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  • Your 29-year-old future, courtesy Clive Sinclair

    Posted on April 13th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Clive Sinclair maintains an odd presence in computer history. At his prime, he’s like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs all rolled up into one person, never missing a chance to bathe in the spotlight yet far more interested in inventions and tinkering than market share and profit margins. In the ’70s and early 1980s, nobody in the European electronics industry was more respected — and reported upon — than he was.

    Sinclair got his start producing audio gear in the 1960s and branched out to pocket calculators (1972) and microcomputer kits before kicking off the ZX series of personal computers in 1980. The ZX Spectrum, despite having an abortive and unnoticed launch in America, sold in the millions in Europe — it provided fierce competition for the Commodore 64 and was the 8-bit system that many of today’s game designers and programmers first cut their teeth on. His successes earned Sinclair a knighthood and made him a household name in the UK, but his company was never far from financial ruin and, tiring of having to support a personal-computer business, he sold it to a rival in 1986 and went back to inventing. He’s still at it today, nearing 70 and working on fold-up bicycles and such, although you can’t help but think he’s a little daft when he talks with the press about how he doesn’t handle his own email.

    At the height of his public career, in mid-1982, Sinclair gave a speech to the British chapter of Mensa where he discussed his vision of the future. The speech would’ve been perfect as a TED Talk if such a thing existed back then. Reading the article about it (above, from the October ’82 issue of Sinclair User) is pretty neat just to see how tuned-in and far-out he was, nearly three decades ago:

    – He foresaw how massive storage and the power of networking will restore the power of the individual in society — or, to put it another way, he foresaw how blue-collar manufacturing wasn’t going to be the main economic sector of the West for long. “We have for some time been passing through a great industrial age in which the economic basis of society has demanded the bringing together of people in great numbers, many thousands per factory, many millions per city,” he said. “I believe that our move away from this type of organisation will restore the potential of the individual.” I can believe him there — I can work as an individual now chiefly thanks to cheap and abundant networking, after atll.

    – He foresaw what GM assembly-line workers and most white-collar laborers my age or younger know all too well by now — big companies often see employees as disposable goods. “We must change the pattern of expectation,” he said, “no longer to prepare people for a life-time’s work in major organisations but to give them the self-reliance for a broader role in smaller groups.” He predicted a massive wave of small companies being founded, something that you could say manifested itself en masse in the dot-com boom.

    – Where he maybe wasn’t so right (yet) is in the bit where he foresees a “Golden Age of man’s history” by the turn of the 21st century, thanks to machines doing all the brute-force heavy lifting for us. “Early in the next century we will have made intelligent machines ending for all time the pattern of drudgery,” he closed. “With them we can start the exploration of the universe. It may be that Western civilisation, seeded in seventh-century Ireland, is only just about to flower.”

    All this while Steve Jobs was foundering about with the Apple III, no less.

    It’s a shame Sinclair never quite had the sort of ruthless business sense the American computer bigshots were driven by. Whatever magic he had, it pretty much fizzled out by 1985 when serious US competition hit the European home computer market. A lot of what-ifs come to mind, though. What if Sinclair had a better US partner than Timex and the Spectrum was a budget-market success in America? What if it had been upgraded and expanded along the lines of an Amiga or ST? What if the QL wasn’t a pile of crap? A lot of ifs, yes, but I can’t help but like Sinclair and I wish his success was a tad longer-lasting than it proved to be. I dunno, he’s endearing.