Sir Clive Sinclair: Personal computing pioneer missed out on being Britain's Steve Jobs
Lifelong cost focus was his namesake company's corporate downfall
Obituary 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 British computing through his company Sinclair Research Ltd and its iconic Spectrum product line.
Trailblazer ... Sir Clive Sinclair in 1981 with a tiny TV prototype
Source: Licensed from Getty
Fondly remembered by a generation of modern-day British tech and computing leaders, the ZX Spectrum was named for its colour output, a rarity in the mostly monochrome days of 1982. Launched in April that year, just as another conflict (the Falklands) seared its way into the British national consciousness, Sir Clive's crowning glory brought not only the simple fun of gaming but coding, programming, and the building blocks of computer science to thousands upon thousands of eager young minds.
The son of a mechanical engineer, Sir Clive's early days in computing began with A levels in physics, pure maths, and applied maths at school in Weybridge. A design for a programmable calculator that ran punch-card programs led him, inexorably, to the mysteries of the electronic circuit.
In 1958, a remarkably precocious young Sinclair had not only sketched out a design for a personal radio receiver but had also drawn up a bill of materials weighing in at 9s 11d, and he began submitting articles to Practical Wireless magazine, helping him secure a job as the mag's editorial assistant. A series of helpful coincidences (an editorial retirement followed by the deputy editor's collapse from nervous strain) meant 18-year-old Clive ended up running the title, leading to an early career in electronics journalism.
'Best computer designer in the world'… you'll do
That early focus on costs of materials carried over from the Swinging Sixties' Sinclair Radionics and its personal calculators to Clive's most famous company, Sinclair Research Ltd. SRL's former chief design engineer David Karlin told The Register: "The thing about Clive I remember really clearly was this massive focus on component cost. He was able to just make you do things you didn't think you would be able to do."
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. Taking bets on talented and enthusiastic young hires was part of the culture at SRL; what we would now call an agile scale-up.
Karlin was hired by Clive himself after answering an ad for "a completely different role" after which the recruiter said: "I think you should meet Clive Sinclair." Following "a very quick interview," Clive appointed him on the spot, Karlin recounting: "I discovered only later that he had actually advertised for 'the best computer designer in the world' and that this was the job he had just given me. A source of great hilarity to many of my friends! I was 23 or something at the time."
Rupert Goodwins, scribe of this parish, remembered:
Clive Sinclair hired the 19-year-old me after a drunken Mensa dinner party in Chiswick! I'd been on the Six O'Clock News in silhouette talking about my part in the Prestel hack, and he recognised my voice. He didn't say what he wanted me to do, just put me in a room in the London office, which was just him and his secretary, gave me a One Per Desk and left me to it.
The palatial Sinclair residence at Stone House, Cambridge ("the nice bit of West Cambridge," observed Karlin), became a locus for Clive's parties – and his generosity, though that could on occasion be a little too revealing. Goodwins recalled that Clive put him up in the loft of the house while he found permanent digs in town; upon opening the room's wardrobe, Goodwins found it "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."
Chaos inevitably reigned as a result of the hiring policy, with Goodwins recalling oddballs who wore fluorescent (and odd) socks, decisions being made and remade "far too close to launch" and lots of "clever people convinced of their own genius" pitching in willy-nilly.
Pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap
At its launch the ZX Spectrum was keenly priced at £125, complete with 16kB of RAM. The pricing was no accident. Long-time Sinclair admirer Paul Andrews observed of Sinclair's early business practices: "The penny dropped to them that the way for a company to expand is, if you can have a computer in everyone's house, everyone's got one mass market. That's the real profit margin, as opposed to just business."
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The Speccie sold far and wide, competing with the Commodore 64 and bringing the magic of early home computing to the masses – and profitably, too. Unfortunately, Clive's keen eye for the bill of materials meant just a few too many corners were cut in production, with Karlin remembering that the numbers of irate customers awaiting warranty repairs eventually outweighed the number of happy consumers.
Clive's next memorable venture, the C5 electric buggy, has been sliced and diced elsewhere at great length. It was a flop; from a safety point of view the go-kart-sized electric vehicle was simply too small in a world of growing cars, while their lack of reliability became a national joke.
Ever the pragmatist, with the C5 trashing SRL's reputation and finances alike, Clive sold the Sinclair brand name and product lines to Amstrad (under Alan Sugar) in 1986, keeping SRL for himself as an R&D vehicle.
So sad to hear about my good friend and competitor Sir Clive Sinclair. What a guy he kicked started consumer electronics in the UK with his amplifier kits then calculators, watches mini TV and of course the Sinclair ZX. Not to forget his quirky electric car. R.I.P Friend— Lord Sugar (@Lord_Sugar) September 16, 2021
Away from the relentless commercialism of the office, Clive's personal life raised a few eyebrows. His early taste for partying continued into adulthood ("phenomenal events," said Karlin), with detailed recollections of those events discreetly muted by time.
El Reg's Goodwins shed a little light, though, saying that by the mid '80s "there were still funds to build an office bar and fit it out as a pub [in R&D HQ at Milton Keynes], but in the finest Sinclair fashion nobody had thought to apply for a licence, so the beer had to be given away."
He continued: "The company did like a drink, and there was a certain truth in the myth that we had to close down because we'd run out of Cambridge colleges to have our Christmas parties at – we were never allowed back a second time."
Clive's first marriage, to Ann Trevor-Briscoe in 1962, brought the birth of three children. They divorced in 1985. The inventor later had a decade-long on-off relationship with model Angie Bowness, whom he met in the mid-1990s, which prompted a round of Establishment pearl-clutching. At the time of their 2010 nuptials, Angie was 33 and Clive was 69 years of age. They divorced seven years later.
Dominik Diamond, original host of Channel 4's GamesMaster programme, also paid tribute to the iconic inventor on Twitter:
All your UK videogame companies today were built on the shoulders of giants who made games for the ZX Spectrum. You cannot exaggerate Sir Clive Sinclair’s influence on the world. And if we’d all stopped laughing long enough to buy a C5 he’d probably have saved the environment.— Dominik Diamond (@DominikDiamond) September 16, 2021
On the whole Sir Clive kickstarted the British tech scene as we know it today. Countless industry veterans owe their careers and their passions to playing with Spectrums in their formative years. The British home computing industry, indeed, owes its fortunes to Sinclair creating the market for affordable general-purpose home devices.
Was he a man before his time? It is easy to think so. The C5, mocked and derided back in the 1980s, might have been a shoo-in these days, or at least the concept of it, as electric scooters whiz around British cities. Clive's later invention of a portable TV was also a flop, but today everyone carries a device capable of receiving, if not TV transmissions per se, live audio-visual broadcasts.
The past's future ... Sinclair ads for pocket TVs. Imagine having a little screen you can fit in your pocket?
Karlin, designer of the ill-fated Sinclair QL's electronics, observed: "It's tragic because I think we could have been the British Apple. Apple started out as a sort of similarly hobbyist kind of company, I think Steve Wozniak was an old tech head of the old school. Apple understood manufacturing and manufacturing quality in a way that Sinclair never did.
"That's why we have Apple now and why Sinclair is a footnote."
That 1958 bill of materials might have been prudent for one so young, but in its very far-sightedness it also foretold Clive's downfall.
We've collected selected Register readers' thoughts on Sir Clive's impact on home computing here. ®
Sir Clive Marles Sinclair, 30 July 1940 – 16 September 2021.
The author is indebted to Rodney Dale's 1985 biography The Sinclair Story for its copious anecdotes about Sir Clive's early life.
Meanwhile, this video may prompt some reminiscing among longer-toothed readers...