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British home computing inventor Sir Clive Sinclair dies

While the US started home computing in the 1970s, it was Sir Clive Sinclair’s low-cost devices which brought computing to the UK public

Home computing genius inventor Sir Clive Sinclair has died at the age of 81. Sinclair, who started work as an editorial assistant at Practical Wireless and then became its editor, while at the same time developing kit transistor radios, is seen as the godfather of British home computing.

In The Sinclair story by Rodney Dowes, the author tells the story of how the inventor moved from pioneering pocket-sized radios to affordable home computers, pocket-sized flat screen TV and beyond.

While the US started the home computing revolution with “homebrew” kits such as the Altair 8800 and later Apple 1, these were quite expensive. 

Powered by a Z80 microprocessor, Sinclair developed the UK’s first affordable home computer, the ZX81, which was launched in March 1981. The device used a membrane keyboard, had just 1 Kbyte of memory and needed an external TV monitor. But, significantly, unlike US rivals of the time, such as the Apple 2 and Commodore 64, it only cost £50. Many schoolchildren got their first hands-on experience of computing in the early 1980s, learning to program ZX81 machines.

The ZX Spectrum was the next major step forward for Sinclair in home computing, bringing in a colour screen and graphics at an affordable price for home users, which ushered in the age of classic computer games such as Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy.

The QL was the next machine, then Sinclair introduced an electric tricycle, the C5, which flopped. In 1986, Sinclair eventually sold the marketing and merchandising rights to his inventions for £5m, to computing rival Amstrad.

In the book, Dowes quotes Sinclair’s response during a panel discussion on BBC’s Question time, when asked about the future of computing replacing the workforce. “So far we’ve replaced human labour at the very lowest intellectual levels – no intellect’s needed for washing up and so on,” he said. “Now we’re aiming at moving upwards and replacing intellect at the professional level. I think that what I’m doing is making a machine which will in due course sit in the home and replace – or supplement – the doctor, the solicitor, the teacher.”

Condolences

Tweeting his condolences, Alan Sugar wrote: “So sad to hear about my good friend and competitor Sir Clive Sinclair. What a guy, he kickstarted 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.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella tweeted: “R.I.P. Sir Clive Sinclair. Your innovations democratised computing and inspired so many, including myself. I vividly remember my first computer, a ZX80, and the sense of wonder and empowerment I felt. It was your device that sparked my passion for engineering.”

Elon Musk wrote: “R.I.P., Sir Sinclair. I loved that computer.”

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