Why Sir Clive Sinclair never quite became the British Steve Jobs

·7-min read
Sir Clive with the much-derided Sinclair C5 - Hulton Archive
Sir Clive with the much-derided Sinclair C5 - Hulton Archive

Sir Clive Sinclair, the British electronics entrepreneur and father of the home computer who died this week, aged 81, could have been the equal of Apple’s Steve Jobs.

Both were marketing geniuses first, technologists second. Both had an appreciation of how a product looks and chose beautiful, modernist designs for devices that were normally ugly. Both ensured the packaging of their machines, even the printing fonts they used, were seductive. Both spent heavily on slick advertisements.

Both men also left a massive legacy, too. Apple’s needs no explaining, but Sinclair’s was subtler. Tens, even hundreds of thousands of computing professionals now in their middle-age owe their careers, and often their fortunes, to Sinclair’s pioneering, buccaneering spirit, having learnt their trade on his affordable ZX Spectrum machines. Indeed, Britain’s continuing pre-eminence in software and gaming can be directly linked to Sinclair.

There are personal parallels, too. Both Jobs and Sinclair had splenetic tempers; I was once subject to one of Sir Clive’s tantrums, as I will explain. Both men were also slightly maladroit Lothario figures; Jobs fathered a daughter, Lisa, and refused to acknowledge her – apart from naming a computer after her. At 70, Sinclair married a former pole-dancer 36 years his junior until she ran off with someone else.

So why is Jobs such a global legend and Apple the world’s biggest business, while Sinclair’s companies are long-defunct and Sir Clive known only in Britain? His death did not warrant even a mention in any US publication. Almost all those who learnt their geek skills on Sinclair computers were, after all, British. The machines were barely known overseas. Elon Musk, who tweeted a tribute to Sinclair this week, was very much the exception.

It is not the case that the idea of a global computer company based in the UK was implausible, at least not back at the birth of the personal computer in the late 1970s. There were dozens of British computer brands by 1984; there are none today.

One answer to why Sinclair never quite delivered is that, ironically, he wasn’t really sold on the idea of home computers. His background was in radios and cheap but stylish hi-fis, and he saw his innovative future in fields like personal transport – culminating in the ridiculous C5 electric trike.

He only went into computing to annoy his ex-employee, Chris Curry, who left Sinclair Research to develop home computers and founded the successful Acorn brand. Despite repeatedly saying that every home would one day have a computer, Sinclair prided himself, even in recent years, on never using them, or even emailing. He also loathed computer games, despite his quite brilliant ZX Spectrum machines being used almost wholly for gaming.

Sadly, though, the reason Clive Sinclair is already a footnote in technology history, a biggish fish in a small pond, must be that he was just slightly more flawed and slightly less talented than Jobs. Or Bill Gates. Or even his British rival, Alan Sugar.

Take that Sinclair temper, for example. I didn’t suffer it as badly as Sinclair’s beleaguered employees, notably Curry, who, at the height of their rivalry (they made up later), Sinclair beat with a tightly rolled-up Daily Telegraph in the Baron of Beef pub in Cambridge while screaming: “You f------ b-----ing s---bucket!”

My experience was trivial by comparison, but, I think, still telling. I once wrote a paragraph making fun of the Sinclair C5 and the pathetic figure he cut driving it, metaphorically into the sunset of British inventive ambition. His response was to phone me, yelling that I was “f------ Luddite c--t”, before changing gear by tens of decibels to politely invite me to “a spot of lunch”. A lunch to which he didn’t turn up.

The C5 disaster in 1985 was the worst example of another fatal flaw that Sinclair didn’t share with Jobs. The Englishman was so convinced of his genius, and so egocentric, that seemingly nothing could make him see sense.

The ‘car’, after all, was far from his only bonkers venture, even if it was the most embarrassing, a low-slung plastic tub powered by a washing machine motor, which Sinclair – and much of the media – believed people would use on traffic-clogged city streets, where they could sit at the exact height of other vehicles’ exhaust pipes. A child of five could see the C5 was ludicrous and potentially lethal.

The iconic ZX Spectrum, beloved of gamers - Shutterstock
The iconic ZX Spectrum, beloved of gamers - Shutterstock

Other Sinclair misfires included an elegant black pocket calculator, hailed by him and the media as the world’s first, but far from it (the Sinclair marketing brain again). Its problem was that the battery lasted only a few hours and if it was left on, it was prone to bursting into flames. When this happened to a Soviet diplomat who bought one in London, it almost caused an international incident, the Russians believing it was an assassination attempt.

Then there was an early digital watch, sleek and elegant again, but which required the wearer to switch it on to tell the time. And there was a pocket TV, the Microvision, which was truly ahead of its time in the sense that we all now watch programmes on our smartphones. But the Microvision was far larger than all but the most capacious pocket.

Those who remember Clive Sinclair, however, from his early career, 20 years before he became famous, know another side to him that may ultimately be deemed significant.

When I was a 10 year-old geek who spent evenings in my dad’s garden shed working on electronic projects, I was mesmerised by Sinclair’s enticing full-page ads in magazines like Practical Wireless (where he had started out as a journalist) for a kit to build a transistor radio smaller than a matchbox.

Sir Clive in 1977 with the Microvision, at the time the world's smallest TV - Mirrorpix
Sir Clive in 1977 with the Microvision, at the time the world's smallest TV - Mirrorpix

The Micro 6 cost nearly £3, far beyond my pay grade, and I begged my dad for one. An electronics whizz himself, he explained it was no big deal, just advertising, and anyone could make a radio that small, but few would see the need for it. I still wanted one, and would gaze longingly at the ads each time a new one appeared.

Spool forward three years, and my pocket money could just about stretch to Sinclair’s latest gadget, a tiny, £3 hi-fi amplifier, the IC10, which was an entire amp built on an integrated circuit, or a chip, as we’d now call it. I bought it. It didn’t work.

After realising it was useless, I used a knife to prise off the flashy metallic label, with Sinclair’s exciting, squared-off logo resplendent, only to find hidden under it, the logo of the British electronics company Plessey, which happened to be in my home town of Ilford.

A boy at school whose dad worked for Plessey claimed they’d offloaded thousands of the little amps onto Sinclair for a few pennies each because they were no good.

For the Spectrum generation, then, Sir Clive Sinclair is the inventor of the home computer, and rightly a hero, celebrated insufficiently because of the awful C5 catastrophe.

But for his own generation, he’s better known for being, frankly, a master of public relations smoke and mirrors as much as the poker-playing, pole dancer-marrying, marathon-running, poetry-loving Renaissance man, the self-proclaimed genius and chairman of Mensa, the club for the super-intelligent.

We should rightly celebrate Sir Clive as an eccentric, a character and a man who, albeit without meaning to, revolutionised people’s lives. But a Jobs or a Gates, he was not – and that’s a shame for Britain.

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