal, Logo and Assembly rocked on this machine!

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sugar made people redundant?

    I'm not sure it was Amstrad making people redundant. They purchased the name, the rights to all the computer products + intellectual property and all the existing stock including parts already in the manufacturing chain.

    I believe they did take on some ex-Sinclair staff but they were not obligated to. It would have been Sinclair making people redundant after the banks forced Clive to sell or else.

    It was pretty much the only avenue open. What would Amstrad do if they purchased Sinclair wholesale? The company was a basket case. Why buy it when Amstrad already had an engineering department, designers and were producing computers far more profitably than Sinclair could. What Sugar wanted was the products and the intellectual rights and that's what he got.

    The book "Alan Sugar: The Amstrad Story" details all of this including the negotiations. Sugar was adamant that he did not want the company wholesale and negotiated hard to get his way. The fact that he was the only offer on the table by the end speaks volumes about the appeal of Sinclair as a company by that stage.

  10. Gary F

    Nice article, thanks Reg

    I enjoyed reading this because I remember all the fuss in the press in the early 80's. I was very happy to stick to my Spectrum although the microdrives sounded very impressive, mostly down to the marketing hype I guess.

    This story is one of the many examples of amazing British ingenuity of the time. We seem to have had the imagination and geniuses to do the work but are let down by the business end of it - finances, cutting corners and unrealistic deadlines.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nice article, thanks Reg

      Sinclair and others all fell foul of standardisation.

      It got to the stage where people wanted standard floppy drives and to use standard printers.

      1. Ivan Headache

        Re: Nice article, thanks Reg

        "It got to the stage where people wanted standard floppy drives and to use standard printers."

        WhenI eventually retired mine (it's in the loft staring at me when i go in there) it had twin 3.5 inch floppies and was on its second 'standard' printer. The first was the universally popular Citizen LSP10. Evenually I got sick of the noise and replaced it with an Epson Laser that cost me about £700 (possibly more). Both of them connected with a 'standard' serial to Centronics (bought for about £29 at MicroAnvica's first shop in TCR.)

        I'm another one who didn't have problems with microdives - but as soon as the floppies came along the MDs were never used again.

        That machine earned me quite a lot of dosh at the time. Th Psion suite along with Tony Tebby's QJump OS made it a terrific machine to use.

  11. Xxeno

    Had a QL and was using it until I got my first PC in 1992. The microdrives never really let me down. The spreadsheet application was brilliant for its time and I ran the Sgts Mess accounts with it for a few years along with the 200 Pound Citizen 120D 8pin printer! Ah fond memories. Think I still have it in the loft, maybe it will be worth something soon.

  12. paulc

    I Must have been lucky

    never had any problems with either of the microdrives on the QL I have (still works even now :) )... the software was good and the DOS versions worked well as well... did a very serious database using the database app on DOS to keep track of trade stands (and their payments) for the air show at the RAF base (Leeming) I was working at back then...

    oh PS, I even took the trouble to key in the extensions that Linus coded up for the QL... his additions were very usefull :)

  13. Captain Queeg

    All our yesterdays :-)

    To complete the journey down memory lane/amnesiac's avenue.

  14. Mike Flugennock

    Xerox PARC inspires Gates to create Windows?

    "...There he’d encountered a Xerox Star, the colossally expensive workstation that introduced the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointer) user interface and which - unknown to him at the time - inspired Steve Jobs and Apple to build the Lisa then the Mac, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates to start work on Windows..."

    If that's his story and he's sticking to it, fine.

    Still, saying that Xerox PARC inspired Gates to create Windows is a little like saying that Ed Wood was inspired to make Plan 9 From Outer Space after seeing War Of The Worlds.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All to depressingly reminiscent ...

    of working for Clive.

    Every sane choice overruled by a man who thought that the only reason you couldn't to for 5p what everyone else was doing fore £1 was a lack of 'creative imagination'.

    The shame of seeing stuff advertised that you knew didn't work, and the fear that one day the law would catch up with the money already banked on products that never ever could work..

    Worst year of my life, probably.

    1. keithpeter Silver badge

      Re: All to depressingly reminiscent ...

      "Worst year of my life, probably."

      AC 15:32

      Yes, reading between the lines, the 'development process' does seem somewhat chaotic. Has anyone done a book about Sinclair and his business approach?

      The Amstrad green screen PCW if that was the one with the green screen and double disk drives that were a bit different to normal floppies, was the first small computer I used seriously. Supercalc(?) and the word processor proggy got me a long way, and it was *reliable*.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: All to depressingly reminiscent ...

        Sinclair and the "Sunrise" Technology: The Deconstruction of a Myth, Adamson Richard Kennedy

        Describes the business approach (good and bad) and the downfall of SInclair research

      2. Chika

        Re: All to depressingly reminiscent ...

        All I remember back then was the insistence in adverts for the ZX80 and the ZX81 (I forget if they did the same for the Speccy but I wouldn't be surprised) about how many ICs the machines had. (ICs. Now that really dates me!)

        So yes, I can certainly believe that!

  16. This post has been deleted by its author

  17. eurobloke

    There is one big leguacy with the QL...

    It was the QL that a certain Swedish-speaking Finn from Helsinki was inspire to better an operating system.

    Tux, you get my drift.

    1. /dev/null

      Re: There is one big leguacy with the QL...

      Actually, Linus was a Minix hacker for a few years in between his QL tinkering and starting Linux. Hence early Linux's obvious influences and dependencies on Minix.

    2. Jeremy Allison

      Re: There is one big leguacy with the QL...

      Yep. Here's Linus telling me about his QL whilst we were hanging out at Sao Paulo Zoo (great Zoo by the way :-). For some strange reason this wasn't a popular video :-). I was also a QL fan :-).

  18. Chas

    Ah, the QL—fond memories!

    I got a QL when Dixons started knocking them out for £199 and I loved it. For the time it was a great machine and I almost never had problems with the Microdrives. I remember I got an expansion board (can't remember what it was called) that bunged another 512K of RAM into it. After my ZX-81 and Vic-20, this was my first "serious" computer.

    Psion's app suite was pretty damn good—I loved Quill— and all in all, I got two years of good use out of it before I moved onto the Atari ST. I wish I still had it: I've gone all nostalgic now (sniff, sniff).

    It was flawed but it had heart.

    1. Captain Queeg

      Re: Ah, the QL—fond memories!

      It's very very we'll emulated on Windows and OSX.

      I boot an MG machine up more regularly than I should :-)

    2. RubberJohnny

      Re: Ah, the QL—fond memories!

      Thank you. I also had one, but it always worked perfectly, and reading this article I was wondering how I ever afforded it. I was beginning to think I imagined it, but thanks to you Chas I know I'm not going mad. Yet.

  19. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Keep in mind these are PLA's, *not* ASICs

    (ULA is specifically Ferranti) The sort of thing you laid out by marking connections between the transistors in the array.

    Almost impossible to imagine now.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Very nearly bought one

    Thankfully I was put off by lack of availability before the bad quality QL stories started appearing in the technical press. Ended up buying a 64K Einstein with single floppy and 40 column display, later expanded with add ons to double floppy and 80 col display. Worked well for a few years until I could afford a 386 PC compatible and modem.

  21. jason 7

    I remember....

    Just before Xmas 84? I remember Your Sinclair had a pullout section devoted to the QL. I think it's on the internet somewhere on a QL fan site. Anyway I can remember thinking it looked cool and being 13 wanting new computers with 'moar ports' was compelling.

    My ambition was to have a computer setup that would allow me to 'hack into and rule the world'. Isn't it great when your imagination outstrips your actual talent! Not to mention your piggy bank.

    I think I mentioned to my Dad at the time that the credit card companies were letting customers pre-order the QL without adding it to their monthly credit limits (I guess back then £500 was a high limit). Suffice to say he just shrugged like Dads do, said "Oh really!" and the matter was never taken further.

    Looking back I think I dodged a bullet. I wasn't even tempted when two or three years later Dixons were selling them off for next to nothing.

    The next computer was a 128K Spectrum+2 (Amstrad Style) and then about a year or two later a 512K Apple Mac (with external floppy too for dual drive). Now I had a computer suitable for taking on the world but aged 17, the finances still didn't allow it. Macs were still damn expensive to run back then.

    Suffice to say it was my last Apple PC.

    If my 13 year old self could see the gear I have around my flat now, he'd explode.

  22. ThomH

    Can we expect a Sam Coupé article in five years?

    I can't be the only person to have had one of those?

    Also, as a niggle: I'd argue that the 68008 is either 8 bit or 32 bit as it's an 8-bit bus with a 32-bit instruction set architecture. Which I guess means it's an 8 bit machine in context, given that the hardware engineering seems to have been the primary goal of the project, Sinclair being a company that made money through selling hardware.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Can we expect a Sam Coupé article in five years?

      Just you and 11,999 others. They fetch a pretty penny today if you still have yours due to the rareity.

      To put that in perspective, even the QL is said to have shifted 150,000 units.

      And to further put that in perspective, 1.5 million BBC Micro's, 3 million Amstrad CPC's, 7 million Sinclair Spectrum's and 15 million Commodore 64's.

    2. plasticuser

      Re: Can we expect a Sam Coupé article in five years?

      Heh. I worked at Sandy UK while Alan Miles and Bruce Gordon of MGT designed the Sam Coupe on the workbench right next to mine. I have fond memories of that time. The first ever Spectrum software to run on the prototype was a helicopter gunship game I loaned them.

      Meanwhile, I was busy building SuperQBoards and expanderams and dual floppy drives.

    3. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Can we expect a Sam Coupé article in five years?

      The main problem with those was the video memory was so big compared to the woefully underpowered near-Spectrum speed CPU that anything that wasn't in Mode 4 (Spectrum compatible mode) scrolled up the screen like treacle and thus made it useless for games compared to the 16-bit machines around at the time. On a good day it could probably take on a C64, released several years earlier.

      The Sam also had a hastily finished Basic/'OS' that was later improved upon by Roms or booting from disc.

      How the hell do I manage to remember stuff like this?

  23. Lars Silver badge

    Killed by Santa Claus

    How come each time you read about companies in the west producing computers or cell phones or similar. There is always something about "for Christmas" or "too late for Christmas". Are we not like the pig who asks another pig if he believes in life after Christmas. I suppose the pig is more European than American. Anyway, there we have this company employing talented people but forced by Santa to deliver, and fail in every possible way, in fear there is no life after Christmas. I have a feeling the US car industry failed for similar reasons, there had to be a new look for every Santa every year.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Killed by Santa Claus

      Christmas is THE retail market of the year and nothing in the rest of the year comes close.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    8 too many

    68000 = great processor; one of the best ever.

    68008 = total dog of a crippleware part.

    That was the turning point for the design and it never had a chance after that decision.

    1. P. Lee

      Re: 8 too many

      I don't know about the reality of it, but when I found out it had an 8bit bus, it rather negated all the nice "32bit" promotion that was going on at the time.

      Almost bought one... went with an second hand Apple ][+ instead.

  25. elbow

    Thanks for the QL history

    Had a QL back in the day. Did lots of code - bought from Tony Tebby all the system level docs (I remember the QJump name, but never did know till now how he was connected - thought he'd one the OS as a contract). I did the Binkleyterm port to get QL onto Fidonet. Did an HP terminal emulator. Microdrives were AWFUL but with a floppy interface it was not a bad machine. You could see the cultture clash between Tony's great software and the awful Sinclair hardware!

  26. RWAP

    30 Years Old and Still Inspiring

    Well, the QL may be 30 years old and have a somewhat chequered history.

    I recently resurrected one of the earliest models and reverted it to using the Dongle version of the ROM. It's microdrive units were actually amongst the best I have seen - formatting cartridges at around 230 sectors (close to the physical limit of 255 sectors).

    The QL is still strongly supported with new hardware, such as the QL-SD Interface - the first production model of which has been released to coincide with the 30th Anniversary and can be found on

    There were some classic games converted to the QL, and highly innovative hardware, such as the Super Gold Card, which provided the original QL with 4MB RAM, a 68020 processor and ability to use 4MB ED floppy disk drives (formatted 3.2MB capacity). That, coupled with Tony Tebby's last version of the QL operating system (SMSQ/e) has kept the QL as a fast multi-tasking enthusiasts machine capable of so much more than the original design and early reviewers would ever have dreamt about.

    1. Ivan Headache

      4MB ED

      If there's anyone out there who can print me out a bunch of Archive and Quill files from 4MB ED floppies.

      d love to hear from them.

      1. RWAP

        Re: 4MB ED

        Yes sure - contact me via - I have a Super Gold Card and ED disk drives - so can convert the files and print out or email them back to you.

        By the way - I am trying to collect as much QL commercial software as possible to preserve it - there are quite a few missing titles - see the QL Wiki on

  27. NigelSearle

    Congratulations on a thoroughly-researched article. Whatever mistakes management at Sinclair made, the technical talent that the company recruited was world class.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Delivery cost

    £7.95 for delivery?

    Would cost about the same today.

  29. Ian 55

    Psion - "an arrogant bunch of tossers"

    Possibly, but as Psion showed with their hardware and its software, they had a lot to be arrogant about.

    The Series3a, 3c and 3mx are three of the finest bits of hardware and software I've ever owned.

    1. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

      Re: Psion - "an arrogant bunch of tossers"

      I chortled to myself when I saw that quote attributed to Alan Sugar. Sweet irony.

  30. Himalayaman

    I loved my QL... one of the first things I wrote for it was a cross assembler to facilitate programming on my Speccy :)

  31. himoverthere

    <enter text here>

    I have fond memories of the QL, I went through a few of them having been introduced to them by my grandfather. He had a stack of 5 or 6 of them and was forever getting upgrades to them Goldcards etc.

    This is what got me interested in computing when I was a child in the 80's

    I remember the little microdrives, loading Psion's suite, and getting the game programming book and typing out lines of code to run tiny little games.

    I probably still have a stack of microdrives and the odd QL sitting in the attic (possibly with the old Commadore 16 + 4 which we also had)

  32. Admiral Grace Hopper

    Excellent article, thank you.

    I look forward the the piece about the OPD. ICL had some excellent technology - CAFS, a superb SSD storage system back in 1990, VME (still the best OS for its purpose I ever used) - but OPD was one the bravest, wildest bits of What-The-Fuckery I ever saw.

    Another side note: whenever I have an anxiety dream I always seem to walk into a data hall with walls painted ICL orange. Some things run deep.

    1. John Hughes

      "Another side note: whenever I have an anxiety dream I always seem to walk into a data hall with walls painted ICL orange. Some things run deep."


      ITYM "Hot Tango"

      Personaly I was always an "Aztec Blue" fan.

  33. vanpeebles


    This seems like only half the story for me. The QL failed as a business machine but it found a much loved home as a hobbyist and enthusiasts computer, spawning a large cottage industry.

    QUANTA the QL user group is still running after 30 years not to mention all the individuals who still make hardware and software for it today.

  34. Fihart

    Those who knew Sinclair avoided QL

    Familiar with Sinclair's earlier audio products -- optimistic power output claims and some reliability questions -- I wasn't about to risk my money on the QL, however cheap.

    As a writer, the clincher was the flattish keyboard which was a non-starter for any real work of my sort.

    The Apricot, with a reasonable keyboard, MS DOS and 3.5 inch disks was clearly a more serious product and ran reliably for six or seven years.

    1. Toxteth O'Gravy

      Re: Those who knew Sinclair avoided QL

      > Flattish keyboard

      Yet, ironically, that's what we're all typing on these days, whether on laptops or (glances around the office) desktops.

      In this sense the QL really was ahead of its time.

      1. Fihart

        Re: Those who knew Sinclair avoided QL

        @Toxteth O'Gravy

        Sadly, I have to agree with you. At least my desktop computer can still use an IBM classic (clicky) keyboard. But, yes, most laptops are woeful by comparison. As for trying to write on a tablet or smartphone -- er !!!

        It has to be said though that Sinclair's efforts at keyboards were particularly abysmal -- even the Commodore PET and BBC/Acorn models had something you could type on.

  35. Magnus_Pym

    Same story different ending

    It seems to me a lot of the tech industry has the same story. Interesting tech, bodged, buggy and released too early, doesn't quite work properly. The difference is they either 'catch' i.e. a compelling bit of software forces sales and a market is created or they don't. Apple had the spreadsheet, Microsoft had the IBM pc, There is always something. All these things need a bit of luck, a bit of tech co-incidence, a bit of serendipity. Sinclair was inventive and got lucky quite a few times but it was bound to run out in the end. He was his own worst enemy.

  36. Keith 12

    Good Article

    Well researched, well written and fascinating article - Thank You.

  37. Joe Harrison

    whirr whirrry whirr-whirr

    I lusted impecuniously after a QL but was under no illusions about the microdrives as I had plenty of opportunity to play with OPDs at work. The moment there was a QL overnight price drop from 400 to 200 pounds that was it and I rushed out to Dixons to get one.

    Not-so-fond memories of trying to load a huge planetary orbit calculator from microdrive though :( I agree those devices were what finally pushed the perception of the QL onto the wrong side of the usability line.

  38. J.G.Harston Silver badge


    The biggest problem with the Microdrives was that they created not so much a walled garden, but a bricked-over garden, isolating any data produced on a Sinclair machine from the rest of the entire universe. With any form of disk system you can transfer data to other systems by writing code to suck the data off the disks. The first thing I did when I got a BBC B was connect my Spectrum to it and dump over all the microdrives onto disk.

  39. /dev/null

    Great article, some interesting new stuff there, but a couple of minor errors: all QLs had the BS6312 (BT phone-plug) type sockets for the RS232 ports, except for the ones built by Samsung, which were only for export markets; and the ultimate CST Thor model was the Thor XVI which was a complete hardware redesign using an MC68000 (the Thor 20 had some kind of daughterboard on the QL motherboard for its MC68020 CPU).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Similar to the BT connectors but with the latch on the opposite edge and possibly a different keying arrangement IIRC?

      I knew of at least half a dozen ICL OPD's that had an office life of around a decade. Established users didn't want to get rid of them.

  40. GeezaGaz

    Going upmarket

    You should watch the drama 'Micro men', with Alex Armstrong simply great as Sir Clive (and Martin Freeman as Chris Curry).

    It basically puts the demise of both (Sinclair and Acorn) once great companies down to a simple thing:

    Acorn were very successful with a mid-market product in the BBC Micro; but went down market with the Electron and boom, was their undoing

    Sinclair were very successful with an entry level product 80/81/Spectrum; but went up market with the QL and boom, was their undoing

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Going upmarket

      IIRC they were both designed during the boom and in enough numbers to mortally wound them during the bust.

      Micro Men is somewhere on YouTube in 10 or so parts. Fond memories.

      1. PaulyV

        Re: Going upmarket

        All in one byte:

  41. Jim 59

    Shock realization

    Duur. It has taken me 33 years to realize "ZX80" refers to "1980", ZX81 -> 1981. I assumed it was something to do with the microprocessor.

  42. Sequin

    Microdrives were ok if you formatted them several times before you used them in anger - this stretched the tape until it settled down, and from then on they were fine.

    My wife used to work for a public utility, and they used the Psion database/Wp to store and produce stock letters for customers. To help her out I asked her to borrow the manual and she brought home a strange plastic box with a wierd spring loaded catch built in - this turned out to house the install floppies, which nobody in the offvice even knew existed. I was able to install on my early PC (Amstrad) and rewrite many of the routines and templates, gaining her many brownie points. I liked the software a lot.

  43. JimmyPage Silver badge

    68000 - 16 bit

    The QL was released when I was in my first year at Uni - doing a course which had a large element of microprocessor design. Our lecturer commented that it was a bit of sharp practice described the 68000 (lovely processor btw) as 16 bit. I still recall his comment ...

    "It's a bit like sending of five quid for a coat hanger and cigarette lighter, to receive a bent nail and a red headed match"

    He *may* have once worked for Sir Clive ....

    1. Ian 55

      Re: 68000 - 16 bit

      Sinclair was just doing what IBM were doing in describing their 8088-based computer as '16-bit'.

  44. Dan 55 Silver badge

    Spanish money for the Spectrum mentioned in the article

    The Spanish government, on seeing the home computer market take off, came up with a tax on machines with less than 64K of RAM which weren't localised in Spanish - or in other words a Spectrum tax.

    A local manufacturer helped with localising the 48K+ to get round it and later on contributed to much of the design for the 128K+ as well as manufacturing because Sinclair himself was more interested with the QL.

  45. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My claim to fame:

    I am the PM that firmware version was named after. Yay me. :)

    1. AnonymousCoward

      Re: My claim to fame:

      I recall we named many of the ROM versions using the initials of various female secretaries and PA's who worked there. 'FH' being a particular favourite of one junior engineer named in the article.

  46. Johan Bastiaansen

    Oh Sir Clive was so very clever

    So a self declared very clever man, so clever he couldn't take advice from anybody, drove his company over the cliff eh?

    Thanks God that would never happen today.

    Arrogance created incompetence and together they create disaster.

    1. Jim 59

      Re: Oh Sir Clive was so very clever

      Nonsense. Sinclair, with Nigel Searle, wrote the trig algorithms for the world's first single-chip scientific calculatror, the Sinclair scientific. Even the chip manufacturer (TI) said it was impossible. 6 years later he virtually created the UK home computer market with the ZX80 and 81. To say nothing of the Spectrum, miniature TVs and digital watches.

      As for "arrogant" and "not taking advice", these are both basic requirements for starting a business.

      A properly clever bloke, brilliant inventor, tenacious entrepreneur and deserves his knighthood (unlike most "Sirs").

      1. NigelSearle

        Re: Oh Sir Clive was so very clever

        One of Clive's many strengths was his ability to motivate people to do the impossible.

  47. bgj

    QL repairs and bits

    For 2 years in mid 80s I tried my hand at working for myself doing computer repairs. I specialised in the QL and made a sort of living. The most common issue was the keyboard membrane; I got through hundreds. One thing I did try was to produce a battery back up add-in for the RTC.

  48. paulf

    Sir Alan

    From page 1:

    "Alun (sic) Sugar, in his autobiography, calls Potter and co. “an arrogant bunch of tossers”."

    With respect, Sir Alan, Lord of Sugar, you are also an arrogant bunch of tossers.*

    *Opinion. Partly based on the unreliability of the 3" disk drive in my Spectrum +3.

  49. Furbian

    Fantastic article, loved it!

    Iwas loaned a QL a few years after it had lost most of its value and about a year before the Atari ST as widely available, so I did at least get to enjoy using it. Superbasic really was quite nice compared to what I had on my Spectrum. But those darn Microdrives, awful from beginning to end. Could write a chapter on my Spectrum Microdrive odyssey, finally ending with the Opus Discovery One 3.5" disk drive expansion box, with £6 blank floppies which were just so much more reliable.

  50. Derek Clarke

    The multiplexed serial ports

    As a keen QL owner, I suggested to the company i worked for that they would make good cheap programmable serial terminals for testing our X.25 PADs.

    So they got one in. Unfortunately every time we connected a QL to a PAD terminal port, the PAD crashed.

    We quickly worked out that the multiplexed serial ports worked by asserting hardware flow control off each time the other port was using the hardware. Unfortunately this happened at 50Hz, and our poor PADs couldn't cope with that many interrupts a second!

    Still, there's a silver lining to every cloud. When the company was taken over I was in charge of a project they canned, and so was I. However as an informal consolation they gave me the QL so now I have two :-)

This topic is closed for new posts.

Other stories you might like