Electromagnetic Field: Speczilla!

It is a golden rule of the journalist’s art, that we report the news, we don’t make it. But just occasionally we find ourselves in the odd position of being in the right place such that one of our throwaway comments or actions has the unintended consequence of seeding a story. This is one of those moments, so it’s a rare case of use of the first person in a daily piece as your scribe instead of Hackaday’s usual second person.

At the SHA2017 hacker camp in the Netherlands, [Matt “Gasman” Westcott] gave his presentation on composing a chiptune from an audience suggestion. Afterwards my Tweet about never having seen a Sinclair Spectrum as large as the one on the presentation screen grew a life of its own and became the idea for a project, which in turn at Electromagnetic Field 2018 was exhibited as a giant-sized fully working Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Since much of the work was performed in Oxford Hackspace I saw Matt’s progression, his first experiments with foam rubber keys, then as he refined his two-wire switch mechanism. Early experiments hooking a row of them up to a real Spectrum motherboard weren’t the success he’d hoped for, so he moved to the FUSE emulator on a Raspberry Pi. A huge effort and needlework learning curve plus a lot of help from OxHack’s textile specialists and buying his local furniture store’s entire stock of foam allowed him to perfect a facsimile of the classic Spectrum’s case and blue rubber keys, while its lettering and iconic BASIC keywords were vinyl-cut at rLab in Reading. A Milton Keynes Makerspace member provided transport to the camp where it was united with a huge TV in a gazebo, completing the trio of local spaces.

At the camp, though it suffered a few technical hitches along the way it was rather a success. There were two techniques, kneeling down and pressing keys with the palm of your hand, or dancing on them in socked feet for complex manoeuvres. The trademark single-key-press BASIC keywords took a little while to re-learn though, there was a time when those were instinctive.

We’d normally wrap a piece like this one up with a link or two. To other projects perhaps, or other hacks from the same person. But in this case we have neither another home computer on this scale, nor any hacks from [Matt], as he’s well known in the European arm of our community for something completely different. As [Gasman] he’s a chiptune artist par excellence, as you can see if you watch his set from the 2014 Electromagnetic Field.

Crowdfunding: !Sinclair !ZX Vega To Lose The Sinclair Name

It’s not a good time to be a backer of the crowdfunded Sinclair ZX Vega retro console. After raising a record sum on Indiegogo, a long series of broken promises and missed dates, and a final loss of patience from the crowdfunding site, it has emerged that the owner of the Sinclair and ZX brands is to withdraw the right to use them from the console.

The Vega itself should have been a reasonable proposition, a slick handheld running the FUSE Spectrum emulator rather than Z80 hardware, and from Retro Computers Limited, a company that boasted a 25% ownership from Sinclair Research and thus Sir Clive himself. The sorry tale of its mishandling will probably in time provide enough information for a fascinating book or documentary in itself, but one thing that has come to light in the BBC’s reporting is the fate of those Sinclair brands. They famously passed to Amstrad in the 1980s, a move that gave us the Spectrum +2 and +3 with decent keyboards and built-in tape and disk drives, but long after the last Spectrum had rolled off the production line they passed with Amstrad’s set-top-box business to the satellite broadcaster Sky, who are now responsible for pulling the plug.

This is a general news story as much as a hardware story as there is little by way of a hack to be found beyond the realisation that you could almost certainly roll your own with a Raspberry Pi, a copy of FUSE, and a 3D-printed case. But it’s a fitting follow-up to our previous reporting, and unless something unexpected happens in the Retro Computers boardroom it’s probably the last we’ll hear of the product. In an unexpected twist though they are reported to have shipped a few Vegas to backers in recent days, and we’ll leave the final word to the BBC’s quote from [David Whitchurch-Bennett], one of those recipients.

“The buttons are absolutely awful, You have to press so hard and they intermittently stop working unless you apply so much pressure.”

From where we’re sitting, remembering the dubious quality of some of the keyboards on original Spectrum products, we think that it might have more in common with the original than anyone is willing to admit.

The Electric Vehicles Of EMF Camp: A Sinclair C5, (Almost) As It Should Have Been

Most Hackaday readers will have heard of [Clive Sinclair], the British inventor and serial entrepreneur whose name appeared on some of the most fondly-recalled 8-bit home computers. If you aren’t either a Sinclair enthusiast or a Brit of a Certain Age though, you may not also be aware that he dabbled for a while in the world of electric vehicles. In early 1985 he launched the C5, a sleek three-wheeler designed to take advantage of new laws governing electrically assisted bicycles.

The C5 was a commercial failure because it placed the rider in a vulnerable position almost at road level, but in the decades since its launch it has become something of a cult item. [Rob] fell for the C5 when he had a ride in one belonging to a friend, and decided he had to have one of his own. The story of his upgrading it and the mishaps that befell it along the way are the subject of his most recent blog post, and it’s not a tale that’s over by any means.

The C5 was flawed not only in its riding position, the trademark Sinclair economy in manufacture manifested itself in a minimalist motor drive to one rear wheel only, and a front wheel braking system that saw bicycle calipers unleashed on a plastic wheel rim. The latter was sorted with an upgrade to a disc brake, but the former required a bit more work. A first-generation motor and gearbox had an unusual plywood housing, and the C5 even made it peripherally into our review of EMF Camp 2016, but it didn’t quite have the power to start the machine without pedaling. Something with more grunt was called for, and it came in the form of a better gearbox which once fitted allowed the machine to power its way to the Tindie Cambridge meetup back in April. Your scribe had a ride, but all was not well. After a hard manual pedal back across Cambridge to the Makespace it was revealed that the much-vaunted Lotus chassis had lived up to the Sinclair reputation for under-engineering, and bent. Repairs are under way for the upcoming EMF Camp 2018, where we hope we’ll even see it entering the Hacky Racers competition.

Indiegogo Calls Time On The ZX Vega

It has been an exciting time to be a retro computer enthusiast in recent years, and the availability of affordable single board computers, systems-on-chip, and FPGAs have meant that retro hardware could be accurately reproduced or emulated. A host of classic micros have been reborn, to delight both the veterans who had the originals, and a new crop of devotees.

Today we have news of the impending demise of one of the higher-profile projects. The ZX Vega+ is a handheld Sinclair Spectrum console bearing the Sinclair name that came with an impeccable pedigree in that it had the support of the man himself. It seemed like a good proposition on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, and when it made its debut there in early 2016 it attracted over half a million pounds worth of backing in short order. Things soon went sour though, with reports of a falling-out within Retro Computers, followed by multiple missed deadlines and promises undelivered over the last couple of years. With little sign of either the money or the console itself, it seems Indiegogo have now lost patience and will be sending in the debt collectors to recover what they can. Whether the backers will see any of their money is unclear.

It’s fair to say that the ZX Vega saga has been a tortuous and rather sordid one, out of which few players emerge smelling of roses. In a way though it is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the 8-bit era, as the period from the late 1970s onwards was littered with the financially bare corpses of dubiously run companies in the home computer industry. Meanwhile if you are hankering for a Vega it should be easy enough to create one for yourself, as Retro Computers Ltd admitted that under its skin was a copy of the FUSE software emulator. We suspect that most Hackaday readers could take a Raspberry Pi and a suitable LCD, pair them with a 3D-printed case and an 18650 cell, and be playing Manic Miner in no time. Far simpler than this convoluted Spectrum project!

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.

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Someone’s Made The Laptop Clive Sinclair Never Built

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was one of the big players in the 8-bit home computing scene of the 1980s, and decades later is sports one of the most active of all the retrocomputing communities. There is a thriving demo scene on the platform, there are new games being released, and there is even new Spectrum hardware coming to market.

One of the most interesting pieces of hardware is the ZX Spectrum Next, a Spectrum motherboard with the original hardware and many enhancements implemented on an FPGA. It has an array of modern interfaces, a megabyte of RAM compared to the 48k of the most common original, and a port allowing the connection of a Raspberry Pi Zero for off-board processing. Coupled with a rather attractive case from the designer of the original Sinclair model, and it has become something of an object of desire. But it’s still an all-in-one a desktop unit like the original, they haven’t made a portable. [Dan Birch has changed all that, with his extremely well designed Spectrum Next laptop.

He started with a beautiful CAD design for a case redolent of the 1990s HP Omnbook style of laptop, but with some Spectrum Next styling cues. This was sent to Shapeways for printing, and came back looking particularly well-built. Into the case went an LCD panel and controller for the Next’s HDMI port, a Raspberry Pi, a USB hub, a USB to PS/2 converter, and a slimline USB keyboard. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a battery included, though we’re sure that with a bit of ingenuity some space could be found for one.

The result is about as good a Spectrum laptop as it might be possible to create, and certainly as good as what might have been made by Sinclair or Amstrad had somehow the 8-bit micro survived into an alternative fantasy version of the 1990s with market conditions to put it into the form factor of a high-end compact laptop. The case design would do any home-made laptop design proud as a basis, we can only urge him to consider releasing some files.

There is a video of the machine in action, which we’ve placed below the break.

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