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
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.
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
"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.
"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
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".
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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
"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
"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
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
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.
"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.
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
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.
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
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
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.