Farewell Sir Clive Sinclair; Inspired A Generation Of Engineers

It is with sadness that we note the passing of the British writer, engineer, home computer pioneer, and entrepreneur, Sir Clive Sinclair, who died this morning at the age of 81 after a long illness. He is perhaps best known among Hackaday readers for his ZX series of home computers from the 1980s, but over a lifetime in the technology industry there are few corners of consumer electronics that he did not touch in some way.

Sinclair’s first career in the 1950s was as a technical journalist and writer, before founding the electronics company Sinclair Radionics in the 1960s. His output in those early years was a mixture of miniature transistor radios and Hi-Fi components, setting the tone for decades of further tiny devices including an early LED digital watch at the beginning of the 1970s, miniature CRT TVs in the ’70s and ’80s, and another tiny in-ear FM radio which went on sale in the ’90s.

The SInclair Cambridge Scientific calculator.
The Sinclair Cambridge Scientific calculator.

At the start of the ’70s he took on the emerging mass-market calculator world with yet more miniaturisation by the use of button cells rather than bulky dry cells, and then with scientific calculators at a low price thanks to extremely clever reprogramming of a more mundane calculator chip. As calculators became commoditised his inevitable next step was into the world of computing which from modest beginnings led to the hugely successful ZX series of machines with 1982’s ZX Spectrum as one of the most popular British computers of all time. These machines made clever use of an Uncommitted Logic Array chip to reduce their device count, and though they lacked the advanced features of their more expensive competitors their sub-£100 price made them an easy choice for cash-conscious parents. There was an array of Sinclair peripherals including a miniaturised tape storage device, as well as a huge ecosystem of third-party hardware and software.

Through the 1980s the computer business foundered and was sold to rival Alan Sugar’s Amstrad, though the Sinclair inventing streak remained undimmed. His C5 electric vehicle was a commercial failure, but it led to his producing a range of electric bicycle add-on products into the ’90s that foreshadowed today’s electric bike boom by several decades. He wasn’t quite finished with computers though, as his Cambridge Z88 of 1987 was an LCD portable that ran from AA batteries and provided useful on-the-road office facilities.

Aside from an array of always interesting but sometimes under-engineered technology products, Sir Clive’s true legacy lies in the generations who benefited from his work. Whether he introduced them to electronics in the 1960s through his writing, or introduced them to computing in the 1980s though the magic of Sinclair Basic, he delivered the impossible straight from science fiction to an affordable Christmas present. There is a whole cohort of engineers and software developers in the UK and other countries whose first experience of a computer had a Sinclair logo and who learned about memory mapping the ZX way. For us Sir Clive’s companies and products provided a career and a lifelong interest, and there will be few other individuals with such a lasting effect on us. Clive Sinclair, thank you!

Header: Mark Sanders, CC BY-SA 4.0.

74 thoughts on “Farewell Sir Clive Sinclair; Inspired A Generation Of Engineers

  1. Even in North America he was known, thiugh maybe I read Wireless World too much.

    Not just the Black Watch, but an early class D audio amplifier.

    So it seems d more pike a progression than that he suddenly appeared with comouters.

    1. Very sad news indeed. Here in Oz my dad collected English Practical Electronics magazines in the 60s to the mid 70s. Looking at the ads for those beautiful amplifiers with panels that, through their slimline minimalist stylish simplicity and futuristic sinclair log, stood out from all the other hifi gear in those pages.
      But my real desire – more than anything else – was for the Sinclair Micro-6 matchbox radio. Crickey I wanted that bad (more than the Micromatic) but being in Australia and with limited pocket money I didn’t have the slightest clue on how I would order something like that in a different currency from the other side of the world.

      1. Further to the futurism of his designs, the miniature W.I.N. radio in Joe 90’s suitcase looked like it was directly inspired from the Sinclair Micro-FM pocket radio from 1965. Fantastic stuff…

      2. As a kid, one of my friends had a Clairtone Mini, which I now understand was a Canadian clone of the Sinclair Micro-6. I wanted that radio BAD, and I did some serious negotiating for it… I did end up getting it… can’t remember what happened to it.

        And I never did get my hands on a Sinclair ZX (or TIMEX- branded version) computer but I know how influential they were.

        Thanks, Sir Clive.

        1. I had one of the Clairtone radios in the sixties, I still have it somewhere around. I think I got it one Christmas from the cousins. In reading about the Sinclair radio in more recent years, I did wonder if there was a connection

      3. Well do I remember the Micro-6. I too, lusted after these shiny marvels of technology advertised in P.E. I’m also in Australia. I eventually got my hands on the Sinclair Cambridge Programmable calculator as a teenager. Much later a Sinclair QL with it’s microdrives. R.I.P Sir Clive

  2. This is sad. He maintained an optimistic entrepreneurial spirit through several generations of has-been engineers, both successes and failures adding to the state of the art.

    Fitting he passed at (ZX)81…..

  3. Sir Clive made a huge impact on my childhood – the rubber-key Spectrum changed my early life from being bored kicking a ball in the rain to enjoying the puzzles and maps of early gaming.
    I learned programming, I learned electronics, I learned that there were thousands of people just like me.

    1. I’m an American engineering student, too young to be directly inspired by any of Sinclair’s innovations. My father, however, grew up in the USSR with a Soviet clone of the ZX Spectrum. He, in turn, inspired me to pursue computer science. Crazy to think that a hobbyist computer could inspire people in even the furthest corners of the world.

    1. +1 for me. His machines were the only ones we could afford when I was a lad. Without it, it would not be where I am today, nerding out about electronics and computing and writing about it for Hackaday.

  4. R.I.P Sir Clive.

    Yes I started on a ZX80 at school, had a Spectrum, well, I still have it, and QL’s, and some calculators (one still works).

    Don’t forget Anamartic and wafer scale integration memory. Ahead of its time…

    1. Yay, another QL user – a very underrated machine! I still have my JS ROM (now Minerva ROM) QL with a 512kB expansion from the first embedded company I used to work for: Micro Control Systems.

  5. Never had a ZX (had access to a Mac SE as a kid, which was pretty awesome in the 80s), but did ride a C5 a few times. It was an … interesting experience. Way before his time on those things.

  6. I know assembly language because of that man. I bought my first computer, ZX81, $99, soldered together, and found how to program directly into the amazingly fast processor. That little machine could do math hundreds of thousands of calculations every second. And it’s how I gained experience with embedded computers and started my career to this day.

  7. Thank you for glorious days of discovery, creation, frustration, elevation that made me who I am as engineer. From Basic to Assembler, from connecting a wood-scraps pedal to ZX81 keyboard strip to hit UFOs to plug my first digital design (a parallel port) to the cartridge slot of a Timex 2068 to beat MB’s SIMON. You change our lives.

  8. I gave my eldest son a Timex Sinclair when he was maybe 6. He does so well now, though, at apple. I asked him, what it was that caused him to shed his past youth and become focussed on a path. He said that one day as he sat in front of his computer, he realized, all he needed was right in front of him. He’s a premier IT guy now. Clive had a great effect. He IS a hero.

  9. RIP one of a kind. As a child, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up – until I saw a ZX81 at school. From then on, I knew I wanted to be an ‘inventor’, and all my education was mapped out at that instant. 40+ years later, I still enjoy every day, and I’ve had the privilege to work with ex-Sinclair employees in that time too.

    Still think the C5 was a daft idea though…

  10. Its very strange to think about it but the math checks out… I owe almost everything I have in my life to this man. The ZX Spectrum bolted me into the world of computers and the skils I learned making simple games in BASIC with my brother as a child led directly to my career as well as my hobbies. My friends father bought a C5 and after realising the daily commute might kill him, it became our toy for a summer, memories not soon forgotten. Sir Clive, I salute you!

  11. “products into the ’90s that forestalled today’s electric” I think that’s meant to be “foretold”, although generally maybe electric bikes have been forestalled…. it’s too bad few have yet ventured into electric motorcycles for some tech cross-pollination… Anyways, as an American learning of Sir Clive only in recent years as a microcomputer pioneer, I think one of the best things he did was inadvertent: that is start a healthy “hacker culture” in Britain and more broadly around the globe. Geeks all over Britain seemed to have produced game software on tape, when in my teenage years in the 80’s, games on cartridges-to-floppies seemed an insurmountable corporate-owned barrier, music mix-tapes were the best we could do. The mentality was “of course you have to buy software, if it’s going to be any good”. And then the Zed X’s designs were “pirated” by hardware hackers all over Eastern Europe, South America, globally… yet more 80s and 90s DIY ethic that I feel I missed out on in the States, although Sir Sinclair never saw proceeds from any of that.
    So even otherwise warm fuzzies about his legacy are a bit bittersweet to me. I think he’s responsible for so much hacker culture that I have benefited from, that the world generally is better for him; a guiding light in a world that seems very dark and getting worse, actually. I’ll light a little candle, maybe a primitive virtual flame on a ZX emulator.

  12. A true great.
    No words can adequately describe the impact that Sir Clive Sinclair had on computing and electronics in the UK. The ZX Spectrum was possibly the most beautiful thing I have every owned.
    It inspired an entire generation of programmers and engineers.
    Is somebody chopping some onions?

  13. We were spoiled for choice for locally produced electronics magazines here Down Under back in the day, but I don’t think anyone who didn’t prefer the publications imported from England would have had much exposure to Sinclair stuff in general. Back in the 80s most of the local electronics magazines, not unlike those elsewhere, were heavily invested in the topic of home/hobby computing, but the Spectrum range never really registered on the radar. The PET, TRS-80, Microbee and System 80 were the stars of that era.

    Acorn computers were popular in educational institutions before the IBM compatible “PC” revolution happened, but I don’t think Sinclair had much impact down here in that market either. I’ve never seen a Spectrum computer in the flesh or have ever known of anyone who had one; that stands in stark contrast to the Beeb, the Atom and the other computers mentioned.

    I don’t know how the distribution of the Spectrum line of computers was handled down here, but Wikipedia informs me that we did at least have a dedicated users’ association:


    A ZX80 clone is on my future projects wish/to do list.

    1. I concur exactly with Glen’s comment. I too have never seen a Spectrum here, nor any other Sinclair product. Our computer offerings were heavily US influenced or came from Hong Kong and Taiwan. One of our big electronics chains at the time, Dick Smith, sold the System 80 (TRS-80 clone) and later the VZ-200 and I think VZ-300 which were in the same capability and price point the ZX80 and ZX81 would have been had they been available here.

      I started with an F8 microprocessor development kit board dad mail ordered from the US in early 78 then an australian S-100 kit (produced then disowned by Applied Technology’s Microbee grrrrr), on to a taiwan Apple ][ clone purchased from telex orders we sent at the post office, then on to IBM clones from same.

  14. It’s a real shame when computer pioneers die, leaving incredibly large gaps. Especially with Sinclair, there would have been so much room for improvement, and I find it tragic that the Sinclair QL flopped so badly back then. Until now I find the design incomparably beautiful and timeless. Good journey Clive.

  15. Every aspect of many of his products was designed to keep costs down and actual value up. I wonder how many “early adopters” would never have had a computer or calculator that soon or possibly not even at all when they were young without his work, and they got a big leg up in life later on. A lot of “hi-tech” stuff was VERY expensive in the 70’s and early 80’s for a young person to buy or even to get as a present.

    That may be his greatest achievement, not a particular product.

    Now, we have lots of products that don’t have much cost OR much value either :(

  16. It is interesting to consider what inspired you when you were young. I still have the book that inspired me to get into computing when I was maybe 12 years old, half a century ago. It was in a bargain bin and I asked my mom to get it for me on a whim while we were shopping for clothes. It wasn’t really a book on computers, it was a book on present and future computer applications. Virtually every technology and application in that book has now been realized and is in use everyday, much of it invisibly.

  17. One of his amplifiers gave me an early education in thermal runaway. Plant a pair of OC35s on heat sinks the size of a credit card and watch them self-destruct as soon as you turn the volume up.

  18. I scrimped and saved up paper route money until I had enough to buy my Times Sinclair 1000 from Kmart. Then saved some more for the whopping 16KB memory upgrade module! It wasn’t much, but it was mine. The keypad was BRUTAL, but it was still fun. Thank you Mr Sinclair.

  19. The computers that his company built saved me from a life as a road sweeper. I own all at Sinclair my career as a developer. R.I.P Sir Clive. Your crystal may have stopped oscillating but your clock cycles with tick on forever.

  20. Sir Clive was a pivotal influence on the career and leisure interests I have followed throughout my life. As a teen I carried both a SInclair Scientific calculator and a slide rule to my lessons, and whilst the calculator was the envy of my friends its reverse polish operation meant it was seldom in demand, and gave me a start when I needed to learn forth a few years later.
    The ZX81 was my contant companion when recovering from a back injury in my early 20s and is what gave me the opportunity to learn about assembly languages and machine code (so different to my COBOL based day job).
    Whilst fortran and the PDP11 at university started me in computing, and COBOL programming was my first job, what Sir Clive created allowed me to play at home with computers and develop the skills (hacking/maker based included) that have been a constant through the last 40 years.

  21. I started my electronics and programming career by tinkering with a rubber keyed 48k spectrum (between playing games). Ended up creating an input/output interface to drive sirens, relays and detect window and PIR switches as an alarm project for my OND with the software written in Z80 (my first machine code attempt).
    Recently I have bought a few old Spectrums to reminisce and show the kids proper computers and demonstrate the patience we had loading games lol.
    I have always had a fondness for Clive (and Rick Dickinson) and recently backed the Next KS2 after missing out on the first and although Rick did before he passed away, I don’t believe Clive had any input into the new machine but without him it would not have been developed.
    Wish I could have found an infinite lives ‘poke’ that worked for Clive.
    20 GOTO 10

    1. Here’s the next best thing, infinite scroll poke.
      15 POKE 23692, 100

      Still have mine, I think I was the end of primary or start of secondary school when my auntie decided I needed one. This was in western part of ex-Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) and you couldn’t just get into the store and buy one, you had to smuggle it from the Italy/Austria/Germany. Bless her soul, she was no smuggler, but she crossed the border in her little car, got one in Trieste, broke it into as many pieces as she could (speccy, power supply, instruction manual, cables, …) and hid them all over and under the car. She said she was shaking like a leaf back at the border but the customs guy just waved her through, didn’t even look at the passport. Took us an hour to find the power supply somewhere under the car engine. Good times! :D

      Started with the two lines you have above, different text of course, but I still remember the amazement of everyone in the family, including myself, at how can something I just typed appear on TV. A few months later a friend got me a photocopy of “The complete Spectrum ROM disassembly” and that was it for me, hooked for life.

      R.I.P. Sir Clive

        1. A great story… But is it true? I live closer enough to what was Yugoslavia, that I could see the TV transmissions originating from the country, (Seen Blade Runner in English for the first time in 1984) and I remember seeing a TV ad for the ZX Spectrum: Basic za ZX Spectrum!
          There’s also a book with the same name edited in Slovenia in 1985.

          1. It’s true, restrictions in ex-Yugoslavia in the early eighties prevented importing computers to protect (practically non-existent) local computing industry.
            The closest you could legally get to was ordering parts and assembling one yourself (see https://hackaday.com/2020/10/25/iconic-yugoslavian-galaksija-computer-reborn-with-a-documentary-too/) Before the late eighties (or maybe 1991?) smuggling was a national sport, so much so that one of the first Slovenian games was called Kontrabant (Smuggler).
            The ads were there, the literature was great (quite a few magazines dealing with computers only (I actually learned Basic from (Serbian) Racunari & Svet Kompjutera magazines before I got that Speccy)), people talked about them all the time – you just couldn’t buy one.

  22. 40 years later i still know the addresses “poke 23606” and “poke 23607” to change the characters graphic map. I used Z80 assembler in my university instead of that 8080 thing, that I found out was only a subset from the zilog set and actually compatible at opcode level!
    That is how important the ZX Spectrum was, in Europe at least.
    Games were amazing, especially considering the limitations, just look at titles like Knight’s Lore. That was real engineering, knowing your machine and taking the most out of it. Now its all black box magic.

  23. I started off with a 16K Spectrum, later upgrading it to 48K by poking chips into the motherboard. I spent most of my time playing games, I admit, but I did also code, and it’s undoubtedly what led me to a career in IT. Thank you, Sir Clive.

  24. The C5 was a dud, mostly because it was way ahead of it’s time, with brushless motors, a proper speedcontroller and above all Lithium batterys, it could have had a chance.
    Does anyone know if there is replica bodys to buy somewhere? I have a broken Segway clone with no purpose in life….

  25. I begged my parents for a ZX80 when it was announced, and my father said what possible use would it be.

    In 1981, the ZX81 came out, and as a six-former I started a Friday afternoon Computer Club. We shared about 6 ZX81s between us. I remember the unreliable cassette interface, catastrophic crashes caused by the RAMPack wobbling, and it taking perhaps 15 minutes to get 3D Monster Maze to load correctly.

    A year or so later, I bought a highly discounted ZX81 kit for £39. The Spectrum had already been released but that was about £100 more than I had to spend. I soldered it up and immediately fitted a 2K RAM into the alternative socket. When you only had 1K and most of that was used for video memory, the extra 1K makes a huge difference. Eventually I added another 2K (6116) piggybacked on top of the first.

    Another improvement was a big plate of aluminium to help keep the 5V regulator cool.

    On going to university, a friend there also had a ZX81, and he had an old ASR33 Teletype that he used as a printer. The noise soon became unbearable.

    Another project was to use an FM transmitter bug to broadcast the “MIC” output across the hall of residence. We set one machine into a SAVE loop and successfully transfered a BASIC program wirelessly to a 2nd machine.

    Sinclair’s ZX machines formed an important part of my education and subsequent career – as is the case for many hardware engineers and coders, throughout the UK, and worldwide.

    Many of those Sinclair “cadets” have gone on to great things, a complete generation introduced to computer technology by hacking the early Sinclar machines.

    R.I.P Sir Clive

  26. Goodbye Sir, thanks for the Sinclair zx81 and spectrum, One of the best days of my life. I learned a lot back then about computers and code, I moved on to Commodore C64, etc. But it started with you my friend. Farewell and goodbye to a great man of great ideas.

  27. My 1st Computer was a Sinclair ZX-80.
    Beg. of 2000 i could buy an “Never used out of Box” C5 Vehicle from al local store bargain for 25€.
    It´s untouched with 0.00mls, boxed and would be ever stored in my Home for ever!

  28. A true legend. He brought some amazing technology for the time to the world. The idea of a cheap, accessible computer such as the ZX-80 that you could either buy assembled or purchase as a kit changed many lives and pushed many of us down the IT path. Successors such s the ZX-80, Spectrum and QL (with variants) showed true vision.

    His willing ness to look at ‘out of the box’ ideas was truly impressive. People laugh at the C5 (but look at what Colin Furze and others have done), the Sinclair Microdrive, as well as failed ideas such as wafer-scale integration were indications of how brilliant he and his people were.

    I only hope that he had as much fun creating these as we have all had using them.

    We will not see his like again.

  29. Such a wonderful set of memories. Thanks everyone.

    I played with the Logo language for the first time ever on my 1982 vintage ZX Spectrum yesterday. Every day a learning day.

    In fact, everything I know about computers started with Sir Clive. I’ll never forget him.

  30. His calculator was way ahead of anything else at the same price. If I remember it used Reverse Polish Logic.
    The ZX80 and ZX81 were the first affordable home computers as far as I remember and were responsible for lots of kids getting into software and electronics.

    Sir Clive was a leader.

  31. Thank you Sir Clive !
    You help to bring the home computers to polish households and other post-communistic European countries.
    It used to be the machine of my dreams, though never had one.
    Very positive person. Pest in piece great entrepreneur

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