Clive Sinclair, inventor who helped popularize personal computers, dies at 81

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Enter Clive sinclair. The British inventor’s first personal computer, the ZX80, was a slim deal at $ 200. The invention and its more advanced successors helped bring computing to the masses (and inspired a generation of programmers to create inventive computer games).

Most of his inventions were aimed at making existing products smaller and more affordable, even if they were not very well received by the public – he is equally known for the Sinclair C5, a small, low-speed electric car that was slammed for version, as it is for its much better performing computers.

But despite all the mixed reviews his designs received, he stood behind them firmly.

“If the idea is good enough, it’s going to sound pretty crazy to almost everyone,” he said. The independent in a 2010 interview. “Either you do it yourself or it won’t happen.”
Sinclair, who was knighted for his contributions to computing in the UK, died this week, his daughter, Belinda, confirmed to the Guardian. He was 81 years old.

Sinclair specializes in affordable and effective inventions

Sinclair, born in London, has always looked for ways to make things more efficient, whether it be in computing, on the go or in computing. It’s an idea he ran with from his very first invention at the age of 12, when he designed a one-man submarine, according to The Independent.

Like another esteemed tech pioneer, he chose to skip college and head straight for work. And in 1972, after a few years of working as a technical journalist, he had his first hit: The Executive, a lightweight portable calculator that fits perfectly in a pocket. For its ingenuity, the calculator received a Design Council Award for Electronics.
Over the next decade, Sinclair, through his company, Sinclair Radionics, made a name for himself selling mini-televisions and the Black watch, an electronic watch widely criticized for its poor battery life and tendency to read the time incorrectly, among other problems.
Undeterred by his first failure, Sinclair started again with a new company, Sinclair Research. In 1980, the company released the ZX80 Personal Computer, the very first computer to sell for under $ 200. It was small enough to fit in the hand and only weighed 12 ounces, although it had no screen and minimal storage space. The small machine was only a tenth of the parts that other computers used at the time, according to Old Computers, a online archive of, well, old computers.
Its successor, the ZX81, was even cheaper, at $ 100, and over a million of them were sold. Its success continued the following year with the ZX Spectrum, a more advanced model with a color display that became one of the best-selling personal computers in the UK. But he is perhaps best known as a gaming computer and inventive coders created games for the ZX Spectrum like “Jet Set Willy” and “Horace Goes Skiing”.
In 1985, Sinclair launched a product that was much less popular – the Sinclair c5, an electric car, touted as a “safe, reliable and pollution-free” vehicle that even 14-year-olds could drive. With just three wheels, no doors or roof, and a top speed of 15 miles per hour, the car was widely criticized when it was released, according to the Independent. In 1992, the BBC called the C5 a “disastrous flop” that scared off motorists who drove it alongside much bigger and faster vehicles on main roads.
Clive Sinclair, pictured here driving the Sinclair C5 electric car in 1985, saw promise in all of his ideas, even the failed ones.
The year following the launch of the C5, British electronics company Amstrad purchased the rights to the ZX line of computers from Sinclair Research. But the poor reception did not deflate Sinclair for long. In 1992 he introduced the “Zike”, a small electric bicycle. In 2006 he followed with a foldable and lightweight two-wheeler called the A bike that could be carried on the backs of users when not mounting it.
For a man who has spent much of his career in IT, Sinclair made a startling revelation when he told the Tutor in 2010 that he was not using a computer. (He knew how to use them, he said – he just found it boring.)

“Pure laziness, I think,” Sinclar told the surprised reporter. “I can’t be bothered.”

“Laziness” didn’t stop Sinclair from continuing to invent, nor did he give up on the C5, although most of the public did. In interviews with The Guardian and Independent, Sinclair showed reporters a glimpse of what appeared to be an improved C5 with a roof. The new vehicle, the X-1, was not produced – but electric vehicles are increasingly popular now, more than a decade later.

Sinclair’s lasting impact

Upon news of his death, several tech innovators and gamers thanked Sinclair for his work. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, noted Sinclair’s inventions “democratized computing” and inspired many, including him, to pursue a career in engineering. Tesla billionaire Elon Musk tweeted that he “loved this computer”. Scottish TV host Dominik Diamond, who regularly hosts video game shows, said he “wouldn’t have a career without this guy”.
“Horace is going to ski on the ZX spectrum. The rest is history”, Diamond tweeted.
Sinclair’s daughter, Belinda, tell the Guardian that his father considered himself ahead of his time.

“He had an idea and said, ‘There’s no point in asking if somebody wants it, because he can’t imagine it,” “she told The Guardian.

Imagination may not have been able to save the C5 from widespread criticism, but it was an idea – meant to reduce pollution and improve transportation – that inspired today’s inventors, as evidenced by the success of Musk’s Tesla, as well as established automakers going electric. Sinclair considered himself an optimist, and he knew there would one day be room in the electronic vehicle market, even if it wasn’t his.



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