Sir Clive Sinclair

It's Sir Clive Sinclair, although in 1983 he wasn't a Sir. "Order today", he's saying, "so that we have enough money to finish designing it". Clive Sinclair was a bit like a cross between Steve Wozniak of Apple Computer and Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party, in that he was a technical boffin whose obsessions brought his company to swift fame and success, and equally-swift ruin. If only he had instructed Goering to concentrate on the factories and airfields! If only the jet fighters had been adopted a year, two years earlier! What a world it would be today.

Sinclair Research and Apple Computer emerged at roughly the same time, and if you're American it's best to think of Sinclair as being a kind of condensed Apple with only one memorable personality, Clive Sinclair himself. Sinclair (the man) had spent the 70s designing and selling miniature radios, digital watches and pocket calculators by mail order. They usually weren't built very well (the digital 'Black Watch' could, in certain circumstances, actually explode), but they were cheap, clever, and British.

Britain's computing industry has always faced a number of persistent problems; all the good staff go to America, there's a lot of tax and regulation, the pound is strong, the domestic market isn't large enough to sustain itself, and so forth. British industry in general tends to suffer from a lack of leeway; whilst America has enough companies in a given field so that the failure of one does not destroy the field, Britain does not. During the 1960s and 1970s Britain's aerospace industry merged and fell apart - BAE SYSTEMS, which survives today, does not actually make entire aircraft - whilst the failure of Westland in the 1980s removed Britain's helicopter industry instantly. The collapse of BL almost destroyed Britain's car industry (it is barely surviving today). Today, if you want to design cars or planes or ships or trains or bicycles or skateboards - or indeed machinery in general - and you are British, you had better get a good degree and move abroad. Britain does not have a space industry. A 1,000lb bomb dropped in the right place would remove Britain's newspaper publishing industry, and so on.

Sinclair were quite gratifying in the 80s. It was nice to know that there was a British company that could actually compete with Johnny Foreigner on their own terms. In retrospect, the company was a fluke of timing, existing at a brief time period when, thanks to a bunch of developments in micro-electronics, a range of new, exciting consumer electronic devices could be created with off-the-shelf components and a little bit of know-how. Every subsequent technological development in the home computing field has been about refinement, and that takes money and persistence, not the kind of random brainstorms that Sinclair was built on.

Sir Clive Sinclair differs from most of his tech-entrepreneur kin in that he remained likeable. In interviews, he seemed slightly arrogant but unpretentious, and although the C5 was a fiasco, it stemmed from a noble aim. Furthermore, Sir Clive seemed to have a genuine interest in the technology, whereas the other famous computery businessmen - Jobs, Gates, Ellison, the lot of them - appear to be more interested in marketing, which is perhaps why Sir Clive is a nobody and the aforementioned are extremely rich. There isn't really a place for people like Sir Clive anymore, as Sir Clive's subsequent lack of business success (first with the Z88 laptop, a surprising failure, then with the 'Zike' and 'Zeta' bicycle add-ons, and latterly with a mail-order PC business) illustrates.

The hand-held television Sir Clive is holding up - a non-working prototype of the TV80 - seemed to be perpetually under development. Sinclair poured lots of money into developing the television's clever cathode-ray display (the electron gun is at right angles to the screen, with the path of the electrons being bent by magnets). Unfortunately nobody wanted it when it was finally released.

(c) Ashley Pomeroy 2001