With his bald head, beard and glasses, he was the archetypal boffin, But Sir Clive Sinclair, who has died at the age of 81, came up with such eccentric inventions — and had such a colourful love life — that he became a national treasure.
Sir Clive most recently hit the headlines for an ill-fated marriage to a lap dancer 36 years his junior, but the man who made a fortune as Britain’s father of the home computer is perhaps best remembered for the bizarre electric trike that lost him millions.
When he launched the battery-powered C5 in 1985, he thought he had found the answer to traffic problems and hoped to sell 100,000 in the first year, but the public were unenthused by the idea of sitting in an ugly contraption at exhaust level, with an engine originally designed for a washing machine.
They were seen as both ludicrous and dangerous — as they were below the sight line of motorists — and only 5,000 were sold after being ridiculed as a poor man’s Reliant Robin. Sinclair Vehicles duly went into receivership.
With his bald head, beard and glasses, he was the archetypal boffin, But Sir Clive Sinclair, who has died at the age of 81, came up with such eccentric inventions — and had such a colourful love life — that he became a national treasure
But Sinclair refused to grow old gracefully. Apparently never much concerned what people thought of him, when he married for a second time in 2010, it was to blonde lap dancer Angie Bowness whom he had met at the Soho nightclub Stringfellows.
To no one’s surprise the marriage broke down seven years later, but the then 76-year-old Sir Clive was soon seen out on the town with another woman on his arm, this time his 69-year-old former secretary Elaine Millar.
The foundation of his fortune was the ZX Spectrum. This clunky-looking computer with its Blu Tack-coloured rubbery keys captivated an entire generation of — mostly — boys with now iconic games such as Chuckie Egg, Atic Atac and Manic Miner.
Although parents were persuaded to buy it on the grounds it was educational, most remember it as the device that introduced them to the joys of computer gaming. Indeed, Sinclair could justifiably claim to be the father of today’s billion-dollar gaming industry, which has taken on Hollywood at the entertainment game — and won.
But his first major success was inventing a series of pocket calculators at a time when most calculators were the size of a shop till. ‘He wanted to make things small and cheap so people could access them,’ his daughter Belinda said.
Sinclair, ironically, didn’t use a calculator, preferring to rely on a slide rule. He told interviewers that he did not even use a computer.
After pocket calculators, his next success was the first home computer, the ZX80, which appeared in 1980, developed by his Cambridge-based company that was later called Sinclair Research.
It was among the first computers to retail at less than £100, at £79.95 in kit form or £99.95 assembled —about one fifth of the price of other home computers and far more user-friendly. Up to then, computers were largely for scientists and nerds. Sinclair made them accessible to the general public.
It was a bestseller and he followed it up with the ZX81 the next year. This had 1k of memory — 16k if you added an extension to the memory. This is a risibly small amount now — a single emoji uses the same — but at the time it was enough memory to support an entire operating system on which users could play games, such as Monster Maze. It sold more than 250,000 units.
Sinclair married for a second time in 2010, wedding blonde lap dancer Angie Bowness (pictured) whom he had met at the Soho nightclub Stringfellows
Sinclair, who left school at 16 and started out as a journalist on Practical Wireless magazine in order to finance his inventions, became a millionaire. As he said in 2010: ‘Within two or three years, we made £14 million profit.’
While established computer tycoons scoffed at the clunky design of his computers and their operating systems, his genius was in realising that these systems needed to be simple in order to encourage young gamers.
Computer programming was gobbledegook for most people: Sinclair made it understandable and usable. He opened it up to non-geeks. The BASIC computer system he developed was straightforward enough that if you could play the games on it, you could program them too.
A huge number of computer games developers now in their 40s and 50s cut their teeth programming the ZX Spectrum in their schoolboy bedrooms.
The Spectrum was versatile and accessible — you didn’t need to be an Alan Turing type to understand it. They were remarkably quick for their day. It was a hobbyist machine for the masses and it was lapped up.
Early Spectrum users still talk fondly of it today and it has earned its place in the pantheon of British design.
Sinclair had taken on the behemoths of the computer industry such as American companies IBM, Vic 20 and Commodore — and won. The boy from Richmond, Surrey, initially made a fortune from his home computing business, and was knighted in 1983. But he was not one to rest on his laurels.
He went on to found Sinclair Vehicles, the company that launched the ill-fated and loss-making C5 in 1985, which proved to be a difficult year in more ways than one: his 23-year marriage to Ann Trevor-Briscoe, the mother of his three children, collapsed.
By the time he sold his home computer business to Sir Alan Sugar of Amstrad for £5 million, it was losing vast sums.
Undaunted, Sinclair bounced back with a pocket TV but that also flopped — again too far ahead of its time as people happily watch TV on their phones today.
But he was not one to be daunted by setbacks. He was, he later said, ‘bullied a lot at school’ for being what we would now describe as a nerd — he designed a one-man submarine aged 14.
The ZX Spectrum, which was designed to be able to compete with the colour graphics of the recently introduced Atari, Commodore and Acorn computers
His mild-mannered appearance belied a man who had a temper: in 1984 he squared up to Chris Curry, his former sales director who had started up his own company, Acorn, producing rival computers, in a pub in Cambridge.
An advert for Curry’s computers made what Sinclair took to be a derogatory reference to his own models.
He whacked Curry around the head with a rolled-up newspaper until he fled. The two men later patched things up. Both companies were eventually overtaken by IBM and Apple.
Despite the failure of the C5, Sinclair remained interested in transport and came up with the Zike electric bicycle, the Zeta electric motor to fit on to conventional bicycles and a similar motor for wheelchairs.
He also launched the Sea-doo Sea- scooter for scuba divers; and finally, in 2008, the A-bike, a lightweight folding cycle with tiny wheels, designed to be carried easily on trains by commuters.
Born on July 30, 1940, he started inventing while still at school —perhaps inspired by his father and grandfather who were engineers.
After sketching a blueprint for his one-man submarine, he began selling radio kits by mail order.
He founded his first company, Sinclair Radionics, in 1961, producing a pocket transistor radio.
Sixty years later he was still working on designs, believing that a ‘flying car’ was ‘technically entirely possible’.
As well as a penchant for blondes, Sinclair was a keen high-stakes poker player, appearing in Channel 4’s Celebrity Poker Club, winning £25,000 in 2003.
But most of all he should be remembered for being a man who made computers for the masses.
He was the British boffin who beat them all.