Home Computing Pioneer Dies

By Scott Hamilton

Senior Expert Emerging Technologies

I had a completely different idea in mind for this week until I heard the news about one of my heroes. Sir Clive Sinclair died at the age of 81 on September 16, 2021. You might wonder why he reached hero status in my eyes; it had to do with the technology he helped to make available to the masses. At the peak of his career he founded Sinclair Radionics in 1961. If you’re not familiar with computing history, Sinclair Radionics produced the first slim-line electronic pocket calculator in 1972.

The Sinclair Executive pocket calculator was the first of many home computers developed by Sinclair. Unfortunately I never had the chance to tinker with a Sinclair product because they were developed and deployed in the European market. Sinclair moved on from pocket calculators to home computers with the production of the Sinclair ZX80, which was sold for less than one hundred pounds. This was produced at a time when computers were the size of refrigerators and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Sinclair used the breakthrough technology of integrated circuits to develop transistor-based microprocessors.

The ZX80, followed by the ZX81 and the ZX Spectrum, drove the entire European home computer industry. Not only could you buy a Sinclair computer prebuilt, but Sinclair released enough information about how the systems were built that many people began making clones of his system, providing British homes with computers all the way into the early 1990s. This was in the era of the Apple II ($1298), IBM Model 5150 ($3000) based on Intel 8088 processor, and the Commodore VIC-20 ($295.00). The assemble-it-yourself kit from Sinclair was only $110, setting them apart as the most affordable home computer over nearly a decade.

So what happened to Sinclair Radionics? Sinclair made a change to deeper electronics research work. Unfortunately a little behind the times, he attempted to release a portable flat-screen TV utilizing a small cathode ray tube, however the LCD television technology broke out a few months later, resulting in only 15,000 units being sold. In 1983 Sinclair was knighted for his contribution to technology in Britain and he formed Sinclair Vehicles. He produced one of the earliest electric cars, the Sinclair C5, which was a commercial failure. He then made a shift to personal transport, including his A-bike, which was a folding, 13-pound bicycle for commuters that folded small enough to carry on public transport. Near the end of Sinclair Research in 1997, the company consisted of Sinclair himself. In 2003 he collaborated with Hong Kong based Daka to develop a wheelchair drive. Sinclair’s very last project was the Sinclair X-1 electric vehicle, developed in 2010, but it never made it to market. He retired shortly after the failure to launch the X-1.

Sinclair, despite his heavy involvement with computers, did not use the Internet, stating that he does not like to have “technical or mechanical things around me,” as it distracts from the process of invention. He stated in 2010 that he did not use computers himself, and preferred using the telephone rather than email.

Sinclair was a wise man for focusing on the inventing process and communicating directly with others rather than through the Internet. We could all learn something from his life. Put down our devices and spend some time coming up with new ideas on our own.

Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at http://www.techshepherd.org.