A digital watch that kept poor time and might explode. A keyboard that felt like typing on a corpse. A three-wheeled electric “car” that couldn’t power its way uphill. No successful products for nearly four decades. Why do the British remember inventor Clive Sinclair so fondly? His legendary, affordable personal computers—and his ability to see the future, if not grasp it.
Sinclair died September 16 in London at age 81 after living with cancer for a decade. Renowned across the United Kingdom and Europe in the early 1980s as the pioneer of low-cost computing, Sinclair also developed dozens of other products that came to market before their technology had ripened. He continued to work on projects until his final days, his daughter told the BBC.
The Economist devoted its cherished last page to remembering Sinclair, but in the U.S. his death received only spotty coverage. Technology and gaming publications such as The Verge and Kotaku took note, as did CNN. The Washington Post’s website ran an AP obituary. Other major newspapers such as The New York Times have not (yet) reported his passing. It’s a sharp contrast with how Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs was remembered at the time of his death—and likely will be again on the 10th anniversary next month.
Although he hadn’t had a blockbuster hit in years, Sinclair predicted the future with extraordinary precision, often making either the first electronics product in a category or, if the not first, the smallest and most affordable. This included a vast range of devices, such as a pocket radio receiver, pocket calculator, personal computer, digital watch, calculator watch, portable television, flat-screen portable TV, “mobile” phone, and electric car—or at least an electric tri-wheel vehicle.
Yet while the British called him “Uncle Clive,” and a wide range of people between the ages of about 45 and 85 will wax fondly about his computers and chuckle indulgently about his failures, Sinclair is little known in the United States. A gap between the economies of the U.S. and U.K. in the 1970s and early ’80s—and the U.S. and chunks of Europe at that time—meant many American releases of computing and electronics tech were out of the price range of the majority of Brits and Europeans. Into that gap, Sinclair sold his ideas to a willing market.
Sinclair’s gadgets often suffered from technology that he introduced before manufacturing, chip, and power capabilities were ready. He cut corners so severely to keep costs low that the corners of some of his devices literally fell off. What shipped was sometimes janky, incomplete, or had frustrating limitations. But his indefatigable nature and his homegrown development inside the U.K. meant he was forgiven, again and again.
To understand his impact on tens of millions of people across Europe, imagine Jobs and his Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak rolled into one person—but if, after the Apple II and a couple of additional improvements, the company never released a successful computer again. Our alt-Jobs in that universe spent the rest of his life and nearly all of his fortune pursuing ideas that sold in the thousands, not billions. Consider how he would be remembered now: fondly in the U.S. and forgotten most everywhere else.
Sinclair’s legacy may be best summed up by a few prominent figures in technology who idolized him during his heyday. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who grew up in India, tweeted:
RIP Sir Clive Sinclair. Your innovations democratized computing and inspired so many, including myself. I vividly remember my first computer, a ZX80, and the sense of wonder and empowerment I felt. It was your device that sparked my passion for engineering.
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) September 17, 2021
Philippe Kahn, a legend himself for founding Borland and three other software companies—and sending the first photo ever transmitted by cellphone—posted a tribute on Facebook. (Kahn gave Fast Company permission to quote from it.) Kahn, born and raised in France, met Sinclair to discuss a software development and gaming partnership between their two companies, but Sinclair had already moved on:
“[W]hen we met, Sir Clive had lost interest in the ZX [computer]. Instead, like a true innovator, Sir Clive focused on his next adventure: The C5 electric car. His prototype was brilliant yet still limited to solo rides initially, making it tough to market successfully. The C5, like the ZX, was a pioneering effort. My visit with Sir Clive was most inspiring. For a young mathematician, it was like meeting an actual iconic role model.”
I have to admit that having lived my life in the U.S., I was only mildly informed about Sinclair’s legacy until I read a draft of my friend Marcin Wichary’s upcoming book, Shift Happens, a history of keyboards from typewriters to computers. Marcin devotes a chapter to the keyboards on Sinclair’s computers, including the outrageous ZX Spectrum, which had five or six labels per key. Marcin grew up in Poland, and is one of many people outside the U.K. who also basked in the reflection of Sinclair’s success—but he doesn’t whitewash where things went wrong.
Inexpensive, powerful, profitable, and influential
When it came to computers, the sheer affordability, capability, and availability of Sinclair’s machines overrode quibbles. His ZX80, ZX81, and Spectrum are remembered with varying degrees of fondness—largely by people over 45—and the Spectrum, or “Speccie,” sold in the millions. The slab-shaped ZX80 featured an 8-bit Zilog Z80 chip and went on sale in early 1980 for 79.95 pounds in kit form or 99.95 pounds assembled, which apparently involved snapping a few pieces together. Those 1980 prices equate in U.S. figures, at that time’s exchange rate, to about $180 and $225 (or, with inflation in 2021 figures, $600 and $750). Its successor, the ZX81, launched the next year for even less: 49.95 pounds as a kit and 69.95 pounds assembled. Both and later models connected to a TV for a display.
These prices were a far cry from the 700 pounds for a Commodore PET around 1980, which included a tiny integral monochrome display. Apple offered an 840-pound Apple II starting model that year as well without a screen, but promoted a business package that cost almost 2,400 pounds to get a monitor and other upgrades. (I bought a computer with the same 6502 CPU as an Apple II, Ohio Scientific’s C1P, in 1980 at the whopping price of $333.)
Sinclair and his engineers achieved this pricing feat by using the same approach he had brought to miniaturizing radios, calculators, TVs, and a watch that predated his computers: a relentless drive to reduce the number of chips and shrink the size of circuit boards, thus reducing the cost of parts and complexity of manufacture. (Wozniak had a similar compulsion for minimalism.)
In a letter to New Scientist magazine published on June 26, 1986, Sinclair wrote to complain about what he said were factual inaccuracies in a previous issue about his computers:
“It is implied that our computers were cheap simply because we left things out. What rubbish. They were cheap because of the ingenuity of design. The ZX81 had four chips when our nearest competition in this respect, the TRS-80, had 44.”
The ZX80 did have its issues. It was poor at dissipating heat, and a set of “vents” at the case’s top were actually cosmetic (they were painted on). And the use of a flat membrane keyboard kept costs, maintenance, and repairs way, way down—for both the ZX80 and ZX81—but left some thinking that it, along with the plastic case, made the computer look and feel cheap.
This cheapness may be why the BBC opted to anoint a computer made by another U.K. manufacturer, Acorn, instead of the ZX81 as the official computer of a TV series in 1982. That series introduced the British public to personal computing, and was expected to lead to blockbuster sales, especially with subsidized school purchases.
No worries, though: Sinclair sold a reported 1.5 million units of the ZX81 and then 5 million of its successor, the ZX Spectrum—introduced in 1982 to compete against the twice-as-expensive Acorn model the BBC had picked. (Acorn sold about 1.5 million units.) That despite the Spectrum featuring a rubber overlay on its keyboard which some described as akin to typing on dead flesh.
Tom Watson, the former deputy leader of the U.K. Labour Party and now the chair of UK Music, put the ZX80 and Spectrum in context on Twitter:
Very sad to hear that Clive Sinclair has died. This man changed the course of my life. And arguably, the digital age for us in the UK started with the Sinclair ZX80, when thousands of kids learnt to code using 1k of RAM. For us, the Spectrum was like a Rolls Royce with 48k. pic.twitter.com/Nf050wftsk
— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) September 16, 2021
Among my friends and colleagues from the U.K. and further afield, Sinclair’s name was never far off when we talked about our computing past. They listed games I had never heard of and talk fondly of oddball problems that only made them love the machines more.
Sinclair’s fame outside the U.K. stemmed largely from another early innovation: cloning. The ZX81 was manufactured for Sinclair by Timex in Dundee, Scotland, and sold in the U.S. first under that name, and later as a Timex Sinclair model. It’s the only major market exposure Americans had to anything Sinclair or his companies made. Reports indicate about 600,000 of the combined models were sold. That was impressive in a market in which, at that time, only a few million people had bought personal computers—though PC ownership rose to the tens of millions just a few years later.
But the ZX81 and Spectrum were also widely pirated. Knockoffs using cheaper or different components sold in countless numbers in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Even though these weren’t made by Sinclair and sometimes ran an entirely different operating system—like CP/M—the influence was widespread.
Exceptional invention, rare good timing
Sinclair, the son and grandson of engineers and the son of a rare midcentury British entrepreneur, entered the electronics world while still in secondary school. At 18, he designed a tiny, inexpensive radio receiver that required just a single transistor, and quickly saw sales reach 1,000 per month. He opted against college, and moved into technical writing, producing more than a dozen books in a few years about building devices around transistors.
Financing a new venture in the 1960s for an untested young person wasn’t easy, and even after having founded Sinclair Radionics, Sinclair continued to work in the technology publishing industry as a trade magazine editor for several years. But he kept his hand in the electronics business by purchasing transistors that had failed quality testing at a local semiconductor plant for computing purposes yet worked perfectly well inside radio receivers and for analog processing. After retesting and sorting, he sold them at prices up to 15 times higher than he’d paid.
Eventually, Sinclair used the funds to produce a series of successful pocket calculators and tiny portable televisions. But an early digital wristwatch was his undoing. The Black Watch served as a template for post-computer endeavors. The watch had a short battery life, a problem because of the difficulty of changing it; seasonal temperature changes affected the accuracy of its internal timekeeping crystal; its LEDs were dim; its switches and case parts were unreliable; and static electricity could fry the watch’s single chip.
And, in the right circumstances, the battery could overheat and explode. Yes, explode. The cost of repairs and bad reviews drove huge losses. Sinclair wound up effectively selling the company to the U.K. government, which eventually chopped up the valuable patents and products, sold them off, and wrote down the remaining loss. (At the time, the U.K. had a nationalization program intended to help keep the economy solvent and prevent job losses.)
Sinclair had already moved on, founding Science of Cambridge—later known as Sinclair Research—to make the remarkably sophisticated and advanced Sinclair Wrist Calculator. However, it was available only in kit form and nearly impossible to assemble successfully. Only about 10,000 were sold for that reason—and because better LED watches (with fewer features) were already on the market. Despite that, the team Sinclair assembled went on to create the legendary ZX80 and models that followed.
With the computers throwing off massive profits and Sinclair becoming a multimillionaire, he used his wealth to create and invest in yet another company in 1983, Sinclair Vehicles. The firm produced the Sinclair C5, a three-wheeled electric vehicle released in 1985. Sinclair hoped to sell 100,000 of them in the first year. But the single-occupant trike lacked safety features, was so low it was below the sight lines of automobile drivers, and lacked the energy to go up hills (drivers had to pedal). A few thousand were sold.
Sinclair Research, meanwhile, had continued to release new computers, but had fallen behind the competition, and invested heavily into an advanced, portable flat-screen CRT-based TV—which shipped years too late in 1983, a year after the polished and more advanced Sony Watchman. Sinclair Vehicles went into receivership (the U.K. equivalent of bankruptcy) in 1985, and Sinclair Research’s assets were sold for a song to a firm that leveraged its ahead-of-its time technologies, selling them off or licensing them.
Sinclair kept developing products under the umbrella of Sinclair Research, however, producing an early powerful electric bike (the Zike), a two-wheeled electric vehicle (the X-Bike), and an underwater propulsion system for scuba divers.
His contribution to the U.K. and the world can’t be measured in how well his products performed, and his successes by unit volume and sales revenue certainly outweigh his failures. Sinclair saw the future a little too well. Nearly everything he invented came to pass, often 20 to 30 years later. Trillions of dollars worth of companies now ply the products he couldn’t quite get to work.
But the truth? He was always more interested in the potential than the thing itself. As he said during his life and his family confirmed, Clive Sinclair didn’t care much for using his devices, only making them available to others.