Okay, given the news of the sad passing of Sir Clive Sinclair last week, guaranteed you’ll see lots of photos of him in his scarf, peddling to charge his C5, the innovative electric car of the future. Like few of his inventions, mini televisions included, the C5 flopped, simply because it was way ahead of its time. His successful inventions were too. Sir Clive Sinclair was way ahead of time, period.
If there’s one invention, I’ll fondly remember him for, though, it’s not the C5 but can only be the rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum, or “Speccy,” as we dubbed it. Sinclair never sat on a creation; his pocket calculator was only the beginning. To understand the importance of his work is to understand the era. It was a time of great technological advances in home entertainment, the like we take for granted today.
Computers, yeah, we knew of them, but to have one in every home was the stuff of science fiction. Personal computers had made it to schools, yet IT was a far cry from how it’s taught today. Picture it: a nervous beatnik throwback teacher, big black-rimmed specs, big perm, big beard, complete with leather elbow patches on his tweed jacket. He acknowledges this is the future, as he stands next to a shiny new BBC Model B and hoards of pupils gather around it, yet he’s had no training, and he doesn’t really know what the heck it does any more than they do.
To have gained the slightest teaching about computers at primary school in the early eighties was to be the most bolshy kid, who managed to push his way to the front of the over-excited class. I didn’t tick that box, shy and reserved I loitered towards the back of the crowd, interested if confused, I considered myself lucky to have just seen the thing from a distance, through the pigtails of a petite girl standing in front of me.
No, if I was ever going to get to grips with the computer, I’d need to have one at home. Yet the ZX80 and ZX81 were the stuff of the seventies, a naff era void of motivation to progress technologically for working class families; a time when the teas-made and electric blanket were cutting edge. Here, in the technological revolution of 1982, what we needed, what we must have, was a home computer, and my dad finally caved into our merciless campaign of perpetually chanting, “can we have a spectrum, dad, can we have a spectrum?”
The pitch was successful on the grounds we appealed it would be a communal thing; it would help my dad by filing his bills, finances and address book, the possibilities were endless; it would, change our lives forever. Christmas 1982 was like no other, the joint present was hooked up to the television set, after major muddles, frustrating cries from my father and annoyed reactions from my mum who realised her favourite television shows were off the cards until the trend had passed.
Mum was first to breech the covenant, hiding in the kitchen prepping Brussel sprouts. She came to the early conclusion it was the devil’s work, if Crossroads was to be missed. My father persevered, and after sweat and tears we finally had a grey screen on our television with the copyright text, “1982 Sinclair Research Ltd,” mysteriously running along the bottom. We had, as a family, entered the computer age, all 48K of it, our wants and dreams had been fulfilled, but what to do next and why we needed to do it, was a gaping mystery.
Hard to imagine now, given operating systems like Windows are common knowledge and upon booting up a new PC, you’re off applying apps and downloading programs, but we didn’t have a clue what to do, and the lone copyright message offered no help. A big orange book came with it, and my dad tilted his glasses and begun to at least attempt to understand it, while my brother and I were far too excited.
The problem was, to get it to do anything, anything at all, was to understand its own brand of Basic, which the book elucidated was a “computer language.” A bead of perspiration dripped from my dad’s brow at the thought of having to comprehend a whole new language prior to us kids getting bored with this rather expensive Christmas present.
A command prompt was where we started. Under instruction of the book, dad apprehensively trembled and pushed a key, typing a 1. Before the hour was done, he had got the computer to have captured “10: PRINT “HELLO,” followed by a second command, “20: GOTO 10.” And we looked at each other perplexed. When were we going to get to shoot aliens?
You see, dad had bought us kids two games of our choosing. Mine being a Pac-Man pastiche called “Haunted Hedges,” whereas my brother was nearly as bonkers about “Horace,” as he would be Lara Croft in the decade which followed, and his choice was one where “Horace Goes Skiing.” Young-‘uns should note, games those days were on cassette, and dad was some way away from attaching the cassette recorder to the Spectrum. Rather, he insisted above our pleas, we did things by the book and attempt to understand how to work the now blasted thing prior to blasting aliens.
Time was of the essence; the Morcombe & Wise Christmas Special would be airing soon, and Mum would consider human existence was doomed if he didn’t manage to rewire the television back to the aerial and tune it in again. He digested the next page of the book, and confidently pressed the R key, for the function RUN. Like magic the tele changed to list the word “hello” all the way down the screen. We gaped in awe at his success, whatever exactly it was. “Look!” he cried in jubilation and misunderstanding the computer was merely following the prompt of his command, his first computer program, “it’s saying hello to us!!”
As 1982 turned into 1983 my father had grasped the immensity of the task, his desire to have the computer do the things which he wanted it to do, to file and store an address book, set bill payment reminders, and the kind of stuff we’d do in a second on our mobile phones today, was too difficult a chore. Wrought with complications and complexities at learning a whole new trick, a language to unify human and computer, he spaced out on it and gave up. The ZX Spectrum was abandoned for parents, he sighed all the way to Radio Rentals, hired a second TV, put the old one upstairs and reluctantly passed the computer to us kids, to play games; the sole thing we really wanted it for in the first place.
The key to this was, that cartridges for the Atari 2600 we had prior were expensive, to buy a new game was a rare treat. The revolution of having games on cassette tape made them affordable, and we could collect them in abundance. This bought about a youth culture; Speccy was the first video game movement. You could swap games, tape-to-tape copy them, and if and when the damn tape loaded without crashing, the half-hour wait of white noise would fulfil you with the joy of a new game.
And there was a plethora of games of varying quality, but all shaped the formulas of games today even if they didn’t reflect the same graphics, speed and game play. You have Sonic the Hedgehog, we had Sabre Wulf, you had Tekken, we had Way of the Exploding Fist, you have Super Mario Odyssey, we had Donkey Kong, you have Little Big Planet, we had Bubble Bobble, you have Grand Theft Auto, we had Back 2 Skool, and you have Minecraft, and erm, okay you got me there, we were still on Lego…. But you get the idea.
Speccy was a youth culture of video games, magazines on the subject flew off shelves, kids would hang outside a computer shack in our town, boasting how they solved Jet Set Willy, despite it being impossible without “pokes,” (cheats.) You could go there for advice, if stuck in Valhalla, or Spy Hunter didn’t load. This was the first social network for gamers. Comprehend, though, online gaming was reduced to asking your mum if your mate Adam can come into play, and only permitted if he took his muddy trainers off at the door.
Educating through it was limited, but it introduced me to the terminology, to basic programming and how to create simple BIT graphics and it made me realise the wealth of maths, even if I was shit at it. I knew what a modem was, something way beyond reach, but least I was aware two computers could be linked via a telephone line. Fascinated by an article predicting one day many computers could be linked into a network, only on the example of a virtual classroom, so we wouldn’t have to go to school. I never fathomed this would happen in my lifetime, never considered the interactive whiteboard, the mobile phone app, and especially virtual reality.
As with all devises, the ZX Spectrum waned against upcoming videogame consoles, as the eighties came to a close focus was on Sega’s Megadrive and a 48K rubber-keyed processer, less powerful than a Tamagotchi would never stay standing. Not without a fight it was slayed, but every devise has its day.
Personally, the magic of both computers and videogames was replaced by raves, pubs, and hopelessly chasing girls. I bought a PlayStation when the price came down, it just collected dust. Bit of a hippy, I shunned technology for a while, forgetting everything I’d learned to the point of when discussing the idea of photocopying my first comic, and my flatmate, who was the editor of a Swindon music zine earlier in the nineties, suggested “no, print will be dead, it will all be on the wobbly web one day,” I hadn’t a clue what she was dribbling about.
The thing is, this era, where the TV streams off Netflix yet no one’s really watching, as I’m updating my blog, the wife is paying a bill on her iPad, my daughter’s sharing photos on her Insta and my son is logged into a Minecraft server with twenty other mates, what Sir Clive Sinclair achieved maybe lost in time, but I feel is gravely underestimated. His name should be up there with Charles Baggage, Alan Turing, Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee. Without his vision of home computers, life would be very different today.
Sinclair should be remembered as a visionary, pioneer and innovator, a concept designer like Apple, as today it’s hard to imagine a life without home computing, even if it’s updating your status to post a picture of some cute, fluffy cats. Let’s not dwell on images of him in a failed electric vehicle, he was more than that, and besides, one day our laughing at the C5 will return to bite us in the ass!