Sinclair ZX81: 30 years old
All hail the pioneer of UK home computing
Tomorrow, 5 March 2011, marks the 30th anniversary of the arrival of the machine that did more to awaken ordinary Britons to the possibilities offered by home computing: the Sinclair ZX81.
While its successor, the Sinclair Spectrum, got the nation playing computer games, the ZX81 was the tipping point that turned the home computer from nerd hobby into something anyone could buy and use.
Sir Clive Sinclair would later say his Science of Cambridge company - later Sinclair Research - developed its first computers to make the money needed to fund other projects closer to his heart: the portable TV and what would become the infamous C5 electric car.
SoC's first offering was the MK14, proposed by staffer Chris Curry - who would later leave Sinclair to form Acorn and become rich on the back of the BBC Micro's success - as a DIY kit for electronics buffs.
Launched in 1978, the MK14 was basic: it had an LED array as a status and data readout. Very cheap it may have been, but it looked primitive when placed alongside the likes of the Apple II, launched in the US in the same year.
Science of Cambridge's Mk14
But the MK14 was sufficiently successful to warrant a follow-up, this time a machine that set the pattern for what was to come after, not only from Sinclair: a built-in Qwerty keyboard and a UHF modulator to allow a TV to be used as a display.
Next page: The ZX80 arrives... in pieces
Doing down a rare success
I'm not sure anyone's claimed Alan Sugar as a visionary. There's loads of tales of his early days and some of the interesting bodges used to make Amstrad products 'better' - but that's a separate post.
As for Sinclair - yes, he was lucky, but he was in a market where there were hundreds of other people trying to be as lucky, and failing. It's easy to forget in these days of near-two party OS politics, that alongside the ZX81 and Spectrum were devices from Jupiter Cantab, Oric, Tandy, Commodore, Newbrain, Dragon, Elan, Atari, MSX and a dozen others - each completely unique and incompatible.
Sinclair's skill at the time was getting more bang for less buck than virtually any of his competitors. He pushed components beyond their limits, made use of quirks in their specs and pulled together innovative technologies to deliver something unique. It was a scattergun approach that had as many failures as successes, but before commoditisation removed much of the advantage, he was putting home computers into the home. There has to be huge credit to the teams that worked on the machines - from Rob Dickinson's wonderful industrial design through to the FPGA and OS that ran inside.
Of course the industry changed massively and that shook Sinclair, Acorn and most of the others back down to nothing. I'm not sure that makes them less significant, nor necessarily less visionary. Very few technology companies have survived from those early days to present times, and even those have had disastrous moments alongside the successes.
It's a huge pity that these days we're so risk averse and so keen to ridicule people who're willing to try something different that we have trouble producing such exciting technology. Hold an iPad in one hand and a ZX81 in the other and think what could have been.
I am typing a game lol
I still have mine!
It still works greats.
Two words to get fellow owners nostalgic:
Gawd bless ya Clive and all who sail in yer.