The Life of Clive
(Adapted from The Sinclair Story, by Rodney Dale)
CLIVE MARLES Sinclair was born near Richmond in Surrey on 30 July 1940. His father and grandfather were both engineers.
Clive's brother Iain was born in 1943 and his sister Fiona 1947. The Sinclair children remember a particularly idyllic childhood. Clive came into his own in the holidays, for he loved swimming and boating and at an early age designed a submarine which owed as much to grandfather George's naval interests and Jules Verne as to the availability of government surplus fuel tanks.
Clive found the comparative freedom of holidays a necessary
antidote to school; a time when he could pursue his own ideas
and teach himself what he really wanted to know. A sensitive
child with ways of thought and speech beyond his years, little
interest in sports other than aquatic, he sometimes found
himself out of joint with his schoolfellows.
He preferred the company of adults, and there were few places
other than with his family where he could feel intellectual
companionship. To some, the Sinclairs seemed to be unconventional,
a family who spoke directly, frankly, and often argumentatively
to one another as a matter of course - because not only was
it more fun that way, but also, as Clive now says: 'You get
more out of people by disagreeing with them.'
Clive went to Box Grove Preparatory School; he recalls it
with affection, and was very upset when it was eventually
closed. When he was ten, the school reported that it could
teach him no more maths, and he moved on to the secondary
phase of his education.
At about this time, his father suffered a severe financial
setback. With Sinclair tenacity, he started from scratch -
still in machine tools - and fought his way back in a remarkably
short time. However, fighting one's way back is not without
its effects on one's family, and Clive went to a number of
schools for his secondary education. Taking his O-levels at
Highgate School in 1955, and S-levels - in physics, and pure
and applied maths - at St George's College, Weybridge.
Mathematics - that perfect, concise language - had always
interested him deeply, and he had barely become a teenager
when he designed a calculating machine programmed by punch
cards. Because he wanted to make the adding as simple as possible,
he did it all with 0s and 1s. 'I thought that was a great
idea. I was really amazed to discover that this was a known
system; the binary system. That discovery disappointed me
deeply; I though I'd made my fortune ... but I was very pleased
with the idea.'
As a teenager, he also 'discovered' electronics. He had
always been fascinated by things miniature, and he carried
this interest into his electronic designs, seeking to produce
ever more refined and elegant circuits, using smaller and
smaller components. The state of his bedroom - a mass of wires
- was a family joke, but from it came amplifiers and radios
for his family and close friends, and an electrical communications
system for their hideouts in the woods.
He worked hard at school, particularly on subjects he was
keen on, reading and absorbing far beyond the required level.
If he wanted to learn something, he did so very readily; he
had - and still has - an incredible facility for assimilating
information. The converse it true; at school he had little
time for subjects which did not interest him. While still
at school he wrote his first article for Practical Wireless;
it was published; heady stuff.
As an antidote for working hard, Clive and his friends were
wont to hold wild teenage parties. A friend of his from a
strict Catholic family recalls that one Christmas Eve, after
a few drinks, he said to Clive: ' "I'm off to church;
I've got to go because I'm in the choir", so Clive said
he'd come along with me, and we staggered into the choir stalls
and Clive just joined in with his fine bass voice. Not bad
for an atheist!'
When he left school just before his eighteenth birthday,
there was no reason why he should not have gone to university
- except that he didn't want to. He knew from experience that
what he wanted to learn he could find out himself.
C M Sinclair's Micro Kit Co was formalised in an exercise
book dated 19 June 1958 - three weeks before the start of
his A-levels. In this book we find a radio circuit, 'Model
mark I' with a components list: 'cost/set 9:11d + coloured
wire & solder/nuts & bolts + celluloid chassis (drilled)
He had been delighted to find how cheap components were
if bought in bulk, and that there were such things as call-off
rates. He also realised that to sell big you had to look big,
even if you weren't. Not for him ninepenny words and five-and-sixpenny
lines; he would think in terms of half-page advertisements
at the very least.
Half page advertisements and components by the thousand
... where was the money to come from? Why not write another
article for Practical Wireless? The article was accepted,
although it was not published until the following November
- no instant cash there. But then he saw Practical Wireless
advertising for an editorial assistant; he applied for the
job and got it. He told his parents it was a holiday job.
After a decent interval, he told them that in Practical Wireless
thought very highly of him and that there were tremendous
prospects there - none of which was true.
But as it turned out there were tremendous prospects because
the magazine was run by an incredibly tiny staff: editor,
assistant editor, and editorial assistant - Clive. The editor
had to retire through illness and the assistant editor stepped
into his shoes. He soon collapsed under the strain, and there
was Clive Sinclair, at the age of 18, running Practical
Wireless. He says that it was not a difficult job; all
he had to do was to take the material from the regular contributors,
look through the articles which poured in from hopeful amateurs,
select enough for a well-balanced magazine, and give them
an editorial polish. The day a week that editing PW
took gave him plenty of time for further reading and circuit
design. PW readers could not always get his published
designs to work, but a design that didn't work always resulted
in a large postbag.
A job which occupies an active mid for a fraction of the
time lacks satisfaction. The Silver Jubilee Radio Show opened
at Earl's court at the end of August 1958, and Sinclair was
representing PW, on Stand 108, selling magazines and subscriptions,
and still wondering how to launch his own business. Opposite,
on Stand 126, was Bernard's Publishing.
Sinclair recalls: 'There I was on the Practical Wireless
stand, when all of a sudden an immense figure loomed up. It
was Bernard Babani; out of the corner of his mouth, best gangster
fashion, he said; "See you at the coffee stall in ten
minutes."' At the coffee stall, Babani offered Sinclair
£700 a year to run his publishing company. 'Maybe,'
was the murmured reply, 'but I expect a rise after a short
At Bernard's, Clive Sinclair designed and sometimes built
circuits, and Mr Singh did the drawings and prepared the artwork
for printing the books. The secretary, Maggie, did everything
else. Sinclair's mother had been dubious about her son leaving
the security of a monthly magazine but Bernard Babani said
to her: 'Mrs Sinclair, your son's name will be on all the
books we publish.' Many a true word; 25 years later that storeroom
which was Sinclair's office is stacked high with books about
microcomputers - and you don't have to look hard for the name
'Sinclair' on the covers.
But his burning ambition was still to start his own business
and in 1961 he had registered a company, Sinclair Radionics
Ltd, on 25 July. He took his design for a miniature pocket
transistor radio and spent some time seeking a backer for
its production in kit form. He gave in his notice to Babani,
only to find that his backer had developed cold feet.
He needed another job to earn some money - both to live and
to finance the business he was determined to start. He had
little difficulty in finding one; he joined United Trade Press
- based at 9 Gough Square, just off Fleet Street - as technical
editor of the journal Instrument Practice.
His name first appears in Instrument Practice as assistant
editor in March 1962. He lost no time getting to work, and
'Transistor DC Chopper amplifiers' appears in two parts in
May and June, followed by 'Silicon Planar Transistors in Hearing
His last appearance as assistant editor was in April 1963,
but the year he had spent marrying UTP to the semiconductor
industry was of great mutual benefit. As a journalist he could
approach all the semiconductor manufacturers and was welcomed
with open arms.
One of the facets of Sinclair's genius lay in his ability
to reduce the size of his designs. Although he had a sound
grounding in theory, he was also very practical. He knew that
manufacturers were selecting components to meet their published
specifications, which left them with 'rejects'. These 'rejects'
would obviously meet some specification; the art was to determine
what that specification was. Having done that, he could design
circuits in which components would perform perfectly well.
Thus did he move from publishing to marketing.
The first intimation that the world had of the existence
of Sinclair Radionics LTD was the half-page advertisement
which appeared in the hobby magazines in November 1962. This
was for the Sinclair Micro-amplifier, 'the smallest of its
type in the world', which 'out-performs amplifiers twenty
times as large'. There was a picture of the Micro-amplifier
sitting on a halfcrown.
Sinclair set up his research, development and marketing
organization in his office at Gough Square. However, the address
given in the advertisements for Sinclair Radionics LTD was
69 Histon Road, Cambridge; here is some background. In 1958,
I started a design and printing company called Polyhedron
Services, and two years later had moved to 69 Histon Road
and become involved in the development of Cambridge Consultants
Ltd. CCL was founded in 1960 by Tim Eiloart, a Cambridge chemical
When CCL wanted to set up a workshop, I let them the disused
bakehouse at 69 Histon Road. By this time, Tim Eiloart had
met Clive Sinclair; Clive had just set up Sinclair Radionics
and needed an organisation to receive his mail, assemble sets
of components into kits, and dispatch them. It wasn't quite
the high-tech work which CCL had envisaged but no matter;
as the Sinclair advertisements appeared CCL was ready with
the servicing organisation.
The half page Micro-amplifier advertisement was repeated
in December 1962; and in January was expanded to a full page.
Not knowing what was going on, I was somewhat surprised when
we were asked to print a second batch of 1000 data sheets.
The idea of 'stack it high and sell it cheap' by mail order
was one with which we at Cambridge Consultants and Polyhedron
were unfamiliar. 'He's either going to become a millionaire
or go broke' we muttered to one another as the piles of mail
The next thing we knew at Polyhedron was a request for 1000
cards regretting that, owing to an unprecedented demand, there
might be some delay in dispatching your Sinclair Slimline.
This radio, the dream on which the original Sinclair Micro-Kit
Co had been built, was announced in February 1963.
Sales were going from strength to strength; ideas for products
were coming thick and fast. The CCL workshop was burgeoning,
and the upper floor of the bakehouse was becoming somewhat
Sinclair's success had always been based on being first with
products, often aimed at a market that didn't know it existed.
By 1979 there was a well established 'personal computer' market.
Commodore had launched its £700 PET home computer the
previous year. Apple and Tandy were also well-known in the
field. These machines were found variously in laboratories,
and commercial and teaching establishments; not many people
had a computer at home.
Sinclair decided that he would have to offer a product with
all the essential features but at a greatly reduced price.
In May 1979 the Financial Times predicted: "Personal
computers will become steadily cheaper and their price could
drop to around £100 within five years." Typically,
Sinclair decided to do it in a few months!
The ZX80 - the world's smallest and cheapest computer - was
launched at an exhibition in Wembley at the end of January
1980. It measured 9" x 7" and cost £99.95,
or £79 in kit form.
In order to keep the price low the designers had to introduce
some radical ideas to reduce vastly the number of components.
The biggest saving was the use of a domestic television set
as a screen and a cassette player as a program and data store.
The machine had a Z80A microprocessor which was supplied by
Nippon Electric; a large ROM, which contained a 4K-byte specially
written Basic interpreter, the character set and monitor;
and the interfacing circuitry.
The ZX80 was very much aimed at the person in the street
wanting to know something about programming computers. Sinclair
was convinced that people could be persuaded to buy the ZX80
but how to persuade them was the problem. The image of the
computer at that time was somewhat Big Brother; clinical,
air-conditioned surroundings; huge cabinets with reels of
magnetic tape whirring to and fro. How would people relate
such a frightening piece of equipment to the ZX80? Why would
they want to buy it for the home? Why would they want to buy
it at all?
No one need have worried. The ZX80 was an immediate success;
ten orders were pieced at the exhibition in the first five
minutes. The office in King's Parade was suddenly inundated
with cheques; the switchboard was permanently jammed. Nobody
had expected quite such a response and there was total chaos.
Clive's immediate problem was to ensure that the company could
cope efficiently both with the administration, and with the
production of the ZX80.
Sinclair wanted to sell the ZX80 in the United States, although
he did not expect to find an enormous market there because
of the strength of the competition in the home computer field.
However, a few weeks before the launch of the ZX80 in the
UK he took it to the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show,
and at the same time met Nigel Searle in Boston. Within a
few days Searle had a new job, a new apartment and an office
in Boston. He sold the ZX80 and later the ZX81 in the States
from that office by mail order until early 1982.
Sinclair Research expanded rapidly; by September 1980, over
20,000 ZX80s had been sold. Clive Sinclair was determined
to keep the company to a manageable size, he was all too aware
of the need to try to learn from previous mistakes. Bringing
manufacturing in-house in the days of Sinclair Radionics had
seemed an excellent idea at the time, but the number of people
they had had to make redundant had hurt him deeply.
By this time there were 12 employees at the King's Parade
offices in Cambridge, six engineers still working at The Mill
in St Ives, and Nigel Searle in Boston. To make sure that
the company didn't grow too fast Sinclair had subcontracted
all manufacturing. To begin with, production was done locally
in St Ives by Tek Electronics. Components were generally of
a much higher standard than they had been during the Black
Watch fiasco, so there was less reason to manufacture products
in-house. Eventually, as more and more were produced, the
computers were made by Timex in Dundee; it is a testimony
to all concerned that the return rate on the ZX80 was only
one per cent.
Although the machine was so popular and sold so well, this
was largely because it had no competitors. In fact it did
have some drawbacks such as the lack of floating point arithmetic,
a capacity of only five digits and an inability to handle
separate files on its cassettes. The touch-sensitive - or
sometimes touch-insensitive - keyboard was unpopular with
users too. But in spite of those shortcomings, the ZX80 had
opened a new market sector which exceeded Sinclair's wildest
dreams, so who was going to complain too loudly? In September
1980, the company launched a 16K RAM pack - an extra plug-in
memory - to attach to the edge-connector at the back of the
machine. There will be many who remember the well-known RAM
pack problem whereby a slight breeze could upset the connection
and an evening's work would be lost. Thank heavens for Blu-Tack.
The ZX81 was launched in March 1981. It contained a new chip,
designed by Sinclair Research and manufactured by Ferranti
- the world leader in uncommitted logic arrays - standard
chips which can be adapted to a user's requirements at the
last stage of production. The new chip replaced 18 chips in
the ZX80 and the machine now retailed at £69.95 or £49.95
in kit form. Sinclair also offered an add-on ROM to convert
the ZX80 to the ZX81.
The ZX81 had a floating decimal point and scientific functions.
It came in a sturdy black case and, if you used a colour TV,
would produce black characters on a restful green background.
It was a vast improvement on the ZX80. Sinclair also announced
that he would be launching a small printer to work with the
ZX81 later in the year.
Now that he had an improved machine and the promise of a
printer, Sinclair decided to fight back at the government's
scheme by offering his own half-price deal. Schools could
buy a package of a ZX81 and a 16K RAM pack for £60;
and he further promised that they would be able to buy the
ZX Printer at half price when it was launched. That made the
total cost of a system £90, while under the government
scheme the minimum a school could pay if it bought an 'approved
system' was £130. About 2300 schools purchased the Sinclair
The ZX81 received a very sympathetic review from David Tebbutt
in Personal Computer World in which he keeps referring to
'Uncle Clive'. On the other hand: "Sinclair has been
a bit cheeky in his advertisements. Under a column entitled
'New, improved features', he proceeds to mention three things
that were included in the ZX80 when it was launched over a
year ago!" The ZX Printer was eventually launched in
November 1981 at £49.95. Designed for the ZX81, it could
also be used with the ZX80 with an 8K ROM. It was a very compact
little printer using a special metallised paper, and would
print 32 characters to a line.
The market gradually expanded. In March 1981 Mitsui approached
Sinclair Research and towards the end of the year was granted
exclusive distribution rights for the ZX81 in Japan. Mitsui
was one of Japan's main importers of British goods, the range
including Jaguar cars and Burberry raincoats. They planned
to market the ZX81 by mail order at about £90 and aimed
at selling 20,000 computers during the first year; there were
By the end of January 1982, 300,000 ZX81s had been sold worldwide.
In the USA Sinclair was selling 15,000 personal computers
a month by mail order; American Express was selling thousands
to a potential ten million customers. Then Timex was granted
a licence to market both current and future Sinclair personal
computer products in the US from mid-1982. They paid Sinclair
a five per cent royalty for sales and bought the right to
use the Sinclair name in the US.
In Britain, Sinclair signed an agreement to sell the ZX81
through the branching-out stationers and booksellers, mindful
of the ways in which the home computer created jobs. By February
1982 production of ZX81s was running at about half a million
machines a year and the company had a turnover of £30M
compared to £4.65M in the year ended March 1981.
One of the interesting side-effects of the ZX80 and ZX81
was the number of cottage industries that sprang up because
of them, producing software, peripherals and publications.
A ZX80 Users' Club had been formed before the ZX81 was launched;
SYNC Magazine appeared in January 1981 to cater for ZX81 users;
Learning Basic with your Sinclair ZX80 by Robin Norman, published
by Newnes in early 1981, was one of the first books to develop
Basic programming techniques on the home computer.
Hundreds of small operations started to sell programs, books,
extra memory, printers, sound generators and add-on keyboards
for use with the ZX81. In January 1982 one Mike Johnston organised
a fair for companies selling products for the Sinclair computers.
Nearly 10,000 people turned up at Central Hall, Westminster,
which has a capacity for only a few hundred; the police had
to be called to control the crowds; 70 exhibitors took huge
sums of money.
Both the ZX80 and ZX81 had been produced as learning machines,
for the person wanting to find out about computer programming.
Once people knew what they were doing they wanted a more powerful
machine, and at first they had to turn to manufacturers other
than Sinclair Research to find them.
The ZX Spectrum
Sinclair's philosophy - at least in retrospect - was to prepare
the world for universal computer ownership in easy stages.
Over 50,000 ZX80s had been sold, and more than six times as
many ZX81s. As the market matured, the engineers were working
away at the ZX82 (codename) which was launched as the ZX Spectrum
in April 1982. The hardware was designed by Richard Altwasser,
who later formed his own company, Cantab, and fell by the
wayside in an attempt to market a computer called the Jupiter
The Spectrum came in two versions: the 16K sold for £125
and the 48K for £175. For those who preferred to work
up in easy stages, an extra pack to increase the memory of
the cheaper machine was available for £60.
In many ways the Spectrum was altogether a 'better' machine
than either the ZX80 or ZX81, although some said its predecessor
the ZX81 was superior when it came to finding out how computers
actually work. Its chief advantages over the ZX81 were 'eight-colour
graphics capability, sound generator, high-resolution graphics
[smaller dots on the screen] and many other features, including
the facility to support separate data files.'
At last, Sinclair Research was notionally able to compete
with the BBC Micro and other personal computers; the figures
in the table published in the ZX Spectrum leaflet were impressive.
The ZX81 had been competing against the Acorn Atom; it could
never have stood up against the BBC model A, the current Acorn
competitor when the Spectrum came out. The Spectrum had a
more versatile Sinclair Basic than the previous two machines;
an improved keyboard replaced the unpopular - though cheap
- touch-sensitive keyboard; it was able to generate and display
49,152 pixels in 8 colours. The keyboard was a rubber pad
over a ZX81-type membrane keyboard, and which had a most peculiar
feel to it.
The Spectrum was the cheapest home computer to produce colour
graphics but the reviewer complained of the lack of facilities
and 'found that the borders tend to wriggle in an irritating
way'. It also had a small built-in loudspeaker which generated
bleeps 'acceptable for games, but not much more'. And that,
to Sinclair's disappointment, was about all the Spectrum was
generally used for.
The tone of the review was set in the first paragraph:
"After using it, however, I find Sinclair's claim
that it is the most powerful computer under £500 unsustainable.
Compared to more powerful machines, it is slow, its colour
graphics are disappointing, its Basic limited and its keyboard
The low cost of the Spectrum meant that parents were prepared
to buy them to give their children 'a good start in life'.
The place of the computer in the home was reinforced by the
meagre provision in schools, where there was often only one
machine between 30 pupils and thus insufficient opportunity
for everyone to practise. What better solution than a computer
But Sinclair observed another dimension: "The interesting
thing is that as well as children being expert at programming,
there is another expert group taking to it like ducks to water
- retired people. The concept of it being peculiarly suitable
to the young mind is perhaps wrong - it's the mind that's
free of everyday burdens. The retired person with some time
to spare can take to it wonderfully and it's giving a lot
of people a new interest in life."
The Spectrum was capable of playing very sophisticated games
and there were companies starting up solely to produce them
- often run by very young people who had learnt programming
at school or from magazines.
In February 1983, WH Smith, who had been the Spectrum's biggest
distributor, was joined by Boots, Currys, Greens - Debenham's
in-store subsidiary - and John Menzies as Sinclair pioneered
a change in the High Street. Many other stores such as John
Lewis and the House of Fraser were supplied by Sinclair's
UK distributor, Prism Micros. 200,000 Spectrums had now been
sold by mail order, and by Easter 12-15,000 Spectrums were
being sold per week in the UK. The Spectrum had also been
launched in more than 30 countries worldwide.
You couldn't walk into WH Smith on a Saturday without being
faced with shelves of software and mobiles and whizz-kids
playing on the computers. What sort of computer you had became
an important factor in playground status. Sinclair was working
his purpose out; the Spectrum was a bestseller in the home
computer market, and he was achieving his object - to familiarise
the world at large with the joys of computing via the home
Before long, plans were being laid for a new machine whose
working name was the ZX83. It would be aimed at a specific
gap in the now-educated market - the business user about to
embark on computing. This was a market potentially ten times
as big as that for home computing, so it was well worth pursuing.
In 1984, a simple business installation cost at least £2000;
more with a quality printer and a range of software. Sinclair's
aim was to bring down the price of a notionally comparable
system so that a whole stratum of potentially interested users
would be able to justify the expense.
As 1983 drew to a close, work on the ZX83 (or would it be
the ZX84?) became more and more frantic. What was the machine
going to be called? Suggestions were invited from within the
Sinclair organisation, perhaps the most memorable being, in
honour of Sinclair's favourite colour and recent honour, the
Black Knight. One day my telephone rang; it was Alison Maguire,
'We've got a name for the new computer.'
'Hold on, I'll just shut the door . . . It's Quantum Leap,
QL for short.'
The launch date of the QL was fixed for 12 January 1984.
That it was far too early a date is now well known, but just
who realised that at the time when it was fixed is unclear.
But perhaps one of the most powerful reasons for making the,
announcement was that it seemed as though the competition
were aiming at the same gap in the market (the low-priced
business computer) - IBM with its PC, Apple with its Macintosh,
Commodore with its 264 and, last but by no means least, Acorn
with its Business Machine.
The launch at the Inter-Continental Hotel, Hyde Park Corner,
was spectacular: either the name of Sinclair, or the promise
of breakfast, was such that some computer journals sent the
entire staff to find out what was going on. By 10.30 everyone
had trooped into the conference room and Nigel Searle introduced
Clive Sinclair, who described how the QL had come into being,
and unlocked the secret that QL meant quantum leap. 'Many
of its advanced capabilities, such as multi-tasking and multi-window
display, are normally only available on machines costing several
thousand pounds' he said. The launch was nothing if not lavish;
everyone left the hotel clutching extremely glossy brochures
and copies of the QL manual - almost as good as having a QL.
Generally rave reviews began to appear in the technical press.
Soon, everyone had heard of the QL and orders began to pour
in. Deliveries did not, however, begin to pour out. Even before
the end of February, it was clear that the company would not
be able to dispatch QLs 'within 28 days' as promised.
At first, people were prepared to make allowances - Sinclair
products were often a little slow off the mark, but when they
arrived they were well worth waiting for. At the beginning
of March Sinclair announced that deliveries of the QL would
start in 'April.' By the end of May, the company had received
over £5M for 13,000 machines, but had only been able
to deliver a few hundred. In July, the company announced that
the QL computer and flatscreen TV would go retail in September.
The machines that were slowly being delivered were still
in effect under development, and contained gradually improving
versions of the felicitously-named QDOS operating system (the
system that orchestrates the computer's working). All of this
was like wearing a coat with the tailor inside finishing it
off. It turned out that QDOS was twice as big as the operating
system on the Spectrum, and four times as complex, and that
trying to produce QDOS in twelve months had been but a pious
hope. One of the oddities that people couldn't help noticing
was the EPROM chip 'exposed to the elements sticking out of
the back of the casing' which gave - not unnaturally - the
impression that the machine was not properly finished.
The prolonged wait suffered by thousands of expectant customers,
the temporary expedient with EPROMs, the changing versions
of QDOS, the consequent modifications to software, and the
multiple problems with the Microdrive all raised fundamental
questions about Sinclair's design philosophy and marketing
At the launch in January 1984, Clive spoke of QL production
building up to 100,000 per month. In fact, fewer than 60,000
machines were sold in that first year.
Sinclair's adamant refusal to produce games software for
the QL, on the mistaken principle that it would make it look
like a games machine, must have played its part in dissuading
potential customers. Even the lower-budget end of the business
sector is likely to be looking for reasons - or excuses -
to buy its first computer and the idea that it will appeal
to all the family can be a powerful purse-opener.