05/12/2021

059 – Clive Sinclair – 1980

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I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. 
Attributed in 1943 (IBM says falsely) to Thomas J Watson Sr

Throughout his schooldays Clive Sinclair worked at electronics companies and even wrote his first paper for Practical Wireless.

At eighteen he designed a transistor radio kit, the Model Mark I, and a year later published ‘Practical Transistor Receivers, Book 1’. He went on to produce a whole series of books at Bernard’s Publishing and Bernard Babani publishers.

He worked for Instrument Practice magazine as technical editor and in 1961 founded Sinclair Radionics Ltd to fabricate printed circuit boards and radio kits.

1966 – He first took a look at television and developed plans for what was claimed as the ‘world’s first portable television’; this Microvision was never released. He moved into audio which had success for the company.

He released the stylish ‘world’s first slimline pocket calculator’, the much admired Sinclair Executive. He moved into electronic watches with the LED Black Watch, available as a kit or assembled.

The television design was revisited but supply of the Microvision greatly exceeded demand; 12,000 surplus units were sold off cheaply, contributing to a £480k loss on the year.

The UK’s National Enterprise Board acquired 43% of Sinclair Radionics for £650k in 1978. The NEB provided funding for the creation of a ‘British Apple’. This project was directed by Clive Sinclair, the hardware designer was Mike Wakefield, and the software designer Basil Smith; Wakefield and Smith worked from Newbury Laboratories, which was also NEB funded.

Ian Williamson, an independent designer, approached Chris Curry at Sinclair who was keen to support the approach and release a Sinclair microcomputer kit. But Sinclair himself opted to deal directly with National Semiconductor to produce the kit. The resultant MK14 sold some 50,000 units.

Jim Westwood designed the ZX80. Launched in February 1980, it used a home television for its screen and a cassette tape recorder for loading and storage of data. Announced as the ‘world’s smallest and cheapest computer’, it was built by Timex at the Dundee plant in Silicon Glen.

1981 – Renamed Sinclair Research Ltd, the company launched the ZX81. In April came the ZX Spectrum.

Sinclair co-founded Timex Sinclair to break into the US market with modified versions. Production was at a Timex plant in Portugal to take advantage of the lowest labour rates in Europe. They had sales of 600,000 units in 1982, but then slowed; the initiative was all but over in three years.

1984 – Sinclair launched the Quantum Leap desktop, the first PC based on the Motorola 68008, but deliveries were late and slow.

1985 – Sinclair was awarded a knighthood, in the same year that QL production was suspended. The IBM-PC was by then the de facto standard for the business market. To media amusement that year Sinclair also launched the C5 electric vehicle; it did sell 17,000 units!

In April 1986 for just £5m Amstrad acquired the name Sinclair, together with rights in its computers and all unsold stocks; selling stocks through proved to be worth more than the sum paid. Amstrad went on to launch several Sinclair computers itself.

1988 – Clive Sinclair was back and launched the Cambridge Computer Z88 which had success with Sinclair aficionados.

Sinclair Research Ltd continued as an R&D business, innovating in wafer-scale integration, telephony and satellite receivers. From the 1990s its focus has been on bicycles – the Zike, the Zeta and the A-bike folding bike.

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