Home computing pioneer

Born: 30 July 1940

Died: 16 September 2021

Sir Clive Sinclair, who has died aged 81, was a man defined by contradiction. A technological visionary yet the butt of myriad cruel jokes and lampoonery; predominantly self taught with no university qualifications he ignited the British computer revolution that inspired a generation to study computers; he was neither an introvert nor an extrovert, residing somewhere between. Sir Clive seemed more misunderstood than respected. His death at the age of 81 might trigger a more realistic appraisal of his Herculean achievements; a man often so ahead of the curve that you couldn’t see the curve.

Clive Marles Sinclair was born on 30 July 1940 in the leafy London suburb of Richmond but was soon evacuated to the relative war-time safety of Teignmouth in Devon. The family's Richmond home was flattened in a German bombing raid. His family later settled in Bracknell, Berkshire where Clive grew up. Inspired by a BBC children's television programme called Toytown, the young Clive was encouraged to take up tinkering and gadget making. Like so many kids of the pre-technology age, his childhood was all about walkie-talkies and secret communication. But unlike so many kids of that age, Clive created and invented his own.

While studying for his A-levels, he designed a circuit for a simple radio. Not happy with that as an achievement, the teenage Sinclair approached a manufacturer to transform the design into DIY kits. These kits were sold through magazines such as Practical Wireless, a publication for which he had already written a number of articles. He left school after his A-Levels and started work as a technical journalist.

But he never had his heart set on being an observer, a recorder of events. No. Clive was a doer. So, at the tender age of 21 Sinclair formed his own company, Sinclair Radionics, in 1961.

This early entrepreneurial endeavour established the quintessence of what Sir Clive Sinclair sought to achieve. At the very heart of everything he did was a sense of democratisation; from inventing the pocket calculator to popularising the home computer, the iconic Spectrum ZX80 and the ZX Spectrum; Sinclair was considerably less interested in self aggrandisement and the accumulation of personal wealth. His revolution was making technology affordable and available to millions. The ZX80, named after the year it was released, cost just £79.95 in kit form and £99.95 assembled. This was about 20% of the price of rival home computers at the time. It sold some 50,000 units. The more advanced successor, the ZX81, which replaced it the following year, cost £69.95 and sold 250,000.

I remember with great clarity in 1981 the head of physics at my secondary school, Mr. Devlin (aka “Spike") holding lunchtime “Coding Classes” with an array of ZX80s. To a girl and boy, we were awestruck by the possibilities presented by such machines. And while Sinclair computers were quickly superseded in the market place, being ridiculed as being “glorified door stops” (given their wedge-shaped design), they were the first and fundamental step in my generation’s acquisition of computer knowledge. In that lunchtime class alone, at least three students went on to have careers in computing or technology. That template was matched across the UK. Sir Clive created, inspired and facilitated an entire generation of citizens to a technology that would define modern life.

And while small home computers weren’t the most photogenic and media attractive concepts, The Sinclair C5 was; and perhaps for the wrong reasons. This “battery powered, electric recumbent tricycle” was the realisation of the inventor’s greatest desire: to build an ecologically sustainable transport solution, offering “new power in personal transportation.”

Designed by Lotus, built by Hoover in their washing machine plant in Merthyr Tydfil, the trike was launched with great fanfare and flourish. Projected sales, claimed the creator, would exceed more than 100,000 in year one alone. It was hoped that the success that he had enjoyed thus far would be replicated with the C5. Alas, the opposite ended up being the outcome. After just eight months and a meagre 5,000 units sold (and some 9,000 left unsold), Sinclair Vehicles went into receivership. Sinclair lost millions. One writer described the debacle as “one of the great marketing bombs of postwar British industry”.

I met Sir Clive on a few occasions, all of which revolved around a poker table at various tournaments in and around London. What few will have known about him was quite how humble, quite how kind and quite how thoughtful Sir Clive was. You wouldn’t think you were in the presence of a multi millionaire; nor would you ever sense that he carried any hostility about the way some quarters of the press and media had treated him. He was just a lovely bloke who loved to gamble.

He had been struggling with cancer for the last decade or so but, according to his daughter he had still been working on inventions up until a few days before his death "because that was what he loved doing".

Some people call it “tall poppy syndrome”. In Glasgow and the West we employ the phrase “Ah kent his faither”. Either way, we as a collected peoples across the United Kingdom, suffer a malaise that compels us to bask in schadenfreude of those we perceive to be too big for their boots. Sir Clive enjoyed successes and suffered losses; the slings and arrows of outrageous entrepreneurial invention.

But perhaps his greatest failure, like his greatest successes seem to have been brought about by being ahead of his time. While the C5 can by no metric be deemed a breakthrough at the time, some 36 years later hybrid and plug-in electric cars account for 10% of cars sold in the UK. One can only wonder what that number might have been without the vision, bravura and brilliance of Sir Clive Sinclair.

He is survived by Belinda, his sons Crispin and Bartholomew, aged 55 and 52 respectively, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.