When most people think of video game hardware they think of the companies Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, and after those three it’s Atari in the eighties, Sega in the nineties and Android and iPhone today. But there are many others that a lot of people may not know about. Including ones that Americans may not be familiar with because they were more popular in other countries. One such company is Sinclair Research, the British electronics company behind a home computer called the ZX Spectrum. A microcomputer that marked an important moment in video game history for the UK.
Sinclair Research was founded by Sir Clive Sinclair, who was born in Ealing, England in 1940, the son and the grandson of engineers. Sinclair excelled at mathematics and electronics while at school. He even sold miniature electronics kits through mail order by the time he left school at the age of 18.
Clive Sinclair later became a tech journalist who wrote articles for the magazine Practical Wireless, and he also wrote books about electronics such as Modern Transistor Circuits for Beginners. Eventually he raised enough funds to start his own business and in 1961 he founded Sinclair Radionics in Cambridge, selling things like radios, amplifiers, calculators and hi-fi equipment. By the late sixties and early seventies, Radionics was producing miniature television sets and digital wristwatches, although those wristwatches in particular were often hard to operate, inaccurate and way too short on battery life, causing them to fail commercially and leading to Sinclair’s first financial loss.
Later that decade Clive would sell that company and instead join his former employee Christopher Curry at the electronics company Science of Cambridge, which had success with a wrist calculator kit. At that company Clive Sinclair came up with the idea to sell microprocessor teaching kits, which led to the launch of the MK14 kit in 1978.
Curry later left Science of Cambridge to co-found Acorn Computers and become a competitor to Sinclair, while Sinclair’s team began working on a follow-up to the MK14 with Clive intending to introduce a personal computer to the British market.
Sinclair’s strategy was to keep the price for his electronics low in order to compete with the highly popular electronics from America and Japan. In 1979, Science of Cambridge employee Jim Westwood would begin work on a PC called the ZX80, named after the Z80 processor with the ‘X’ representing the “mystery ingredient” that makes the computer “special.” The ZX80 launched in 1980 and was immediately successful. That decade, the company’s name would change to Sinclair Research and Westwood would become their chief engineer.
Sinclair’s follow-up the ZX81, which launched in 1981, was also hugely successful. Their strategy of making their computers the cheapest PCs on the market was an effective one, but the ZX81 also introduced many British people to the concept of home computers and its success and contribution to the popularity of computing among the British public earned Clive Sinclair a knighthood. Sinclair’s computers were even licensed and marketed in the United States by Timex under the name Timex Sinclair.
In 1982, Sinclair had their biggest success with the ZX Spectrum, which became Britain’s best-selling microcomputer. The name “Spectrum” was chosen to highlight the fact that the computer’s graphics had a color display, the first Sinclair device to have one. In keeping with Sinclair’s strategy, the Spectrum was more affordable than computers from Apple and Commodore, and it was even popular among teenagers and young adults, many of whom were budding tech nerds who first learned how to program thanks to the ZX Spectrum, leading to the beginning of the UK’s video game industry.
The ZX Spectrum had many software options, including word processing, spreadsheets, drawing and even 3D modelling, but the majority of Spectrum software was video games, something that has always been one of the most popular pastimes for PC owners. The computer had 8-bit graphics and limited controls and sound, which meant making games for the hardware required a lot of creativity on the part of game developers. In its launch year, the Spectrum was bundled with Horizons: Software Starter Pack, which included such programs as a Breakout clone called Thro’ the Wall, a sorting algorithm called Bubblesort, a mathematical ecosystem simulator called Evolution and more. But a lot of the software that was sold separately was actually pretty good, and some were brilliant.
Some popular and critically acclaimed ZX Spectrum games:
Football Manager (1982)
The Hobbit (1982), a text adventure based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel
Deathchase (1983), a first-person vehicular combat game
Chuckie Egg (1983)
Ant Attack (1983), an action game that is one of the earliest isometric games for personal computers and also one of the earliest games to let you choose your gender
Atic Atac (1983)
Manic Miner (1983)
Jetpac (1983), early shooter game from Ultimate Play the Game (the company founded by Tim and Chris Stamper which would go on to become Rare, the developer behind popular Nintendo games like Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie)
Lunar Jetman (1983), sequel to Jetpac which allowed you to move across the screen as opposed to remaining in one area like in the first game
The Lords of Midnight (1984)
Skool Daze (1984), a violent sandbox game set in a high school that was kind of like a precursor to Rockstar Games’ Bully
Elite (1984), a space trade combat simulator considered a revolutionary classic that defined a genre of video games
A trilogy of action-adventure games from Ultimate Play the Game starring a character named Sabreman called Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde and Knight Lore all came out in 1984, each one played in different ways (bird’s-eye-view maze, side-scrolling platformer and isometric platformer)
All or Nothing (1984), a spy action game
Tornado Low Level (1984), a multidirectional shooter game
Deus Ex Machina (1984), Mel Croucher’s artistic experiment that charts the life, growth and eventual death of a birth defect artificially conceived in a machine was an unconventional and strikingly original game (loosely inspired by the Shakespeare play As You Like It) that was accompanied by vocal narration from English actor Jon Pertwee and a music soundtrack (by Croucher) if you played the audio cassette tape at the same time you play the game – it was also sold unconventionally by mail order, but it has achieved cult status among some gamers
Chaos: The Battle of Wizards (1985), a tactical game that required you to be the last wizard standing
The Great Escape (1986)
Head Over Heels (1987)
Target: Renegade (1988), a beat-’em-up
The ZX Spectrum also had some decent ports of popular pre-existing games like R-Type, Chase HQ, Sim City, Tetris, The Sentinel and the Bubble Bobble sequel Rainbow Islands, none of which lost their fun factor, despite most of them being limited by the ZX Spectrum’s power. For example, Rainbow Islands is clearly not as good as the original arcade version (the ZX Spectrum version is even missing some of its features) but compared to other Spectrum games, it is one of the system’s best software options, and it is often ranked favorably among the lineup.
Sinclair followed up the ZX Spectrum with the Sinclair QL in 1984, a PC which targeted businesses and educational establishments more than ordinary consumers and was less successful commercially. And they also had less success venturing into vehicle production with the Sinclair C5 and pocket television with the TV80, despite the fact that both products were precursors to popular modern products like the electric car and the smartphone in your hand right now. After selling his brand name and computer products to electronics company Amstrad in 1986 and spending a couple of decades inventing more products to limited success, Clive Sinclair died in 2021 at the age of 81. He has earned respect from people in the tech community, but his career also serves as a reminder that some of the most successful people can be some of the biggest failures too.