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Sir Clive Sinclair dies at 81: Cambridge pays tribute to home computer pioneer and C5 inventor

Additional reporting: Chris Elliott

Sir Clive Sinclair has died at the age of 81, prompting a wave of tributes in Cambridge.

The home computer and C5 pioneer, who invented many of his most famous creations in the city in the 60s, 70s and 80s, had been battling cancer for a decade, his family said.

Sir Clive Sinclair in a C5. Picture: PA (51337634)
Sir Clive Sinclair in a C5. Picture: PA (51337634)

Sir Clive lived off Madingley Road for many years, but in later life moved his home and business to London.

The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge said: “We have lost a true visionary, disruptor and gentleman. He brought us the computers that for so many of us, would change our lives. Our thoughts are with Sir Clive Sinclair’s family. RIP Uncle Clive.”

Raspberry Pi, the Cambridge company behind some of today’s most popular affordable home computing technology, tweeted: “It’s an incredibly sad day for the British computing industry. We’re always going to be very grateful to Sir Clive for being one of the founding fathers of the UK home computing boom that helped so many of us at Raspberry Pi get hooked on programming as kids.”

Eben Upton, the founder of Raspberry Pi, told the Cambridge Independent: “It's hard to overstate his influence, on our industry, and on Raspberry Pi in particular. Sir Clive was a founding father of the technology industry in Cambridge, both directly, through Sinclair Radionics and Sinclair Research, and through his influence on the founders of Acorn, which subsequently gave rise to Arm.

“Millions of young people in the UK and elsewhere had a chance to own a programmable computer, thanks to his focus on cost as a barrier to entry, and many of those young people went on to work in the technology industry.

“Even where he failed, he was often just ahead of his time. Every time I narrowly avoid getting run down by an electric bike or scooter in Cambridge, I’m reminded how he sustained an enthusiasm for personal electric transport in the face of widespread incredulity. A true visionary.”

Clive Sinclair with another affordable computer, the Z88. Picture: PA (51337618)
Clive Sinclair with another affordable computer, the Z88. Picture: PA (51337618)

Elsewhere, among the global figures to pay tribute to him was technology entrepreneur Elon Musk. Referring to Sir Clive’s groundbreaking ZX Spectrum computer, Musk tweeted: “R.I.P. Sir Sinclair. I loved that computer.”

Sir Clive formed his first company aged just 22, Sinclair Radionics, which began supplying radio kits by mail order, and moving his business to Cambridge in 1967.

His early inventions included amplifiers, a matchbox-sized personal radio, and a mini TV set, the Microvision. Advertising blurb for it described it as offering 13 channels, powered by six tiny batteries, adding: “This amazing Sinclair triumph will be available at a cost of 49 guineas.”

In the 70s, he went into the pocket calculator market, and then he began designing home computers - which earned him his knighthood – teaming up with entrepreneur Chris Curry, who ran a small electronics company called Science of Cambridge.

This was renamed Sinclair Research, and in 1980, the ZX80 was launched, a small computer that retailed at less than £100. Enthusiasts could buy it in kit form for £20 less.

He went on to launch the more powerful ZX81 in March 1981, which sold half a million units with the price tag cut to under £50 before the American and Japanese competition could catch up.

In April 1982 he launched the ZX Spectrum, the start of a wider and more powerful range of Sinclair computers to come.

By 1983, Sinclair had become the first company in the world to sell more than a million computers – making it a household name around the Western world.

Clive Sinclair shows off his pocket television. Picture: PA (51337620)
Clive Sinclair shows off his pocket television. Picture: PA (51337620)

Sir Clive also realised a radical change in television design with a new version of the Sinclair pocket television, using a unique flat screen.

In the mid-80s, Sir Clive unveiled the machine that many in Cambridge remember him for most fondly – the C5.

When the electric car went on the market in January 1985, he claimed it would be the first of a new ‘family’ of Sinclair vehicles.

Clive Sinclair in 1994. Picture: Tony Harris/PA (51337612)
Clive Sinclair in 1994. Picture: Tony Harris/PA (51337612)

It was unveiled to a handful of motoring writers at the Government's Road Research Laboratories in Berkshire, and one wrote: “Shaped like a plastic torpedo and equipped with handlebars beneath the driver's knee, and a set of large bicycle pedals, Sir Clive Sinclair's new electric car announced today is quite unlike anything else on the road. And because it does not require a licence for anyone 14 years and over, need taxing or registering, it is likely to prove highly popular with teenagers.

“The price is right too. At just under 400 pounds on the road the new car should represent another highly successful gamble on the part of the Cambridge-based millionaire. I found it extremely simple to understand and to handle. It has no gears, two brake levers, and a simple button which is pressed to make it go along. Top speed is around 15 miles per hour on the level, although it drops off considerably approaching a rise. Range on a single battery is around 20 miles. Colour is white in order to make it show up on the road.”

Sir Clive Sinclair with his replacement as Mensa chair Julie Baxter. Picture: PNR/PA (51337608)
Sir Clive Sinclair with his replacement as Mensa chair Julie Baxter. Picture: PNR/PA (51337608)

Since then, of course, the three-wheeler has become something of a cult, and some owners have made souped-up versions, including adding more powerful engines.

Cambridge’s Whipple Museum features one of his early inventions - an iconic Sinclair Scientific pocket calculator from 1974.

In 2009, the brilliance of Sinclair and Curry featured in a TV drama, starring Alexander Armstrong as Sinclair and Martin Freeman as Curry.

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