|Clive Marles Sinclair was
born 30th July 1940. His middle name is his mother's maiden name.
He was the eldest of three children, brother Iain being three years
younger and Fiona quite a distant seven years adrift.
Living near Richmond in Surrey as a child
he enjoyed a comfortable middle class existence at home, but being
precocious and being the eldest child, related better to adults
than to other children. The Sinclair parents eschewed conventional,
polite social reserve preferring direct, confrontational exchanges
and set this pattern for their children. This unusually honest communication
perhaps intensified the sense of isolation that Clive sometimes
felt as a child in the company of other children.
He certainly enjoyed home much more than
school life. In the summer holidays he had the benefit of his family's
inventiveness to stimulate him: both grandfather and father were
engineers. He began designing at an extremely early age and from
the beginning understood the concept of making something real from
an idea. His talented, enquiring mind led him to explore and educate
himself on his own initiative. This drive, together with his sensitivity,
advanced understanding and lack of interest in team sport meant
that the gap between him and his peers tended to widen rather than
decrease at school. This he found generally stultifying even though
he found aspects to enjoy at Boxgrove Preparatory School. At aged
ten the school found it could teach Clive no further in Maths and
it was time to move on to secondary level education.
Unfortunately, also at this time, the family's
machine tooling business went bankrupt and Bill Sinclair had to
start again from nothing. The business built up again quickly, but
Clive's secondary education was fragmented as a result. He went
to Highgate briefly, for two or three terms, had a year at Reading
- a minor public school that his father had attended before him
- then moved to Dorking Grammar. He finally took A- and S-levels
in physics, pure and applied maths at St. George's College, a public
school in Weybridge, Surrey.
The academic school education, however, was
irrelevant in terms of the acquisition of Clive's engineering skills.
He independently invented the binary system while working on a proto-calculator
and was disappointed to discover that it had already been invented.
His attitude to learning is accepted as perfectly natural nowadays
in a Montessori environment: he followed his interests with single-minded
determination and ignored those that did not seem appropriate for
him. The approach, however, must have exasperated his post-war conventional
teachers in the English system of the time.
With his A-levels three weeks away, perhaps
as a relaxation exercise, Clive spent time working out figures for
manufacturing a radio circuit. His notes can be seen in an exercise
book dated 19th June 1958. He also wrote an article for 'Practical
Wireless', which was published. But life was not all work and Clive
was renowned for his partying spirit, then as now.
For a young man who knew his own mind so
clearly there was no sense in going to university. He knew he could
learn everything he wanted for himself and that, for him, three
years of university study would be a waste of time. Moreover, he
made the decision that, as his father's business was still insecure
at times the family did not need the financial drain of a son at
university. When 'Practical Wireless' advertised for an editorial
assistant he applied and got the job. He placated his parents by
blatantly lying to them, saying that it was a holiday job, then
gradually persuaded them that there were better prospects for him
there than he would enjoy going via the normal university route.
J F Camm, the director, was a man of strong character who dominated
his tiny staff of three by force of personality. The editor unfortunately
became seriously ill, the assistant editor soon collapsed under
the strain and Clive found himself running the magazine single-handedly
at age 17. This he found extremely easy. The work took a fraction
of the week and he then had the spare time to design circuits, which
were published in the magazine. They did not always work, but Clive's
perspective allowed him to be philosophical enough to see the letters
generated as simply more material for the magazine. He therefore
made his mark and began to be noticed at an early age.
It was at an exhibition that Clive had another
stroke of luck. He was fronting the 'Practical Wireless' stand when
he was approached by the head of a publishing company and offered
a then amazingly large salary to run it. At Bernard's Clive continued
designing circuits and wrote as well as edited books. Writing took
priority, as it was easier than finding people to write for him.
He still worked in a staff of three, but had the title Chief Editor
and earned considerably more.
Luck, however, did not go all Clive's way.
In 1961 he handed in his notice to Bernard Babani and registered
Sinclair Radionics Ltd as a company, having spent some time designing
a pocket transistor radio and finding backing, whereupon the backer
withdrew. Clive had to find work quickly, which he did with United
Trade Press as a technical editor. He spent a year in this role
and used it wisely to make links with manufacturers. He began to
operate his company from his one room in London, but quickly moved
to two rooms in Islington. The long-standing link with Cambridge
came about from Clive's meeting Tim Eiloart through Mensa. He needed
a base to assemble components and deal with mail order administration.
Cambridge Consultants Ltd, run by Eiloart, provided this service.
No sooner had the advertising appeared than the company was swamped
by demand and the business began to snowball.
Clive was engaged at this time and six months
after the company took off he married Ann. The marriage was to last
23 years and produce three children: Belinda, Crispin and Bartholomew.
The family and business moved to Cambridge in '67 as it seemed appropriate
to rationalise by moving to one base of operations.
Sinclair Radionics lasted until 1979, with
various products and company spin-offs. Beginning with a mini-amplifier,
the company quickly earned a name for design, quality and pioneering
ideas. The overall vision was to produce in bulk and to sell cheaply.
This risky but potentially profitable 'stack 'em high, sell 'em
cheap' approach has made fortunes before, but carries with it the
risk of bankruptcy. In the early days one strategy essential to
this policy for Sinclair Radionics was production in kit form.
Miniaturisation, at which Clive proved himself
so talented, was also a key idea. In 1962 Clive marketed the world's
first pocket calculator, by 1976 the world's first digital wristwatch
and in 1977 came the fist pocket TV.
It is sobering to remember that at the end
of the 1970s computers were still commercial machines filling whole
rooms and relying on tape. In Britain, only Commodore had previously
launched a personal computer: at £700, a small fortune in
1978. In January 1980 Clive demonstrated the ZX80 at an exhibition
in Wembley. For this product there was a choice between a cheaper
kit and the ready assembled computer, which still cost less than
By September more than 20,000 had been sold;
Sinclair Research had had to cope with another rapid expansion and
had established a base in the United States.
Manufacturing was contracted out, but efficient
quality management earned the product a justified name for reliability.
The bugs in the first computer's system were mostly ironed out with
the follow-on product, the ZX81 again selling at less than £100.
By 1982 company turnover was £30million, compared to £4.65million
in the previous year. The ZX Spectrum was launched in April 1982
and changed the face of leisure in the home. Much to Clive's chagrin
the Spectrum proved to be most useful for playing computer games.
A whole market area developed from the computer's capacity for games.
Companies founded to invent and develop games
have, in some respects driven the technology needed for this market:
an aim very different from Clive's original aim with the ZX80, which
was to provide a machine for the man-in-the-street interested in
computer programming. The High Street has also changed to allow
for this societal development. Department stores and stationers
as well as electrical retailers stock computers. Dedicated games
shops exist and, of course you would not be reading this now were
it not for the growth of the Internet, which has depended on mass
accessibility to computers.
The early 80s were a busy time for Clive.
Sinclair Browne Ltd was established in 1981 and lasted until 1985
running concurrently with Sinclair Research. Patrick Browne was
the main force in this project which was a publishing house dealing
with translations of mainland novels and books on computing.
With a group of mostly stable and successful
businesses Clive found time to develop academically. He studied
for a diploma at King's College, Cambridge and was a Visiting Fellow
of Robinson College, 1982-85: just over the road from his impressive
house on Madingley Road, Cambridge. He was also Visiting Professor
for the Department of Electronic Engineering, Imperial College of
Science and Technology, London from 1984 onwards, which he defines
as 'a proper job' lecturing students.
Unfortunately the Midas touch deserted Clive
with the production of a new concept in personal transport: the
Sinclair C5. This used a small motor powered by rechargeable batteries,
but definitely not a washing machine motor as was unkindly reported
at the time and set in stone by Chambers Dictionary of Biography.
The C5 was far smaller and lower than the family car of the time
and had three wheels. The combination proved too extreme for the
British public. It received a bad press, being widely condemned
as unsafe and impractical. It is interesting to note, however, that
car manufacturers have since decided that the small car market is
the one with most potential for growth and have worked towards Eco-friendly
transport. With car pollution and gridlock threatening most major
cities, the C5 might have been a prophetic solution to a problem
few saw looming in the distance. If it had been four-wheeled and
produced only as a concept car to guide the market
The Icarus blunder of applying the 'stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap'
policy to a finished product as though for a mass market and failing
enforced a period of retrenchment in Clive's business activities.
Clive famously became Chairman of British
Mensa in 1980 and filled this role until 1997 when he thought it
was time someone else had a go. When Clive joined the national committee
it was to become involved in a Mensa which had been resurrected
once, by Victor Serebriakoff, but where membership had then levelled
out and begun to fall. Victor was interested in building up the
society worldwide, but Mensan politics in the mother country needed
more involvement and direction. There were 1700 members and people
were leaving faster than they were joining. The range of activities
was restricted, with little happening at national level. The next
year Clive became Chairman.
This was at a time when Sinclair Research
was formed to build on the success of Sinclair Radionics. Clive
was already a household name and brought a certain cachet to Mensa,
making it an organization people respected and wanted to join. As
recognition perhaps for the effect he has had on the development
of twentieth century culture he was honoured with a knighthood in
1983 and this also gave Mensa some reflected glory. His most important
contribution to Mensa was something he partly funded himself: he
paid for advertising in national newspapers whereas before Mensa
had relied on publicity and free advertising. He also established
and mostly funded the yearly conference Mensa at Cambridge, which
did much to bring intellectual respectability to the society. By
1983 British Mensa had 10,000 members and 38,000 by 1996.
Clive took his Mensa duties seriously, attending
a wide variety of gatherings at local, regional and national level.
He made the society a household name. For all this service he never
even claimed his out of pocket expenses. A strong character invariably
attracts strong reaction and Clive had critics as well as ardent
supporters. Criticism tended to focus on the very qualities, which
enabled him to get things done. He had a disregard of petty administrative
rules and his forceful determination put plans into action irrespective
of opposition feelings. This meant that criticism was sometimes
extremely aggressive. The bare facts of Mensa's growth, however,
testify powerfully to the strength and success of his leadership.
He now lives and works in his penthouse
apartment in London. He had an extra storey added to the top of
the apartment block and worked to design a space, which allows him
to be as creative as ever. He enjoys classical music and describes
himself as 'passionate about poetry' as well as retaining his life-long
love of science and mathematics. More recently he has found time
to indulge a taste for poker, which he uses as a game of mathematical
and social skill to exercise and hone his
|1958 - Leaves school
and becomes editor of Practical Wireless
|1961 - Formed Sinclair
|1962 - Microamplifier-
smaller than half-crown. Joins MENSA
|1966 - Microvision
TV (£99.95). Chris Curry joins
|1968 - System 2000
complete hi-fi system
|1972 - First calculator.
Sinclair Executive. (£79.95)
|1973 - Cambridge
Calculator (£29.95). Nigel Searle joins.
|1974 - Scientific
|1976 - First problems.
Black watch launched. Company loses £335,000. NEB buys
a 43% stake for £650,000
|1977 - Collapse
of calculator market. NEB injects further £1.9m. Black
|1978 - £2m
loss. First microcomputer designed and sold to Newbury Labs.
Emerges 2 years later as the New Brain.
|1979 - Sinclair
splits from NEB. Sets up Science of Cambridge with Chris Curry.
MK14 kit micro. Curry splits off and sets up Acorn. Sinclair
sets up Sinclair Research.
|1980 - ZX80 (£99.95)
|1981 - ZX81 (£69.95)
|1982 - Spectrum
launched 16k (£125) 48k (£175). 300,000 ZX81's sold.
Turn-over up to £30m
|1983 - Spectrums
sell at 12,000 a week. Microdrives (£49.95). Sinclair
is Guardian Young Businessman and is knighted in the Queen's
Birthday Honours. Flat screen TV (£79.95)
|1984 - QL (£399).
Turn-over up to £77m. Floatation of 10% values Sinclair
Research at £134m. Spectrum Plus (£179)
|1985 - C5 launched
by Sinclair Vehicles. Cash crisis at Sinclair Research. Maxwell
steps in, and out. £10m raised by sales of Spectrum to
|1986 - Spectrum
128 (£179). Amstrad takes over computer business. Sinclair