R.I.P. Clive Sinclair (1940-2021)

Clive Sinclair, with the Sinclair C5

I heard last night of the death at the age of 81 of (Sir) Clive Sinclair. The news brought back a flood of memories.

I am of a generation that began secondary school (a grammar school in my case) before pocket calculators were generally available, so my first two years of secondary mathematics education including learning how to logarithms for multiplying and dividing numbers. After that, from the third year onwards, slide rules were in use but by the time I got I got into the 3rd form these had been phased out and replaced with electronic calculators. The first commercially available such device was produced by Sinclair. I didn’t like the Sinclair calculator, however, which had a reputation for unreliability so my first simple calculator was a Casio machine which, if I recall correctly was also cheaper. Later on when I wanted a more advanced calculator I went for the wonderful Hewlett Packard HP32E, complete with Reverse Polish Notation.

I got interested in computing at school too. The machines we had available were Commodore PET machines running BASIC. The first computer I ever had at home was the very simple Acorn System 1 which had just 1K of RAM, a hexadecimal keypad and LED display and was programmed in 6502 Assembly language. Curiously, although I have great difficulty remembering my own phone number, I can still remember quite a lot of the hexadecimal opcodes in the 6502 instruction set!

The Acorn System 1 went into production in 1979 but just a year later Sinclair introduced the ZX80. Although very limited by today’s standards, it was really much more advanced than the machine I had. It did, however, have a reputation for unreliability and it was actually quite difficult to get hold of one due to supply issues. A friend at school bought one, but it seemed to me flimsy and awkward to use, so I never bought one. Nor did I buy the successor the ZX81.

Because I had experience using machines based on the 6502 processor I thought I would buy a BBC micro when they came out as I used to enjoy bypassing the BASIC interpreter on the Commodore PET and running my own machine code. In 1982, however, Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum. This again was very limited by today’s standards but was a significant improvement on its predecessors, so I bought one. I took it with me to Cambridge when I began as a student there in 1982.

I remember also buying various peripherals for it, including a dreadful printer that required rolls of special paper.

The ZX Spectrum was a great success but soon other companies took over the market. It seemed to be in Sinclair’s character to invent things and then lose interest and he subsequently switched his attention to other inventions, many of which flopped, such as the ridiculously impractical Sinclair C5 which launched in 1985 and sank shortly afterwards. He never seemed to let such failures bother him too much, though, which is to his credit, and he didn’t seem to mind being ribbed about them either. Here he is on Clive Anderson Talks Back:

Despite his failures it seems very clear to me that Clive Sinclair was a pioneer in the technological revolution who played a major role in shaping the digital landscape in which we find ourselves today, forty years after the first home computers. My washing machine has much more CPU power than any of the 1980s home computers, but you have to start somewhere.

Rest in Peace, Clive Sinclair (1940-2021).

6 Responses to “R.I.P. Clive Sinclair (1940-2021)”

  1. Got my first calculator during A-levels – cost me around £20 (which apparently is equivalent to £174 today). Did logs and sin, cos, tan, but only between 0 – 90 degrees, and did not do square roots. (Had to take the log, divide by 2 and take the antilog.) And it was reverse Polish notation which was a pain. Went through batteries very quickly as well.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Calculators appeared during my last years at school, though I couldn’t afford one at the time. Probably these first models I remember were Sinclairs. My principal memory of them was the fascination we had with typing 710 0553, and then turning it upside down to reveal the crypic message “ESSO OIL”. You couldn’t do that with a slide rule…. Subsequently I went to university and on day 1 encountered an HP35 in the college library. I’d never heard of reverse Polish, but once I’d figured out what was going on I was hooked. Maybe it’s the attractive procrastination – stick in your numbers and only then decide whether you want to add or multiply them – but ever since then I will only use a calculator if it’s reverse Polish. I eventually bought an HP11C, which I still have, but mostly I use an HP emulation app on my phone. I was also delighted, years later, to discover that PostScript is a reverse Polish language that operates on stacks. Possibly the high point of human intellectual development.

  3. At school I bought a Sinclair FM radio about the size of a matchbox and about as useful as a matchbox for receiving the radio… I used a slide rule for many years. Then as a DPhil student I bought a Sinclair Scientific kit for £15 as an offer with Practical Electronics. Soldering it all together was a challenge, especially the very dodgy mounting of the display. However, it worked, even though it was good to only 2 decimal places, as I recall, so I still used the slide rule a lot. I had to borrow a 4-function calculator to work out expenses claims…
    I’ve always liked RPN – I used a desktop HP programmable machine to control a balloon-borne telescope, so I did all the celestial geometry on it, and also wrote an octal arithmetic package for outputting the required commands for a telecommand switch bank.
    I was extremely happy to discover RPN calculator apps for my phone – one is a straight HP21 emulation, and the other (“RPN Calculator”) has many many more functions but is still RPN. Bliss…

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