Halcyon days of Sinclair

I have been asked what the halcyon days of Sinclair looked like – and just who this Sinclair was. Clearly these questions come from overseas, because everyone in the UK would know that I am referring to Sir Clive Sinclair, inventor and father of home computing.

Clive Sinclair had been involved in designing various electronic devices since the 1960s, including a miniature radio, a number of pocket calculators and televisions and the first mass-market digital watch. Some of these devices were successful, others less so. It was his home computers that were to provide his fortune though. His first complete computer was the ZX80 – the first machine available in the UK for less than a hundred pounds (just). It was followed by the ZX81, which sold over 1.5 million units in two years. But by far the most popular was the ZX Spectrum, his first colour computer, launched in 1982.

The ZX Spectrum package. Sadly not my original model, which I sold to buy the QL.

A 16K rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum was my first introduction to Sinclair computing. It was on this machine that I began my very short early programming career by retyping sections of code from magazines like Computer Weekly. My Dad still recalls with horror the occasion when he gently knocked the Spectrum, causing it to reset just as I had finished entering one of the lengthier magazine programs. Even now he seems little comforted by the fact that the program would almost certainly not have worked – either because of a misprint or (more likely) my poor transcribing efforts.

My 16K Spectrum was fairly soon upgraded to 48K, because the best new games were only available for 48K Spectrums. Yes, despite Sir Clive’s best intentions, my programming was put on hold, and the Spectrum became my games computer. So, I would get the latest game on cassette, attach the tape recorder to the computer, and issue the famous command: LOAD “”, before pressing play and waiting for the game to load. And waiting. Sometimes it would take as long as 4 or 5 minutes. Sometimes it wouldn’t load at all. My children, with their access to iPod Touches and iPads, have no concept of what this wait was like.

But I found a recording of what that tape loading process sounded like (shortened, to be nice), so I could share it with them:

Happy memories.

In the process of finding that sound, I found the Museum of Endangered Sounds, the idea of which I love. It also scares me – in a how old am I? way – how many of the sounds available on that site mean something to me and nothing to my children.

Some of the Spectrum games were very good – The Lords of Midnight, Ant Attack, Jet Set Willy were three of my favourites – but they all look terribly dated now. I recently showed my son a video of the gameplay of Match Day by Ocean Software, which I spent hours playing when I was his age. He laughed. I’m not sure he believes it was a real game.

It was only really when the Sinclair QL (Quantum Leap) came along that I got interested in computers again. I purchased one when they’d been reduced in price after failing to sell well. I think I paid £150 in Dixons for a QL that came with a Serial 8056 thermal printer.

The Dixons package. I’m as surprised as anyone that I still own that printer.

The failure of the QL isn’t really a mystery. When first launched it was expensive (£399) and didn’t work very well (the early machines needed a special dongle because there hadn’t been enough time to finish the software), and they didn’t run any of the old Spectrum software. Efforts to cut costs also hampered the potential of the machine. The main processor was a bus restricted version of a faster chip (meaning it was slower than it might have been); there wasn’t enough memory on board for day to day usage – so the dual microdrives that were included for storage got more of a workout then they were really designed for, swapping data in and out of memory (slowly); and the keyboard – though a vast improvement on earlier Sinclair keyboards – had its limitations.

But once some of the early issues had been ironed out, the QL was a very capable computer. Despite the bus limitations it was still fast for the day and those dual microdrives were eventually pretty reliable, even though they really didn’t look as if they ought to be. And there were plenty of people ready to improve on the original. By the end of its working days my QL had a Trump Card memory expansion (adding a mighty 768K), dual disk drives and an external keyboard. Others went further, developing whole new computers based on the QL architecture – including the Thor which, if my memory is accurate, the makers hoped to make the IBM PC equivalent for the Soviet Union.

The CST Thor 1

I really wanted one of those Thor computers.

There were plans for further development of the QL too, like the QL wafer stack model. I still want one of these.

I’d still very much like one of these please.

This is from Rick Dickinson’s Sinclair photos on Flickr. He’s the design genius behind most of Sinclair’s best products. (And it’s worth looking at all the photographs on that Flickr photostream if you like this sort of thing.)

But further development of the QL was abandoned when Sinclair was forced to sell the rights to his computers and brand name to Alan Sugar, mostly as a result of the financial disaster that was the Sinclair C5 electric vehicle (yes, I loved it).

My university kit, including the Z88, Canon printer and some spare EPROMs.

Sir Clive persevered though and brought out one more great computer – the portable Z88 (again designed by Rick Dickinson) – with his new company Cambridge Computers. I paired mine up with a Canon inkjet printer, and headed off to university.

Sir Clive is still trying to build a successful electric vehicle.

Updated: 11 November 2013, with a new YouTube video.

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