Sir Clive Sinclair, who died of cancer at the age of 81, was the inventor who brought pocket calculators and the first inexpensive and accessible miniature computers to British homes in the 1980s.
For a few years it seemed to be the epitome of the new hi-tech and green-light Britain that the Conservative government was striving to promote. He was named businessman of the year, knighted, championed by Margaret Thatcher, and briefly became a multimillionaire. But, proving to be a better inventor and self-publicist than an entrepreneur, his reputation deteriorated in 1985 with the invention of the C5, his prototype electric car.
The low-profile, lightweight, open, plastic-walled three-wheeler priced at £ 399, with a top speed of 15 mph and the battery required to be recharged every 20 miles, has launched into production, Sinclair predicting annual sales of 100,000. But its flaws were all too obvious and it sank under the mocking laughter of the media. Reporters had been led to expect a full-size vehicle from the genius inventor, not a tricycle with a modified Hoover washing machine motor.
Marketed with the slogan “A whole new way to get around”, it was overwhelmed with low praise by the Department of Transportation, which said: “As an alternative to pedal bikes, it is not likely to have a worse safety record. ” But drivers felt vulnerable, not only to traffic, but also to strong breezes and gusts of rain, and only a few thousand were sold. Within months, Sinclair was forced to sell his IT company to Alan Sugar, the owner of Amstrad, shut down the Cambridge headquarters and lay off virtually all of the staff.
Many years later, Sinclair admitted that January hadn’t been the best time to launch the C5, as its batteries tended to collapse in cold weather. “It was a good idea then and now,” he told The Independent on Sunday in 2010. “We sold a few thousand of them and people loved them, but it’s clear that I should have handled things differently. It could have been successful. I rushed at it too much.
Sinclair was the son and grandson of engineers, the oldest of three children of George Sinclair, a mechanical engineer who had his own machine tool business for a time, and Thora (née Marles). Born in Richmond, Surrey at the start of World War II, his childhood was disrupted, first by an evacuation to Devon with his mother and later, after his father’s business collapsed, by moving to different parts of southern England, where he was educated in a succession of private schools. His enthusiasm for inventions started early – apparently because of an inventor character on the children’s radio show Toytown – and by the age of 12 he had designed a submarine for one to go. a gas tank.
Leaving St George’s College in Weybridge with two baccalaureates, in mathematics and physics, he decides not to go to university. Instead, he found employment, first in the trade journal Practical Wireless, before editing electronics textbooks and becoming technical editor of the journal Instrument Practice.
Sinclair’s passion was miniaturization. In 1962, he and his first wife, Ann (née Trevor Briscoe), started a business in their apartment in Pimlico, central London, making micro amplifiers and then cheap. pocket radios marketed under the name Sinclair Slimline, they assembled using transistors bought cheaply from Plessey and shipped to customers from their kitchen tables.
The first Sinclair pocket calculators appeared 10 years later, powered by a chip and half the size and cheaper than the larger models then on the market. Although the calculators’ design and reliability left a lot to be desired, they sold for just under £ 80 but cost only £ 10 to manufacture, and orders were pouring in at the rate of 100,000 per month.
A plastic digital watch followed, but this one also had issues including short battery life and a faulty casing. Sinclair’s next plan was to design an ultra-slim TV and a pocket TV, both well ahead of their time, but his company faced growing financial difficulties as its calculator business was undermined by bigger and better-funded competitors. Sinclair Radionics had to be bailed out in 1976 by the National Enterprise Board and again the following year.
Eventually, the board of directors acquired three-quarters of the business, and Sinclair left in 1979 to form a new company, Sinclair Research, which would eventually produce the first inexpensive personal computers that could be used in the home. It was at a time when most people thought of computers as whirring machines as large as a room. Sinclair’s first, the ZX80, was 9 inches (23cm) wide and 7 inches (18cm) deep and could be bought as a kit for £ 79.95 or more, out of the box, one-fifth the price of other computers basic in offices. It turned out to be fulfilling a need people didn’t realize they had for their free time.
Sinclair had achieved his ambition of producing a computer for less than £ 100 but it was very basic, having to be plugged into the television to provide a screen and with a cassette to store data. A year later came the ZX81, then, slightly more sophisticated and costing £ 125, the ZX Spectrum, manufactured under license in the United States by Timex.
With no commercial competitors to begin with, the machines sold in the thousands – a quarter of a million from the 1981 model in the first year – and the company’s profits soared. In 1982 he was making £ 8.55 million on a turnover of £ 27 million; a year later the company was valued at £ 136million and profits had reached nearly £ 20million. While many homeowners and their children used their computers to play new kinds of games such as Monster maze, they also learned programming and other technological skills.
Then came the C5 fiasco. Sinclair was suddenly transformed from a bearded wizard to a funny figure, a cross between Einstein and Willy Wonka in the actor’s last words Alexandre armstrong, who played him in the Micro Men TV series in 2009. That same year, The Guardian described him as both visionary, picky uncle, and marketing genius.
“If an idea is good enough, it’s going to sound pretty crazy to almost everyone,” he told The Independent on Sunday. “Either you do it yourself or it won’t happen. I never feel, my God, it’s the end of the world, I’m just taking the next step. I am not a businessman by nature… I certainly have no desire to be extremely wealthy; I mean, I was, but it’s just something that happened.
The ridiculous did not stop Sinclair from continuing to research inventions, even as his company was reduced to itself. In the years to come, there would be an electric bike called Zike and a battery-powered motor called Zeta, a small radio that could fit in the ear, and an A-bike that commuters could fold up and take to their desks. His daughter, Belinda, said he was still working on ideas last week. Oddly enough, he himself did not use a computer, email or the Internet and preferred a slide rule to the calculator he had developed.
There were other interests: Sinclair claimed an IQ of 159 and was president of the UK branch of Mensa for many years, and he was an avid poker player, loved poetry, and ran marathons.
He and Ann divorced in 1985. In 2010, he married 34-year-old Miss England former beauty and pole dance queen Angie Bowness, whom he had met at Stringfellows nightclub in 1996; they divorced in 2017.
Sinclair is survived by his three children, Bartholomew, Belinda and Crispin from his first marriage, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.