back to article Sir Clive Sinclair: Personal computing pioneer missed out on being Britain's Steve Jobs

Sir Clive Sinclair, the visionary pioneer of computing for the British masses and creator of the legendary ZX Spectrum, has died at the age of 81. His legacy is the British tech scene as we know it today. Born in leafy Richmond, Surrey, at the height of the Battle of Britain in July 1940, he came to epitomise the early era of …

  1. anthonyhegedus Silver badge

    I wouldn’t have had the life I have had without an introduction to computing, at the age of 12, in the form of a Sinclair Cambridge Programmable calculator. Rest in piece uncle Clive.

    1. Ian Bush

      First computer a (home made) ZX81. 1k of memory, in practice nearer 800 bytes IIRC due to the system variables, taught you a lot about programming. Wouldn't be where I am today without it. Recquiescat in pace Clive.

      1. Not also known as SC

        I learnt to program on a ZX-81 as well. Sir Clive is responsible for where I am now too. RIP.

      2. Warm Braw

        Mine was an Acorn System 1 and I remember visiting their office while it was being finalised.

        There was a clear difference in approach between Acorn (which had close ties to the University) and Sinclair: Acorn were very much the academic purists and Sinclair was very much aiming at the consumer market.

        While Sinclair (I think rightly) gets credit for kick-starting the UK games market, Acorn morphed into ARM and I think it's interesting that Acorn's founders never quite captured the public imagination in the same way despite an arguably more enduring legacy.

        Perhaps we all need to give more consideration to our wardrobe interiors...

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Well Acorn did become the BBC Micro. And the Electron for hobbyists with littlel spare cash. So....

      3. matthewdjb

        ZX80 for me. Learned to program in it. Then a ZX81, and learned Z80.. still programming (but getting paid for it) 40 years later.

    2. anthonyhegedus Silver badge

      I did write rest in peace. Damn autocorrect

    3. Terry 6 Silver badge

      I had one of those in my first year as a teacher - in Tottenham School.

      Really useful. Till some little sod broke into my classroom and nicked it from the desk.

  2. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

    RIP Uncle Clive

    How Ironic he passed away at 81 the same model number as one of his (in)famous creations.

    RIP Uncle Clive - Here's a glass to yer & digging out a copy of Micro Men to watch.

  3. Alister

    Like many on this side of the pond, my first tentative steps into computing were with a ZX81.

    Clive, it's all your fault, you bastard.

    Rest in peace.

    1. SteveCo
      Thumb Up

      Thank you Sir Clive

      Indeed. I too wouldn't be where I am now without his product.

      I did my A level computer science project on my 48K Spectrum with an Interface-1 attached. Z80 machine code. Before A levels I had no idea what I wanted to do, but using that machine set me firmly on the computing path. 35 years later, I'm still in IT.

      RIP Sir Clive.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: Thank you Sir Clive

        Everything in my life stemmed from the little bit of Sinclair experience that got me into the first job and started my career. My life and marriage (met at work) developed around that career, I am certain I was heading in the wrong direction before that. It was because of Clive because for us at the time, nothing else was affordable. He brought the price down, that was the pivotal action. Never mind BBC micro and Commodore 64, out of my price range.

        6 Kings Parade, Cambridge. If you are ever a tourist there, you will probably look at Kings College Chapel. Turn around and look at the windows above number 6.

  4. John Savard


    My first home computer was a Timex-Sinclair 1000 (a ZX 81) as well. That was an amazing achievement, but naturally I quickly moved to something more practical, a Commodore 64, as soon as I could afford it.

    So, indeed, his focus on the lowest possible price was his downfall. Particularly with the Sinclair QL, which could have been very successful... if not for the use of the "microdrive" instead of sticking to commonly available floppy disks. (Not to mention the failed wafer-scale memory to be used instead of a hard disk.)

    Price is important, but the value for the price is what really matters. So one also has to know which corners not to cut.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cost

      Although I learnt coding at school on Apple II, the first computer I owned was a ZX81 because we couldn't afford an Apple. It was... a frustrating toy, nothing more.

      When I eventually persuaded my parents to sacrifice who knows what to get me a QL, the coding environment (Superbasic and 68000 assembler) was great for learning, but the keyboard and microdrives were so utterly, utterly bad, that I didn't use it nearly as much as I had intended and felt rather guilty about what they'd spent.

      Sinclair cut the wrong corners on every single product.

      1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

        Re: Cost

        Cheers Sir Sinclair, I have always appreciated and admired your work. Sinclair was always working at making the computers affordable - sure there were issues sometime but I learned a lot by figuring out how to get them working again. Fixing them and using them helped me find tons of jobs later in my life.

        If he had "missed out on being Britain's Steve Jobs" then maybe he would have been a billionaire and vast numbers of kids would never have learned as much. Instead of being computing engineers these days we might all just be truck drivers.

      2. Snake Silver badge

        Re: Cost cutting

        I might get flamed but savage cost cutting to the detriment of the product itself seems to be a common thread in British industry at the time, e.g. BL.

        Sometimes you just need to pay the bit extra...for the bit extra. Sometimes it is worth it.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Cost cutting

          Sometimes you have to do the best with what you can afford. There was no bit extra within reach for me in my schooldays, and it wasn’t just a bit either. Raspberry Pi picked up the baton.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Cost

      I don't know if the wafer-scale memory spin-off could be considered failed, they brought products to market. The only thing that stopped them was the price of RAM fell so much that it seems they could not find wafers cheap enough to compete.

      Anamartic Ltd.

  5. karlkarl Silver badge

    "That's why we have Apple now and why Sinclair is a footnote."

    I don't know. At least not in this house. I own both a Z81 and a Spectrum. Yet I have never given a toss about anything Apple.

    Generally the hardware lasts longer than Apple's too and is better quality in that it can be repaired easily. No glue.

    1. Woodnag


      Are you saying that Apple products contemporary to Z81 and Spectrum used glue?

  6. /dev/null

    Bye-bye Uncle Clive.

    Another one of the ZX Spectrum generation here. A ZX Spectrum 48K was my Xmas pressie in 1983, followed by an Alphacom 32 printer the following year, then a ZX Expansion System (Microdrive bundle), then a QL (after Amstrad reduced them to get rid of them). Knew of Sinclair some time before that though - my dad had previously bought an Oxford calculator (also reduced to clear, ISTR). One of the LED segments died, and when he sent it off to get fixed he got a Sinclair Enterprise as a replacement (which I still have). Three years after unboxing that Spectrum I had decided to study computer science at uni. Still not sure if that was a good move ;-)

    The Spectrum was definitely a product in the right place at the right time - just enough capability for decently playable games, and significantly cheaper than the competition.

    I suppose Clive's approach to product development could be summed up as an obsession with cutting corners, bending rules and taking unorthodox approaches (e.g the ZX Printer, Microdrives, weird keyboards, right-angled CRTs...), all to cut costs to achieve attractive price points. For instance, the serial ports on the QL are an astonishing feat of bodgery, just to avoid using conventional UARTs.

    Of course, in the fast-moving days of the 1980s, sometimes the mainstream technologies would catch up pricewise by the time Clive's alternatives hit the streets...

    1. spold Silver badge

      Re: Bye-bye Uncle Clive.

      I was messing around with circuit boards for crappy amplifiers until I got a Science of Cambridge MK14, that took things to an interesting level (despite the total crap membrane keyboard and cassette interface that never really worked, I stuck the whole thing in a box and wired microswitches to the keyboard instead... with the LED display poking out). I think it would actually be fitting if he was placed in a Sinclair C5 and it trundled into a grave, to be covered over with the flag poking out marking the spot.

      RIP - you actually made things and changed things.

  7. C.M.R...


    Elite was without doubt the best space simulator ever, probably still is. I've certainly never found anything better!

    1. Skiron

      Re: Elite

      There is clone around somewhere called Oolite - basically the same game if you are interested.

    2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: Elite

      Elite was first written for the BBC Micro. And the two things that immediately fascinated me when I first saw it was the hidden line wire frame graphics, and the split-mode display.

      I had been playing with wire frame graphics on the BEEB at the time, and I could not work out how they got the frame rate, but then I was using the OS's line drawing routines called from assembler, with some of the data pre-calculated, and I understand that David Braben and Ian Bell cheated with a very quick-and-dirty alternative line draw routine.

      The Spectrum attribute mode was probably quite suitable for Elite.

    3. TheFifth

      Re: Elite

      I dread to think how many hours I played Elite as a kid. Loved that game so much. Also played a fair few hours of Frontier and Frontier - First Encounters on the PC.

      I had an Amstrad CPC as a kid and only briefly played with a Spectrum at a friend's house. However, over Lockdown I purchased a few retro computers to tinker with, so I now have two CPCs, two ZX81s and a Spectrum 48k. I restored them all to working order and replaced the leaky caps, so they're (nearly) as good as new. I've had lots of fun playing with the Spectrum, seeing how the other half lived! We may have taken the piss out of the colour clash graphics in the playground in the 80s, but I gotta say, it's got some really good games.

      Ah those were simpler and fun times!

  8. 0x80004005 too

    I think I freaked my mum out when she heard noises at 6:00am, it was just my 7-year old self who was desperate to find out whether SIN and COS would let me PLOT a circle on my birthday present ZX81.

    We only had one telly so that was my only opportunity...

    I could probably key that program out on an emulator without reference to the single-key commands, even now. J = load, A = new etc.

    40-odd years later still nerding away; it's not a job it's just a hobby someone pays you for!

    1. ravenviz Silver badge

      Re: too

      I only had one of those portable black and white TV’s for a Spectrum a schoolfriend kindly lent to me on permanent loan, I used to sneak it onto my Mum’s *colour* portable in the kitchen and would always get told off because someone had told her that the computer would break it!

  9. Teejay

    Overpromising, underdelivering, but cool, visionary gadgets for the time

    Much of what Sinclair produced wasn't really that good. He was a visionary, he made expensive things cheap, but in the end, they simply often didn't work that well. The do-it-yourself ZX81 was a joke when compared to the Acorn Atom, but, yes, it was of course cheaper. The Spectrum was probably the best compromise. The QL was pretty useless, as was the C5. An early digital wrist watch broke when touched, due to static electricity, and had a laughable battery life. Cool? Yes, often. There was a vinyl single with a B side that had ZX81 code on it to run in parallel with the song. Ah, those days... And his parties were legendary, apparently. Rest in peace, Clive, you are a part of my life.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Overpromising, underdelivering, but cool, visionary gadgets for the time

      "The do-it-yourself ZX81 was a joke when compared to the Acorn Atom, but, yes, it was of course cheaper. "

      Odd. I never owned either of those but didn't remember the ZX81 being sold as a kit, just the ZX80. But I do remember the Acorn Atom being sold as a kit too (and the possibly apocryphal story of an Acorn Atom kit being sent back as "not working" where the customer had glued rather than soldered the components in place)

      Funny how memories can change over time, what we remember and what we forget. But then I'm nearly 60 now, and had a part time job while in 6th form by the time the ZX80 came out so could afford to spend 4-5x as much on a Video Genie instead :-)

      1. Teejay

        Re: Overpromising, underdelivering, but cool, visionary gadgets for the time

        I wasn't sure, and just checked, the ZX81 also came as a kit:

        1. Spoobistle

          Re: kits

          I can vouch for that, having built both; the ZX80 didn't work till I found the solder bridge I'd accidentally made (was more used to Veroboard then PCBs). The "cost saving" feature I recall was it being together by horrid plastic "pop rivet" things that looked like they wouldn't stand many disassembly cycles. I don't recall ever throwing them out, so they must be part of the electronic compost cluttering up the garage!

      2. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: Overpromising, underdelivering, but cool, visionary gadgets for the time

        Sinclair made junk and then had to price it unprofitably low to sell it. Apple made good stuff and could price it profitably high to sell it. One of these companies exists today.

    2. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Overpromising, underdelivering, but cool, visionary gadgets for the time

      Of course the Atom was better than the ZX81, as you might expect for more than double the price. Relative to incomes today an Acorn atom was more expensive than a MacBook Air M1.

      The ZX got the microcomputer, a programmable processing machine, within reach of many more people, and importantly children and shifted 1.5 million of them. That was the Sinclair legacy. It was the kickstart.

  10. Gene Cash Silver badge

    His legacy is the British tech scene as we know it today.

    No need to be rude to the gentleman!!

    Seriously though, I see on Wikipedia he's credited as the inventor of the pocket calculator. Is this actually true?

    A friend here at college in the US had a fully kitted out ZX-81, with the requisite duct tape keeping all the connectors from wobbling. Those were the days.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "Seriously though, I see on Wikipedia he's credited as the inventor of the pocket calculator. Is this actually true?"

      Depends how big your pockets are!

      Seriously, no, he didn't invent the pocket calculator. Jack Kirby of Texas Instruments is usually credited with inventing the first portable calculator, but it took a few years, a few iterations and new technology, such as LED displays to get something truly pocket sized. (Kirbys used a paper tape for output!!)

      I think the first pocket sized one was in Japan. But, as we see from Sinclairs other products, he was first to market with a cheap and affordable pocket calculator. Much of what he did wasn't new as such, just better and cheaper (if sometimes mechanically a bit unsound!). I don't think he laid claim to inventing the calculator, but some of the press seem to be people who don't do proper research and often credit him as the inventor. Unlike Apple, where the fanbois credit Apple with inventing anything they have success with and Apple do nothing to dispel the myths :-)

      Sinclair didn't invent new devices, everything he produced already existed in some form or other. He invented new, cheaper and better ways of creating things that were already possible by doing the impossible so the rest of us could afford to own them. Almost the polar opposite of what Apple has become :-)

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        He invented new, cheaper and better ways of creating things that were already possible by doing the impossible so the rest of us could afford to own them.

        Not really. He invented new, cheaper and worse ways of doing things, throughout his career. That scientific calculator could be 30% out in trigonometric functions ...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Sinclair was n't the first...just the first to be widely advertized in UK

      I think the first ads for the Sinclair calculator appeared in places like Practical Electronics in the summer of 1972. Very slick. Thats where I first saw them. But the HP 35 had been advertised in places like Scientific American since January 1972. The Sinclair was 80 quid. The HP was $400. But the HP was the much better calculator. For a start it did not fall apart.

      The Cambridge was the first usable Sinclair calculator. In 1973. But the Scientific one was the first one worth buying. Would have been 1975 or so. The one with the huge battery bulge on the back. Had one for a while but I swapped it for a Commodore PRG 100 in 1977 which was a much better calculator. At the time the best calculators were HP and TI. But very expensive. After that had a bunch of Casio calculators bought in the 1980's and 1990's which I still have today. In a drawer somewhere. The ones with the small solar panel strips. Pretty much indestructible.

      1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

        Re: Sinclair was n't the first...just the first to be widely advertized in UK

        I still have my Casio FX451 somewhere unless the now happily ex Mrs Oncoming Scorn disposed of it.

        Here's a pint to that great little Calculator, best pennies I ever spent on one, actually the only pennies I ever spent on a calculator.

  11. a_yank_lurker

    RIP from the other side of the pond

    I was aware of Sinclair over here though I do not remember if I ever saw one in the wild. RIP to an early pioneer of the modern PC. With people like him we would not the modern PC as we know it.

  12. VerySlowData

    The ZX 80 in its white plastic shell

    Long ago here in Oz, I recall unpacking and de-casing ZX80's (dozens of them) to replace the UHF TV modulator unit with a VHF version for Australian TV's (No UHF here back then). ISTR the keypads were always a bit iffy.

    Still, we had never seen any computing device that retailed that cheaply. My employer at the time sold a lot of them...

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: The ZX 80 in its white plastic shell

      Dick Smiths, perchance?

      1. VerySlowData

        Re: The ZX 80 in its white plastic shell

        No CMC (Julian Barson) in Melbourne. We also had an early SoC 6502 eurocard computer pre-Acorn..

  13. Danny 2

    I wanted a record player but my dad bought me a 16K Spectrum. I thought well at least I can play games but I wasn't allowed to buy any until I could read Dad a random page from the manual verbatim. It was a large manual and included maths functions we hadn't learned at school. Instead I'd "cut and paste" code from computing magazines (ie read and type). I was programming my own games before I was allowed to buy one, but I didn't understand machine code so they were rubbish. My pals had a Commodore, a Dragon and a Beeb so we couldn't even swap games. My pal rigged up his Dragon to open and close his bedroom curtains but set the room on fire, appropriately for a Dragon. He's the MD of a US blue chip now. A college professor family friend let us play with their Aix mainframe and we had fun guessing commands trial and error.

    I upgraded to 48K - my first hardware upgrade using the kitchen sink as a static ground. I wrote a text-graphic based D&D game, and fed in the entire D&D stats to help automate games. I tried and failed to write a conversation simulator to pass the Turing test, more difficult than I expected. I got a £15 book token from a magazine for a diary program, my first and last time I got paid for programming, and I should have sued Lotus Organiser later. The real money was in Yahtzee though, I wrote a small program that could beat anyone I knew and would bet on it winning. Everyone assumed they lost because my code was cheating, so they'd stop the code and audit it and find it kosher. They lost money but got a free programming lesson.

    I don't grudge Clive his indulgences, just wondering if he lost more money on the C5 or the women. A variation on the George Best quote, "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars - the rest I just squandered."

  14. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921

    While shopping for very small laptops in 2001, I saw Sir Clive Sinclair on the other side of Tottenham Court Road - smartly pinstriped and carrying a whole load of small, posh, brightly coloured laminated paper shopping bags. After giving the road a cursory check, he started swiftly crossing the road in my direction. I shouted "Sir Clive!" and waved. He peered at me with narrowed eyes, crossed the road on a trajectory leading away from me, then he was gone... You should never attempt to meet your heroes.

  15. Skiron
    Thumb Up

    The Falklands, Speccy and electronics

    Well, my story fits in well here. In 1981/82 I was due to be made redundant from Portsmouth Dockyard (now a Royal Naval Dockyard) - but fortune and the Falklands conflict changed all that - the redundancies where 'put off' as they needed all the Dockies they could get to get all the ships/boats etc. ready, and also for support during and after the conflict. Amazing heady days, the things I saw, worked on etc. Overtime went out the window, and the second week of getting the fleet really I took home over £600 (116 clock hours) - in 1982!

    Anyway, eventually I was made redundant in 1983 - I got just over £3000 for 7 years service. With some of that I bought a ZX Spectrum 48k from W.H. Smiths. I taught myself programming in BASIC and eventually Z80 assembly language - one thing I remember was knocking up Conways Game of Life and was chuffed and amazed at seeing it run in real time as opposed to the old way of graph paper, pencil and rubber.

    I also bought one of those little spark printers for it - only really useful for printing out listings. The thing used to fill up with dust from the burnt silver paper though, so one day I took it apart to clean it - WRONG. As soon as I cracked the casing open, springs and cogs and wheels went everywhere. I somehow managed to put it back together again, but as soon as I turned the Speccy on, something blew and I had bricked it (no term like that in those days). Luckily my mate was at Uni doing an electronics degree, and he came round with an oscilloscope and discovered I blew a RAM chip - but he was amazed at the way it was built. There was chips piggy backing chips, and random jump leads from pins to pins to chips and all sorts.

    Taught me a lot. I still have the books Zaks Z80 programming and The spectrum ROM disassembled. Sadly it died completely around 1988.

  16. Paul Cooper

    Sinclair was BC (Before Computing!)

    As the article mentions, Clive Sinclair was well-known in the electronics world long before the ZX80 and ZX81. He produced a whole series of radios and audio amplifiers that were very good value for money at the time. I remember the regular adverts in Practical Electronics! Famously, he discovered that a lot of reject transistors were good enough for audio use; they were being rejected as not good enough for demanding military applications. One story goes that he dug up a whole lot from landfill, and another is that his then wife spent many hours grading the reject transistors.

    We shouldn't forget that he was successful in the electronics world before he ever touched computers.

    Unlike many, I never owned a Sinclair product, but I did aspire to a ZX81 at one time! But I came into computing via another route, and my experience in programming a S100 based ZX80 single-card computer makes me take my hat off to Sir Clive and his team. Never before was so much squeezed into so little!

  17. gerryg

    Additions to the Sinclair Catalogue

    The radio smaller than a matchbox. Using a crystal earpiece.

    Project 40,60 and 80 audio amplifier kits. The 80 deserves special mention with the modularity and ability to stick the pre-amp and tuner on the front of your Garrard SP 25

    They were not great but they were cheap.

    MK14 and a hex keyboard - wrote my first machine code on that. Astonishingly cheap. Designed by the founder of Acorn apparently.

    Calculators included the Cambridge and the Executive. Both quite stylish IIRC.

    I remember a friend getting a Scientific kit for £69.95 (I think) and discovering that its RPN was both useful as it required you to think ahead and set up the whole calculation in advance and a PITA if you'd missed something out.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ah young un's...

    What an overwrought piece. Obvious written by someone too young to actually know from first hand experience what happened at the time. Or know that the history of that whole era was accurately recorded in the UK computer magazines of the time. All readily available online..

    I really liked the line "the ZX Spectrum was named for its colour output, a rarity in the mostly monochrome days of 1982" as we had been displaying very nice solar color spectrum images on a low serial number Apple II in 1977. We were not living in a 405 B&W world back in 1982. We had 625 colour for quite a while.

    And so on a so forth. If you look inside a 1980 issue of the UK micro computer mags of the day you will see that the ZX80 was met by a massive wave of indifference. Sure it was cheap but for another 100 quid you could actually get a real microcomputer. That could do things. And for 400 quid more you could get one of the proper ones. Like an Apple II or a PET. Who did not lust after an Exidy Sorcerer in 1980...

    Same goes for the following year 1981. For 100 quid more than the ZX81, you could buy a usable micro. By 1983 the Spectrum was the first Sinclair that was not just a programmable toy. A proper consumer device. But the bizarre single key keyword input method made it unusable to do real programming. Until workarounds were found. So only used to play games. Loaded from casettes. The QL was the first proper personal computer that Sinclair tried to ship and it fell flat on its face. Over promised, late, and shoddy. And that was it. Three years of mass market success glory from 1981 to 1984...

    Now what Clive was a genius at was self publicity. Absolute genius, he had no peers. He tapped into the UK mass medias insatiable appetite for the eccentric boffin type stories. A mainstay of the British press since the 1920's. Back in the 1980's we had Eccentric Scientist with German Accent, Heinz Wolf (a truly wonderful guy in real life). Then we had Loud Talking Hand Waving Nature Guy who sounded like Brian Blessed, David Bellamy (another great guy in real life). And we had Microchip Mad Inventor straight from Ealing Studios Central Casting, Clive Sinclair.

    So to those of us there at the time Clive was just this media side story that had no real impact on the longer term development of the business. It was what happened at places like Acorn, AST, Psion etc that had a long term impact. Not a lot of subsequent businesses came from the Sinclair Research alumni. Clive was always seen as a bit of a wideboy with Walter Mitty tendencies. But in his defense he was not the financial fraudster that Jack Tramial was or the criminal psychopath that Steve Jobs was. Clive was always doing his wheeler deal schemes all of which eventually failed. And along the way gave enough of his customers something useful that they gained great pleasure from.

    So on the whole, mostly harmless. And not a bad epitaph at that, all in all.

    1. juice

      Re: Ah young un's...

      > And so on a so forth. If you look inside a 1980 issue of the UK micro computer mags of the day you will see that the ZX80 was met by a massive wave of indifference. Sure it was cheap but for another 100 quid you could actually get a real microcomputer. That could do things. And for 400 quid more you could get one of the proper ones. Like an Apple II or a PET. Who did not lust after an Exidy Sorcerer in 1980...

      I'll agree with this to some degree. But it's worth noting that £100 was a lot of money back in 1980 - it's roughly equivalent to £450 in current terms, which meant that it was comfortably more than a week's wage back in the day.

      So, yeah. IT professionals and hobbyists may have turned their noses up at the distinctly primitive ZX80 and ZX81. But there were millions of people who were interested in these newfangled electronic devices, but who couldn't afford to splash out over a month's wages on one of the "proper" machines being imported from the USA.

      Especially those who were unemployed, with the UK's unemployment rate soaring up to 3 million at the time. That's a lot of people who were time-rich but cash-poor, and Sinclair's "cheap as chips" machines were a lot more affordable for them, even as the media and professionals turned their noses up at them.

      After all, it's arguably not a coincidence that many of the great software houses of the 80s came from industrial towns and cities in the north. E.g. Liverpool gave us Bug Byte and Software Projects, Manchester gave us Ocean and Sheffield gave us Gremlin Graphics...

      > Now what Clive was a genius at was self publicity. Absolute genius, he had no peers [...] And we had Microchip Mad Inventor straight from Ealing Studios Central Casting, Clive Sinclair.

      I'm not sure about that. I think Clive's main genius lay in the fact that he recognised that people would be willing to buy something which was Good Enough. E.g. his calculators may have offered 90% of the features and 80% of the performance of the equivalent machines from TI (to pick some arbitrary values), but they were also half the cost. And given the choice between spending £2000 and £1000 (in 2021 prices), many people were happy to opt for the lower-cost option. Because it was either that, or go back to pen and paper!

      It was always a risky business strategy - the high return rates of the black watch essentially bankrupted Sinclair Radionics. And therein perhaps lies Clive's main failing, in that when it became clear that demand seriously exceeded supply, his companies never really got the logistical and manufacturing side of things sorted.

      Unlike Amstrad, who seriously shook things up when they bought his IP and started to churn out the +2 and +3 models.

      > So to those of us there at the time Clive was just this media side story that had no real impact on the longer term development of the business. It was what happened at places like Acorn, AST, Psion etc that had a long term impact. Not a lot of subsequent businesses came from the Sinclair Research alumni

      I'll agree with this to a degree, but you do know that Chris Curry worked at Sinclair Radionics for 13 years before founding Acorn? And Psion used to write software for the ZX Spectrum? And the hardware team from Sinclair went on to create the Flare hardware, which ended up in the Atari Jaguar?

      Still, the "Acorn" side of the family tree undisputedly had a bigger impact on the world of hardware. But I'd argue that the Sinclair branch gave us a much bigger impact on the world of software, precisely because a much larger percentage of the population could afford to buy his cheap and shonky hardware.

      > But in his defense he was not the financial fraudster that Jack Tramial was or the criminal psychopath that Steve Jobs was. Clive was always doing his wheeler deal schemes all of which eventually failed

      For me, I think the problem is that the world moved on. Clive's "build it cheap and accept a high failure rate" approach worked well enough in the 60s and 70s, when - as with his calculators - it was basically a case of choosing Sinclair or nothing for most people.

      But as we moved into the 80s and the electronics industry started to mature, prices began to drop and an entire eco-system of systems at varying price points began to emerge.

      Which meant that it was no longer a case of Sinclair or nothing, and given his somewhat chequered reputation (in terms of both reliability and delivery timescales), people increasingly went for the options which were a bit more expensive, but far less "quirky".

      Equally, and to be fair, Clive did continue to explore interesting stuff post-Spectrum, such as wafer-scale integration. But again, this work was focused on ways to use "defective" hardware, and with Moore's law marching on and yields generally improving, it was easier and cheaper to just use mass produced components...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ah young un's...

        Yeah, I knew about Chris Curry's history before Acorn but as I said not a lot came out of the Sinclair stable whereas all the other main players of the time have spawned a very interesting family tree of companies down the decades. As for some of the other references, well I can tell you stories... What I wrote was based on what I saw first hand at the time.

        As for the cash poor excuse. I was one of those cash poor people at the time. Until I got my first "proper" job. But honestly Sinclair never once entered the equation. Until the Spectrum they were just programmable toys and by the time the Spectrum was shipped there was a very wide range of other better alternatives at about the same price point. I remember some great deals on Atari XL's in late '82. A really nice machine. But at least in the UK Sinclair had the High Street distribution whereas the others did not.

        Sinclairs were great for schoolkids who wanted a cheap way to do their homework and could not get time on the BBC Computers at school and maybe play some canned games but that was about it. If they were serious about programming they moved onto something better. There was some amazing programming ingenuity that went into the games that were shipped for the Spectrum but that was about it as a platform.

        By '84 machines like the Commodore 64 were price competitive and the QL was a flop and that was the end of Clives short run of mass consumer success. But it was fun while it lasted.

        I suppose it was because I was involved with microcomputers from the very beginning, can still recite all the 74LS TTL's chips on those early boards, and got my real start with Apple II's in 1977 that by the time the ZX80 came along I had been fully immerse in the US an UK scene for almost 5 years by that stage. So Sinclairs offering were never more than a minor sideshow. And not technically interesting either. Then near the end of Clives run I got to see it up close when I was working in the business, well, whats written above says it all.

        So Clive gave a lot of schoolkids their first taste of computing. Great for them. And for some of them it lead to a very satisfying career in tech. Even better. But honestly, Clive was never more than a great showman that sold mostly ho hum and sometimes shoddy products. But if the people who bough them were happy, as so many were, then that's all that really matters in the end. But as for being some great tech visionary titan who created the modern UK tech business, well, that's more than a stretch. In fact its more a - I dont thing so.

    2. AJ MacLeod

      Re: Ah young un's...

      So for only four times the price you could get a "real" computer... makes you wonder why so many people today slum it driving around in rubbish Fords and Kias when they might be driving Range Rovers and Astons...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ah young un's...not so much a Ford more a Lada.

        Well that begs the question, what were you doing with microcomputers in 1980?

        If you were trying to do any real programming, even for school projects, the ZX80, would not get you very far. You could pay 110 quid for a ZX80 which was a toy or for 200 quid you get the cheapest Ohio Scientific (complete) machine which although rough around the edges was a perfectly good microcomputer for doing real projects on. For an extra 50 quid you could start getting something with more heft.

        Or how about in 1982. Or rather early 1983 when the Spectrum was actually shipped. It had been announced more than 6 months before.

        The Spectrum was the first Sinclair micro shipped that was not just a toy but by the time it came out you had the VIC 20 at the same price point and bunch of pretty good machines at around 60 quid more. A quick look at issues of Practical Computing or Personal Computer World from those years will confirm this. So the Spectrum was a good introductory micro, for very casual use, but thats all. Which is why you could find them in the Argus catalogue of the time.

        Yes there is something absolutely magical about the first time you get a computer to do something. To crack the mystery. And there is something even more magical about the first time you realized you could own one of your very own. No longer a big box somewhere whose use was rationed. And as is obvious from all the other postings here it was Sinclair machines that provided so many with that first magical experience. For me that moment was with an Apple II in 1977. After seeing it in Creative Computing and Byte it was almost overwheling to sit down with one and give it a workout. And poring over the motherboard schematics, trying to work out just what Woz was doing. And finding my first bug in a MicroSoft product. In AppleSoft BASIC. Soon only used Integer BASIC, which worked.

        But to use your car analogy Sinclairs were never the Fords or Kias of the microcomputer world of the time. The ZX80 and ZX81 were little more than mobility scooters and the Spectrum turned out to be more of a Lada. It was Commodore and Atari who made the Fords Fiestas and Kias and by the time the Spectrum hit the shelves in 1983 the Toyotas (IBM) and Volkwagans (Apple) were very well established. But you get what you pay for. And Sinclairs were always very much pocket money territory. And no harm in that. But thats all they were. Nothing more.

  19. Ashto5

    Thanks Clive

    Thanks a lot

    You gave me a life long love of programming and the skills to help many companies expand and some to survive

    ZX81 is still my first love ❤️

    Everything after that has just been expensive to do what we did on the ZX81

    Thanks and switch the tape off now

  20. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

    "Sinclair's vision was to get a computer into every home in the country, a tall order in the early 1980s when computers were synonymous with room-sized beasts in academic institutions."

    I'm sure Sir Clive was great, but this is nonsense. I played around with a TRS-80 back in 1980, borrowed from a family friend. Apparently launched in 1977.

    Back in Sweden the ABC80 was very popular at the same time. It had a blazingly fast BASIC as it compiled all BASIC input, and decompiled it for listing and editing.

    Our school had a room full of them, networked to a dual massive floppy station, in about 1979.

    Everyone knew that the mainframe's time was soon up back in 1980.

    1. AIBailey

      You're right. In the very early 80's, the issue facing computing wasn't so much size as cost.

      By the time the Spectrum launched, the Atari 8-bit line had been around for 2.5 years, the TRS-80 Color Computer for 18 months, the VIC-20 for a year or so, and other too.

      All of those offered colour graphics, some quite limited, but in the case of the Atari, the palette went up to 256 colours, They also offered multiple sound channels.

      On paper, they all blew the ZX80/81 away, and should have been significant rivals to the Spectrum. Some (especially the Atari) were theoretically in a different league altogether.

      But the issue they had was cost. All of the competitors represented a massive outlay, whereas the Spectrum, whilst not exactly launching at pocket money prices, was something that could be put on a Christmas list.

      This was Clive's expertise. He never strived to make the best systems full stop, but he did know how to make a good system on a budget.

      1. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

        Cheap is good. But I couldn't afford the cheap-ish ZX80, ZX81 or Spectrum (a load of dosh actually, despite being "cheap"), as I had no income and my parents had no interest in it. Same situation for most of my peers. Luckily schools invested in computers, so we got to learn a bit on those. I think VIC20 and Commodore 64, and later the Amiga were the biggest in Sweden. The Spectrum was big too, of course, but it was more of a pure gaming computer (like a console today).

      2. Ian 55

        Mmm, the Atari 800 was built to a (stunning) spec, whereas all Sinclair's stuff was built to a price. Obviously the former was a much better machine, but it was only after a series of price cuts that I could get near to affording it.

    2. juice

      > I'm sure Sir Clive was great, but this is nonsense. I played around with a TRS-80 back in 1980, borrowed from a family friend. Apparently launched in 1977.

      It's worth bearing in mind that the view from Sweden would have been very different to the view from the UK.

      At a glance, Sweden's unemployment rate was around 2% for most of the 80s.

      Conversely, the UK (aka: the "sick man of Europe" at the time) had an unemployment rate which was rapidly rising as it entered the 1980s; it peaked at 12% in 1984.

      So fundamentally, there were far fewer people in the UK who could afford to buy a "real" computer - and even many of those who could afford it would have been wary of spending a month's wages on a home computer.

      As such, there were arguably far fewer home computers in the UK than there would have been in Sweden, and far less general awareness of the direction that the computer industry was moving towards.

      Which isn't to say that people weren't aware that micro computers were the future; after all, the BBC ploughed large sums into their Computer Literacy Project, which saw BBC Micro computers installed in schools across the country.

      But that didn't really get going until 1982, and by that time, Sinclair Research's cheap little machines had already gotten a strong toehold in the market, thanks in no small part to the fact that they could be bought for less than a week's wages...

  21. hamiltoneuk

    Thank you for turning me on to MJ Hibbett and the Validators maaan!

  22. Terry 6 Silver badge

    I sort of also wonder...

    ...whether people's low expectations of build quality through the 70s helped for a while. This new lowish cost device was no worse than the stuff your parents had been using unreliably for years.

  23. Ian 55

    "had been painted as a Garden of Eden landscape, with large figures of Clive and his first wife eating apples. Naked. What a way to get to know the boss."

    Try working as a bi/gay man somewhere with a lot of other bi/gay men. Thanks to Gaydar (00s) / Grindr (now) you know EXACTLY what your co-workers and boss look like naked. And exactly what sorts of sex they are into.

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