21-09-2021 | By Robin Mitchell
A true legend in the field of electronics has passed, but his legacy will live on. Who was Clive Sinclair, what was he most famous for, and what visions of the future did he have?
Recently, Sir Clive Sinclair passed away on the 16th of September 2021 after many years of fighting cancer. During his later years, he was cared for by his children and grandchildren. His loss has struck at the heart of the maker community.
Sir Clive Sinclair (knighted in 1983) was a British innovator of electronic products with a strong focus on hobbyists and home users. His life in engineering arguably stems from his father and grandfather, who were both engineers working in shipbuilding, but where they found passion in things that float, Clive found passion in things that sparked.
Interestingly, it was around this time that Clive Sinclair was developing his idea for an electric car. Clive Sinclair would mow lawns and clean dishes in cafes during his free time to make a living before working for various electronic companies during his holiday time. Still, his schematics were ignored by Mullard, and he refused a job on the grounds of precociousness.
Instead of attending University, Clive Sinclair decided to sell electronic kits to hobbyists via mail order, which eventually led to the creation of Sinclair Radionics. Markets changed, and after some bad manufacturing mishaps (mainly the Black Watch), Clive Sinclair restarted with Sinclair Research, a company that changed the world of computing.
Clive Sinclair is known for a large number of various gadgets, including radios and calculators, but of all his designs, three stand out the most; the ZX80, ZX Spectrum, and the C5.
The ZX80 was a Z80 computer with an integrated keyboard, 1KB of RAM, and a cassette tape interface for saving programs. While the computer itself was rudimentary, the brilliance behind it came from its price tag of just £99. The ZX80 was the first computer on the market that was affordable and easy to use, and this was the spark that ignited the home computer race in the 1980s.
However, the ZX Spectrum is arguably the most famous computer of the 1980s and was responsible for introducing the masses to games and coding. While the ZX Spectrum was on the lower end of performance compared to computers of the time (such as the Commodore 64 and BBC Micro), its low price made it affordable to all. This also led to a boom in the computer games market, and interestingly the ZX Spectrum still sees new games being released in 2021.
The author’s opinion is that the BBC computer literacy program chose the wrong company (Acorn Computers) as their go-to computer. While the BBC Micro met all the criteria for the program, the Spectrum was the machine that everyone could afford.
However, the Sinclair C5 is arguably the most famous design of Clive Sinclair. While many today credit Elon Musk as the developer of electric cars, Clive Sinclair had developed an electric vehicle several decades before. The C5 was a hybrid between a bike and a car, and It provided users with an electric three-wheeled vehicle that could also be peddled. The car has a 20-mile range with a 250W washing machine motor and operates from a 12V battery. Despite the brilliance of the C5 and being ahead of its time, the C5 failed to be a commercial success. Combined with the challenge faced with the Sinclair QL, Sinclair Research eventually saw its demise.
No matter how many failures or setbacks Clive Sinclair faced, he never gave up and continued to follow his passion for engineering, a quality that all can admire. But Clive Sinclair was more than an inventor with out of the box ideas. He also made predictions regarding technology that might actually soon come to fruition.
One of these ideas was wafer-scale technology, a single device using an entire wafer. Considering that wafers can produce many hundreds of high-end devices, having all of these devices connected together on a single wafer can potentially create a device far more powerful than any system built using individual chips on PCBs. Wafer-scale technology also allows for the possibility of modular designs that can activate and deactivate areas of the wafer that do not function correctly, and this can help to improve wafer yields. Furthermore, Sinclair’s research into wafer-scale designs also led to the pursuit of AI using wafer-scale technology.
Clive Sinclair led a fascinating life and never took no for an answer. His passion for engineering led to many innovations that ignited the electronics maker market, the home computer market, and electric vehicles. Of all innovators in engineering, Clive Sinclair will surely be remembered for centuries to come.
If you want to learn more about Clive Sinclair and the battle between Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers, watch the BBC drama MicroMen.