Rick Dickinson, designer of Sinclair home computers, dies

Industrial designer who gave the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum their distinctive look has died of cancer in the US

The designer of the Sinclair Spectrum home computer, Rick Dickinson, has died of cancer in the US.

Dickinson joined Sinclair Research, a British consumer electronics company founded by the inventor Sir Clive Sinclair, in 1979 after graduating from Newcastle Polytechnic’s industrial design programme.

He worked at the company during the period in which the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum computers were released. The ZX80 was marketed as the first home computer in the UK to cost less than £100.

Rick Dickinson, designer of the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum
Rick Dickinson, designer of the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum. Photograph: Twitter

Dickinson designed home computers with touch-sensitive and rubber keys, giving them a unique aesthetic. In 1981 he won a Design Council award for his work on the ZX81.

The award-winning design of the Sinclair ZX81, which was launched in March 1981.
The award-winning design of the Sinclair ZX81, which was launched in March 1981. Photograph: Andy Drysdale / Rex Features

The ZX80 and ZX81 were forerunners to the popular ZX Spectrum. Initially available in 16k and 48k models, the computers cost up to £175. Including later models, it is estimated that more than 5m ZX Spectrums were sold.

In a 2012 interview with the BBC, Dickinson spoke about the risk involved in launching the ZX Spectrum. “No matter how much history one might have with successful products like the ZX80 and 81, there is always a niggling doubt in one’s mind that to come out with something new and significantly different is a risk,” he said.

“We were all overwhelmed by the demand and the number of products that were sold.”

The rubber ZX Spectrum keyboard was the result of the company’s mission to drive down production costs.

“With the Spectrum keyboard, We minimised it from several hundred components in a conventional moving keyboard, to maybe four or five moving parts using a new technology,” Dickinson told the BBC.

The popularity of the games developed for the computers has endured and many have been repackaged in newer products such as the ZX Spectrum Vega.

A Sinclair ZX80 home computer.
A Sinclair ZX80 home computer. Photograph: Alamy

In a 2014 interview published online by Gareth Halfacree, Dickinson said he was alerted to the continued popularity of his designs when a younger colleague wore a ZX SpectrumT-shirt. His co-worker’s fashion statement inspired Dickinson to upload archive photos of the original ZX Spectrum design process to Flickr.

In later years, Dickinson published reimaginings of early Sinclair designs, producing a series of images of the ZX Spectrum Next.

Is it time to crowd fund a real #ZXSpectrum ? pic.twitter.com/er2ZDBqExY

— Rick Dickinson (@rickdickinson12) January 15, 2015

Dickinson became interested in design as a child after playing with Lego and Airfix kits, eventually moving on to making radio-controlled aircraft and boats. His longtime ambition was to be a civil engineer.

The Alpia drawing board on which Dickinson designed computers in the 1980s is on display at the Science Museum in London.

In 2016, he was interviewed by the BBC as part of a programme celebrating The Brits Who Designed the Modern World.

After leaving Sinclair, Dickinson founded a Cambridgeshire industrial design company, Dickinson Associates. The company specialises in in products for the scientific, life-science, telecoms and medical industries – including a wireless patch system that allows expectant mothers to monitor foetal health.


Martin Belam

The GuardianTramp

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