“It’s a British icon, like the Mini”: The original designer reveals how the rubber-key ZX Spectrum is coming back - three decades on

Rob Waugh2 January 2014
ZX Spectrum
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Owners will be able to play original Spectrum games on the iPad with the reissued keyboard

Retired gamers and that rare species, the gamer Dad, are in for a treat - the relaunch of THE Eighties game controller, a rubbery object that inspires cult-like devotion, despite being mocked and adored in equal measure.

The ZX Spectrum’s relaunch is no half-hearted cash-in - the team worked with the cult computer’s original designer, directly from his CAD blueprints, to ensure rubbery authenticity. It was the first keyboard with a single 'mat' of rubber instead of moving keys - a design that is still imitated today.

Owners of the rival American Commodore 64 tended to describe the keys as "fleshy". The key was, though, that the keyboard was reliable - and cheap.

Made by a team of veteran retro-game publishers, Elite Systems, the console is relaunching as a Bluetooth add-on for iPhones (and subsequently Android and Windows devices).

A £50 pledge buys the hardware - very competitive, even against standard keyboards. Elite Systems say they hope to launch in Spring, with an end price between £40 and £50.

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It's a rebirth of a system that came to define Eighties gaming - despite being somewhat 'Marmite', as even its designer admits.

"My industrial design degree had two work placements - my second just happened to be with Sinclair Radionics in St Ives," says Rick Dickinson, who designed the original machine.

"When I graduated, by sheer chance the industrial designer at Sinclair had decided to move on so Clive Sinclair asked if I wanted to take over, which of course I did."
"Working with Sinclair was about as exciting and scary as it gets in the design world - everything was a true first - never been done before, implemented at the speed of light, seat of the pants stuff with hardly any time to go away and think about it, wonderful experience and great times."

The rubber keys were simply a practical choice, Dickinson says, "The conventional moving key keyboards had many parts which would add significant cost, size, and dominated the aesthetics. By utilising some of the specific physical characteristics of Silicone rubber we were able to create a full set of moving keys with a single component - rather than over 100 components.

"No one had tried this before and so was very much an experiment that went to production. Today many keyboards are just the same but with refinements. The driving factor though is simply the lowest manufacturing cost possible in return for a sufficiently acceptable performance."

"They were always a little bit Marmite," Dickinson admits. " I remember Commodore owners were quite abusive - yes, criticism comes quick and easy and without any intellectual curiosity as to why things might be the way they are, but the keyboard 'compromise' clearly had little or no influence on limiting  sales.

"I think humans can become fond of the idiosyncrasies and so-called faults in things generally - a person, a town, car, or product, and I think the rubber keyboard was a specific aspect of the character of the Spectrum along with many others such as the programming language, the applications, the buzz and frenzy of something very new and exciting."

Paired with Elite Systems' Spectrum iPhone app, players can enjoy some of the 10,000 classic - and not-so-classic games published for the machine, which sold five million units over its lifetime.

The Kickstarter campaign is already a quarter of the way towards its £60,000 goal, with 29 days to go. The keyboard also works as a standard Bluetooth keyboard in other apps such as email - albeit a rather odd-looking, rubbery one.

“That rubber keyboard has been part of my life for 30 years,” says Steve Wiltshire, who launched Elite Systems, a company that published some of the biggest hits on Spectrum.

“You’re going to think I’m bonkers when I say this, but to me, it’s a British icon, up there with the Mini. It should be celebrated.”

"Using the ZX Spectrum's keyboard was a strangely fleshy experience that was somewhere between typing and massaging a baby,” says Jon Blyth, Associate Editor of Official Xbox Magazine.

“It came to be the defining characteristic of the machine, not least because Commodore 64 owners never got bored of laughing at it. I'm quite keen to have another go on it. I might even put on a Paul Young record to complete the mood.”

Wiltshire’s firm still publishes retro games - which have had a new lease of life on smartphones, where their simple graphics and gameplay fit perfectly.

The Spectrum was the third computer released by Sir Clive Sinclair, following in the footsteps of the ZX80 and ZX81. It was the first aimed at the home, and had the magic ingredient: games.

“I spent the Eighties selling millions of games for those things,” says Wiltshire, “When they replaced that rubber keyboard with a plastic one, it killed the Spectrum - about one in five failed, and that’s pretty bad.”

Despite loading from cassette tapes - complete with screechy noises - and diabolical graphics, made even worse by the machine’s inability to display certain colours next to one another, the ZX Spectrum became THE icon of gaming.

Spectrum its like Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner had one look - garish. But many ageing gamers still hark back to the DIY ethos of the Spectrum as a golden age, with Charlie Brooker making frequent reference to the Spectrum on his GamesWipe show.

“I think - of course - the first people that buy will be gamer Dads, who grew up playing with the things,” says Wiltshire. “But I like to think maybe other people will look at that keyboard with a newfound respect”

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