Whatever happened to Sir Clive Sinclair?
Sinclair hasn’t led the sort of life you’d typically associate with a balding computer genius. Turning 70 this year, Sinclair has dated a string of much younger beautiful women, and he recently married the former lap dancer and Miss UK Angie Bowness. He’s also made regular appearances on Channel 4’s Late Night Poker programme.
Before all that, he was ushering affordable computing into British homes with the Sinclair ZX80, a pyramid-shaped white box that cost £99.95 and was named after two futuristic-sounding letters and the year it appeared. The ZX80 was an instant success and was soon replaced by the ZX81, which cost £69.95 and sold 250,000 units.
At its peak, Sinclair Research employed hundreds of people, earned millions, and temporarily made Cambridge the computing capital of the world. The only way was down, and Sinclair was driven there by his next invention: a funny-looking electric car called the C5 with a price tag of £399, a top speed of 15mph, no roof and a tendency to overheat going up hills.
The sad thing is that today’s computers totally abuse their memory – totally wasteful, you have to wait for the damn things to boot up
Although sales figures vary, they average out at around 15,000, well short of the 100,000 initially envisaged by Sinclair. “It had a rough time, partially my own fault, but it also got a very bad press, which didn’t help,” he told The Times in an interview to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the ZX80. “I think it was a good idea then and I do now, and we sold quite a few thousand and people loved them. Clearly, I should have handled it differently. If I had it could have succeeded. I rushed at it too much and invested too much in the tooling, and I should have gone a bit more gently into it.”
The computer business was sold to Amstrad for £5 million in 1986, and nowadays Sinclair is concentrating on developing the A5: a lightweight, folding bicycle that’s designed to be tucked away in a travelling bag. The A5 has been in development for five years and has been plagued by production problems that Sinclair has refused to elaborate on, citing legal reasons.
Despite the setbacks, Sinclair has high hopes for the A5 and maintains there’s huge demand for the folding bicycle. Which is just as well, as he has no interest in returning to the computing market in which he made his name. “Our machines were lean and efficient. The sad thing is that today’s computers totally abuse their memory – totally wasteful, you have to wait for the damn things to boot up, just appalling designs. Absolute mess! So dreadful it’s heartbreaking,” he told The Guardian.
“We never had any serious competition in the sense of making machines that were cost-effective by comparison. The BBC machine Acorn made was quite expensive, and only succeeded because the BBC put its name to it, which was quite outrageous. Then the IBM machine took over. Not because it was a good machine – it was a completely appalling design, but it was IBM.”
Sinclair doesn’t even use a computer any more, not even for checking emails. The people he wants to talk to have his phone number, and that’s the way he likes it. Which is probably why our numerous attempts to contact him for an interview ended in failure.