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In September of 2021, the world of technology lost one of its pioneers. British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair passed away after a long battle with cancer, and we could not miss this opportunity to acknowledge his impact on our industry and the impact that he had on geeks like me.
Image: Peter Jordan/Alamy
For a huge number of us, Sir Clive’s products were our first experience of the new world of home computing. In the early 80s, computers were expensive tools found only in the workplace. The idea that every home would have a computer was farfetched, and so when the Sinclair ZX81 was launched, it was at the forefront of a revolution that has led directly to the home computing market of today.
The Birth of Home Computing
The ZX81 was not the first of Sir Clive’s inventions, but it was the first to storm the market, with over one and a half million being sold. Compared to today’s machines, Sinclair computers looked unusual. The ZX81 used a membrane keyboard to help keep costs down, and it connected to a conventional television to provide the screen. The computer possessed very little memory, and any program had to be loaded from audio cassette tapes before it could be used.
The ZX81 was followed by its big brother, the ZX Spectrum. This was the machine that really sealed Sinclair’s genius, selling over 5 million in its 10-year lifespan. For kids of my generation, the squashy rubber keyboard was our introduction to computer gaming. But it is important to point out that the Spectrum was more than just a gaming console. It is probably impossible to guess how many of today’s senior programmers started their career with a Spectrum.
Sir Clive had made an impact before the first generation of home computers became a reality. He was active in the electronics industry before it really took off. By 1963, the young Clive had written a range of handbooks and instruction manuals, covering everything from stereo equipment to modern transistor circuits.
Innovations Before Their Time
In the 70s, the Sinclair Radionics company was manufacturing pocket calculators and miniature televisions. Sir Clive invented a digital watch, the Black Watch, but its technical drawbacks meant that it did not perform well on the market. However, this did not deter Sir Clive from continuing to innovate and invent, and less than a decade later his name became firmly linked to the new trend of home computing.
By the mid-80s, the home computing market was under pressure, and Sir Clive launched the product with which many associate his name – the Sinclair C5. We’ve talked about the C5 before. It was a three-wheeled, electrically-powered personal commuter vehicle. It was ridiculed at the time of its launch for poor performance, its high price and its lack of protection against the weather.
A Fresh Look at Sir Clive's Legacy
Did he deserve the derision that he attracted following the C5’s failure? Sir Clive’s fortunes never truly recovered, although he carried on inventing. The media, always unkind to unsuccessful businessmen, painted him an eccentric English inventor, but I think now is the time to readdress Sir Clive’s reputation. His impact in the field of electronics is huge, and everyone creating fantastic projects with Raspberry Pi or Arduino computer is following in Sir Clive’s footprints. His products inspired a generation of engineers, and he should be celebrated as a prolific inventor who was brave enough to think of ideas before their time. Our modern world faces an array of challenges, and we could do with more innovators who dare to think big.
It is true that the C5 was launched without the market research that might have cured some of its most obvious shortcomings. However, could it be argued that the C5 was a solution that was ready before the public realised that there was a problem to solve? Modern battery technology, along with changes in customer perception, might have made the C5 concept a success at a different time.
After all, a small and practical electric vehicle sounds like a very modern 21st Century solution, doesn’t it?