F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.07 - July 1996

The Gaget Pusher

By Wayne Myers

Sir Clive Sinclair stole my childhood. In the five years between the day I was given my first Sinclair micro and the day I sat my first O-level, I spent more of my waking hours "on the computer" than anything else. Up until that point, I had been a reasonably normal child, interested in things like chess, football and other children, but such things were revealed to be mere trifles and irrelevancies once there was a Sinclair ZX81 in my life. Nothing compared to the seductive call of the inverse video capital letter K in the bottom left-hand corner of a white parchment-textured screen.

There was something very exciting about the wealth of possibilities that lay behind it, if you only knew what to do. That K wasn't just the cursor. It was all the welcome you got when you switched the thing on. Some-times it would become an L or an F, and by turning it into a G you could get "graphic" characters. I was eleven years old, and had always loved puzzles, but no jigsaw or chess problem came anywhere near approaching the complexity of the ZX81 as a puzzle. I was hooked.

The obsession continued, unabated, until shortly after my 16th birthday, when I took up smoking, decided to become a writer and more or less lost interest in computers. I suppose I can't blame Sinclair for my obsessive behaviour, but he was directly responsible for the shape of the things I was doing during that five years of my childhood. And it wasn't just me. Over two million people now in their 20s were introduced to computers by his machines, the first home computers to be mass-marketed in Britain.

While I was researching this article, a loyalty to Sir Clive that dates from the playground was tested by accusations that while Sinclair's impact on computers and computing in this country has been massive, his actual understanding of computers is limited. What nonsense, I thought; Sir Clive Sinclair embodies the computer. Then I interviewed him. And it's true. Sir Clive Sinclair isn't actually very interested in computers at all. He doesn't even have one.

Clive Sinclair has small "town" offices not far from Oxford Circus in a building he shares with a range of organisations that includes the Kenyan Coffee Board. In Sinclair's own office, all the computers are on display in a cabinet against one wall. Piles of books and papers litter a large desk, there are several heavy looking chairs, and files heave out of the bookcase that lines the wall. There is no functional computer. In person, Sir Clive - from whose trademark balding crop and beard the fiery red colour has faded - is charming and articulate, particularly on the subject of electronic vehicles, and is happy to give me some time. It is hard to believe that this is the man who stole my childhood.

Computers were not his first venture into consumer electronics. During the '60s, Clive Sinclair had left his job as an electronics journalist to concentrate full-time on his mail-order electronics company, which sold transistor parts and radio receiver kits. In 1972, he launched the first pocket calculator, the Sinclair Executive; for a brief while in the '70s, Sinclair Radionics' machines led the world pocket calculator market it had created. But at the end of the decade, Sinclair Radionics made a fatal strategic error: it insisted on the virtues of LEDs over LCDs for calculator displays, and within a couple of years could no longer compete.

In 1980, with a different company - Science of Cambridge - Sir Clive launched the ZX80, the first of a series of home microcomputers that created the British home-computer mass market. Sinclair's next computer, the ZX81, took the lead in that market, and his company kept that lead through the various incarnations of the ZX Spectrum until he sold the computer side of his activities to Alan Sugar of Amstrad in 1986.

By the mid-'80s, Sinclair had turned his attention to a series of other projects, such as the pocket television and the Sinclair C5 electronic tricycle. Nothing he has done since the computer days has been particularly successful, and the C5 affair was a particular disaster, turning him into a national laughing stock. More recently, without a great deal of publicity, his company has launched an electric bicycle called the Zike and a battery-driven motor, designed for any bike, called the Zeta.

In his heyday, Sir Clive was widely touted in the tabloid press as Britain's top boffin, and was showered with honorary awards and degrees. The stock of his public image as "Uncle Clive" mirrored the rise and fall of blind Thatcherite '80s optimism, with the C5 as Sinclair's poll tax and Alan Sugar as Sir Geoffrey Howe. For a few years he defined the times. Yet, in retrospect, he didn't really seem of the times. He always maintained a certain distance from the ZX-using public: there are many pictures of him holding one of his own computers aloft, but he was rarely if ever actually photographed using one.

"So, Sir Clive, you stole my childhood." I don't say it. I mean to, but I am flustered. Instead, I nervously shuffle papers and tape recorders around, and ask him what pattern emerges from the products he has brought to market.

"Basically, what I am interesting in doing is finding a need that perhaps hasn't been apparent before, coming up with something that people will, when they've got it, say, 'Goodness, I don't know how I ever managed without it' and yet didn't particularly want. Not everything I've done has done that at all, of course, but that's what I like to do, that's what excites me. I would have been very pleased if I'd invented the ball-point pen, because I think that's a classic example of something that nobody was demanding before it existed but was very much appreciated once it did."

Sir Clive is less than clear about how to separate the wheat from the chaff. "Yes, that's the tricky bit," he says, "because inventive people do have lots of ideas." At which point he seems to have one himself, wondering aloud about "a sifting mechanism in the brain which makes a selection." He knows there is one because "I sometimes meet people who have had some sort of mental breakdown and they just spew out ideas, most of which are complete rubbish, because the selective mechanism in the brain has become faulty for some reason," and continues, "I'm just guessing; I don't know the physiology and so on, but there is this ability of the human brain to produce ideas, and then there's a sort of an editing mechanism, and then there's the conscious mind, which does a further stage of editing to those ideas that get through to the conscious mind."

There is a pause. Finally he admits, "It's then a very difficult process to decide what is a good idea and what's not. Quite a lot of products that are put out onto the market and are clearly thought to be a good idea by the inventor turn out not to be a good idea as far as the public is concerned, so it's really quite difficult. It's the ability to find a winner, obviously, that separates some people from others."

Obviously. Does that mean that Sir Clive sees innovation as a statistical process: keep trying products until one sells ?

"Not quite, because that suggests that it's trial and error. It's not, of course, it's got to be guided, and some people are good at it and others are not, just in the way that some people are good at composing music and others are not. It's not to say you can't be taught to compose music, and it's not to say you can't be taught to be a more efficient inventor; you certainly can. It can be learned as well, but I think there are innate skills involved."

For all the quixotic nature of his subsequent activity, Clive Sinclair's own innate innovatory skills were at their peak at the end of the '70s. He did more than just design the machines that introduced a generation of children to computers. First with the MK14 microprocessor kit, and later with the ZX80, Sinclair set out the initial shape of the home computer, which all the major competing brands of home computer followed for most of the decade: a TV for a monitor, a tape recorder for data storage and retrieval and an operating system consisting entirely of a version of the programming language BASIC.

The ZX80 wasn't the first computer to use this paradigm, but it was the first machine on the market that had all these components installed in one box, with a built-in "keyboard" membrane. Despite its technical shortcomings, the ZX80 had one decisive advantage over its competitors, such as they were: it could be sold profitably for less than £100, and this was five times cheaper than other "one box" computer systems then available, such as the Tandy TRS 80 or Commodore Pet. This idea - that there might be a mass market for one box containing the components that hobbyists were happy to build virtually from scratch - constitutes Sinclair's basic achievement in computers.

In order to use the ZX80 at all, however, you had to know at least some BASIC, and in order to write a program that ran at something approaching a reasonable speed, you had to learn the Z80 processor machine language. And on top of that, the ZX80 simply wasn't very good. The screen handling was done directly rather than with an interrupt system, so the TV would blank out every time the processor was doing something else, and the credit-card-thick membrane keyboard was impossible to use. Worse still, the machine was only supplied with 1K of memory.

The ZX81 did address, if not actually solve, some of these problems. Its specifications, printed in the summer 1982 issue of ZX Computing, give some sense of the excitement: "The ZX81 can operate in two software-selectable modes - FAST and NORMAL. FAST is ideal for really high-speed computing. In NORMAL mode, however, the ZX81 allows continuously moving, flicker-free animated displays." The ZX81 only had uppercase, black-and-white characters. The graphics capability was almost full-screen, and measured 64 by 44 pixels. What was incredible about the ZX81 was not so much to do with what it was, but the things that people did with it, and the ways they found to overcome its many shortcomings.

At least, that's what seems incredible to most of us. For Sir Clive, the ZX81 stands out for other reasons. "We did the ZX80 on a bit of a shoestring," he says, "and it was very exciting technically; it was very innovative. But we had to use quite a lot of chips in it. The ZX81 I was very proud of because it only had 4 chips, at a time when 47 was the lowest chip count with anyone else, so it was a very elegant design, and from an aesthetic point of view that was very satisfying. Of course the Spectrum was a lot more successful, but that was really based on the ZX81; it was the same fundamental design, with colour added, and some other bits and blobs."

The Spectrum was indeed, technically speaking, nothing more than the ZX81 with a few minor features added. Those "added" features, though, included not only colour and sound but also the ability to produce lowercase and user-defined characters in addition to uppercase and a 256-by-192 pixel "high resolution" graphics capability. This shift towards the user's convenience was at odds with the basic design philosophy of the ZX80, which was to use as few components as possible in order to keep the cost rock-bottom and to ensure a mass market. The "bits and blobs" it was necessary to add to the basic hardware in order to enhance the user's experience of the machine were part of a process that had nothing to do with Sinclair himself; indeed, they were a concession. Sinclair's interest in building computers only went as far as the chip count and the physical arrangement of the components in the box. It did not extend to what actually happened when you switched the machine on.

Unlike the ZX81, the Spectrum maintained the central part of the screen while loading, so you could look at a picture while waiting for the rest of the program to load. In an even finer refinement, the black-and-white dancing bar codes of the ZX81 loading experience were transformed into coloured border patterns on the Spectrum: blue-and-orange striped pajama patterns for the initial verification tones and thinner, somewhat manic blue-and-yellow lines for data.

You could actually see and hear the data being loaded in from the tape, and since programs of any complexity routinely took more than five minutes to load on either machine, Sinclair users were destined to spend a great deal of time watching these hypnotic patterns. I sometimes wonder what it's done to our heads. Maybe there was some connection between these patterns and the great loyalty towards Sir Clive from the several-million-strong customer base he created in the '80s - a loyalty that was lost when he sold out to Alan Sugar.

"Wasn't that a betrayal?" I ask him.

"No, that's fair enough," he replies. "But it wasn't something that I had any choice about. What happened was that the whole business got taken over by games, and then the whole industry; us, Commodore - everybody got into difficulties, because the games side plummeted, and we sold the computer side because we had no choice financially."

Still, Sinclair has no regrets. "I'd done the job. I wasn't going to come out with more computers at that time, because the age had passed when people bought those machines for programming and so on, which was what I'd got into. I knew people would use them for games from the start, but once the business became dominated by it, once they became games machines, it wasn't really a business that I had much to contribute to." Sir Clive Sinclair, who is chairman of Mensa, is known to be a keen poker player, but was recently quoted as never having played a computer game in his life. Can that really be true ? "No," he says, "I played Pong when it first came out, so it's not literally quite true, but it's almost true." It's just "not the sort of thing that appeals to me at all," though "I can entirely understand their fascination," he hurries to assert. "I can see that they fascinate people, they're entrancing, some of these games are so brilliant, but it's not my sort of thing.

"Mostly I just like thinking about, sort of, problems I've got in my mind, and playing poker's a very different thing because it's with, you know, people. I wouldn't find any pleasure at all in playing poker with a machine. It just wouldn't interest me. Chess you could just about play with a machine and enjoy, but you'd really probably do it more to enhance your skills than enjoy the game, wouldn't you ?"

Sinclair's last computer, the QL, was launched in January 1984. It was not a success, and the verbatim report of my conversation with him on the subject is highly revealing. I had asked him for his view of the change from the ZX80 paradigm to the current Windows-based PC:"Well, we had windows on, er... I can't think what it was called, er... the machine after the Spectrum, anyway...." "The QL?" "QL. Mmm. Sorry, yes, the QL. Yes, so that had a windows environment on it, years and years before Apple and PCs...." "I never actually saw a QL...." "Oh, yes. That had a proper windows system, years before these other people did. But the QL failed commercially because the world had gone IBM-compatible, and I didn't want to do that. I hated the operating system; it was a complete and utter kludge, and the whole bloody design was just a mess. I wouldn't go anywhere near it. So we were out of the game."

Paradoxically for the man once known as "Thatcher's favourite entrepreneur", Sinclair is no longer chasing business success. "The business of invention is what interests me. I don't nowadays want to run a company of any size at all. As soon as anything that I do gets any size I just hive it off to somebody else. I don't want to be involved, because it's not my skill. Insofar as I've learned, if I try and run a company of any size then I get bogged down in that, and I get very depressed by it."

He pauses a moment. "Well," he continues, "perhaps not depressed by it, but I don't enjoy it, and I'm blocked from doing what is what I think I'm good at, which is inventing."

This is the key to Clive Sinclair - he wants to be an inventor. His long-term dream, he told me, is to build a very low-cost vertical-take-off personal transport. Though he has yet to find the money to fund it, he has it all on paper, and "it's got a couple of very simple, very radical ideas in it." There is a snag, in that "flying such a machine takes special skills, obviously, and if you want to think in terms of lots of people doing it, then you've got to change the way things work because the existing air traffic control couldn't cope."

Clearly, if you have millions of people flying through the sky it's going to be a bit of a radical change. But Sinclair has the solution. "What one could do," he suggests, "is to put two radical things together: a) the radical design of the plane, and b) automatic control. I imagined that you might have a certain degree of personal control over it, but generally speaking you'd dial in where you wanted to go, and something like the cellular telephone network, say, would take over and get you there."

In 1982, Sinclair said, "I make computers because they are a good market and they are interesting to design. I don't feel bad about making them, or selling them for money or anything - there is a demand for them and they do no harm - but I don't think they are going to save the world."

"Do you still agree with that ?" I ask him now.

"I don't remember saying it," he replies. "I was probably joking at the time anyway. It's true enough, but it doesn't contain any valuable information, that statement." He giggles; I emit a high-pitched squeak.

"I think that the point that computers aren't going to save the world is contentious," I venture.

"Well, I suppose computers in general are, in a way," he says. "What I meant was, I don't think mine were. I didn't want to pretend that my computers were anything brilliant. When I brought them out I meant them as a means for people to become familiar with computing, and happy about computing, and interested in computing. I didn't want to sell computers as machines that ran power stations and things like that - IBM did that perfectly well. I was trying something quite different that hadn't been done before - at least not in this country, and not really very well anywhere in the world - and that was to make a machine that the average person at home could play with in the literal sense: exploring the world of computing, without it being daunting." This concept of a mass market computer used "principally for programming" was both the strength and the weakness of Sinclair's computers. Fundamentally they were training machines, which forced the user to learn how to program a computer directly. This now seems bizarre, with the appearance of dedicated authoring software and increasingly user-oriented programming environments that have handed much of what used to be the programmer's brief down a few steps in the chain of software development. In 1980, though, it was less clear to Sinclair that the computer programmers among us were doomed to remain a minority in the scheme of things, and a generation of British programmers was trained in the short window between the launch of the ZX80 and the "collapse" of the industry after it "got taken over by games."

This is how my childhood was stolen. While other kids were out playing football, I was spending every waking hour trying to iron out obscure RETURN without GOSUB errors and praying that the thing didn't crash before I'd saved what I was doing. Yet the man who stole my childhood doesn't have a computer because, he says, "the work I do is mostly on scientific calculators." He doesn't bother with email or the Internet because he "just likes to keep life simple." It's not that he's not aware of it, exactly, just that he's not really sure what to do with it.

"If and when we have very large bandwidth systems, which are obviously coming," he says, "optical links into the home, so that you can have megabytes, or hundreds of megabytes even, flowing in and out, then the potential is dramatic. But it doesn't mean to say that it'll actually produce anything useful. It's very hard to know. I'm a firm believer that the power on your desk is still the way to go." The thing is, the power on Clive Sinclair's desk is a calculator.

Wayne Myers is a freelance writer based in London. He previously edited The Brussels Sprout and The Jerusalem Artichoke but has been unable to think of a London-based vegetable.