Clive Sinclair
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
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Clive Sinclair
From calculator to computer
ZX80 and beyond


The first Sinclair product that we can classify as to do with computing was a calculator. But what a calculator! At a time (1972) when electronic calculators were desk bound the Sinclair Executive was a marvel of miniaturisation. It was the first pocket calculator and it wasn't very expensive. It won design council awards and was put on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But it wasn't much of an innovation electronically. It used a standard chip with a power saving trick of pulsing the power supply.


After the Executive came a range of lower priced pocket calculators. These had a reputation for not being very reliable - although much of the trouble was due to a poor design for the on/off switch. Then a scientific calculator was produced by reprogramming a standard off the shelf chip.

Finally work did begin on a personal computer design - but the bottom fell out of the calculator market and the National Enterprise Board (NEB) took over Sinclair Radionics. The design was sold to Newbury - a maker of VDUs - and it turned up some time later as the NewBrain. A good and reliable machine but it lacked the flair of a true Sinclair product.

Financially things got worse at Sinclair Radionics. None of the products that had been launched to replace the lost calculator market were proving a success. The incredibly innovative Black Watch - the first Quartz watch - was having so many reliability problems that most were returned for repair as soon as they were shipped. The miniature TV wasn't selling well and also had reliability problems. In the end, enough was enough and the NEB split Sinclair Radionics up.


While all this was going on Chris Curry had been looking after a small venture called Science of Cambridge. This company was to be Sinclair's lifeboat and indeed it turned into Sinclair Research soon after the loss of Sinclair Radionics.

Science of Cambridge operated in much the same way as the early Sinclair company. They produced kits and the advertising that they took was unmistakably "Sinclair" even though the magic name appeared nowhere. After a wrist calculator and a few other things the real breakthrough was the MK14.


The MK14

This was a microprocessor trainer - a membrane keyboard, LED display and that's about all. The MK14 was designed by Ian Williamson but it sort of counts as Sinclair's first computer. It certainly made him think hard about producing something a little better. It also inspired Chris Curry who, fired by a vision of better machines, set up Acorn with Herman Hauser. Their first product was the Acorn System 75 - a direct competitor to the MK14.





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