Thank You, Sir Clive Sinclair

A few days ago, Sir Clive Sinclair died. I owe him, or rather his most successful product, my career as a computer scientist. I bought myself a ZX Spectrum in my early teens, taught myself how to program it, and never looked back. The ArsTechnica obituary calls the Spectrum a “gaming computer”, and I guess that is mostly fair. Can’t say I ever used it for more than playing games or programming games.

I chose the Spectrum since it was cheap and I had a friend at the time that happened to have one. Since his parents came from the UK, it was quite natural to get one of ZX machines. Most of my computer-using friends at the time ended up with the fancier Commodore 64.

Sir Clive?

Back when I got my Spectrum, I could not care less about the person behind the computer. The Sinclair company built the Spectrum, but the fact that it was named after a person was simultaneously obvious and irrelevant. I had no idea how famous Sir Clive Sinclair was in Britain, and I suppose the British Spectrum magazines I was reading didn’t see a need to write about him since everybody else did. As I recall it, the Spectrum magazines did report on the rather disastrous launch of the Sinclair C5 electric scooter/bike/vehicle, making him look quite clownish.

A while later, the Amstrad company bought up what was left of Sinclair’s computer company, and my beloved Spectrum felt like it lost a parent. A few more years, and I bought a 68000-based Macintosh and the Spectrum was left to gather dust. Exit Sinclair. But the Spectrum had done its job and got me on the computer bandwagon.

Sir Clive!

Much later in life, I have learnt a bit more about Sir Clive (including watching the movie Micro Men), and the man comes through as a really interesting character. Quite the genius at coming up with ideas, but also quite bad at market research and product planning, and entirely rubbish at running businesses. He got some things right in his early days of radio kits and pocket calculators, and produced some real hits with the ZX 80, ZX 81, and ZX 82/Spectrum computers.

At the same time, there was a long series of more-or-less disasters, among which the “Black Watch” is amazing in its unintentional hilarity – it is like Monty Python created an electronics device as a joke.

His insistence on keeping prices low helped propel the microcomputer revolution in Europe. His product designs can serve as inspiration if you are trying to think about ways to minimize some other product – Sir Clive really did think out of the box with the god-awful keyboards and it-just-barely-works level of technical sophistication of his computers. It shows how “a computer” is infinitely better than “no computer”, and that users are willing to compromise if some core need it being met. With the Spectrum, he hit the right balance. With most other products, they fell on the wrong side of the trade.

After that, not very much appears to have met with success.

In a way, he was like a 1970s rock band that just keeps on touring despite their best work being 30-40 years old. You can still do a lot with a solid reputation and a famous name. The press kept writing about his work, even though nothing actually ever came to market.

Not sure that the BBC’s headline of him being ahead of his time is accurate. I guess they mean his obsession with electrified mobility. But maybe they are right… another way to look at Sir Clive is that he was totally unlucky with his life’s timing. I would speculate that if he had started out 30 years later with a similar level of innovativeness and luck, he could have been one of the tech billionaires who get their one good idea turned into a very successful company and then spend the rest of their days doing random stuff with the money they made. The profits to be made in tech in early 1980s were just a lot smaller than what they are today, leaving correspondingly less room for funding wild innovative ideas.

No matter what happened later on – we have to thank him for the ZX Spectrum! It was a good product at the right time, getting many young people into computers and programming just when software was really taking off as a business.

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