RIP Sir Clive Sinclair: It Couldn’t Have Happened Without You

Sir Clive Sinclair

Sir Clive Sinclair has passed away at 81. His impact on British home computing leaves a lasting, deeply ingrained legacy.

A school friend of mine had a ZX Spectrum. I remember the time he invited me round one rainy Saturday morning to play on it. Its rubber keys and noisy cassette player seemed low-tech compared with my larger, full keyboarded, and quiet Commodore 64, but we had fun with the games regardless – when we could get them to load.

Ultimately, I was nonplussed. But as I started earning pocket money and buying my own games, something struck me. There were – for a significant time – more Spectrum games stocked locally than C64 titles. Why this was I didn’t realise at the time, but now I do.

The death of Sir Clive Sinclair (at 81), the genius behind the ZX Spectrum and countless other British electronics (minimal C5 chat here), will hopefully inspire a reappraisal of his impact on the computing industry. Still actively designing in his later years, Clive Sinclair discarded the Spectrum in 1986, selling the computer business to Alan Sugar of AMSTRAD (hence subsequent cross-compatibility between later Spectrum models and Amstrad computers).

At the very least (and this is pretty big), his were the shoulders that propped up the British computer industry. Despite the success of the C64 worldwide, at home the Spectrum – an affordable computer with plenty of cheap games – was the heart of the nascent home computer industry. Throw in the ability to hook up a common-or-garden cassette player rather than a proprietary device and games in the back of magazines for would be programmers to type in themselves, and you had magic.

Years later, when I was comprehensive school age, I found a box of old Sinclair ZX80s and ZX81s in a cupboard in the design and technology department. I presumed they’d been collected for controlling robots or trainsets or something. But it was a sad mirror of the decline not just of the original home computing generation, but Sinclair itself.

Of course, a legacy like this doesn’t just disappear. The ZX Spectrum Next, for example, is completely unrelated to Sir Clive, but it’s lineage is obvious.

From pocket calculators and palm-sized radios to affordable home computers, Sir Clive Sinclair (knighted in 1983) single-handedly established a generation of computer developers and gamers. This was budget stuff, typically British, quirky, and with varying levels of reliability. It’s a level of quality control that couldn’t get through these days, but then, at the birth of home electronics, was par for the course (and plenty of US rivals had their own issues with reliability).

But it wasn’t just in the UK where the ZX Spectrum pushed home computing. It had success across Europe, even being the basis for clones in Eastern Europe at a time when the Iron Curtain of communism curtailed trade.

Born 30th July 1940 and passing 16th September 2021, Sir Clive Sinclair holds a unique position in British technology and computing, one that Alan Sugar couldn’t buy for £5 million. One of these two men will be remembered far more fondly than the other.