The Grundy NewBrain is 30
The revolutionary product that came too late
Feature The NewBrain was launched 30 years ago this month, but its arrival, in July 1982, was a long time coming. The genesis of the computer that might have been the BBC Micro - that might, even, have been Sinclair's first home computer - goes back more than four years to 1978.
The company that became known as Sinclair Radionics was founded by Clive - now Sir Clive - Sinclair in 1961. But by the mid-1970s it was to all intents and purposed owned by the British government. Overseeing Radionics' operation was the National Enterprise Board (NEB), an organisation established by the Labour administration in 1975 to promote the nationalisation of key industries, and it took partial control of Radionics in 1976.
A long time coming:
Sinclair Radionics Newbury BBC Grundy NewBrain
Two years later, the NEB agreed to fund the development, at Radionics, of a personal computer. The Apple II, the Commodore Pet and other similar machines had been launched in the US the year before to great success, and it was felt that a company like Radionics - particularly given Sinclair's keenness on producing technology products for ordinary people - could spearhead the micro revolution in the UK.
The proposed computer's hardware would be designed by Mike Wakefield, its software by Basil Smith. Having got the go-ahead, the two began work on the project in earnest.
In the same vein, the NEB agreed that year to fund Inmos, which would use the investment to develop an innovative new microprocessor architecture, the Transputer. You can follow that story here.
A micro for Blighty
Meanwhile, Clive Sinclair was finding government oversight a hindrance to his entrepreneurship and increasingly hard to cope with. Over the years, he had formed or acquired other companies and one, which had remained dormant for some time, was now brought back to life and renamed Science of Cambridge.
SoC would eventually be run by Sinclair ally Chris Curry, who would later leave to form Acorn. During 1977 and 1978, he oversaw the development of the MK14, a basic computer board conceived by Ian Williamson and which SoC would bring to market in 1978. Quite how much of the MK14 work was performed at Radionics and how much at SoC remains unclear.
Sinclair's NewBrain alternative: the MK14
What does seem certain is that Sinclair, if he was involved with the NEB-promoted micro project at all, felt that it could not be produced at a price that would make it accessible to "the man on the street". So he would focus his attention instead on a machine that could be.
Either that, or his hostility to the NEB - and therefore the organisation's apparently preferred microcomputer project - encouraged him to attempt to beat the quango at its own game. The MK14 was there in concept and in specification, and so Sinclair encouraged Curry to turn it into a product.
Whatever Sinclair's attitude to Wakefield and Smith's project, he quit Radionics in July 1979, went straight to SoC and took a closer interest in the work that would see the release of the MK14's successors: the ZX80 in 1980 and the ZX81 the following year.
Next page: Under new management
Re: Further reading...
>Sounds like GBS didn't really know how to develop, sell or support the NewBrain. But then it was the early days of microcomputers..
Yeah. These days you don't have to suffer shoddy support, release dates slipping or broken promises. Manufacturers have learnt so much over the years.
Pricey back then..
The ZX81 was only £50 when my dad bought me one, and the Spectrum £130 (sold the '81 for £40, added pocket money, and parental contribution). The £200+ jobbies were way out of our league, used to see ads of it thinking, wow, a proper-ish keys AND an LCD, cool! I hated the BBC Micro, because if was just so expensive at £400, had great graphics and sound, and I never did own one, ever. Oh and the only chap in the class who had one was held up as being the only one with a 'professional' dad. Enough envy there to turn one a very deep shade of green indeed!
Fascinating article though, but the idea of trying to load 256kb off tape! Rough guess, a 3k bit per sec baud turbo loader could manage it in about half an hour. Did disk drives ever come out for the New Brain?
Re: Really good article series...
Oooh! oooh! —Do one on the Oric. It never gets a nostalgic mention.
Promise and potential but management handicapped
Basil Smith and Mike Wakefield joined the project after the design was well underway; something I didn't realise until many years later.
The design for the BBC micro was the Newbury NewBrain. The change in software and hardware, particularly adding colour was the result of Acorn actively bidding for the contract. Newbury did not supporting the bidding for the contract and Acorn at least had a working and commercial computer in the Atom. Newbury, then Grundy Business Systems, had only the battery powered Vestic machine with built in ROMS. Management did not want to supply the BBC micro and didn't try to get the contract.
The battery power machine relied upon CMOS components and was never made. The battery module for the Model AD would run for about an hour. Some owners replaced as many of the components, in the AD, as they could and achieved longer battery life.
In 1982 there were plans for modular cases to house the modules and expansion boards. This wasn't happening so the tower shown was made as a stop gap. As even these didn't appear in numbers loans of machines to software companies where supplied with an 'oil rig' tower to support the monitor with floppy disc controller and 96K expansion module in slim brown cases held together by locking keys. The brick at the back was the multiple power supply for four modules (the computer/keyboard module being one of them). This was so over engineered that it would also run a pair of 3.5" floppy drives (in house custom alteration).
Disc controllers and expansion modules were sold in limited numbers. All the components for a production run where supplied but there were hold ups in soldiering the boards. Tradecom battled to get these as the contractor hadn't been paid, but had been making a little return selling completed but untested disc controllers. The same contractor also was sitting on components to built NewBrains - which Tradecom then got completed. Existing customers wanted the expansion boards. New customers were waiting for the arrive of the long promised expansions. It would have cost very little to have turned the stock of components into machine for the Christmas market.
The plug was pulled in August 1983, but heralded the collapse of the other microcomputer companies in in 82/83 leaving Acorn, Sinclair and the late to market Amstrad as games machines with business having moved to the IBM PC.
There were many comments in the press and from people who didn't own a NewBrain about the keyboard. The keys have a full bounce and metal springs mounted on a metal plate. The spacing is exactly the same as on professional typewriters but the keys are straight, not tapered as used on most keyboards at the time. The small return key and short space bar where the only compromise for lack of space. There were many discussions about replacing the caps with ones that filled up the gap between keys so they looked 'proper'.
Cambridge based development gave overoptimistic delivery dates for modules but Teddington marketing gave unrealistic dates. At least they didn't stock pile customer's money months in advance.
Given the described history of UK then Holland, I'm curious where the model on Page 1 was destined. It seems to have a French AZERTY keyboard.
Speaking of keyboards, I think people sometimes underestimate the effect they had. I know that for many of my friends one of the major deciding factors for going the BBC Micro route was that it had a "proper" keyboard, not a chiclet-style one.