back to article Thanks, Sir Clive Sinclair, from Reg readers whose careers you created and lives you shaped

Sir Clive Sinclair's contributions to computing and business are well known, and we've done our best to celebrate his life in our obituary of the electronics pioneer, who passed last week aged 81. To mark his life we felt it appropriate to also consider his impact on Reg readers. Like many others, your correspondent's first …

  1. David 132 Silver badge

    And now we have the Cloud and SaaS

    And I’ve just realized why I’m so grumpy at the state of the IT industry these days.

    It’s that the current headlong rush to centralise and monetise everything, nickel-and-dimeing us for every possible use of our computers (ha! “our” computers! not so much any more…) is the very antithesis of what Sir Clive offered us.

    The sheer liberating freedom of my ZX81, then Spectrum+, in those sun-dappled days of the 1980s… and now, “Product Activation”. “Digital Licensing”. “DLC” and their evil misbegotten ilk.

    Grrrrrr.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And now we have the Cloud and SaaS

      Agreed. I wonder what he thought of a world in which corporate overlords and their operating systems work against the developer and most people using a computer will never know, or even care to know what a command line is. Machines designed to consume rather than create.

      But still, the perversion of the gaming industry with DLC, loot boxes, and pay to win business models spawned the indie gaming scene and something of a resurgence of the bedroom programmer.

      Much like the 1980's, glimmers of light continue to shine in the dark.

    2. Arthur the cat Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: And now we have the Cloud and SaaS

      and now, “Product Activation”. “Digital Licensing”. “DLC” and their evil misbegotten ilk.

      But also, now Raspberry Pi. In many ways a spiritual successor of the ZX81 and a bloody good thing to play/learn/make with.

      1. big_D Silver badge

        Re: And now we have the Cloud and SaaS

        Yes, I have a pair of 3b models and a Pi 400 in my office. One runs PiHole, one is a backup controller for my Unifi network controller and the 400 is a desktop - although it shows its limits, when browsing the web.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: And now we have the Cloud and SaaS

          I do love how people can't help but point out the limitations of a computer that costs £67.

          1. big_D Silver badge

            Re: And now we have the Cloud and SaaS

            It is a great little computer and great for learning, but running a web browser and visiting modern sites, especially sites with video, pushes it to its limits. It isn't what it was designed for.

            There is nothing wrong with pointing out where a devices strengths and weaknesses lay.

            1. werdsmith Silver badge

              Re: And now we have the Cloud and SaaS

              I didn't say there was anything wrong with doing that. But it does make me laugh.

  2. davenewman

    Kenyan businesses ran on the Sinclair QL

    As it was small enough to smuggle in when there was 160% duty and sales tax on computers, as President Daniel Arap Moi had declared the only purpose of a computer was to put secretaries out of work.

    A complete direct mail marketing company ran on the QL. While I wrote a timekeeping programme for the Nairobi Round Table 24 hour pedal cart race. It had multi-tasking assembly programs controlled by a QL BASIC one.

    Even before that, the university microelectronics course that trained the first ever computer technicians in the country used a lab full of Sinclair Spectrums - connected to a cassette recorder via an amplifier and cooled with frozen tetrapaks of milk.

  3. cticarlo

    ZX81 clone started my interest in computer science

    I was really sad to know that Sir Clive Sinclair was gone.  He was an indirect influence on the formation of many young people in the 1980s.  Microdigital's computers (TK85 and TK90) were clones of the Zx81 and Zx Spectrum, at a time when Brazil was living on the Market Protection Law, which forbidded foreing country tech companies to operante directly if there were "equivalent" solutions produced by brazilian companies. My first computer was a TK85, connected to a monochromatic TV by an antenna adapter, which used cassette tape as storage media, programmed in BASIC.  In today's terms, even an Arduino Uno won.  But what a wonderful thing.  I learned a lot studying its manual (which I have kept until today), in a time where information was sparse. That motivated me to go into a software career.

    If today I am a professor in this area, I owe it to this first contact with a simple computer for today's standards, which widened my horizons.  I feel that I owe it to this gentleman, who was one of several who had the ideas that made microcomputers explode in the 1980s, and who popularized their use for everything. Thanks for everything, Sir Clive.

  4. Ian 55

    Well

    The ZX81 with its RAM pack wobble taught a generation the importance of multiple backups of everything as soon as you had done enough work to miss it if it vanished.

    The crappy keyboards - ZX8*'s cheap remote style, the ZX Spectrum's dead flesh, and the QL's swamp feel - also taught a generation the benefits of a decent one.

    The appalling signal / noise ratio of the expansion port on the Z80-based ones taught the value of buffering signals.

    The ZX Printer showed what you could do with a bit of imagination, aluminium covered toilet roll, and enough current to burn it... and why you should have just got a proper printer.

    The declining quality of tape-to-tape copies taught a bunch of us disassembly skills to crack odd headers and data formats, so we could produce first generation copies. Even Lenslok cracked in the end.

    On a slightly more positive note, the ZX Spectrum also showed the advantages of having your own micro to do coursework - thank you HiSoft - rather than trying to get a seat in the terminal room to share an overloaded mini.

    1. big_D Silver badge

      Re: Well

      I had a ZX81 with a BugByte 16KB RAM pack and a Kayde keyboard. I built a base for it, where everything was stuck to it with double-sided tape. One day, I knocked it off my desk. The whole lot landed on the floor, but it didn't crash, the RAM pack was still connected and the program kept on running.

      I had a cheap, individually switchable 3-way socket extension from Curry's. The switches weren't "clean", they would send a spike to the ZX81. It turned out this was a great feature.

      If I was running a game, I could flick the power switch on the socket with the tape recorder plugged into it and the program would stop running and I could list the program. This was usually a "machine code block in a REM statement", but I managed to hack a few games that way.

      With Quicksilver's Defenda, I could reprogram the spaceship to be ">=8-" instead of block graphics. (where the "8" was an inverse field with the number of lives left). Not only did is look sleeker than the original, because it used a different "nose", it also made it impossible to hit, because the collision detection routine checked to see if the invader had hit the nose of the craft!

    2. ITMA Bronze badge

      Re: Well

      "rather than trying to get a seat in the terminal room to share an overloaded mini."

      Don't tell me you also had experience of trying to do "Computer Studies" using a Teletype Model 33 linked (via acoustic coupler) to the local town hall's mainframe?

      LOL

      Those were the days....

      Then the first Commodore PET 2001 (8K) arrived... (BASIC v1.0 with TIM loaded from tape).

      1. Ian 55

        Re: Well

        A Teletype 33 via acoustic coupler was for O-level - one for the whole class to share.

        University had ADM-3As connected to a NORD mini ("They said we'd get something better than an IBM - we got the NORD"). You can get an idea of the speed by the way someone put up a sign in the terminal room saying "The NORD is a multiuser ZX-81."

    3. big_D Silver badge

      Re: Well

      We had a lab with a Prime mini and a dozen or so terminals.

      The process was, edit code, set off compile, go to the refectory for a fag and a coffee and come back and go through the error log, edit code, rinse and repeat.

      What was really "funny" was, we had to create a subdirectory from our home folder called password and put a text file in it with our password, "in case we forgot it". Not trusting the admins as far as I could through the Prime, I encrypted my password into a short story, much to the annoyance of my lecturer.

  5. hamiltoneuk

    Never used email or the internet

    Wonderfully Sinclair never used email or the internet and he never owned a computer, he just sold them!

  6. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    May your memory never fade, Sir Clive.

    Thank you for the gift you gave us, it certainly defined our careers.

  7. ITMA Bronze badge

    RIP Sir Cliver

    I never used a Spectrum or QL to any degree, having been seduced by the 6502 in the Commodore PET and offspring (including Tangerine Microtan 65, Acorn Atom and mighty BBC Micro).

    I did use the ZX80 and ZX81 though when the main "computing war" was between Sinclair & Acorn with the gaggle of "also rans" chasing along way, way behind.

    Sir Clive was the quintessential British boffin who loved inventing technically "sweet" things for ordinary people.

    Rest in peace Sir Clive in the great Non-Volatile Memory which lies beyond the short DRAM refresh cycle of this life.

    The man whose ideas help launch thousands of IT careers, mine included.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. ITMA Bronze badge

        Re: Seriously off-topic

        You've obviously missed a whole bunch of other comments by me on the subject.

        Oh if only it was as easy as that....

        On a lot of PCs, particularly desktops, you can have all the power settings correct and it STILL doesn't work because of "Fast start up". If that is ticked, then on many PCs (Dell in particular) it powers down the NIC, WHATEVER your other power settings are INCLUDING having "Allow this device to wake the computer" ON - and that other Dell BIOS stalwart, "Deep Sleep Control", which must be disabled also.

        No power to the NIC, ergo NO WAKE ON LAN.

        Even then, a misguided network driver update can bugger it again. Which explains why on PCs with certain Intel NICs in the Windows Update section of Settings, under Optional Updates, there is an OLD Intel LAN driver - which works!!! Some newer ones break WOL.

        A bit more research into the subject first would be helpful.

        One more snippet - this information doesn't come from trying to get it work on one PC. Nor the 6 Optiplex desktops at home (though they serve as a testbed). It comes from managing an estate (largely remotely) of 70+ machines.

  8. Ashto5

    Thank you

    Thank you

    Your ZX81 had me understanding programming before I started my City & Guilds

    And when the 1st interview came I finished the 100 logic questions in 20

    Minutes while many were still on the 1st page.

    When I failed my A levels, the imagination triggered by the ZX81 kept me in a job that insisted on A level passes.

    The life I have is TOTALLY down to the amazing ZX81 and it’s brilliant inventor.

    Thank you Clive

    You can press “stop” on the tape player now … the programs over

  9. archie99

    Beep

    Poke 23609,255

    1. ITMA Bronze badge

      Re: Beep

      Ok then, just to add some 6502 "balance" LOL.

      POKE 59468,14 does......?

      And which machines do you NOT do the "fast screen update" POKE on? :)

      1. archie99

        Re: Beep

        You can be my PET but you'll never make COMMODORE.

        :-)

        1. ITMA Bronze badge

          Re: Beep

          And wasn't the PET's name, Personal Electronic Transactor, so carefully and well chosen...

          Unless you were French...where many a many for the European market where made.

          You too will will be amazed by the things you can do with the latest in desktop microcomputers.

          - introducing "The FART" by Commodore.

          Who went on to make the VIC-20....In Germany, ...

          Where (apparently) VIC looses translated into equally potentially offensive.

          1. archie99

            Re: Beep

            I only ever bought one computer. ICL's One Per Desk. I never needed another computer. :-)

  10. Danny 2 Silver badge

    I loved the Spectrum keyboard

    ... and the function keys, which I just learned from the comments here was a memory saving device. I could type faster on the Spectrum than I can on any other since. [One unfortunate side-effect is I still have the tiny fingers of a youngster, evolution inaction as puberty grew the rest of my body.]

    I would buy a wireless Spectrum inspired keyboard for my laptop, but I know that isn't financially feasible when everyone else still calls it "crappy".

  11. Postdoc

    I was extremely chuffed when Clive Sinclair responded to my letter and agreed to give a talk to sixth formers at The Leys School in Cambridge in 1969. He turned up laden with freebies, including his latest “hi-fi” amplifier, which he generously offered to me. After his talk, I returned to my study in the boarding house and plugged it in. It blew up dramatically. He was a great innovator but his technology was always flawed.

    1. snowpages

      Mine too..

      The Project 80 amp I got did the same - turned out to be a solder spike that shorted the mains when the power switch was pressed.... obviously never tested. Easy to fix for those of us with a soldering iron, maybe not for the average buyer But it was cheap.

  12. Stuart Castle Silver badge

    I have happy memories of spending *hours* typing in code from books and magazines, then hunting down the errors, which sometimes took longer than entering the code.

    Spending hours typing it in, forgetting to save it, only to have the RAM pack wobble (I had a ZX81 at the time), probably because the dog walked by and the RAM pack wobbled slightly. Yes, I worked out the Blu Tack trick very quickly.

    I also remember waiting several minutes to load a game, only to find it fails to load. That happened more on the ZX81 than my Spectrum, but it still happened on the Spectrum (a 48 K one). Even if it did load, there was nothing to guarantee it was any good. That said, I think I liked more of the games I had on my Spectrum than I hated, and the load time always gave me time to go get a drink or something.

    All of which probably gives the impression I hated both my ZX81 and Spectrum. Not a bit of it. I loved them. They got me interested in a subject I still love, computing. While I don't use BASIC, they enabled me to learn how to program, at least the basics of breaking things down into processes that could be recreated using whatever programming language is available. I also used to spend days playing some of the games, particularly things like 3D Monster Maze, and any of the Ultimate: Play The Game games.

    Of course, the advantage of learning to code on pretty much any of the 8 bit machines, particularly the ZX81 is that the lack of resources available to the machine forces you to learn to code efficiently. This is something I'd like to see the current generation of coders, many of whom are working on machines with tens of gigabytes of RAM, Terrabytes of storage and multiple CPU cores all operating at many gigahertz, not to mention Graphics cards with hundreds of times the amount of available pixels, and more than enough processing power to use them.

    I partly blame modern OSes. I know they have to deal with a lot more than the firmware installed in 8 bit machines. I know they have to do a lot more as well, but it's that sort of thing that leads to modern OSes adding enough bloat that even simple utilities end up requiring hundreds of megabytes of runtime code, when someone can program a complete game into less than 1K.

    But, I truly believe that the reason Britain is in the position it is in world computing is precisely because a lot of people behind the industry today grew up learning to code on the Sinclair machines, and while I am aware he probably did it for his own reasons, rather than to further society, I think we, as a society, have a lot to thank Sir Clive for.

    RIP Sir Clive.

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Quote

      "the advantage of learning to code on pretty much any of the 8 bit machines, particularly the ZX81 is that the lack of resources available to the machine forces you to learn to code efficiently. This is something I'd like to see the current generation of coders,"

      I see this every day where our CAM systems spit out code measured in the megabytes(thank gawd for network connections and not the old crappy RS232s)

      However I learned my stuff on machines with 32K max, or 16k max and faced with trying to 'drip feed' a megabyte plus program or using maths to generate tool paths in a program some 2000 bytes long... guess which solution won.

      without the ZX81/Spectrum I could never have done that as I learned to stuff as much as I could into the smallest space I could.

      And yes I typed in that 1K chess program... then lost to it

      1. ricardian

        I never had a Sinclair but I did have a Commodore Pet and learned tricks to overcome the problems of speed with floating point chips. For example multiplying by 10 by shifting right 3 times (multiply by 8) and adding to the resut the original value twice; checking for overflow

    2. Cederic Silver badge

      re: "Of course, the advantage of learning to code on pretty much any of the 8 bit machines, particularly the ZX81 is that the lack of resources available to the machine forces you to learn to code efficiently."

      I remember writing a BASIC program on my VIC-20 that ran out of RAM to hold the program code, let alone compile and run it.

      Sadly my response (aged 11) was to give up; the mysteries and opportunities of assembly were still a decade away :(

      1. ITMA Bronze badge

        "my VIC-20 that ran out of RAM to hold the program code, let alone compile and run it"

        Except of course BASIC on the VIC-20 (I had one of those as well at one point) was interpreted, not compiled.

        "Tokenised" doesn't really count as the BASIC on Commodore 65X02 machines, in common with almost all 8 bits machines, did the tokenisation on entry.

  13. DuncanIrvine

    Spectrums for disabled people..

    Thank you to Clive and his company. With their help and approval, while at Possum, I designed variants of the spectrum for use by severely disabled people. I was given access to the Sinclair technical team and all information required.

    There were two variants, a large keyboard version and a scanning version.

    Sinclair even donated some technical equipment to help. It is a real shame that they took a wrong turn with the ZX microdrive.

    Games were always a problem, and still are. Using a slow single switch with poor timing eliminates almost all games. What is needed is character classes that act as "ancestors" which follow and buff the group, but have no time critical inputs.

  14. sclg

    Sinclair Scientific

    Let's not forget the Wonderful Sinclair Scientific calculator...

    I was a 24 year old electronics engineer in 1974 working in the aerospace business. Electronic calculators had only been around for a few years and were VERY expensive. The Hewlett Packard HP35 had appeared a year or two earlier but was, I think, about £150. A lot of money in 1974! Then along came Sir Clive's Sinclair Scientific at under 50 quid. In true Sinclair fashion, it was a bit slow and clunky but it could do nearly everything the HP35 did.

    1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Re: Sinclair Scientific

      Ah yes, bought mine in my first year at Uni. £28 if I remember rightly. A full grant that year was £660. so probably the equivalent of a few hundred quid now, the price of a mid-range smartphone.

      Reverse Polish was a pain. And it was fun that if you asked for Sin/Cos/Tan over 90 degrees the processing time got longer and longer.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Sinclair Scientific

        Nah, reverse polish was the genius: not only did it make sense of the operation (who needs brackets?) but the lack of an = key meant no-one ever asked to borrow it twice. Though I do have memories of using it with a huge battery held to the back with an elastic band, making it look rather like a pregnant whale...

        Still use HP calculators to this day, complete with RPN: there's an HP11C sitting on the desk here.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Sinclair Scientific

          (who needs brackets?)

          LaTeX

  15. JimPoak

    In retrospective

    For every one BBC Micro there were 100 ZX81 and Spectrums driving forward technology. I'm not shamed I started out with a ZX81. I remember the first time I used it and I was hooked. I have enough books to make a funeral pier collected form my carrier in the computer industry all down the little ZX81.

    Thanks to Clive for giving me an opportunity to achieve some thing better.

    As for the BBC. The Raspberry PI is so much better than BBC junk they went with when retrying to enter the computer market. I'm a professional I under stand this.

    I would also like to thank:-

    The copy right system for making AMD work harder to make a better processor than Intel.

    Clive Sinclair making it obvious you can make money out of this.

    All the people who made gadgets for the Sinclair projects.

    I won't say RIP as I bereave in silicon heaven.

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: In retrospective

      I don't think the Micro:Bit is trying to re-enter the computer market. But it's a quite successful little programmable gadget that is growing its selection of addons and third party peripherals very nicely. Not comparable at all to the Raspberry Pi or even Pico.

  16. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    Vale

    The first computer I owned was a ZX 81, followed by several Spectra. And they grew - by the time I got my Amstrad PC1512 the spectrum was encased in a real keyboard, had a couple of the weird loop-tape drives, a modem (for Prestel), and the silver-bog-roll printer had been upgraded to a Mannesman-Tally MT80 dot-matrix, and I'd hacked the machine code of the driver to enable some extra options! Some surprisingly good Word-processing software (Tasword?) and I've never looked back. Even had a compiler for 'Forth' running on it.

    Thank you Clive. A worthy life, well-lived.

  17. ricardian

    Some relevant memories of folk who worked for Sir Clive, who seems to have been quite a benevolent (if somewhat idiosyncratic) employer

    https://youtu.be/bXBFud9zEoA.

    https://youtu.be/KrTmvqwpZF8.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    -- love the account named 0x80004005 -- on Windows that usually is the result of an ACCESS_DENIED error.

  19. John Riddoch

    My first computer

    I grew up with the Speccy 48K (rubber keyboard & all) and recall how it came with an excellent manual, including a list of all the opcodes for assembly and I recall playing with that a few times. Never did get very far with it, truth be told, but just knowing it was there and how it worked was part of how I got into computers. Also, being allowed to play about with it and potentially break things without long term consequences (a quick reboot would wipe away your mistakes) promoted curiosity and learning. These days, a newbie should be reluctant to fiddle too closely with Windows/Linux in case you break it irreversibly and have to do a reinstall...

  20. werdsmith Silver badge

    I still have a working ZX81, a version 1 version with a modified modulator and a ZXPand module.

  21. Ray 16

    I knew Clive quite well - back in the 1976-81 era and again a bit later when he moved to London after splitting with his wife.

    I wrote part of the Science of Cambridge MK14 Micro Computer Training Manual - and then spent time on Customer Support.

    Many memories from a visit to Singapore for the Grand Prix - lavish entertainment from component suppliers!

  22. werdsmith Silver badge

    Never forget the Battle of the Baron of Beef.

  23. Stephen Wilkinson

    Thanks Sir Clive, I started with the ZX-81 - even though I defected to the Commodore side afterwards rather than the Spectrum, and used an Acorn Electron to do my O level Computer Studies project - so a career in IT is all thanks to that.

  24. Tron Bronze badge

    RIP 'Uncle Clive'.

    For many of us on here - I started computing with a ZX81 - Sinclair's creativity, the ability of him and his designers, and his desire to keep the price low, was what opened the door to the world of tech - getting the chip count down to four for the ZX81 was remarkable. If computers had been more expensive, I would not have owned an 8-bit machine. My first computer would have been the Mac Classic I wrote my thesis on. He gave us the opportunity to code, either for pleasure or profit, and so many of us went on to have an interest or a career in tech because of that. I began writing Spectrum software at school with a friend, selling it through small ads in the magazines.

    The UK was a creative hotspot for tech development in the 1980s, without Silicon Valley money. The C5 is always regarded as a failure, but VC expects a 75% failure rate, and Sinclair generally funded himself. There was toss all VC in the UK in the 1980s, so he had to. Who else was experimenting with EVs then? How far ahead would we now be if he had had Musk's access to funds?

    The hardware development gave us 'Ant Attack' and Ultimate Play the Game just a couple of years after the flickering screen of the ZX80. That is a pace of technological change that has never been equalled. It was all accessible, via magazines and books. You could buy a book containing a ROM disassembly. It was a very good time to be a teenager.

    As for the rubber keyboard - a full size keyboard would have doubled the price of the machine, and locked so many people out of coding. It was a good design decision - if you wanted a full size one, they were available as add-ons, supporting an entire industry of peripheral designers and manufacturers.

    Sir Clive Sinclair has always been a good hero to have. There ought to be a statue of him in Cambridge.

  25. BigAndos

    Without the spectrum 48k my dad bought when I was about 5 I doubt I'd be in the IT industry with a decent career today. Thank you Sir Clive.

  26. shep_P

    Brother and myself got a 48k for Christmas from Woolies, packed in on day one, dad brought it back to Woolies a few dyas later and we got another. This packed in a day later and we repeated the visit to Woolies again. After about 4 new speccies my dad discovered that disconnecting the joystick adapter at back (whilst powered up) was blowing the voltage reg inside therefore banjaxing said speccy!

    Slightly embarrassed, we said nowt to Woolies and left manager thinking he'd got a duff batch :)

  27. David Nash
    Boffin

    My dad was going to get a Science of Cambridge Mk14, but Sinclair's famous customer service meant that it was late and he cancelled the order and instead built a ZX80 from a kit. I learned to program by reading the manual in bed at 11 years old. I am not sure my life would have gone the same way if I had had to learn the Mk14!

    The problem with the ZX80 was the flickering/black screen - it took CPU away from maintaining the display every time it ran a program, so moving graphics were impossible in normal programs (I believe using machine code you could do something but my memory is dim now).

    That was the big advance in software with the ZX81, it had "slow mode" which allowed both the display and your own logic to be run at the same time (what luxury!).

    The great thing about the ZX80 kit was that it came with a full circuit diagram, and that apart from the CPU and memory it was all made from discrete standard logic chips, so you could get an understanding how it worked at a hardware level.

    The ZX81 replaced all those logic chips with one custom device, thereby rendering it a literal black box to the likes of curious youngsters like me.

    I progressed to a Spectrum and later via fellow Z80-brethren Amstrad CPC to "proper" computers. But the ZX was where it all started, as for many.

  28. Oh Matron!

    Mahler.....

    I thought this was very apt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RY5fMSj0rJw&ab_channel=retroisland

    We all programmed it.

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