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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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A notable death

17 September 2021

As you grow older you get used to seeing names you recognise in the obituaries.

Today a very important figurehead in the early days of personal computers and innovation has their name on that list.

I'm talking about Sir Clive Sinclair, the man who not only created one of the first really affordable scientific calculators but the one who also made a cheap home computer available to the masses.

Not all of Sir Clive's products were as successful as the Sinclair Scientific Calculator or the ZX80/81 devices but his innovation certainly changed the world for millions of people.

Perhaps his most notable failure was the C5, a small pedal-car-sized electric vehicle powered by a repurposed washing machine motor.

Sadly, the C5 was dangerous, limited in range and paid scant regard to the cold and wet nature of the UK's weather. The machine was also pretty crappy in terms of build-quality and performance.

Examples of the C5 that are still in good condition however, now fetch a pretty handsome price amongst enthusiasts and I have a feeling that even with this whacky machine, Sir Clive may simply have been somewhat ahead of his time. There may still come a day when we have small, single-occupant, electrically powered personal transportation pods as a method of better utilising the planet's precious resources.

Failures aside, Sinclair had a remarkable run of success in the early days of the personal computer industry. His ability to design and manufacture the ZX80 and ZX81 computers using an incredibly small number of parts and at a ground-breaking low price-point was instrumental in introducing the concept of personal computers to millions.

Whilst larger, more capable computers such as the Atari 400 and Apple II wer priced at many hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, the ZX machines could be had for a fraction of that. Their low cost and massive support in the printed computer publications of the day meant that there was a thriving community of users and a plethora of free software available.

Of course the ZX80/81 was highly compromised when compared to many of those more expensive machines. It had a rather crappy membrane keyboard, a pittance of RAM and the Z80 processor was tasked with not only running the user's code but also creating the video display, the sound and a raft of other tasks usually offloaded to separate silicon on the more expensive machines.

Despite its obvious handicaps, the fact that it was cheap, cheerful and just worked (most of the time) made the ZX80/81 a runaway success in the market.

Whilst it was sold under Sinclair's own name in the UK and in most other parts of the world, the US market saw it rebranded as a Timex product where, despite fierce competition from far more capable machines, it still did remarkably well.

Another product that ought not be forgotten (I remember the ads in my regular-read electronic magazines) was the Sinclair Cambridge pocket calculator kitset. You could save a few dollars by building the thing yourself. Since this was at a time when electronic calcuators were far from cheap, this was a popular product.

Then there was the Sinclair pocket TV set...

Long before we had LCD displays, the Sinclair pocket TV used a very unusual CRT setup in an attempt to create a small, portable (pocketable) television receiver. This, unfortunately, was one of Sir Clive's less successful inventions. Sadly, due to the power demands of the CRT and the less than perfect performance of the weird CRT setup, the thing never really took off.

As someone who seemed willing to "give it a go", regardless of the commercial outcomes, I always admired Sinclair's bravery in the tech world and was often in awe of his ability to produce an affordable, sometimes elegant solution.

His death perhaps marks an end to the era when one man could make a huge difference, as a technologist, in the tech world. Sure, today we have people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, but they're not technologists -- they're simply businessmen. They aren't at the coalface, cutting code, carving silicon and actually doing the tech-work themselves. I fear that the ever-increasing complexity of our technology has seen the end of the era that made men like Sir Clive Sinclair as great as they were.

Do you have any memories of Sinclair's products? Share your experiences (both good and bad).

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