Bringing Back A Spectrum’s Rails

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was to most Brits the computer to own in the early 1980s, it might not have had all the hardware features of its more expensive competitors but it had the software library that they lacked. Games came out for the Spectrum first, and then other platforms got them later. If you didn’t have a rubber keyboard and a Sinclair logo, you were nothing in the playground circa 1984. That low price though meant that in true Sinclair tradition a number of corners had been cut in the little micro’s design. Most notably in its power supply, all the various rails required by the memory chips came from a rather insubstantial single-transistor oscillator that is probably the most common point of failure for these classic machines.

[Tynemouth Software] had an Issue 2 Spectrum with a missing -5V rail, and has detailed both the power supply circuit used on these machines and the process of faultfinding and repairing this one. A single transistor oscillator drives a little ferrite-spool transformer from which the various supplies are rectified and filtered. Similar circuits appear in multiple generations of Sinclair hardware, where we might nowadays use a little switching regulator chip.

We’re taken through the various stages of faultfinding this particular circuit, and the culprit is found to be a faulty Zener diode. It’s certainly not the last dead Spectrum that will cross an enthusiast’s bench, but at least in this case, the fault was less obtuse than they sometimes can be in this much-loved but sometimes frustrating machine.

Sinclair enthusiasts might also appreciate the great man’s earliest work.

Clive Sinclair, The Other Author

A reasonable selection of the Hackaday readership will have had their first experiences of computing on an 8-bit machine in a black case, with the word “Sinclair” on it. Even if you haven’t work with one of these machines you probably know that the man behind them was the sometimes colourful inventor Clive (now Sir Clive) Sinclair.

The finest in 1950s graphic design, applied to electronics books.
The finest in 1950s graphic design, applied to electronics books.

He was the founder of an electronics company that promised big results from its relatively inexpensive electronic products. Radio receivers that could fit in a matchbox, transistorised component stereo systems, miniature televisions, and affordable calculators had all received the Sinclair treatment from the early-1960s onwards. But it was towards the end of the 1970s that one of his companies produced its first microcomputer.

At the end of the 1950s, when the teenage Sinclair was already a prolific producer of electronics and in the early stages of starting his own electronics business, he took the entirely understandable route for a cash-strapped engineer and entrepreneur and began writing for a living. He wrote for electronics and radio magazines, later becoming assistant editor of the trade magazine Instrument Practice, and wrote electronic project books for Bernard’s Radio Manuals, and Bernard Babani Publishing. It is this period of his career that has caught our eye today, not simply for the famous association of the Sinclair name, but for the fascinating window his work gives us into the state of electronics at the time.

Continue reading “Clive Sinclair, The Other Author”

The Cambridge Z88 Lives! (As A USB Keyboard)

What did [Clive Sinclair] do next? After his line of home computers including the iconic ZX Spectrum hit the buffers and was sold to Amstrad, that is.¬†No longer in the home computer business, he released a portable computer for the business market. The Cambridge Z88 had a Z80 at its heart, a decent keyboard, a text-only LCD display, and ran for an impressively long time on a set of AA alkaline cells. It made a handy portable word-processor, or a serial terminal thanks to its rare-for-the-time RS232 port. And it’s that port that [Spencer Owen] made use of his Z88 in a modern setting, using it as a USB keyboard.

It’s a few years old, so he used a Minimus AVR microcontroller board to provide a serial-to-USB HID keyboard interface, and to keep things tidy he’s made a poor man’s enclosure for it using Sugru. It’s not quite an amazing hardware hack, but we’re featuring it simply for its use of a Z88. Retro computers used as keyboards are a common theme, but a Z88 is a particularly eclectic choice.

If you’re not British you may only know the name [Sinclair] through Brits on the Internet waxing lyrical about their ZX Spectrum computers, but in fact the man behind them is a serial electronics¬†entrepreneur whose career has continued since the 1960s and has touched fields as diverse as portable television and bicycles aside from the computers he is best known for. Often his products took technology to the limit of practicality, but they were and continue to be the ones to watch. If [Clive Sinclair] is working in a field his products may not always hit the right note when released, but you can guarantee that you’ll be buying the same thing from the big boys within a few years. The Z88 is a classic Sinclair product, a little before its time in 1988 and pushing the technology a little too far, but delivering a truly portable and capable computer with a meaningful battery life a couple of decades before you’d find the same attributes from all but a few other niche manufacturers.

Not had enough USB HID devices? How about a Morse key? And if [Spencer] rings a bell, he’s the originator of the RC2014 retrocomputer we reviewed last year.