PAT PILCHER was there when Clive Sinclair’s ZX81 revolutionised home computing. Here’s his tribute to the man who changed everything.
The ’80s weren’t just about the rise and rise of synthpop and new romantics, big hair and ridiculous shoulder pads. It was also when personal computing hit the mainstream. One of the early pioneers of this age, Sir Clive Sinclair, has passed away.
For this writer, my introduction to computing came in the form of the Sinclair ZX81. It was a pencil case-sized machine that might have been crazily underspec’d by today’s standards, but then again, it was a mere $199 (that’s a whopping $933.88 in today’s money). Either way, it changed my life.
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Back then, you didn’t get a lot for your money. The ZX81 came with just 1K of RAM, a Z80 CPU clocked at what was then a zippy 4.77Mhz. You needed a cassette player to load and save programmes. (More often than not it didn’t work and volume levels had to be exactly correct). Its keyboard was a membrane doodah that took a LOT of getting used to. Last but by no means least, you also needed a TV set to display its low-res black and white graphics.
Like many kids, I persuaded my parents into springing for the ZX81’s 16KB RAM pack. It slotted into the I/O port at the back of the ZX81. 16KB was, of course, for pure poser value. After all, nothing could ever need THAT much memory!
Sir Clive founded Sinclair Research in 1973, but he didn’t really get any critical acclaim until the early ’80s with the release of the ZX80 home computer. It came as both a ready-built version and a more affordable build-it-yourself DIY kit for those on a tight budget. The ZX80 was followed by the ZX81 and then the ZX Spectrum in 1982. The Spectrum was a huge hit in the UK and New Zealand, selling over a million units globally.
Not all of Sir Clive’s ideas were successful. Most notably, the Sinclair C5 electric trike and the TV80 pocket television (which was only pocket-sized if you had brick-sized pockets in your cargo pants) bombed. Both didn’t catch on and ultimately led to Sinclair’s company being bought up by Amstrad. But as proof of Sir Clive’s vision, electric cars and entertainment on a pocketable screen are now a firm part of life in 2021.
The ZX Spectrum is perhaps Sir Clive’s biggest legacy and played a pivotal role in spawning the careers of many game developers. By today’s standards, the games were primitive. It seems almost incredible that the Speccy was such a huge success as a games platform. Early models lacked built-in joystick ports, had crude sound hardware and what could only be charitably called basic colour support.
Nonetheless, the Speccy had huge game titles, including Jet Set Willy, Skool Daze, Renegade and The Hobbit. My personal favourite was the unforgettable Pi Mania (a text adventure game that promised a pure gold dish to the first person who solved it). Perhaps the most compelling feature across the entire range of Sinclair computer hardware was a version of the BASIC programming language that was both easy to learn and surprisingly powerful. Sinclair BASIC made the ZX 80/81 and Spectrum the gateway drug of choice for geeky kids back in the day wanting to learn to code.
One of the big factors driving the startling uptake of the ZX80/ZX81 and Speccy was the community of magazines and enthusiasts that sprang up around the wee colour computer that could. Magazines such as Sinclair User and Your Spectrum were filled with cool reviews and games that could be carefully typed in Sinclair BASIC or machine code. Spending hours with friends keying code on my ZX81 only to have its RAM pack wobble, causing the whole shebang to crash, was a common occurrence.