Farewell, Sir Clive Sinclair, and thank you

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Sir Clive Sinclair yesterday, at the age of 81. If you’re from outside the UK, it’s hard to emphasise just how much of an impact this man had on the British computing scene. The Sinclair Spectrum was everywhere in the 1980s, and an entire generation of British coders learnt their craft on the machine. To this day, Retro Gamer magazine pays tribute to the Spectrum with a rainbow flash on the corner of every front cover.

Sir Clive wasn’t just famous for the Spectrum though. He invented the pocket calculator – the first time one of the machines was made small enough to fit in someone’s pocket – and he became somewhat infamous for the Sinclair C5, a tiny three-wheeled electric vehicle. The C5 looked ridiculous at the time, and its embarrassing failure led to Sir Clive’s rapid fall from grace in the public’s eyes. Yet all these years later, it merely seems like an idea ahead of its time, as petrol cars slowly begin to be phased out. Indeed, electric hire scooters are popping up all over my local city at this very moment.

I played my first ever computer game on a Sinclair Spectrum, at the age of five. It was Horace Goes Skiing, and I distinctly remember the ear-splitting squeaks and squawks the machine emitted while the game loaded. My dad was a freelancer at the time, and he’d bought a Spectrum to help work out his business accounts. Thousands of other adults up and down the country were doing the same thing, as suddenly the Spectrum made computers affordable. Before that, the only computer anyone would be likely to come across in everyday life would be a room-filling mainframe in some central business office. The Spectrum democratised computing – it was a revolution. It familiarised people with a then-alien technology. Even though I never went on to become a programmer, the Spectrum at least got me used to the idea of computer code – those weird little bits of text you had to type in to make a game start loading.

And I’m sure that my dad, even though he supposedly used his Speccy for doing accounts, got in a fair few gaming sessions when I was in bed. Everyone did. Even though Sir Clive didn’t think much of gaming himself, his machine led to a phenomenal outpouring of creativity in thousands of extremely weird and wonderful video games, like Skool Daze, Monty Mole and Manic Miner.

There really was an explosion of microcomputers in Britain in the 1980s, with a huge range of machines including the Oric-1, BBC Micro, Jupiter Ace and the Intelligent Systems Enterprise. But really, the market was dominated by two computers: the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair Spectrum. And they both remained hugely popular for years: whereas the 1983/84 US video game crash put a huge dent in the games market across the Atlantic, nothing of the sort occurred in the UK. Gamers happily went on buying cassettes for their computers, and consoles remained little more than a footnote in the sales figures well into the 1990s. The NES was outsold by the Master System in the UK, but both were handily outstripped by sales of home computers. And Sir Clive Sinclair’s Spectrum was the top dog for a big chunk of the 1980s.

So, farewell then Sir Clive, and thank you. Your machine revolutionised the computing scene, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing lots more stories about just what a huge impact the Spectrum had over the next few days. In the meantime, if you want to find out more about the 80s microcomputer era in the UK – including how the Post Office set up a precursor to the internet – I highly recommend reading Tom Lean’s excellent book Electronic Dreams. And if you can find it, check out the brilliant BBC drama Micro Men about the rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn – I have no doubt the BBC will put it back onto iPlayer in light of recent events.

Rest in peace, Sir Clive.

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