back to article Sir Clive Sinclair inspired me and 'whole load of others' at Arm, says CEO Simon Segars

Like so many of us in tech, Arm CEO Simon Segars has his own computing origins story, which he shared during a speech on Tuesday at the Arm DevSummit developer conference. British-born Segars' interest in computing started at age 14, when he'd go to a shop that had a Sinclair ZX81 computer on display, on which he wrote simple …

  1. MajDom

    A ZX-81, uh? Spoilt brat. Those of us on the ZX-80 had to settle with integer BASIC. And our heads are still nodding after every keystroke (ZX-80 heroes will know what I'm talking about).

    1. Graham Cunningham

      Kit form!

      I learned that the ZX80's UHF modulator's heat sink could sink more heat than my 15W soldering iron could produce. It took a second soldering iron to un-stick the first one. :)

      1. Oh Matron!

        Re: Kit form!

        I had a spec drum and weirdly, back in the late 80s, my mum's TV had composite and phono in! However, I believe you could cut a track near the UHF modulator to get the speccy to output composite. I couldn't bring myself to do it.

        So, I'd have to do my drum programming using UHF, then swap to composite to hear the bloody thing

        Never shared that with anyone before :-)

    2. Stuart Castle Silver badge

      A ZX80 with Integer BASIC? Luxury.

      My first computer was a board with a CPU, and a few wires I had to use to hard wire my code..

      1. MajDom

        You win the Internets, of course.

        1. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

          One still runs my central heating.

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "There was another shop in my hometown, where I would buy individual transistors, resistors and capacitors"

    Many hometowns had one. Those were the days.

    Years later we had them back again as Maplin - a curse be upon leveraged buyouts.

    Then a few weeks ago Google told me that someone had actually opened such a shop near me complete with a Streetview image to prove it. Alas, miracles don't last and by the time I got there I found a pet food shop occupying the premises.

    1. Victor Ludorum

      Maplin wasn't the only one

      I remember going into my local Tandy for electronics odds and ends until the late 80s / early 90s...

      1. captain veg Silver badge

        Re: Maplin wasn't the only one

        Tandy was, er, handy, but they wouldn't sell you individual resistors, only packs of 10. Which was annoying when your only income was pocket money.

        -A.

      2. MajDom

        Re: Maplin wasn't the only one

        That's where I got my TRS-80 Model III, right after the ZX80, and before the Beeb B.

      3. Gene Cash Silver badge

        Re: Maplin wasn't the only one

        Yes, and since Tandy (Radio Shack in the US) has gone out of business, there's nowhere to buy individual transistors, resistors, capacitors, switches, wire, connectors, or chips.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Maplin wasn't the only one

          We also had a shop that sold individual components, single resistor, individual ceramic disk caps, BC181 transistors and 1N4148 diodes. Plus all the Babani books etc. if they didn’t have what I needed then the TV repair place or the other shop that did Tandy/Radio shack stuff. Failing all that I would fill out the form in the back of the catalogue, buy a postal order and a stamp, then send it off to Rayleigh. I loved those days, and every time I smell rosin, or veroboard I am right back there with the 555 timer (the arduino of those times).

          1. BenDwire Silver badge
            Angel

            Re: Maplin wasn't the only one

            We're obviously of the same vintage, as I used to do exactly the same thing. My Maplin user ID was only 4 digits long, the first being a 1, so I can claim to be one of their earliest customers! I also had the good fortune to live quite close by, so for urgent projects I could persuade my mother to drive me to their one-and-only shop by the seaside.

            Those were the days, but my as my career took off in the electronics industry the company "stores" became my supplier of choice!! No postal orders required ...

            1. werdsmith Silver badge

              Re: Maplin wasn't the only one

              Yes, the stores requisition, tag on some bits for myself, I know what you mean! Of course then for the other stuff they didn’t have, the RS catalogue was very well used.

    2. captain veg Silver badge

      Google maps claims that my house is a butcher shop. Which is ironic.

      -A.

  3. Stuart Castle Silver badge

    I think without Sir Clive, UK Computing would not be in the position it is. I certainly would not have a job.

    He was a great man. Not perfect by any means. In fact, if the BBC's drama Micro Men is to be believed, he was probably a bit of an arsehole. But he had a vision of affordable computing for everyone, and he achieved that, pushing the entire industry forward in the process, so he deserves respect..

    Still, those were the days when computers were exciting little boxes in the corner of the room. My current PC is thousands of times more powerful than any of them, with some games managing near photo realistic 3D graphics in real time, but I don't get the same feeling of excitement I got with the 8 and 16 bit computers. It's just a large black box running software that can run on thousands of other PCs. Nothing to make it stand out.*

    *And yes, I know, it being a PC, I could buy things to make it stand out (e.g. strings of LEDs, an unusual case etc), but I do like my PC, and it does everything I need of it, so I don't have a compelling reason to upgrade it.

    1. juice Silver badge

      > Still, those were the days when computers were exciting little boxes in the corner of the room

      I know what you mean. Back in the 8 and 16-bit days, people had to do all sorts of mind-boggling tricks to make things work, especially when it came to video games.

      Whereas these days, it mostly seems to just involve throwing more processing power at whatever you're trying to do.

      To be fair, that's mainly because modern stuff is "sitting on the shoulders of giants" - there's all manner of clever 3D mathematics and trickery which goes into producing those near-photorealistic graphics and complex physics engines.

      In fact, that's maybe the issue - there's just so much going on that it's impossible to conceptualise or break down unless you're already an expert in the field.

      Meanwhile, I am enjoying watching things like the Coding Secrets stuff on Youtube, where people document how they twisted and squeezed the hardware to make the seemingly impossible happen...

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        In fact, that's maybe the issue - there's just so much going on

        It's odd, because I am feeling today the way I felt when I first had my BBC Micro - slightly overwhelmed and underbudgeted. These days it's the Arm-based Arduinos and the RP2040 (also Arm-based) which in theory should be "knowable" in the same way you could "know" a ZX81, Spectrum or BBC Micro.

        Overwhelmed because I know I should be able to understand the thing right down to signals on PCB wires, but I'm struggling (I mean, that whole two-processor thing on the 2040!). In the 1980s I was underbudgeted so I couldn't afford the Programmer's Reference Manual or the plugs, sockets and cables required to attach to the user port or the analogue port. These days I'm mostly underbudgeted in time! So many ideas, so little time to research and implement them...

        M.

    2. werdsmith Silver badge

      In fact, if the BBC's drama Micro Men is to be believed, he was probably a bit of an arsehole.

      There are some interesting video interviews with people who were employed at Sinclair in the ZX era, and they speak well of Clive.

  4. martinusher Silver badge

    Allow me to be a tad contrarian

    Sir Clive certainly produced a lot of innovative stuff but a lot of it didn't work at all well. By some cosmic coincidence I'm writing this while taking a bit of a break from tussling with a Neoteric, another of his creations. This was a late 1960s stereo amplifier, a design icon of the period that packed a 30w per channel stereo amplifier into the size of a largish paperback book. Since it was made with not just 1960's semiconductors but the cheapest parts regardless of their provenance (a Sinclair trademark) it had a life expectancy measured in hours. Keeping one going is like owning a very old and highly unreliable car. Also included in the package is a pressed metal case that started out life as a panel for a dual standard TV (the screen print's on the back) and that essential piece of shaped cardboard that hopefully prevents the system from exploding (until the undersized mains transformer breaks down, that is). Definitely a design icon -- an object lesson to not prioritize style over engineering.

    Although everyone extols the ZX80/81 I missed out on that era because by that time I'd moved to the US and was working on real PC architecture systems. These little units might have been cheap but so limited that they taught mainly bad habits rather than programming. To me the person who really got the computing ball rolling in the UK was Alan Sugar and his dreadful cardboard PCs -- they worked OK for business use and they were both cheap and serviceable.

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Allow me to be a tad contrarian

      This is the problem when people want to talk about how limited Clive’s stuff was, they entirely miss the point that the ultimate limitation is having nothing at all. Clive brought the home computing within reach where before it was just too expensive for many people. Whining about the delayed deliveries, wobbly ram packs and rubber or membrane keyboards is just being so massively negative. £69 in 1982 was a lot, but an Electron was triple that, and a BBC model B I didn’t even dare dream about.

      The kit electronics he sent out were about learning. Not forever audiophile technology. I built many a project out of PW or Elektor, it was all about understanding it and getting it going. Then it was cannibalised for the next project.

      Although the watches weren’t up to much, you can buy Sinclair Cambridge calculators today on EBay that still work. I have a working mini TV along with a working ZX81 with adapted video tuner.

      As for bad programming habits, some skills and thinking were needed to get more out of less.

      1. juice Silver badge

        Re: Allow me to be a tad contrarian

        > This is the problem when people want to talk about how limited Clive’s stuff was, they entirely miss the point that the ultimate limitation is having nothing at all

        I may have ranted about this over on Clive's euology article ;)

        Back when Sinclair released his calculator, it was a choice of either blowing £2000 (in 2021 money) on a TI calculator, or gambling £1000 on Clive's shonky little beast.

        And a lot of people went for the gamble, because those were pretty much the only choices available in the market, so unless you were rich, you either took a risk with Clive's machine or went back to pen, paper and maybe a slide rule.

        Similar applies to the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, especially since at that point in the 1980s, we were deep in a great depression and around 3 million people (plus their dependents) were out of work and having to very carefully count their pennies.

        In that situation, do you spend £400 on a "real" micro-computer, or £80 - £130 for one of Clive's cut-down machines?

        So, yeah. it's easy to turn your nose up at the limited functionality and low reliability of Sinclair's machines. But for many people, it's was either Sinclair tech or nothing.

        1. martinusher Silver badge

          Re: Allow me to be a tad contrarian

          The 1980s was really the last gasp of Sinclair and the fact that he had a hit with the ZX80/81 doesn't make up for the string of relative disasters that preceded it. The Neoteric I was grumbling about wasn't the first product Sinclair had produced even though it dated from the late 1960s. It really summed up British engineering -- the boss comes up with the 'concept' and the 'droids then have to somehow make the concept work, somehow. The result is an object lesson on how not to design a product, it wasted a great deal of talent and money producing something that was less than satisfactory that was not just unreliable but difficult and costly to fix. You don't build a market that way.

          As for the low functionality of the computers I also had a ultra-cheap single board computer from that era, one with the rubber keys and yogurt carton case. It was a Jupiter Ace, though.

          1. werdsmith Silver badge

            Re: Allow me to be a tad contrarian

            Can’t accept that. Millions selling ZX era more than makes up for the few hundred low volume kits that Clive used to bootstrap his company. The problem here is people who think expect these kind niche hobbyist mail order products to be consumer ready. Ridiculous expectations. It was a garage business, not Pye. People I know who got those early kits, did it for the fun of it, even better if you can come up with your own mods, improvements.

            1. Martin an gof Silver badge

              Re: Allow me to be a tad contrarian

              people who think expect these kind niche hobbyist mail order products to be consumer ready

              What you are ignoring is that Sir Clive actively marketed his products - certainly some of the HiFi products, definitely the calculator and the watch and by the time of the ZX81 and Spectrum the computers too - as "consumer ready", with full-page glossy adverts in full colour in glossy magazines and Sunday supplements.

              Joe Public was primed and ready for the "computer revolution" by programmes such as Now the Chips are Down (definitely worth a re-watch) and the ATV documentary which was based on the book The Mighty Micro (picked up a copy of that at a second hand shop some years back - it's fascinating) and keen that Joe Public Junior would not be left behind by the New Industrial Revolution which was surely only months away. Despite the dire economic circumstances of the first Thatcher government, people scrimped and saved to make sure their children had the best opportunities possible.

              They believed the hype, and while it's true to say that the MK14 and the ZX80 were definitely more for the electronics enthusiast, the ZX81 - although still available as a "build it yourself" kit - was part way towards a general consumer product, and the Spectrum of course was only available pre-built.

              Those of us who were teenagers back then were perhaps a fraction more streetwise than our parents and knew that mostly the computers would be used for games, but I remember a friend being very excited that his parents had ordered him a Spectrum, slightly disappointed that it did not appear within the "28 days" promised in the advert, and mollified by having a letter from Sinclair saying "your computer is nearly ready, we are just programming it up" or something similar when in reality it was probably sat waiting for the ROM to be delivered (or was that just the QL? I had another friend with a QL which had the ROM-carbuncle hanging out of the back).

              I knew quite a lot of people with ZX80s, ZX81s, Spectrums, Vic-20s and a few with C64s, BBC Micros, Dragons, even an Oric-1 and an Oric Atmos (with the vital keywords "FIRE" and "EXPLODE"). They all had "teething troubles". I don't think the overheating, wobbly RAM-packs, dodgy power supplies and delaminating cases were unique to Sinclair, but I do know that (in general) it was very easy to get the things replaced when they did go wrong.

              Personally, my first Spectrum - bought with my own savings when the price of the 48k version came down from £179.99 to £124.99 - was swapped for a new one at Boots when the metal plate on top started coming off, but my second Spectrum lasted a year or so of heavy use before I was able to persuade my parents that I would be "doing computers" for some time to come and that a BBC Micro was a good investment. The sale of the Spectrum at somewhere around £100 IIRC helped!

              M.

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