Home computing pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair dies aged 81

Creator of the landmark ZX Spectrum and the less commercially successful C5 died after a long illness

Sir Clive Sinclair, the inventor and entrepreneur who was instrumental in bringing home computers to the masses, has died at the age of 81.

His daughter, Belinda, said he died at home in London on Thursday morning after a long illness. Sinclair invented the pocket calculator but was best known for popularising the home computer, bringing it to British high-street stores at relatively affordable prices.

Many modern-day titans of the games industry got their start on one of his ZX models. For a certain generation of gamer, the computer of choice was either the ZX Spectrum 48K or its rival, the Commodore 64.

Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX chief, commented on Twitter on an article calling Sir Clive the father of the ZX Spectrum: “RIP, Sir Sinclair. I loved that computer.”

Belinda Sinclair, 57, told the Guardian: “He was a rather amazing person. Of course, he was so clever and he was always interested in everything. My daughter and her husband are engineers so he’d be chatting engineering with them.”

He left school at 17 and worked for four years as a technical journalist to raise funds to found Sinclair Radionics.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum
A Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Photograph: Stephen Cooper/Alamy

In the early 1970s he designed a series of calculators designed to be small and light enough to fit in the pocket at a time when most existing models were the size of an old-fashioned shop till. “He wanted to make things small and cheap so people could access them,” his daughter said.

His first home computer, the ZX80, named after the year it appeared, revolutionised the market, although it was a far cry from today’s models. At £79.95 in kit form and £99.95 assembled, it was about one-fifth of the price of other home computers at the time. It sold 50,000, units while its successor, the ZX81, which replaced it, cost £69.95 and sold 250,000. Many games industry veterans got their start typing programs into its touch-based keyboard and became hooked on games such as as 3D Monster Maze and Mazogs. The ZX80 and ZX81 made him very rich: in 2010 Sinclair told the Guardian: “Within two or three years, we made £14m profit in a year.”

The business mogul Lord Sugar paid tribute to his “good friend and competitor” on Twitter, writing: “What a guy he kickstarted consumer electronics in the UK with his amplifier kits then calculators, watches mini TV and of course the Sinclair ZX. Not to forget his quirky electric car. R.I.P Friend.”

In 1982, he released the ZX Spectrum 48K. Its rubber keys, strange clashing visuals and tinny sound did not prevent it being pivotal in the development of the British games industry. Much-loved games – now in colour – that inspired a generation included Jet Set Willy, Horace Goes Skiing, Chuckie Egg, Saboteur, Knight Lore and Lords of Midnight.

Sinclair became a household name as his products flew off the shelves and was awarded a knighthood in 1983. But he would also become synonymous with one of his less successful inventions – the Sinclair C5 – which would cost him financially. The C5, a battery-powered electric trike, was launched in January 1985, with Sinclair predicting sales of 100,000 in the first year.

But it flopped, and Sinclair Vehicles found itself in receivership by October of the same year. Reviews expressed concerns about the safety of driving a vehicle below the sight line of other motorists, as well as exposure to the elements. The following year, Sinclair sold his computer business to Amstrad.

Clive Sinclair with pocket TV
Sir Clive Sinclair with a pocket TV. Photograph: Rex Features

The Sinclair TV80, a pocket TV, was another device, like the C5, that did not catch on, although people now regularly view programmes on their mobile phones. And although they do not look like the Sinclair C5, which later acquired cult status, electric vehicles are, of course, all the rage today.

Belinda Sinclair said: “It was the ideas, the challenge, that he found exciting. He’d come up with an idea and say, ‘There’s no point in asking if someone wants it, because they can’t imagine it.’”

But he did not make personal use of his own inventions. His daughter said he never had a pocket calculator as far as she knew, instead carrying a slide-rule around with him at all times. And he told interviewers he used neither a computer nor email.

Outside inventing, his interests included poetry, running marathons and poker. He appeared in the first three seasons of the Late Night Poker television series and won the first season final of the Celebrity Poker Club spinoff, defeating Keith Allen.

He is survived by Belinda, his sons Crispin and Bartholomew, aged 55 and 52 respectively, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

• This article was amended on 17 September 2021. A reference in an earlier version to Sinclair having “invented” a series of small calculators was changed to “designed”.

Contributor

Haroon Siddique

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sir Clive Sinclair obituary
Inventor who brought pocket calculators and the earliest accessible computers into British homes

Stephen Bates

17, Sep, 2021 @2:27 PM

In praise of... Sir Clive Sinclair
Editorial: Back in the 80s Clive Sinclair was the face of Britain's technological future, one part visionary, one part dotty uncle and one part marketing genius

Editorial

11, Oct, 2009 @11:06 PM

Article image
Two-year-olds should learn to code, says computing pioneer
Early start would encourage women to become programmers and reduce gender stereotyping, argues Stephanie Shirley

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

20, Aug, 2017 @10:23 PM

Article image
Clive Sinclair and the offbeat brilliance of the ZX Spectrum
The affordability of Sinclair’s revolutionary 1982 home computer let a generation of young bedroom coders make anarchic, punky games, and its hardware limitations merely fostered extra creativity

Keith Stuart

17, Sep, 2021 @11:46 AM

Article image
John Perry Barlow, 'visionary' internet pioneer, dies aged 70
Digital freedom fighter and founder of Electronic Frontier Foundation, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, died in his sleep

William Worley

08, Feb, 2018 @3:06 AM

Article image
The 20 greatest home computers – ranked!
They seemed like the future … and here we are. We remember the key PC machines that inspired a generation of gamers and programmers

Keith Stuart

07, Sep, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
'Mind the gap' announcer Phil Sayer dies aged 62
Voiceover artist was heard on London’s tube network and railway stations across the country

Nadia Khomami

15, Apr, 2016 @10:40 AM

Article image
Pioneering Observer columnist Katharine Whitehorn dies aged 92
The first woman to have her own column in the Observer, Whitehorn was a celebrated writer and author

Nadeem Badshah

08, Jan, 2021 @11:44 PM

Article image
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

Martin Belam

27, Apr, 2018 @12:18 PM

Article image
The next giant leap: why Boris Johnson wants to ‘go big’ on quantum computing
Opportunities for business, health and the environment offered by superfast processors are huge – and so are the hurdles

Dan Milmo

21, Nov, 2021 @4:00 PM