Under new management
A few months before Sinclair's departure, the NEB sold off Radionics' TV and calculator product lines and development. With Sinclair out of the way, in September 1979, the Board renamed the company Sinclair Electronics. 'Electronics' was deemed more appropriate, more modern than 'Radionics'. The decision to retain the Sinclair name may have been a deliberate attempt to snub the man himself.
In any case, in January 1980, the company became Thandar Electronics and was soon effectively sold off by the new Conservative government by merging it with Thurlby Electronics. It survives today as TTi - short for Thurlby Thandar Instruments - which makes electronic test and measurement instruments.
The NEB also had an interest in an electronics company called Newbury Labs, after acquiring a £343,000 stake in the firm in 1977, though in 1978 this share was sold at another company in which the NEB had a stake, The Data Recording Instrument Company. Ownership changed, but the NEB still had oversight.
In between the launch of the MK14, the collapse of Radionics, the exit of Clive Sinclair, and the formation of Sinclair Electronics, the NEB transferred the Wakefield/Smith micro project to Newbury.
Newbury continued the work. It was here that it became known a the NewBrain. Early in 1980, Newbury was ready to show off three prototypes - dubbed the M, the MB and the MBS - and discuss the product in public. Personal Computer World magazine's Dick Pountain would later say of the device shown in 1980: "The design concept was significantly in advance of anything that had been seen in the field of handheld computing."
From Newbury to Grundy
No wonder: the MB was a compact machine with its own display and a built-in battery. The MBS would use low-energy parts to maximise battery life. Newbury advertised all three units in the computing press throughout 1980.
Quite why the NewBrain wasn't released that year isn't clear. Most likely it was a casualty of the changes taking place at Newbury itself. With an anti-nationalisation government now in power, the NEB's role as a government puller of industry strings ran contrary to the administration's privatisation agenda. Its powers were curtailed. In 1991, it would be eventually privatised itself, as British Technology Group, or BTG.
During this period, Newbury MD Bob Smith left the company to join electronics firm Grundy. Did that prompt the transfer of the NewBrain to a third owner? It's hard to see the situation otherwise, but whatever the case, in September 1981, Newbury Labs formally sold the NewBrain to newly formed Grundy subsidiary Grundy Business Systems. Many key NewBrain staff - among them Mike Wakefield and Basil Smith - joined GBS at that time.
It wasn't simply a case of flogging the machine off. Newbury, don't forget, was controlled by the NEB, which by now had been merged with the National Research and Development Corporation and been renamed British Technology Group. BTG may have handed over NewBrain to Grundy, along with a £235,000 cash injection, but it got 30 per cent of Grundy Business Systems in return.
Money was always the problem. While Sinclair set price targets which governed what the ZX80 and ZX81 developers could achieve and thus yielded rather basic machines, Newbury arguably promised more than they could deliver - not for the first time in the computer industry.
Next page: The BBC Factor
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.