Friday, October 22, 2021

RIP Sir Clive Sinclair, creator of the UK’s famous ZX Spectrum gaming computer

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Enlarge / Sir Clive Sinclair holding the world’s smallest television screen when it was created by Sinclair Radionics in 1977.

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Sir Clive Sinclair, the namesake of a British electronics manufacturer who helped fuel the rise of microcomputing in Europe, is died at the age of 81.

His company, Sinclair Radionics, is arguably best known around the world for the 1982 ZX Spectrum, an early example of a computer capable of real-time multi-color graphics. The device dominated the UK and other European territories in the early 1980s. This computer was an important step in the processing of black and white Spectrum computers like the ZX80 and ZX81, and debuted in such a low-priced configuration like £ 125. American readers probably know this platform better thanks to the popular and ambitious ZX Spectrum games from small developer Ultimate: Play The Game. That company eventually rebranded itself as Rareware and became a ’90s powerhouse on Nintendo consoles.

However, before his name is linked endlessly to video game history, Sinclair’s rise to running his own electronics manufacturing company closely resembles the stories of American electronics pioneers who started out as garage fans. A BBC documentary, Clive Sinclair: The Beat Setters, chronicles the rise of the inventor, which began with the sale of radio equipment one at a time by mail order in the 1960s.

As the documentary is region-locked, many readers will have to settle for this BBC text version of its highlights, which follows Sinclair’s rise as a maker of British pocket calculators and portable televisions before redirecting its efforts to personal computers. During this time, an effort to get the British government to back Sinclair as a formally supported PC maker, especially as the government began optimistically promoting access to computers in homes and schools, fell apart. Instead, rival computer maker Curry became a partner of “BBC Micro.” Sinclair and Spectrum responded with the more powerful ZX Spectrum, which sold more than 5 million units. Sadly, the rest of his career did not reach the same heights, and was largely marked by failed efforts to launch electric modes of transport, including the famous failure of the capsule-shaped C5 “car”.

For a charming Clive-on-Clive conversation, check out this 1990 interview with British TV host Clive Anderson (Whose line is this anyway?), with the two men watching and talking about various Spectrum inventions over the years, including, incredibly, Sinclair’s failed C5.

Sir Clive Sinclair talks about the history of his product in 1990.

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