Practical Computing Uncle Clive cover Interview from Practical Compµting magazine, Volume 5 Issue 7, July 1982, at the time of the launch of the ZX Spectrum; Copyright © 1982 IPC Business Press; scanned and tidied by Simon N. Goodwin for World of Sinclair during April 2003.

Clive Sinclair

More people have heard of Clive Sinclair than of any other individual connected with computing. He talked to Martin Hayman about his past and present ventures and plans for the future.

For many users of computers the systems giants do not exist, or at best are some shadowy presence at the edge of their vision. For them, Sinclair's name is synonymous with computers.

Asked to define briefly the nature of his success, his firm's pre-eminence in this fastest-moving of all businesses, Clive Sinclair - "Uncle" to many of those who would not claim even a nodding acquaintance with the recluse of Cambridge - responds with the idea of "advanced design".

Yet is advanced design an assurance of success? Sinclair certainly holds to it almost as an item of faith, a personal creed. Without his advanced design he would be nothing; with it he can aspire to king. Did he fear, for example, that as the microcomputer market attracted the industry behemoths with their huge resources of capital and research, and their vast production facilities, that his flexible but centralised outfit would be crushed by the onrush of capital seeking a downmarket whitewash? No fears.

Creative electronics
Sinclair's belief in advanced design, and in particular in the ability of his own people to maintain the level of creative electronics design to keep him one or more jumps ahead of the would-be competition, is like a shield of righteousness: almost as if he had God on his side against the big battalions.

I suggested that this approach was almost the exact opposite to IBM's, yet sooner or later he would confront IBM in the personal-computer market-place. How would his ideas on elegance fare then? Did he know better than IBM? Did he, indeed, relish the fight?

"IBM is a fair competitor which has its views on the market-place as we have ours, and which of us succeeds in whichever market will be the one that does the better job. That is fair and straightforward. I do not relish the fight - nothing makes life more complicated than competitors but I do not mind it. I think IBM is at a tremendous disadvantage because of its size. It makes it harder for them to react swiftly but there is the tremendous advantage of their experience and technical base.

"But in any one-for-one confrontation, as the phrase goes. we would win. I think we are better. First of all, where do they have their great strengths? Let's say marketing. In order to give ourselves that sort of strength we have allied ourselves with Timex which with 70,000 consumer outlets obviously has greater consumer strength than IBM in America.

"Then if you take our machine - the Spectrum - apart and theirs, you will see that theirs is a very old technology. On the outside the IBM Personal Computer may look elegant but inside it is board after board after board of chips. The cost of making it must be astronomical. It has been rushed through because the microcomputing craze has caught them unawares". Could it really be the case that IBM had not foreseen the new wave, I asked? Was its design not rather a different, perhaps more conservatively specified approach?

"Now open one up. It is unbelievable. They have a board about this big - the size of a Iarge coffee-table book - with God knows how many chips on it; it must be 100, and that is just to do colour. We do it on one chip. It is the best they can do in the time available to them. That is always the case - big companies do not make the innovative steps, it is just not the way things work.

New generation
"ln the same way the big motor-car companies will not be the leaders in electric cars, just as the big yacht companies of the past were not the people that built the steamers, just as the great train people were not the people that made the cars, just as they in turn were not the people who built the planes. Every time there is a new technology a new generation of companies comes along".

And what about Sinclair Research?

Could he not foresee a time when Sinclair itself would be established, would become conservative and would be tripped up by the onrush of yet another new technology? "Yes, it will. We have no ability to prevent that; it will happen eventually-it is unavoidable. But we might be able to maintain our position at the leading edge indefinitely if we continue with our present policy of not being a big manufacturer or bulk distributor".

Commercial sense
To some very large extent, Clive Sinclair identifies with his own products. He brings you neatly up to date and then gives you a tantalising glimpse into the future: "Can't give any precise details but the worldwide patents are being filed". On the guided tour he may shaft a competitor or two, which is all good commercial sense and helps to popularise his own cause and sell his own products. So why exactly does he make computers?

"I make computers because they are a good market, and they are interesting to design. I don't feel bad about making them, or selling them for money or anything, there is a demand for them and they do no harm; but I don't think they are going to save the world".

Sinclair spends a great deal of his time simply thinking about the future, and the products which will answer the public's desires in three or more years time. One refreshing characteristic in a business where a little knowledge is often spread painfully thin, is that Sinclair is never afraid to say "I don't know anything about it".

In person, of course, he cuts the figure of everyone's favourite boffin: the pale skin, almost translucent yet with a rosy tinge; the high, domed forehead with its monkish rim of crisp, light-ginger hair: the pale, clear, steady eyes behind pebbly glasses. At the press conference to launch the Spectrum he spoke as Polonius prescribes; briefly, to the point and wittily, as the flashguns exploded around him.

His facility in public speaking is gained from practice: he is often invited to lecture on the computer business. A face-to-face conversation banishes any suspicions of self-conscious boffinry. His Chelsea apartment is cool, clear and uncluttered, and free of electronic machines except for a small Japanese cassette stereo. His suit and shirt, like everything else in sight, are expensive and understated. He speaks clearly and promptly and rarely evinces the flippancy to which others in his position might feel themselves entitled.

Two characteristics of Sinclair's products stand out when one looks at the history of Sinclair Radionics and Sinclair Research: their smallness and the original use to which chips have been put, sometimes working outside their intended purpose to create a new and unforeseen design concept. Sinclair says that smallness was never an end which was pursued for its own sake: it is a function of the need for elegant solutions to existing design problems. "I just like efficiency in design in whatever form".

Did he equate miniaturisation with elegance? "Not quite - in fact sometimes not at all. To miniaturise some things might be inelegant, but it is certainly inelegant to make things larger than they functionally need to be, assuming there is not some other benefit in making it larger. Once or twice we have made things deliberately small, like the radio kit. That was just a gimmick, to make it an exciting thing for people to build so that they could say it was the tiniest radio in the world".

Yet many people - for example, those with a desire to use a computer in the home rather than a need to use one in a professional environment - respond to smallness and may be prepared to make some corresponding sacrifices in outright performance. In an increasingly cramped and miniaturising age smallness is sexy, and for the manufacturer it can make the difference between sale and no sale.

Anyone who has ever used a ZX-81 knows that the first line of the display keels over; it does so because the design of the four chips was pared to the bone. In the domestic market, functionality can encompass a certain amount of cornercutting if there is a countervailing tradeoff in space utilisation, convenience and price.

Smallish is beautiful
Cynics might observe that in this context elegance may be little more than a self-serving concept fitted up to justify under-specification. Yet in most important respects Sinclair's current machines do work; they are not small merely in order to make them cheap. "If you take the current computer - the Spectrum - that is compact", says Sinclair. "If you made it any larger it would simply be more expensive. There would be no contra-benefit, so elegant design has led to a very compact shape compared with its competitors, not because we wanted it to be tiny. On the contrary - if we had wanted to make it really tiny we could have made it, I suppose, the size of a cigarette packet.

"But that would not have been functional, because the keyboard would not be usable. The Spectrum sacrifices nothing to size. The keyboard is exactly the same spacing and pitch as an IBM, which is why we went for that size. If we went down to the size of a cigarette packet it would not be cheaper, it would be more expensive. That size is optimum".

The keyboard is one area of the Spectrum's design which Clive Sinclair took an active part in specifying. Sinclair drew up the original specification of the Spectrum a mere year before they started rolling off the lines; and then delegated most of the production design, with the exception of the keyboard's design and specification and some suggestions on how to reduce the number of chips. His initial work was done with an engineer and an industrial designer as a three-man team.

What about reliability? Did the drive towards elegance ever militate against professional standards of reliability? It has been suggested that Sinclair effectively uses his public as guinea-pigs; many are the tales of returns not dealt with for weeks on end. "It's true that in the early days commercial pressures and lack of design experience led to a lack of reliability: 10 or 15 years ago we did not know how to design for reliability. Now we know very well - perhaps better than anyone. But it has been a long lesson to learn".

"Computers do no harm but I don't think they are going to save the world"

What about all the ZX-81 returns? It is a calumny which Clive Sinclair rebuts heatedly: "That is absolutely not the case. We have records going back to the very first ZX-80s we produced. We have a lower rate of failure on our computers than anybody else in the world, and the reason for that is that we do everything to keep the quality right. The ZX-81 production line is a miracle of efficiency; after all, one is made every 10 seconds. They go through the most amazing quality control. Also we have a far lower component count than anyone else. We have only four chips where everyone else has 40".

Sinclair has plenty of experience in selecting chips. Many of his designs have displayed original and unconventional uses of components. He is self-educated in electronics and when he left school - the last of more than a dozen he attended - in 1958 decided not to go to university "because most of them offered only electronic engineering and I had no desire for such a broadly-based course."

By his own account, it appears he could have taken up any of a variety of careers: his first love was, and remains, mathematics: "I was very good at maths, if I may say so modestly". He had a strong interest in English, as evinced by the fact that his first few jobs were as a technical writer. By the time he married his interests in electronics - into which, he says, he was "diverted" from maths and English were put to work in running a small electronics publishing concern. In 1962 he had already written 17 books.

Sinclair found the work comparatively undemanding and started to turn his theoretical knowledge into practical products. The first device bearing Sinclair's name was to have been a transistor radio kit. He had spotted that import controls were keeping Japanese products out and that there was a slot there for him.

Evidently he had a natural feel for what people wanted, even then. Financial backing, however, was a problem and after Sinclair had left his job to put all his efforts into the new venture, his promised backing fell through. Electronics was relegated to a spare-time activity while Sinclair supported himself with freelance writing.

"Mullard did not think there was a future in digital watches"

One of his first significant commercial ventures was to buy and resell transistor components from Plessey, after grading and testing them. Thus was born Sinclair Radionics, which has a comparatively well-documented history of steady advancement through the 1960s. Its innovatory consumer electronic products included radio and amplifier kits, built hi-fi sets, and in 1972/3 the world's first pocket calculator.

During this period Sinclair's baseline knowledge of what integrated circuits could do, and the practical possibilities for the consumer of the latest chips, stood him in good stead and his products acquired a reputation for clever design and compactness. His 1962 radio kit had featured the novel use of germanium alloy transistors. The class D pulse-width modulated amplifier of 1964/5 used switched pairs of output transistors which, it appeared, leaned rather too heavily on the theoretical possibility of zero rise-time.

It was the adoption of the hearing-aid battery in 1972, along with the adoption of a monolithic seven-segment gallium arsenide display chip bought in from a Canadian firm, which permitted Sinclair to reduce so drastically the size of the calculator, which had previously been powered by the bulky dry-cell torch batteries. Just as the Bowmar display was used with the standard Texas Instruments calculator chip in an unusual way, so Sinclair pioneered the use of integrated injection logic chip in his 1975 Black Watch.

This was where Sinclair came unstuck for the first time. Until then he had stayed one jump ahead of the opposition by either releasing a comparable product to the opposition's at a lower price, or by vastly improving its features and holding the price. It is a familiar pattern to those who know only of the recent growth of Sinclair Research through microcomputers.

Accounts of the Black Watch fiasco vary. The official version runs as follows: "Up to 1976 Sinclair Radionics had enjoyed 15 years of strong turnover and profit growth. However, the company sustained moderate losses due to difficulties with chip supplies for the Black Watch. As a result there were insufficient internal funds available for the final stages of the pocket TV project. Accordingly additional funds were sought".

Sinclair designed the Black Watch, which was the first to have all of its components on one chip. The design was passed out to Mullard for manufacture. who rather late in the day decided to back out. "They did not think there was a future in digital watches. They could have made them, but they did not want to. We were told it was a matter of corporate policy at Eindhoven - we could not get any more sense out of them than that. They never made us any chips", Clive Sinclair recalls.

Disastrous delay
The design was then passed on to ITT, losing Sinclair about 18 months. The delay proved disastrous for a firm which depended on being first into the market with a new product and had already primed the public for a £30 watch where previously they had been paying £80. ITT had terrible problems with yield and, says Sinclair, "did not really keep us informed about what was happening." There were also problems with the production of the watch. In a centrally heated office building with nylon carpets and lots of electrical apparatus the watch was damaged by static electricity discharges.

It was a major setback for Sinclair and soured relations with ITT, who settled a lawsuit brought by Sinclair for £50,00Q. Ironically, on the eve of the Black Watch's launch, ITT was to have given its executives a Christmas gift of a Black Watch with the message "Best of British technology - ITT and Sinclair", or some such legend. When matters degenerated to the point of legal action, the gift was adjudged ill-conceived and was withheld. Perhaps some unfortunate ITT public relations executive still has a drawer full of Black Watches against the day when they have gained an antique value.

Flat-screen TV
Unhappily, the Black Watch fell at a time when Sinclair had been investing heavily in his Microvision pocket TV. It had been under development for over 10 years, latterly aided by funds from the National Research and Development Council. Clive Sinclair had put a great deal of effort into the flat-screen TV and was loth to let it go by default.

He was faced with the problem either of dropping the TV and reducing the size of the company or of seeking outside investment. He went to the National Enterprise Board, then headed by Lord Ryder, which put in sufficient funds to launch the Microvision in January 1977 -after 12 years and £500,000 investment.

During the NEB era Sinclair had as principal products the Microvision, a range of very successful pocket calculators and a range of digital multi-meters from the instrument side of Sinclair Radionics, which had been steadily earning money throughout the early 1970s. Among the calculators was the Cambridge Programmable, whose price was claimed to undercut the opposition's by up to 75 per cent.

In late 1978 Sinclair introduced the Enterprise programmable calculator which, together with a program library, sold for around £25. It was a sign of things to come, for Sinclair was working on Britain's first personal computer, the NewBrain.

But the rules of the game were changing. Lord Ryder, who had given strong personal backing to Sinclair, left the NEB. The new NEB personnel decided that the future for Sinclair Radionics lay with the instrument side of the business, rather than the calculators and the TV, in the mistaken belief that Sinclair would not be able to compete effectively with the Japanese. The NEB took over the instrument side of the business while Sinclair himself severed his connection with Sinclair Radionics, consistent with his belief that consumer electronics were the key to a profitable future.

In July 1979 Sinclair Research emerged from the ashes, and in the following month the ZX-80 was conceived presumably drawing on the experience gained in developing the NewBrain. It is a measure of the speed and decisiveness with which, Sinclair moved from this point that the NewBrain has only just been launched after being shuffled off to Newbury and Grundy.

Admittedly the NewBrain has been redesigned, but then so has the ZX-80, bringing it down from the 22 chips of the original design to four in the current ZX-81.

Sweatshop chips
As any ZX customiser will tell you, when you open up a ZX-81 you will find chips from all over - Honduras, the Philippines, El Salvador, the sweatshops of component manufacture throughout the world. It is to his experience of component selection that Sinclair ascribes the remarkable success and reliability of the ZX-81: "It is partly due to the small numbers of chips that we use, partly to selecting the right suppliers for the chips. We monitor exactly the failure rate of every part that goes into our machines. And since we know the failure rate, if we detect anything statistically deviant, we can deal with it at once".

One of the first jobs which Sinclair singled out at the formation of the new company was dealing with component sources and reliability: one engineer's sole function is to talk to component suppliers and organisations which test and collect data on chip sets.

Given that the ZX-80 and 81 were well-designed and built, what was it that made them such a runaway success? Why was Sinclair so confident of success that he ordered 100,000 sets of parts for the ZX-80 - exactly the number that were finally produced and sold? "I think there has always been the potential for people to want computers. It is just that we can now offer them at a price which makes it possible. We were always seeking to offer better value for money."

Sinclair has described the hobbyist, with whom he has a great deal of sympathy, as "a dead certainty" to buy the ZX-80. It is easy, of course, to be smart with hindsight, and one of the secrets of business when you are as personally visible as Clive Sinclair is to give your competitors the idea that you are infallible.

Few, however, would have predicted the other market which Sinclair pinpointed-the man in the street who, given a suitably priced product with an attractive and comprehensive self-learning manual, could be tempted into making a mail-order purchase. Sinclair's experience in mail-order selling paid off, and it is a tactic which has immeasurably strengthened his strategy in selling the ZXs, first at home then to France, West Germany, Australia and even Japan, and now, through Timex, to the United States.

The "man in the street" of course uses the ZX rather differently from the enthusiast. He is likely to treat it as a practice tool, to familiarise himself with Basic and to come to grips with the concepts and terms of computing. The enthusiast may well have passed through this stage a long time since, but cannot yet afford anything more elaborate.

Sinclair is amused and gratified by the attention the ZX-81 has received from determined customisers, who fit the machine up with keyboards, character generators, colour cards and so forth until their machine bears no resemblance to the little black wedge shipped out of Dundee. He has, of course, heard that it is now possible to purchase a hard-disc attachment: "Quite overgilding the lily", he comments with a hint of irony.

There is no doubt but that suppliers of Sinclair peripherals and software are kept hard at work. Sinclair has strengthened up the software-marketing side of the business with a new range of approved software developed partly by ICL and partly by the specialist software house Psion, and sold through W H Smith. Clearly he is not yet ready to sit back and let other people cream off all the software revenue the ZX-81 generates.

The 40 per cent cut in the price of the 16K RAM pack might also embarrass sellers of unapproved add-on memories who feel they can carve themselves a small niche by playing Sinclair at his own game. The keener pricing also maintains the separation between the ZX-81 and the new Spectrum.

The Spectrum is not, of course, intended as a replacement for the ZX-81. Sinclair reckons that it will be bought and used by laboratories, research establishments, small businesses and retailers as well as by individuals. If reactions from the dealers are anything to go by - and they are, in the end, the people who have to sell personal computing merchandise - the competition has good reason to take fright.

Cut-throat competition
Sinclair's lavish full-colour advertisement features a point-by-point comparative breakdown of the specifications of the competitive machines. It is bad news for them - so much so that it was reported from April's Computer Fair that dealers were knocking out the Commodore Vic-20 for less than £135, cut from about £200.

What of the home-grown competition from Acorn Computer - which against all the apparent odds made off with the BBC contract and about which Clive Sinclair has been so publicly vitriolic? One of the two chiefs at Acorn, just down the road from Sinclair in Cambridge, is Sinclair's own alumnus Chris Curry. Sinclair bears him no ill-will at all - they still meet socially on occasion - but what sticks in Sinclair's craw is the BBC's attempt to set a standard for software.

"It was nothing to do with Acorn-it was to do with the BBC. I was, and still am, disgusted at the way the BBC handled things. Acorn quite reasonably got the business and good luck to them. I am not complaining about that, I am complaining about the BBC's behaviour. I think they are atrociously amateurish. They are marvellous at making programmes and so on, but by God they should not be making computers, any more than they should be making BBC cars or BBC toothpaste.

"We are always seeking to offer better value for money"

"They were able to get away with making computers because none of us had sufficient power or pull with the Government to put over just what a damaging action that was. They had the unmitigated gall to think that they could set a standard - the BBC language. It is just sheer arrogance on their part.

"I may not know everything there is to be known about computing but really they know very little. It is terrifying: it would not matter quite so much if they were not such a respected authority worldwide, so it makes us have to struggle twice as hard. But we will win handsdown because we know so much better what is needed and know so much better how to do it than the BBC does that our system, our machine and our language will completely win out in any competitive battle.

He relishes the deals with giants like Timex and Mitsui which, like every other aspect of the company, he has a hand in drafting. He prides himself on the fact that the manufacturing licence deals for overseas terrains are costly. Technical leadership, of which he considers himself an exponent, can be quantified in hard cash.

For Sinclair, professionalism is merely the other side of the coin of advanced design: "Professionalism is very important. We have very professional people and we do everything on time, to very tight schedules and with a great deal of commitment. We just are not amateur. There is no room for amateurs these days". Did he think, then, that there were many amateurs still in business? "Oh yes, I am afraid there are still many companies around in the world of personal computers-it is inevitable in any new field - who are far more amateur than they need be".

Ready right away
Did he include in the amateur category the common practice of "kite flying" - announcing a product with a stupendous specification for delivery "next month"? "Yes there is far too much of that and it is very silly. It mucks up the market-place at the time but it rebounds on the company eventually. They are talking about products that are further and further away. If we announce a product now, it is because it is ready for production. With the Spectrum, we had the pilot run before the launch and those were the models at the launch. The following week it went into production, just like that. It is fully tooled; there is nothing undone on that machine.

"But at the same time our competitors are announcing machines which will not even be ready until next year. They say, 'Oh yes, we have a competitive machine, but they have not even started the darn things. That is absurd. We are at the same stage as they are talking about with our machine of the next generation".

What was his prescription, then, for a successful personal computer manufacturer in future? "You have to have inhouse technical capability in every possible area. This is going to be vital in the computer industry-if you cannot make the peripherals, you are not going to be in business in the future. You have to do the printers, the teletext, the floppies, the lot. The Japanese are doing this".

What did he think of the conventional wisdom that the Japanese were strong on hardware but would not make it in software because Basic is so closely identified with the English language? ''The Japanese are coming up strongly on the software side, making ail their machines IBM-compatible. They can ride on the back of all the software generated by the IBM machine and they would succeed if they did not have to produce a single item of software themselves". Hence, presumably, Sinclair's pre-emptive strike to retain control of ZX and, presumably, Spectrum software by securing worldwide distribution rights to commissioned software of the best quality.

Looking to the future, the ZX-83, as Sinclair called it, would not be a replacement for the Spectrum which he saw as having a very long life. Yet he said the same, less than two years ago, of the ZX-81 which has rapidly fallen into the bargain basement; already recent purchasers of the ZX-81 are kicking themselves for not waiting a little longer.

Quote from Practical Computing "The next step will be to make a machine of a suitably higher price which would have a built-in screen and dual floppies - Microdrives, that is. It is conventional in the sense that it contains what the Osborne or the IBM personal computer have, because that is what is needed". But definitely not with conventional 5.25in. floppies? "Oh no. Our Microdrive is miles ahead of what anyone else is doing. We have that working you know - it is not a figment of our imagination, it was working at the show. It is not fully tooled yet.

"We have three elements that people will want: our printer, the flat-screen display, which is critical - the world needs flat screens, that technology is paramount-and the microfloppy, and you bring them all together. That package becomes a much handier package than, say, an IBM system.

How portable is portable? The Osborne, against which the ZX-83 will certainly tilt, is portable to about the degree as a suitcase full of bricks. "We are doing something that is maybe a couple of pounds in weight - say two to four to be on the safe side". This is a product which Sinclair says is due for late 1983 release.

Portable machines
But are people really going to want to trail around with computers under their arm? "Not necessarily. Sooner or later people will not need to carry computers around. If they need one in the office and one at home they will buy one for each place and just transfer, say, diary data. But lots of people do need portability- schoolchildren, for example, or if you want to use it on a plane".

What uses did he envisage for the microcomputer, now it has established itself as more than a hobbyist's toy? What will people do with ever-increasing power and cheaper memory'? "Expert systems are what excites me, I think". And for the home --what practical example did he have in mind'? "A computer database that has the similitude of the knowledge of a professional expert, that you can refer to in the same way that you can refer a problem to that expert. What I want to see us do, and other people do. is have experts that can be used by people in the home: a doctor, for example, that the family could turn to and say, 'I have these symptoms', and it would respond as a doctor by saying 'There's a lot of it about', or something of that sort".

Could he suggest any other such areas of expertise? "Oh yes, education is the great one. We are a long way from it yet, but things are changing very rapidly and the day will dawn when computers will teach better than human beings, because they can be so patient and so individually attuned". A future Encyclopedia Brittanica, as it were? "No, it will replace not the Encyclopedia Brittanica but the school".

Surely there was a threat here to normal personal communication'? Did he not fear that the computer might have a de-socialising effect on people? A recent report in New Scientist suggested, for example, that networking buffs became withdrawn from their everyday lives and preferred to communicate with their onscreen pals. "Yes, I am concerned with this. We have to watch very carefully that you do not remove the rituals of things like shopping or banking. Sometimes it is possible for something to disappear before people realise that it is what they want to keep".

Nevertheless, an RS-232 and networking interface for the Spectrum will be available later this year. "I think sending letters is a particularly elegant way of using small computers, without being a threat to any existing social activity". Further uses of the network capability would be to link into larger-scale fixed databases as well as sharing expensive peripherals such as letter-quality printers which would probably be in the form of an optical disc. Sinclair does not discount the possibility that the technology to write to an optical disc will eventually become available to the individual, but though he is keeping abreast of the latest developments, he says that Sinclair is not itself doing any work on laser-driven stores.

"That is what I like doing - solving problems"

Pursuing the point about the computer becoming a substitute for real life. I asked Sinclair what implications he saw in he laser-driven store, linked to a battery of large flat-screen TVs. Indeed, "the high brightness of thin CRTs makes them deal for use in projection systems", says ~Sinclair's business briefing, which foresees "a three-tube projection TV with a 50in. diagonal full-colour display. The optics and electronics could be fitted into a shoe-box-sized unit projecting on to a wall-mounted screen".

Under microcomputer control with real-time response to user inputs, such an outfit could become an altogether more powerful and interesting activity than normal experience. It would give the user the kind of experience which is now only to be had in some extremely expensive military and flight-training simulators. In response,- Sinclair laughs: "'Fraid so". I have heard it said that, including professional use, two-thirds of computing work goes on games. I should think it would make life so jolly boring that you would not want to come back to it. If you could simulate it that well.

Did he feel that computers had any practical benefit in improving the human lot? Had they made life more complicated? He is said, after all, to prefer the simple life and laughs at the idea of using a computer himself: he does not even use a calculator, preferring a slide-rule or just working in his head. "I am all for the simple life, yes. But there are certain tools around that are useful at times. It simplifies buying an airline ticket, or getting cash at any time of day or night - these are simplifying things, no matter what sort of life we lead".

Even if one lives the life of the noble savage, tilling the land, where the only money we have is the cash in our pocket? "No. But I am very glad my life is not just tilling land. It would be very dull and boring".

Does he believe, then, that humans are becoming brainier? "No", he rejoins with some warmth. "Dimmer, if anything". He certainly believes that intelligence is innate, a matter of generic inheritance; the fact that computing is an intellectually demanding skill does not mean that the brain's capacity is increasing. "I just do not believe we have become cleverer - whoever designed the axe or the wheel was just as clever as we are".

He finds no evidence that computers will help to make a better world - it can be clearly seen that the very best, most highly-specified and supported research and development into computing goes into producing defence and military systems.

Sinclair has been asked to do military work, and has turned it down. He was, he says, "worried about its implications". This was a decision based on principle, though he does not rule out the possibility of doing so in a state of urgent national necessity, again reflecting the bedrock patriotism which underlies his political and business stance over the years. Sinclair believes, reassuringly, that the engineer should have a conscience, and a consciousness of the consequences of his inventions. He is an admirer, in his own field, of Newton and Edison, of the great railway and shipbuilding engineer Brunel, and as a boy his hero was Einstein.

Unlikely mentor
That master theoretician must seem like a curious ideal for Sinclair, who is identified above all with his own products. But Sinclair's own way of working is very spare, very abstract. After all, mathematics is his first love, and he says that what really interests him is "problem-solving". These are not the immediate problems of production engineering, which is now able to delegate; they are the problems of design, pure and simple.

Sinclair has spent much of his time recently on solving the design of the flat-screen TV. "The most interesting job there was mathematical", he says. "Most of the interesting jobs cannot be done on a computer. There was a curiosity of the flat tube's design which would not come out of the computer analysis, so I had to do it. That is what I like doing - solving problems" .

Astonishingly, Sinclair still manages to pursue a wide variety of leisure interests. He is an economics undergraduate at King's College, Cambridge, he is chairman of the British Mensa society, he keeps up his interest in mathematics and he still reads novels. Recently Sinclair established a partnership with an old friend, Patrick Browne of Brownes Bookshop in Cambridge, setting up a publishing company with a planned list by the end of this year of 20 titles. As a common theme they will have "a progressive approach to the problems of contemporary society". He is also sponsoring a £5,000 fiction prize to be awarded to the author of a "novel which is not only of great literary merit but also of social and political significance".

A good read
What was intended by "a progressive approach to contemporary society"? "Something that has a social content and is interesting to read-like Dickens. He had a social point and was a marvellous read. We thought that the Orwellian type of novel had not had much of a look-in recently". He will play no part in selecting the winner of the prize which bears his name.

Perhaps the most interesting of Sinclair's hobbies is music, a subject on which he is more passionate than any, thing else than perhaps the BBC and which is reflected in his trusteeship of the . Cambridge Symphony Orchestra. Music has long been thought to have an affinity with mathematics: the one is the most abstract of the art forms, the other the most abstract of sciences. He agrees that composing a piece of music would in some way be analogous to designing a circuit, describing both processes as "an optimisation technique". Surprisingly, his tastes run to the romantic: he prefers Beethoven to Bach, Stravinsky to Bartok, and thinks it is a toss-up between Vivaldi and Albinoni. His favourite is Schubert, particularly the quintet in C.

Sinclair does not play an instrument, but says he will one day find the time to pick up the pieces of his piano playing g from school. He would find it most satisfying, he says, to practise the manual skills of fingering; while doing his scales, he would be able to think about other things. That sort of manual skill, he says, is indispensable, a prerequisite to playing with feeling. "But it would have to be the piano", he says. "Nothing else would e interest me . . . and of course you can get away with being really bad. I would not aim to be brilliant, just adept enough to amuse myself."

Looking forward to a long Bank Holiday weekend Clive Sinclair observed, "Any excuse not to work". Somehow one suspects he cannot quite mean it.