Before computers were a staple of workplaces, schools, libraries and many homes, they were bulky, expensive and a luxury many couldn’t afford.
Enter Clive Sinclair. The British inventor’s first personal computer, the ZX80, was a slim steal at $200. The invention and its more advanced successors helped bring computing to the masses (and inspired a generation of programmers to create inventive computer games).
Most of his inventions hinged on making existing products smaller and more affordable, even if they weren’t widely welcomed by the public – he’s just as well-known for the Sinclair C5, a small, low-speed electric car that was lambasted upon release, as he is for his far more successful computers.
But for all the mixed feedback his creations received, he stood by them staunchly.
“If the idea is good enough, it’s going to appear pretty crazy to almost everybody,” he told the Independent in a 2010 interview. “Either you do it yourself or it ain’t going to happen.”
Sinclair, who was knighted for his contributions to computing in the UK, died this week, his daughter, Belinda, confirmed to the Guardian. He was 81.
Sinclair specialized in affordable, efficient inventions
Sinclair, born in London, was always looking for ways to make things more efficient, be it calculus, commuting or computing. It’s an idea he ran with from his very first invention at age 12, when he designed a one-man submarine, according to the Independent.
Like another esteemed tech pioneer, he opted to skip college and head straight into work. And in 1972, after a few years of working as a tech journalist, he had his first hit: The Executive, a lightweight portable calculator that fit neatly into a pocket. For its ingenuity, the calculator was awarded a Design Council Award for Electronics.
Over the next decade, Sinclair, through his company, Sinclair Radionics, made his name selling mini TVs and the Black Watch, an electronic watch widely criticized for its low battery life and tendency to tell time incorrectly, among other issues.
Undeterred by his first failure, Sinclair started over with a new company, Sinclair Research. In 1980, the company released the ZX80 personal computer, the very first computer to sell for under $200. It was small enough to fit within one’s hand and weighed just 12 ounces, though it had no screen and minimal storage. The small machine boasted just one-tenth of the parts that other computers used at the time, according to Old Computers, an online archive of, well, old computers.
Its successor, the ZX81, was even cheaper, at $100, and more than 1 million of them were sold. His success continued the following year with the ZX Spectrum, a more advanced model with a color display that became one of the bestselling personal computers in the UK. But it’s perhaps best known as a gaming computer, and inventive coders created games for the ZX Spectrum like “Jet Set Willy” and “Horace Goes Skiing.”
In 1985, Sinclair introduced a product that was far less popular – the Sinclair C5, an electric car, advertised as a “safe, reliable, pollution-free” vehicle that even 14-year-olds could drive. With just three wheels, no doors or roof and a top speed of 15 miles an hour, the car was widely criticized upon its release, according to the Independent. In 1992, the BBC called the C5 a “disastrous flop” that frightened motorists who drove it alongside much larger and faster vehicles on main roads.
The year after the C5 debuted, British electronics company Amstrad bought the rights to Sinclair Research’s ZX computer line. But the poor reception didn’t deflate Sinclair for long. In 1992, he introduced the “Zike,” a tiny electric bike. In 2006, he followed it up with a foldable, lightweight two-wheeler called the A Bike that could be carried on users’ backs when they weren’t riding it.
For a man who devoted much of his career to computers, Sinclair made a stunning revelation when he told the Guardian in 2010 that he didn’t use a computer. (He knew how to operate them, he said – he just found it annoying.)
“Sheer laziness, I think,” Sinclar told the surprised reporter. “I can’t be bothered.”
“Laziness” didn’t stop Sinclair from continuing to invent, though – and he didn’t give up on the C5 either, though most of the public did. In interviews with the Guardian and Independent, Sinclair showed reporters peeks at what appeared to be an improved C5 with a roof. The new vehicle, the X-1, wasn’t produced – but electric vehicles are increasingly popular now, over a decade later.
Sinclair’s lasting impact
Upon news of his death, several tech innovators and gamers thanked Sinclair for his work. Satya Nadella, chairman and CEO of Microsoft, said Sinclair’s inventions “democratized computing” and inspired many, including him, to pursue a career in engineering. Tesla billionaire Elon Musk tweeted that he “loved that computer.” The Scottish TV host Dominik Diamond, who regularly hosted shows about video games, said he “wouldn’t have a career without this guy.”
“Horace Goes Skiing on the ZX Spectrum. The rest is history,” Diamond tweeted.
Sinclair’s daughter, Belinda, told the Guardian that her father considered himself ahead of his time.
“He’d come up with an idea and say, ‘There’s no point in asking if someone wants it, because they can’t imagine it,’” she told the Guardian.
Imagination may not have been able to save the C5 from widespread criticism, but it was an idea – intended to reduce pollution and improve transportation – that has inspired today’s inventors, as evidenced by the success achieved by Musk’s Tesla, as well as established automakers who are going electric. Sinclair considered himself an optimist, and he knew there would be room in the market for electronic vehicles one day, even if it wasn’t his.