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Origin of the Spectrum species donated to Cambridge museum

By Adrian Curtis

A prototype computer from the early 1980s – widely considered to be one of the most important home computers in British computing history – has been donated to a Cambridge museum after lying in a cupboard since it was first designed.

The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge has been gifted the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by consultant company Nine Tiles, which had been contracted by Sinclair Research in the early 1980s to produce the BASIC ROM that would run on the replacement for the popular ZX81 home computer.

It has been in the possession of Nine Tiles for the whole of its existence. The ZX80 and ZX81 BASIC were written by John Grant of Nine Tiles. The prototype machine itself has a full travel keyboard with the commands hand written on the top. All the chips are labelled, and the underside of the board is all hand wrap wiring.

Jason Fitzpatrick at the Centre for Computing History with some of the items and memorabilia from the filming of Bandersnatch. Picture: Keith Heppell. (7784301)
Jason Fitzpatrick at the Centre for Computing History with some of the items and memorabilia from the filming of Bandersnatch. Picture: Keith Heppell. (7784301)

The layout has familiar components, but is very different from the final configuration of the Spectrum.

The machine has come to the museum through the generosity of Kate and John Grant, along with other machines from Nine Tiles which was called upon to provide the BASIC for Sir Clive Sinclair’s new colour computer. Judging by labels on the ROM chips, the computer is thought to date from July 1981.

The board lacks a case but features many of the chip designs that would go on to form the basis of the ZX Spectrum.

Museum curator and CEO Jason Fitzpatrick now hopes to bring it back to life.

He said: “We’ll first dump the ROMs, preserving any data left in them. Then we’ll check out the circuit and make sure it is electrically sound – we will remove the chips and check the voltages to ensure there will be no damage.”

The ZX Spectrum itself was launched in April 1982. It went on to become one of the most popular home computers of the time, with sales of its various models and updates amassing to about five million units.

However, Cambridge-based Sinclair Research ran into problems after a number of failed products and eventually the Spectrum computer range, along with the Sinclair brand, was bought by Amstrad in 1986.


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