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Who is Clive Sinclair?

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Computer pioneer Clive Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum inspired a generation

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

Clive Sinclair’s influence led to the growth of the UK’s computer industry and the emergence of mobile processors.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Pride of place in my technology archive is a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, one of the earliest and most impactful computers.

It was created by that rampant genius Sir Clive Sinclair, who died this week aged 81.

Sinclair’s amazing computer, the ZX Spectrum 48K, was launched in 1982 and is widely credited for the UK’s computer industry blossoming as all these teenage computer hobbyists matured.

The dominant type of processor design we all use in our mobile phones is from an originally British firm called Arm, for instance. Many commentators say it is linked to the tech-savvy experience of youngsters who had learnt to code on Sinclair’s breakthrough computer. 

Part of its success was that it cost about a fifth of what any of the other computers at that time.

“RIP, Sir Sinclair. I loved that computer,” Pretoria’s favourite son, Elon Musk, tweeted. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO, like so many kids of his generation, used the ZX Spectrum.

Sinclair was a kind of Steve Jobs character who knew his inventions were so ahead of their time that the potential customers didn’t know yet what they wanted.

“It was the ideas, the challenge, that he found exciting,” his daughter Belinda Sinclair told The Guardian. “He’d come up with an idea and say: ‘There’s no point in asking if someone wants it, because they can’t imagine it’.”

Before pioneering this early computer – there were several precursor models – Sinclair designed pocket calculators. They were an innovation given that, in the 1970s, most calculators were chunky desktop appliances the size of a cash register.

“He wanted to make things small and cheap so people could access them,” Belinda said.

Sinclair made his fortune from his first home computer, the ZX80, a revolutionary computer that you could build yourself or pay extra to have assembled. 

Launched in 1980, it sold 50,000 units, and the ZX81 follow-up sold 250,000. 

“Within two or three years, we made £14-million profit in a year,” Sinclair told The Guardian in 2010. He was knighted in 1983 for his contributions to the nascent home computer industry.

“He was a rather amazing person. Of course, he was so clever, and he was always interested in everything,” his daughter said.

Indeed, he tried his hand at making a three-wheeled, battery-powered, electric trike called the Sinclair C5 and the Sinclair TV80, a tiny portable television. Both were massive failures.

He will be known – and loved – for the ZX Spectrum 48K, which fuelled a generation of eager young geeks like me who began exploring these newfangled home computers. I never owned one – my ZX Spectrum in my archive was a gift from my father-in-law, who kept it in pristine condition all these years. My best friend had a ZX Spectrum, and we programmed it and played its games – a precursor to the gigantic gaming industry of today.

Amazingly, Sinclair himself wasn’t a big user of his breakthrough device, the calculator, and always carried a slide rule – another iconic early computing device that I have in my archive. My mother, Sylvia, the 14th woman architect in South Africa, gave it to me after using it her entire career. I remember, as a child, watching her use it. She was as fast as using a calculator, as I tested when I was about eight.

The world is eternally grateful to Sir Clive Sinclair, without whom many millions would not have embraced computers as youngsters – nor inspired a generation, which grew up to be the first to embrace computers. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • I owe my career to Sir Clive. The ZX Spectrum was my introduction to computers and the life I’ve since made from it. In hindsight, the best investment ever. At the time, it wasn’t cheap-cheap, but also not silly expensive. Thanks dad for a gift that truly keeps on giving.

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