In memory of Sir Clive Sinclair • Eurogamer.net
We live in an age of hyperbole, where a few modest successes are enough to elevate someone to legendary status – at least in the eyes of an evolving pop culture. This week we said goodbye to a true legend, Sir Clive Sinclair, whose vision virtually defined the UK gaming industry – and by extension large swathes of the modern gaming landscape. Ironic, given that gaming was perhaps the furthest thing from Sinclair’s mind when he was creating his first personal computers in the early 1980s.
Sinclair was first an inventor, then a businessman. Born in 1940, he was a gifted child, particularly gifted in mathematics, and his father and grandfather were accomplished engineers. A voracious reader and tinkerer, he spent his school vacations teaching himself the things his high school couldn’t, and by the age of 14 he was said to have dreamed up a design for a submarine. History, unfortunately, does not remember if he ever attempted to build and sail it.
Fascinated by new electronics technologies, the young Sinclair took on vacation jobs at relevant companies and tried to present his managers with ideas for electric vehicles – an obsession that will last throughout his career, and one of the many examples of being one step ahead of its time. it was.
Even before he had completed his A levels – physics, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics – he was mail order miniature DIY radio kits, calculating his material costs and profit margins in an old workbook. It became a real business, selling calculators and other gadgets, as well as producing computer kit for schools and colleges.
This is where Sinclair’s story turns into our video game world. Envisioning a future where every household would have their own computer, Sinclair began to assemble what would become the ZX80, which had a whopping 1k of memory in its base form. Sinclair’s stroke of genius was to produce a computer that was affordable for most ordinary consumers. In an era when computers cost at least £ 700 (over £ 3,000 adjusted for inflation), the ZX80 was selling for under £ 100. You might even save more money by buying it as a kit, like the radios Sinclair sold as a teenager, and putting them together yourself.
Launched in 1980, as the name suggests, the ZX80 was an immediate success, and was quickly followed by the ZX81, rushed into production to grab the attention of the BBC, which embarked on its own quest to supply computers to schools. The Beeb chose Sinclair’s rival, Acorn, but the competition kindled a fire under Sinclair who pursued his greatest creation, the ZX Spectrum.
Available in 16k and 48k versions, the Spectrum has dramatically improved over the ZX81 by offering a limited color palette, rudimentary buzzer sounds, and the ability to create custom graphics. There had been games for the ZX81, of course, but with the Spectrum’s dizzying new possibilities, what had been a niche market quickly exploded into a cottage industry as hobbyist developers rushed to produce interactive entertainment. for the small army of children who had been offered a Spectrum, with the understanding that he would “help with your homework”.
It is important to remember how much of a seismic shock this new frontier was. Sinclair never wanted his computers to be gaming machines, but that’s what the market decided they were. In the space of a few years, the idea of having a computer at home has gone from being a fantasy for everyone, except the wealthiest businessmen, to a reality, even for the children of the city. . The number of office software packages has decreased; the number of arcade games has exploded.
The prevalence of “room coder” is somewhat overestimated, but it’s no surprise that when news of Sinclair’s death broke, social media was filled with tributes from hundreds of veteran game makers explaining how their first coding experiment took place on a ZX81 or Spectrum. Between 1980 and 1982, “gambling” became a valid way for anyone to earn a living. If there is one triumph Sinclair deserves to be remembered, it is this early democratization of access to computer technology.
That would be enough to earn a place in Sinclair’s Hall of Fame, but there was something unique about the Spectrum in particular that made it last where other computers of the time didn’t. The very fact that Sinclair himself became a totemic figure, affectionately referenced in gaming magazines of the time as “Uncle Clive” speaks volumes. Although he is apparently rather taciturn and serious in real life, the popular image of him as the lovable leader for a generation of children has grown and spread. In contrast, few people even knew who created the Commodore 64, the Spectrum’s big rival.
Much of that personal bond owners had with their Sinclair gear stems from Sinclair’s handy nature. Looking at the ZX Spectrum today, that’s a really weird thing. In technical terms, he was an underdog, and underdogs inspire defense. Undernourished compared to its competition, its color graphics clashed gaudily if they overlapped, its buzzer was ringing and farting, and – most famous of all – its keyboard was rubber.
It’s those spongy touches that stick in my mind as proof of Sinclair’s quirky genius. An economical measure to avoid the expense of molding dozens of individual keys, the rubber mat that lay underneath and passed through the Spectrum’s metal case was a clever solution to an engineering problem, but a bewildering limitation in practical terms. . Also important was that it was covered with multiple BASIC functions and shortcuts accessible via various shift keys. It was a computer showing his work, rubbing your face in the mysterious language that made things happen. Just looking at the Speccy keyboard was a challenge trying to write something of your own.
The Spectrum was nothing more than an illustration of the old maxim that necessity is the mother of invention and it sold by bucket – over 10 million at the end of its lifespan. Fledgling UK game developers couldn’t afford to ignore it. At the same time, making its claustrophobic architecture produce better, faster, and more addicting games required inventive coding and design skills. Any programmer who lived in this era can attest to the often ingenious tricks used to make Spectrum games even move on screen.
And that’s, in a roundabout way, what made Sinclair a world changer. The gaming industry would have always been around without Spectrum, of course, but it would have been dominated by American companies like Commodore. UK developers would still have cropped up to serve the new market of enthusiastic young gamers, but they wouldn’t have had to navigate the eccentric eccentricities of Sinclair’s creation. A necessary essential spark of invention would never have been unleashed.
The UK has always exceeded its weight in game design, and it’s because of Sinclair. Trace the family tree of nearly every UK game company today, and you’ll find links to 1980s startups that benefited from the left-wing problem solving demanded by Sinclair computers. It wasn’t just that the Spectrum created a commercial market that allowed a generation of British coders to emerge, it demanded inventive thinking that helped give British game design a unique blend of personality and d ‘invention. Pick one of the great British games, the blockbuster franchises that still exist today, and there’s Spectrum DNA in there.
Despite the success of The Spectrum, Sinclair didn’t stay in the IT business for long. After launching a pocket TV, he turned to a new business and developed the electric vehicle he had dreamed of since childhood.
The Sinclair C5, unfortunately, was a humbling failure. An electric tricycle, it was made fun of its toy-like design and lack of safety – the rider was sitting so low to the ground that he was below the eye line of most car mirrors, and without a canopy for facing the British weather, the prospect of being surrounded by impending traffic in a downpour was unattractive. Project C5 kicked off and kicked off in less than a year, and Sinclair sold his IT business to Alan Sugar’s Amstrad to keep the lights on.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Sinclair continued to pursue his goal of doing for electric transportation what he had done for personal computers. None of his follow-up plans came to fruition, and soon after, the Sinclair company was reduced to a handful of full-time employees, and ultimately Sir Clive.
There is no doubt now that Sinclair saw the future, even though he was never quite able to turn all of his visions into business reality. We watch TV on devices that fit in our pocket. Electric vehicles are now the norm. Importantly, for Eurogamer readers almost every household has at least one computer and the UK still has a world-class reputation for creating imaginative and compelling games to play. It is an incredible legacy.