RIP Sir Clive Sinclair 1940–2021
September 16, 2021 12:23 PM   Subscribe

[wikipedia] Sir Clive Marles Sinclair (30 July 1940 – 16 September 2021) was an English entrepreneur and inventor, most commonly known for his work in consumer electronics in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He passed away on the morning of 16 September 2021 after a long illness.

Sinclair was most famous for inventing the tiny, affordable ZX80, ZX81, and ZX Spectrum computers. These inspired a generation of Britons to pursue computer science. As well, Sinclair invented the pocket calculator, a miniature television, foldable bicycles, and the financially unsuccessful C5 electric trike.

Outside inventing, his interests included poetry, running marathons and poker. He is survived by his wife Belinda, his sons, Crispin and Bartholomew, aged 55 and 52 respectively, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic (73 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
10 REM .
posted by ocschwar at 12:26 PM on September 16 [8 favorites]

posted by riruro at 12:29 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

posted by DonnChadh at 12:29 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Got my start on a ZX81.

posted by signal at 12:33 PM on September 16 [5 favorites]


I still remember those rubbery black keys, and a machine that was still going in the 90s so I had a chance to touch them.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:36 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

posted by May Kasahara at 12:39 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

posted by lalochezia at 12:43 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

I bought the zx80 as a kit. I had never soldered anything before. I was astonished when I plugged it in and it worked, I think it had 1k memory. This is how it was advertised. I wish I still had it.
posted by night_train at 12:47 PM on September 16 [8 favorites]

I was given a 16K Spectrum (later upgraded) for my 14th birthday & was obsessed with the thing for the next few years.

10 PRINT "."
posted by misteraitch at 12:55 PM on September 16 [6 favorites]

I had the Commodore 64, so I looked down my nose at those with the ZX80, but a friend had one and had fun with it, although he was never, ever able to load anything from tape. He had to type in each program from scratch to use it. Still, with 1K of memory available, that didn't take long.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:56 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Good time as any to watch Micro Men again.

posted by phooky at 1:04 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]

Very sad in our gaff tonight. In 1980 I went off to graduate school in Boston and Herself got a job in a floor-creaky little office right opposite King's College chapel, in Cambridge. She was hired as office help and gopher in a teeny start-up company operated by a serial inventor called Clive Sinclair. It turned out that Herself and Sinclair had a bit of a pash about WB Yeats and in that cramped office use quote lines back and forth.

He was just about to launch the first personal computer costing less than £100 - £99.95 indeed or you could get all the components in a plastic bag and solder it up yourself for £79.95. It was the ZX80, it had 1 kilobyte of memory on board and needed a TV screen to display anything, a cassette-recorder to store anything and was loaded with Sinclair BASIC as a programming language. You could, if you were geek enough, also tiptoe directly on the firmware and program in machine code. It was neat, it was a triumph of appropriate technology, it was catchy . . . and it caught on in a huge way. Cheques and International Money Orders poured in from all over the world and one of TB's many jobs was to open the envelopes and bank armfuls of cheques.

For some reason (Oxfam?), my SO tore all the stamps off the incoming envelopes and put them in a biscuit tin. Meanwhile back in Boston I was taking a course BI504 Mammalogy with the great bat-expert Tom Kunz. So, from sitting at the feet of a niche master, I knew a bit about the taxonomy and characteristics of animals that suckle their young. When I came back to Europe the following Summer, I went through the biscuit-tin, abstracted all the representations of mammals and stuck them onto sheets according to their evolutionary relationships.
So today I'll give Sir Clive a slightly off-centre tribute to say:
"So long and thanks for all the stamps".
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:05 PM on September 16 [44 favorites]

The BBC have a short obituary, but like much of the dismal British media the highlight isn't on the ZX80, ZX81 and hugely popular ZX Spectrum, but on the failure of the C5. The PC Gamer one is a bit better.

Without those computers in the early 1980's things would be quite different in several sectors today. The UK games industry would be smaller, as many companies e.g. Rockstar North trace their origins back to Dundee - where the computers were made - in the 80s. Not a coincidence that the largest UK academic hub for games teaching and research is in the same city.

The UK education sector would be quite different as well. When various academic digital library initiatives, programs and projects were funded through the 1990s (many by Jisc), a lot of people who found themselves working on the more "teccie" sides of them had cut their teeth on the home computers of the 1980s. It was a common talking point at workshops and meet-ups for initiaves such as the Electronic Libraries Program: "Which home computer (the "Speccy"? Commodore 64? BBC Micro? Vic20?) did you start out on?"

Like some other MeFites, his home computers changed the course of my life. Without it, I wouldn't have - literally - escaped from a rural farming life to academia and then to some kind of career which, even now, 40 years after I programmed my first (and utterly rubbish) game in 1Kb of RAM on a ZX81, involves computer games in a way.

Clive was vexed at the contradiction of the Spectrum being hugely popular, but at the same time being largely used for playing - and, crucially, writing - games. But I like that Manic Miner is currently trending on Twitter; it seems apt.

Thanks, Clive.
posted by Wordshore at 1:11 PM on September 16 [22 favorites]

posted by wotsac at 1:23 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]


My first computer was a ZX81, soldered together from a kit when I was 12. Learned to program on that thing.
posted by Quasirandom at 1:26 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Aw, man. What a giant.
posted by fedward at 1:31 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Got my start on a ZX81


posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:31 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

The ZX80 was my first computer. it would crash if you looked away when programming it. Still, it was much greater than the nothing I had before. The price of admission was low enough that many of us could get a taste of this crazy new world without going in hock. Thank you Sir Clive.
posted by evilDoug at 1:35 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

posted by haemanu at 1:54 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

I still have my Timex Sinclair from computer camp.

posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 2:04 PM on September 16 [4 favorites]


I'll have to fire up my ZX Spectrum tonight and play a game or two.
posted by fimbulvetr at 2:06 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

posted by gauche at 2:17 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Great remembrances, BobTheScientist and Wordshore.

I'm another one whose small-town life and future career was transformed by one of those cheap wedges of plastic. My upper lip is wobbling like a RAM pack.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:28 PM on September 16 [5 favorites]

posted by whatevernot at 2:42 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]


Bomb Jack on the ZX Spectrum is one of my first - if not my first - memories of computing.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 2:42 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 2:47 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

posted by Pendragon at 3:04 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

RIP Clive.

Also: No love for the QL? Microdrive tape loops?
posted by lalochezia at 3:12 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

0 OK, 81:1
(Sinclair BASIC doesn't have an END keyword, and . wasn't enough)

The Microdrive was a terrible piece of kit. Unless you formatted a new cartridge multiple times and check the capacity wasn't increasing too much every time, you might entrust valuable data to storage that was about to snap and end up as a knot inside your computer.

Although I didn't have one as a teen, the ZX Spectrum is just clever enough to be interesting, and just reliable enough to be a great piece of kit. The graphics are crap, the sound is crap, the BASIC is crap, the keyboard is crap: but put together for that price, it's pretty amazing.
posted by scruss at 3:23 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]

The 16k memory module was kept stable with some modeling clay.
I punched in a drawing program from a magazine and recorded the drawing on cassette tape. I must have made a hundred or so drawings with my $5 computer while traveling in trucks. I imagined that the images were messages from the ether.
Very cool Clive.
posted by JohnR at 3:30 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

First time I saw his name was on the calculator. That was a day!
posted by mdoar at 3:43 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

Symbol Shift M
posted by popcassady at 4:00 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]

Without 'Uncle' Clive and his computer cheap enough for my parents to afford in 1982, it's hard to imagine that my life would look anything like it currently does.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:04 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

My first computer was a ZX81, bought as a kit and assembled by the father of a Sunday-school friend for me. (We lost touch; otherwise, would have thanked him properly from a more adult perspective once it sunk in how much effort this favour must have taken on his part.)

It was the only computer within my reach at the time. My parents didn't get how important this stuff was going to be and computers were way more money than they would be willing to spend on a birthday or Christmas gift so the only way I could get a computer was to save my gift money until I had enough to buy a ZX81.

A year or so later, I got the 16K module (IIRC, there was *some* parental help there) and used a pair of rubber bands to hold it in place.

Eventually, the "1" key (which also had the all-important "edit" command) stopped working and I ended up soldiering a mechanical key switch to the board to work around it. I think I also had to wire around the cassette interface plug; those were really cheap and went wonky with use.

Anyway, it's quite likely that without Sir Clive and the ZX81, I'd be living in a van by the river.

posted by suetanvil at 4:38 PM on September 16 [8 favorites]

My first computer was a Timex-Sinclair 1000. The only time I could use it was evenings when my wife was at work, as I had to haul our little black and white TV over to the kitchen table to do any computer stuff.

Years later, an attorney I worked with became dissatisfied with his Cambridge Z88 laptop, Sir Clive's final computer design, and gave it to me rather than throw it away. It was an amazing machine for its day, and the Pipedream word processing/spreadsheet/database software embedded in ROM was one of the niftiest bits of software I've ever seen.

RIP, Sir Clive.

posted by lhauser at 6:03 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

posted by Mitheral at 6:11 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Also, Sir Clive once got into a fight with Christopher Curry, founder of Acorn Computers, in a pub called Baron of Beef in Cambridge. I have had a pint or two in the Baron of Beef.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:13 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

posted by doctornemo at 6:36 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

posted by ahimsakid at 7:06 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Got my start on a ZX81, and an Apple, and a TRS-80, and a C64, and an Atari and and… That's what was so fun about the era. Every kid in class had something different than you did. When I whipped out the ZX81 my dad had bought and soldered together, my friends were mystified. We learned a lot from that machine.

As suetanvil mentioned above, also got the 16k ram pack and likewise held it on with a rubberband once the cartridge style connector didn't provide enough resistance anymore.
posted by readyfreddy at 9:52 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

posted by monotreme at 11:04 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

posted by winjer at 11:19 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

A completely unreliable cable between my tape deck and ZX81 forced me to learn to programme. Though I later went Commodore (my old man thought having a proper keyboard was more important), thanks for making a lifelong obsession - and several careers - accessible, Clive.

Ironically it was Paul Daniels shilling for Atari 400s in Buster comic that made me want a computer in the first place.
posted by davemee at 1:30 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

My RAM pack was held steady with blu-tac; I never heard of the rubber band trick. The power plug also had a habit of disconnecting if you brushed against the cable or knocked the table and my dad ended up cutting it off, stripping the cable down and soldering the exposed wires to the board.

When I moved onto the Spectrum, there was a healthy interest in the relative merits of different portable mono tape players, as well as which twin tape decks combined with which brands of C15 or C90 produced usable copies.

I did pick up a used Z88 more out of interest than to use in anger; I hope the enthusiast I sold it on to in Edinburgh has managed to keep it working.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 1:30 AM on September 17 [3 favorites]

My first attempt at programming was with a friend's ZX Spectrum. Like many of you, I imagine my life would be very different had I not been able to pursue that interest.
posted by Harald74 at 1:40 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

My younger sister and I bought a ZX81 between us when It first came out. I would have been 10 at the time. I learnt to program from the manual that came with computer, a manual that was bigger than the machine itself.
It was the first time I taught myself anything and the first time I was good at something that other people were not. It improved my academic performance, I went from being an average student to being a pretty good one.

Thank you Uncle Clive for making me a better learner and for keeping me in gainful employment for all these years.
posted by antiwiggle at 2:15 AM on September 17 [4 favorites]

The BBC's dramatisation of the history of Acorn, "Micro Men", made Sinclair out to be somewhat of a heel. He was probably less of a heel than Tramiel, though.
posted by acb at 2:49 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

posted by Smart Dalek at 2:56 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

This was a short time when people at school were openly discussing machine code. I was more part of the generation above (post-punk), and more interested in dissonant guitars.

We did have a Spectrum, mostly used for playing games (I remember very little about the games, I mostly remember the sound of them loading, and that multicoloured striping effect around the edges of the screen). It amazes me that I wrote a short program to calculate and display the I Ching (not that it was difficult - it's simple chain of binary choices - just that it amazes me that I worked out how to do it just using the BASIC manual). At which point I thought, "OK, that's programming, then" and forgot all about it. On the other hand, a friend's brother rewrote the OS from the inside out, and was paid a large amount of money, which I should have taken as a hint, but didn't.

When it came down to it, though, I was completely unafraid of computers. I think that's the biggest effect that the Spectrum had on that generation. We never saw them as anything to be daunted by - they went from the magical to the everyday overnight.
posted by Grangousier at 5:45 AM on September 17 [7 favorites]

Keith Stuart: Clive Sinclair and the offbeat brilliance of the ZX Spectrum (see also the comments on the same article).
posted by Wordshore at 6:28 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

This was a short time when people at school were openly discussing machine code

They even had illustrated children's books teaching machine code programming (either 6502 or Z80, IIRC).
posted by acb at 7:19 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

I never heard of the rubber band trick.

Mine was (well, is--I still have it somewhere) the 16k Memotech module. Since it fits the entire back of the computer, I could wrap a thick rubber band front to back on each side of the computer to hold it in place securely. Typing around the band was a bit of a pain but then, so was the keyboard.

(Memotech eventually launched a run of computers and then went under. I remember getting an ad from them but it was priced way out of my range.)
posted by suetanvil at 7:26 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

01010010 01001001 01010000
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 7:41 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

Had a Timex Sinclair 1000 (the American ZX81), and then a TS2068 (the American 48K Spectrum.) Still have the latter, and it still works! All tricked out with a hardwired external keyboard. I remember reading some profiles and interviews of Sir Clive in Timex Sinclair User and he seemed like a decent human being, that's more than you can say for some of today's high profile tech moguls.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 7:52 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

No one in Australia would remember him for the C5 (we never saw them, except on news reports), but my best friend in high school had a ZX81, and I still remember pressing my fingertips forcefully on its flat plastic keyboard. Even though it couldn't do much, it looked great, with its sharp black corners and red lettered logo, like KITT from Knight Rider. In rural Tasmania in the early 1980s, it was pretty cutting-edge.

I can't think of too many of the personal computers of the time that were so closely associated with a single individual. None of us knew who'd founded Acorn, or who the Vic was behind the VIC-20. Even Apple had two Steves, not one. Clive was one of a kind.
posted by rory at 8:55 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

Australia of course had Dick Smith, who ran a chain not unlike Radio Shack/Maplin and had a number of computers in his name (mostly rebadged ones from Hong Kong companies, IIRC). Though from what I recall, the big early-80s computer in Australia was a New Zealand-made Z80 machine named the Microbee.
posted by acb at 9:04 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

They even had illustrated children's books teaching machine code programming (either 6502 or Z80, IIRC).

I just took my copy down from the shelf and it covers both architectures.

Wow! I've just found out that Usborne digitised all their 1980s computer books for children, including the aforementioned Machine Code for Beginners, and have made them freely available. Quite a memory trip for me, I wonder if it's too niche for a FPP?
posted by Busy Old Fool at 10:20 AM on September 17 [5 favorites]

What, no love for the Z88 or the C5?
posted by Orb2069 at 10:28 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

My first home computer was a Sinclair QL (maybe 1984?), with the teeny tiny 'microdrive' tapes (which were a bit rubbish but did survive long enough). Keyboard to screen time was a bit slow, but I wrote two books on that machine, and loved it far more than the thing I had to use at work.

RIP, Sir Clive.
posted by Pentickle at 1:18 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

First computer was a Timex Sinclair 1000 and then a T/S 2068 for me. The affordability of those machines made it attainable to feed the itch that I had to learn more about computers.
posted by rjd at 1:31 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

What, no love for the Z88

Lots of love for the Z88 here. It's a very clever computer indeed. It's got a few Sinclair build-down-to-a-price-at-any-cost glitches: the stock PSU will mostly run the batteries down, but everything else is extraordinarily clever. My first Z88 got me through numerical analysis classes (yay tiny solvers written in its built-in BBC BASIC!), and I recently got another just 'cos they are so neat.

Sinclair other mobility things all were crying out for modern Li-ion batteries: the Zike, the ZETA and the A-bike.
posted by scruss at 6:31 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

They even had illustrated children's books teaching machine code programming

And comics to promote processors: Captain Zilog! (includes link to PDF)

Penciled by Joe Kubert!
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:38 PM on September 17 [3 favorites]

"What does this ZX 81 look like?"

He stops, rummages in his pouch, and produces a rather tragic-looking rectangle of scuffed black plastic, about the size of a videocassette. It has one of those stick-on keypads that somehow actually work, something Cayce knows from the cable boxes in the sort of motel where guests might be expected to steal them.


"Why do you like them?"

"Of historical importance to personal computing," he says seriously, "and to United Kingdom. Why there are so many programmers, here."

"Why is that?"

[…] he explains to her that Sinclair, the British inventor, had a way of getting things right, but also exactly wrong. Foreseeing the market for personal computers, Sinclair decided that what people would want to do with them was to learn programming. The ZX 81, marketed in the United States as the Timex 1000, cost less than the equivalent of a hundred dollars, but required the user to key in programs, tapping away on that little motel keyboard-sticker. This had resulted in both the short market-life of the product and, in Voytek's opinion, twenty years on, the relative preponderance of skilled programmers in the United Kingdom. They had their heads turned by these little boxes, he believes, and by the need to program them.
Never encountered one myself and most of what I knew of it was from this passage in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, which seems to be corroborated by the comments here and elsewhere.
posted by Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol at 10:59 PM on September 17 [8 favorites]

AskMeBay: all this rummaging in pouches and attics compelled me to The Shed; where I found a box containing (N=40) Sinclair ZX81 branded cassette-tapes, some still in cellophane wrappers. Backgammon; Biorhythms; Forth; Fun to Learn History I; Toolkit; Vu-File . . . hope me convert these to Bitcoin?
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:48 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

Remember wishing for a Sinclair ZX81 from a picture catalog or two (wish books). Major influence.
posted by filtergik at 4:50 AM on September 18 [1 favorite]

In 1986 I went with my brother to a youth club which reportedly had a comp center. A crowded room at the ground floor was full of kids playing on Ataris. "We have some other computers too but they were ordered without tape players so nobody uses them", said the instructor and led us upstairs and into an empty, quiet hall with two long rows of tables. On each table there was a small TV and a ZX Spectrum+.

We spent many days there writing programs in Basic. Next year, we had our own Speccy and I wrote my first game.

Thank you, Sir Clive.
posted by hat_eater at 5:31 AM on September 18 [3 favorites]

They had their heads turned by these little boxes, he believes, and by the need to program them.

Dundee especially turned out an abnormal number of programmers and games houses, mainly because that's where the Timex factory was that made the Sinclair machines. Five or ten quid to the right person and wait outside the right door at the right time, and you'd get a boxed Sinclair system thrown at you
posted by scruss at 6:53 AM on September 18 [8 favorites]

I'm stuck by the way that two of the most important developments in computer technology, in my life, took place in large, rich institutions which were firmly looking in the wrong direction and which had hidden away the technology in back-rooms where they operated on a shoe-string budget.

My expensive school prioritised Latin, Ancient Greek, Cricket, Rugby and Jesus in approximately that order. When I arrived one of the teachers had managed to start a "Micro club" and had purloined the side-room of a science lab where a Sinclair ZX80 and a Commodore PET could be found. Those of us who spent way too much time there - typing in code from magazines, marvelling at the occasional success that somebody had - and scratching our heads over the many, many failures - had our lives and future careers transformed. The low price point of Sinclair's computer helped - and so did the approach of printing those enticing looking commands in full on the keyboard. But the biggest effect was on of cross-fertilization of ideas in a small group.

So it was that I came to be working in the research lab a little over a decade later. We had a back room with an internet connection and some Macs onto which we had downloaded Mosaic. We were making frenzied arguments to avoid the modest budget for our network connection and our company's two letter domain name - to be paid for. I showed a connection to CERN's website to one senior manager who was outraged about "who was paying for me to dial up Switzerland". I was working for a Telco.

World changing technologies often propagate in under-funded back-rooms that lie out of the public eye of institutes that are supposed to be focused on the future. They don't required technology which is polished - in fact half-baked can work best. Clive Sinclair: genius inventor but one who would actually not often use the machines he created - and who was liable to be diverted into side passions like poker and poetry - was a great hero of those badly lit, cash starved, uncomfortable back rooms where the world changes.
posted by rongorongo at 2:42 AM on September 19 [6 favorites]

My brother bought a ZX81 when we were kids, soldered it together, and learned to program on it. I remember many long afternoons playing 3D Monster Maze on it or cobbling together something really terrible in BASIC. There's something special about that time, the screech of a program loading from tape, the sudden crashing, that awful membrane keyboard.

( My brother also eventually picked up a QL. I never used it much but remember the keyboard being great for typing -- very tactile. )
posted by Kikkoman at 7:29 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]

Australia of course had Dick Smith, who ran a chain not unlike Radio Shack/Maplin and had a number of computers in his name (mostly rebadged ones from Hong Kong companies, IIRC). Though from what I recall, the big early-80s computer in Australia was a New Zealand-made Z80 machine named the Microbee.

The Microbee was also Australian. I never saw one in NZ, but I vaguely recall there being a user group. We had a Dick Smith System-80, which was a TRS-80 with faux-wood panelling - much like my current car. Faux-wood panelling makes everythng better. And faster, probably.
posted by Sparx at 10:05 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]

The Timex Sinclair was my first computer too. We wrote a few silly BASIC programs like Christmas Tree Lights and Pornography By The Yard. Met a guy from the Acme Electric Robot Company who who made a TV connector for the Sinclair. I gave it away to a friend when I got my first Mac.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 2:07 AM on September 20 [1 favorite]

In those days I worked round the corner from the Baron of Beef. A colleague was in the pub that night and told me about it the following day. We assumed it was a drunken scuffle, both chaps having a reputation for being somewhat fond of their ale.
posted by epo at 1:11 PM on September 23 [1 favorite]

I was excited to see a sample of Sir Clive’s handiwork at a school open day yesterday. They said it still works.
posted by rory at 10:00 AM on October 3 [1 favorite]

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