Remembering Sir Clive Sinclair and his wonder machine

The 1980s was a very grim time for many people. There was high unemployment and high inflation. The Labour Party – who should have been hitting the right notes in attacking the Thatcher-led government – was split between its left and right wing factions of the party. If you substituted Thatcher for Johnson, you could be forgiven for thinking ‘deja vu’.

Unlike 1981, pop music couldn’t save us from today’s turmoil. In fact, more people are passionate about computer games than popular music. Yet, like 1981, vinyl is our favourite physical music format of 2021. A lot of today’s computer gaming industry owes a debt to one person in particular.

Sir Clive Sinclair.

Yes, Clive Sinclair, the man who brought you Jet Set… (yes, if you watched the excellent Micro Man docudrama, you would get that quote straight away). Born on the 30th July 1940, Sir Clive Sinclair is the nearest person that Britain has had to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jack Tramiel. Clive’s origins were grounded in electronics, firstly by writing electronics books for Bernard Babani, then by selling mail order transistor radio kits.

By the end of 1970s, he was famous for inventing The Black Watch, a sleek and battery hungry red LED digital watch. Also a stylish pocket calculator and a pocket sized television. By the 1980s, he made his first entry into the home computing market. In 1980, the ZX80 was Britain’s first sub-£100 microcomputer. For your ton you got a rudimentary keyboard, 1k memory (with a 16k RAM pack sold separately). You could also build it yourself if you couldn’t afford the ready made option.

As for storage and output devices, no expensive monitors and disc drives were needed. Just your black and white television and a portable cassette recorder. Or the cassette recorder of your HiFi system.

By the following year, the ZX81 arrived. There was the usual Sinclair hallmarks of sleek design and (as some users testified) an inferior keyboard to the ZX80. With a RAM pack, taking the ZX81’s RAM to a whopping 16 kilobytes, there was enough for computer games – taking us to that Jet Set Willy outburst in Micro Men. As well as 3D Monster Maze, Sir Clive added another peripheral: the ZX Printer. Its silver thermal paper gave the peripheral its nickname an ‘evil toilet paper holder’.

The Spectrum Cometh

Though the ZX81 was more groundbreaking than the ZX80, there was one machine that defined the late Sir Clive Sinclair’s contribution to a multi-billion pound industry. With the working title of ZX82, it was given the title Spectrum. Launched on the 23rd April 1982, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum came in kit form as well as assembled forms. Initially, they were available in 16k and 48k RAM variants. The name was so-called because it introduced colour to Sir Clive’s machines. A whopping 15 colours – eight colours including black and white, and lighter shades of six colours that came through the machine’s Bright mode.

With 3.5 MHz clock speed and crisp high resolution graphics, it stole a march on its contemporaries in that department (the VIC20 in particular). In comparison with its competition, the basic BEEP sound chip was inferior (especially alongside the Atari 8-bits, Commodore’s VIC20 and the BBC Model A and B micros). To keep the price down, there was no hardware sprites nor hardware scrolling to its graphics modes. Sir Clive Sinclair saw the Speccy as an affordable machine for education and home accounts, being three times cheaper than a BBC Model B. Hence also the lack of built-in joystick ports and a market for joystick interfaces.

The other shortcoming (again for economy measures) was its keyboard. The notorious ‘dead flesh’ keyboard. As stated in The Spectrum Add-On Guide (Granada Books, 1984), Issue 2 Spectrums had a problem with its B, N. M and Symbol Shift keys being unresponsive. These keys were on top of the heatsink and a pain in the proverbials if you wanted to type in a program listing or load a game. Nevertheless, this shortcoming was good for third-party manufacturers of replacement keyboards.

Even with the shortcomings, the British computer-buying public took the ZX Spectrum to its heart. In the UK, nearly five million ZX Spectrums in its various forms were purchased from 1982 to 1993, outselling the Commodore 64 in its home country.

Though I had a Commodore 64 as well as a ZX Spectrum, I have a lot of love for ZX Spectrum’s version of BASIC and 3D graphics. For me, the C64 is always about 2D arcade-style games and the legendary SID chip. In all honesty, Sir Clive’s wonder machine has a lot to answer in shaping my career trajectory. I wanted to get into programming and computer graphics on the 8-bits, but the market was dying out at the time.

Oh, and I have yet to enter Pro-Pacer Simulator for the Crap Games Competition. Still, never mind: here’s our A to Z of the ZX Spectrum, lovingly curated by some bloke on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum.

A is for Advanced Lawnmower Simulator

One of the joys of the ZX Spectrum was its length and breadth of commercial titles and type-in programs. Back in the late-1980s, Codemasters made a name for itself with Simulator titles like BMX Simulator and Fruit Machine Simulator. Extracting the urine out of this was Gardensoft’s Advanced Lawnmower Simulator. Initially an April Fool’s Day prank, you played a YTS Gardener with four lawnmowers to choose from (well in reality, only one was available). All you have to do is press ‘M’ to mow the lawn. If you finish the job at hand, you could be rewarded with a Corned Beef butty.

B is for BASIC

In comparison with its contemporaries, the ZX Spectrum family of computers had in my view the best version of BASIC. Firstly, its graphics commands were a world away from entering PEEKs and POKEs on the C64’s version of BASIC. Secondly, this was helped by its faster processor (the Speccy’s 3.5 MHz Z80A compared with the C64’s 0.5 MHz 6510) which made drawing circles and lines a cinch.

C is for Cascade’s Cassette 50

We could have given C to Codemasters, but we chose a Harrogate based software house instead. During the mid-1980s, Cascade was known for two things. One was its Ace and Ace II flight simulators. The other one, which funded these programs, was a compilation with 50 (yes, fifty) games. Known as Cassette 50, this compilation fifty games of questionable quality – coded in BASIC.

This was available across the popular 8-bit formats including the Speccy. Despite the quality of the games, it was the offer of a free calculator watch that boosted sales. A similar formula was adopted in 1991 for the NES and Sega Mega Drive with the infamous Action 52 compilation. Whereas Action 52 inspired the ire of Angry Video Game Nerd, Cassette 50 inspired the long-running Crap Games Competitions. It is now [in 2021] in its 25th year.

D is for Deus Ex Machina

Years before Tamagotchis and The Sims, Deus Ex Machina broke new ground in creating virtual life forms. Written by Mel Croucher, this landmark piece of software released in 1984 also paraphrases William Shakespeare’s poem All The World’s A Stage (from As You Like It). It came with an audio tape which was synchronised with the game itself.

You started life as the last mouse on Earth. To play the game properly, you needed the audio tape which was voiced by Jon Pertwee, Donna Bailey, Ian Dury and Frankie Howerd. Whereas most full price games costed £6.99 in 1984, Deus Ex Machina was a whopping £15 (then again, you needed to pay the voice artistes somehow). This was because Mel Croucher wanted to add a nice poster and attractive cover as well as the audio tape. The game was only available via mail order from his software house, Automata.

E is for Expansion port (or Edge Connector)

If you wanted to add things to your ZX Spectrum besides a cassette recorder and television set, there was only one port that mattered. The edge connector at the back of your Speccy. This would be used for your joystick interfaces, printers, light pens and the like. When Amstrad bought the rights to Sir Clive’s wonder machines, other dedicated ports were added to the +2, +3 and +2A Spectrums. Especially printer ports and the all-important joystick ports.

F is for FLASH

Instead of a series of FOR statements with the computer’s colour palette for flashing text, ZX BASIC has a dedicated FLASH command. By adding ‘FLASH’ and a number from 0 (false) to 1 (true), you could have a flashing text bar in your type-in programs. Adding ‘0’ to a chunk of text that is set to INK 0 and PAPER 7 gives you a flashing black text bar.

G is for Graphics

To the ardent Commodore 64 or Atari 800, the ZX Spectrum graphics were a subject of ridicule. This was due to its colour clashing attributes, lack of multicoloured modes, and the lack of hardware scrolling and sprites. On the other hand, the detailed graphics added to the Spectrum’s charm. With adventure games, they were a thing of beauty (see Ultimate’s Alien 8 and John Ritman’s Head Over Heels).

Despite some of the format’s shortcomings in the multicoloured department, the Spectrum has the last laugh in 3D graphics of the 8-bit formats. One has to look at the 128k version of Chase HQ compared with the C64 version (which was ported over from the Speccy anyway). With Codemasters’ arcade adventures, they are atmospheric and feel like a comic strip.

H is for Horizons

Since the Apple I came from Jobs and Wozniak’s garage, each microcomputer and games machine known to man has had a killer app of some description. Back in 1982, owners of new ZX Spectrums had a copy of Horizons. Developed by Psion software (more on them later) it is an introductory tape with several BASIC programs. These programs include Thro’ The Wall, which is a Breakout clone that uses the computer’s BEEP, COLOUR and BRIGHT commands. Also Draw, a basic drawing package and Character Generator, which enables you to create graphics using User Defined Graphics.

On the A Side of the tape is a selection of tutorials, getting you acquainted with the Spectrum’s inner workings and its BASIC.

I is for Imagine Software

The first version of Imagine Software cut its teeth on the ZX Spectrum with shoot-em-up Arcadia. Based in Liverpool, their swanky offices and sports cars busted the ‘bedroom coder’ myth of the computer programmer. Due to mounting debts caused by the Mega Games saga and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (please watch the excellent Commercial Breaks documentary from 1984), the bailiffs called in on the 29 June 1984.

In the following year, fellow Northern software house Ocean Software (in Manchester) bought the rights to the Imagine name. Some of Imagine’s former employees stayed in Liverpool and set up Psygnosis. They would get a name for themselves in the 16-bit era with Lemmings.

J is for Joystick Interfaces

As Sir Clive didn’t want his machines to be associated with games, the pre-Amstrad Speccies lacked a joystick port or two (or four if you had an Atari 800). This meant you needed to buy a Joystick Interface that connected to the Speccy’s edge connector.

The most popular one was the Kempston joystick interface. It was well supported by software houses at the time. If you wanted two joysticks, Sinclair’s Interface 2 gave you that option (and a cartridge slot for the Speccy’s small collection of cartridge games).

K is for Keyboards

A bone of contention for many Speccy users was the keyboards of early ZX Spectrums. The first 16k/48k Spectrums had the infamous ‘dead flesh’ keyboard, whereas the 48+ and 128+ Spectrums had a cupped, more comfortable yet too spongy for fast typing keyboard. This was rectified when Sir Clive Sinclair sold the rights to Sinclair’s computers systems to Amstrad. Within a year, the +2s and +3s came with proper full travel keyboards – like Alan Sugar’s CPC 464/664/6128 family of machines.

Before Amstrad’s purchase, numerous manufacturers offered alternative keyboards for the ZX Spectrum. These included the SAGA Emperor and Crusader, which were priced at the higher end, the Fuller FDS and the DK’Tronics keyboards. Some came with the all-important joystick interface. Some had built-in joystick ports.

L is for Lenslok

During the Spectrum’s commercial peak, software piracy was a problem. Whether professional pirates or schoolchildren copying games, software houses had ways to stop the pirates winning. Software Projects gave you a coloured card where you had to enter a four-part colour code.

The worst copy protection device was a piece of plastic called Lenslok. You had to decipher the code through two prisms and results were mixed at the best of times. It was almost impossible to read the code on some television sets or monitors. Needless to say, it was only used on eleven software titles.

M is for Microdrive

Instead of disc drives, Sir Clive’s answer to speedy and affordable storage was the Microdrive. With small stringy cartridges, they had a fast read/write speed. As for reliability, pretty pants, which was why software publishers insisted on backing up the original cartridge. Worse, the Microdrive was also the default storage medium of the Sinclair QL, which was one of Sir Clive’s very few computing disasters.

N is for Newsfield Publications

Formed by Look and Learn artist Oliver Frey and his partner Roger Kean, Newsfield Publications started off as a mail order service. Under the name of Micro Games Action, they sold hard to find ZX Spectrum games far and wide. As well as games, Oli Frey’s artwork attracted the attention of WHSmith, who saw the potential for a gamer-led computer magazine.

In January 1984, Crash was born, breaking new ground in computer games journalism. Instead of having established journalists, computer games were reviewed by people who were most likely to buy them: teenagers. Instead of London, pupils from Ludlow High School would go to Newsfield’s offices on King Street (above Victoria Wine back then) and play games. They would fill in forms and Crash‘s editorial staff would work their magic. Besides software houses, Newsfield Publications proved you didn’t need to be based in London to launch a successful magazine or computer game.

Frey and Kean’s hard work paid off: in one month of its first year, Crash sold 100,000 issues, offering a real alternative to its staid rivals. They followed this success with a Commodore 64 magazine in Zzap! 64. Initially edited by Chris Anderson from his house in Yeovil, proposed working titles were Bang and Sprite and Sound. After four issues, Chris Anderson left Newsfield Publications as he couldn’t travel to Ludlow from Yeovil. Shortly afterwards, formed Future Publishing and the rest as they say… Computing History.

As for Newsfield, they went into publishing video entertainment and horror magazines. Also a teen lifestyle magazine called LM. The last title – as well as a downturn in fortunes in the 8-bit computing market – led to Newsfield going into administration in October 1991. After a two month hiatus, the assets of Newsfield were sold to Jonathan Rignall who formed Europress Impact. With dual ownership of Europress Publications, Zzap! 64 and Crash continued up to the end of 1992.

Crash was sold to EMAP and merged with Sinclair User in May 1992. Zzap! 64 was renamed Commodore Force in Christmas 1992, in line with Newsfield’s/Europress Impact’s more recent titles like Sega Force and N-Force. Commodore Force continued up until the demise of Europress Impact in March 1994.

O is for the Oliver Twins

No tribute to the ZX Spectrum or Sir Clive Sinclair is without Philip and Andrew Oliver. Also known as The Oliver Twins, their first commercial successes – whilst in their teens – were Super Robin Hood and Ghost Hunters. Their first love was the Amstrad CPC, which they used for doing their coding on, and porting games across to the ZX Spectrum. (As the CPC had the same Z80A processor as the Speccy, it made a lot of sense).

In 1987, they created Dizzy: The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure. Inspired by cartoons and comics, the arcade adventure attracted mixed reviews. Yet the buying public took the ovoid character to their hearts. The follow-up, Treasure Island Dizzy, sold over half a million copies. By 1989, Britain’s most popular 8-bit micros had a Mario-type mascot which they could move across the screen. In 1990, they formed Interactive Studios and moved onto the consoles. Latterly trading as Blitz Games, the company folded after 23 years in 2013.

P is for Psion

One of the first software houses to support the Spectrum was Psion. In addition to the Horizons tape, their titles include Chequered Flag, Space Raiders and VU-3D. For many Speccy users, they would always be associated by the Horace games. Coded by Beam Software, the lovable blue character appeared in Hungry Horace (a Pacman clone), Horace Goes Skiing (Frogger on the piste) and Horace and the Spiders (inspired in part by Monster Panic). After developing software, Psion gained a reputation for its personal organisers.

Q is for the QL

The QL – or Quantum Leap to give it its full name – was intended to be a natural upgrade for Sinclair Spectrum users. Unlike the Speccy, the QL was a 16-bit machine. Its biggest strength lay in its QDOS operating system, which introduced multi-tasking before Windows. Shortly after its launch, the system was dogged with bugs and the notorious Microdrives. Sadly, it was too late for Sinclair to build a following for the QL when its teething troubles were ironed out. Nevertheless, high profile users included Linus Torvalds, the architect of the GNU/Linux operating system. (Dilwyn Jones’ QL Pages is a great source for anything to do with the Quantum Leap computer).

R is for R Tape Loading Error

OOOOOHHH, the frustration when you see that error message. One quirk about the Spectrum’s error messages were the letter codes for each error. The most familiar one is R Tape Loading Error. This meant having to load your game again because of the volume settings being wrong.

S is for SAM Coupé

Whereas the QL was Sinclair’s successor to the Spectrum series, 1989 saw the arrival of a semi-official Super Spectrum. Known as the SAM Coupé, it was manufactured in South Wales by Miles Gordon Technology. As well as being compatible with ZX Spectrum games, it could play games in the native SAM mode with a maximum of 512k RAM and came with a 3.5″ disc drive.

Though the natural successor to the Speccy, only 12,000 units were sold. This was stymied by MGT’s distribution problems and its subsequent liquidation, lack of commercial software support, and a slump in ZX Spectrum sales. The assets and intellectual property were transferred to SAMCo. Years after MGT’s demise, there is still a dedicated user group for the SAM with Quazar the lead developer. Even now, hardware and software titles are still being released in 2021.

T is for Tasword

Whereas more expensive PCs had Wordstar, Word Perfect and Interword, the Speccy’s foremost word processor was Tasword. Developed in 1982 by Tasman software, it was first released for the ZX81. The original ZX Spectrum version broke new ground in giving the writer 64 on-screen characters to look at. Later versions were released for the 128k Speccies (including 1991s +2A) and the SAM Coupé.

U is for Ultimate

Ashby Computer Graphics, trading as Ultimate Play The Game, really put the Spectrum on the map as an exciting games machine. Their titles included Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde, Atic Atac, Alien 8 and Jetpac, which wowed early 1980s gamers. Owned by Tim and Chris Stamper, they later sold the rights to their software to US Gold and reconvened as Rare, working on Nintendo games. As Rare, they gave us Battletoads and the legendary Donkey Kong Country – which also had the same impact as Sabre Wulf did ten years earlier.

V is for Volume

If there is one part of the ZX Spectrum that could fall under ‘it’s complicated’, volume fits the bill. On the pre-Amstrad Spectrums, sound came from a built-in speaker (which couldn’t be turned up or down). Also, when loading games from a cassette player, getting the volume right was the difference between loading Jet Set Willy or not loading it all. Usually, you needed to set the volume to three-quarters way on your cassette recorder with the tone in Treble mode. Oh, and the EAR jack lead needed to be plugged into the computer and the cassette recorder.

W is for World of Spectrum

Before the internet came about, the only way to find out who published any given software title was your stash of Crash back issues. The Big Final Issue of Your Sinclair listed every game reviewed from January 1984 to July 1993. After the end of the Spectrum’s commercial life, Martin van der Heide created the World of Spectrum website in November 1995.

X is for X-Maze

In the deepest recesses of the ZX Spectrum’s back catalogue are the microcomputer’s Christmas games. Alternative Software published The Official Father Christmas whereas Zeppelin Games brought out Santa’s Xmas Caper during The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Considerably more obscure was X-Maze, a Dig Dug clone for 16k Spectrums. Released by Artic Computing in 1983, it was on the B side of another Christmas game, Santa.

Three years later, Artic Computing’s biggest claim to fame was the repackaging of World Cup II (1984) by US Gold as World Cup Carnival. For the software house, it was an architect in its demise instead of a welcome cash injection.

Y is for Your Sinclair

Billed as “crap in a funky skillo kind of way”, Your Sinclair started life as Sportscene Specialist Publications’ Your Spectrum magazine at the start of 1984. It also had a supplement for QL users called QL User, as the QL was seen as the natural upgrade for Speccy owners back then. In January 1986, as part of Dennis Publications, it became Your Sinclair and eschewed the boring techie stuff in favour of humour and forthright reviews. Features included The Trainspotter Award that was given to readers who pointed out mistakes in YS.

Still, the change of formula had a good innings and the magazine lasted till August 1993 – outliving Sinclair User, Crash, and Sinclair Projects. YS’ irreverent writing style was a hit with readers who didn’t even have a Speccy in the first place, and later seen in Amiga Power. (Some of its reviewers including Stuart Campbell of Wings Over Scotland fame and Matt Bielby (of The Matt Bielby Golden Age Fame) moved to the title). On the other hand, YS was the first professional writing gig for Marcus Berkmann, who is still gainfully employed by the Daily Mail.

Z is for Zilog

Without the Zilog Z80 processor, there would have been no ZX Spectrums. Nor would there have been any ZX80s nor ZX81s either. The ZX Spectrum’s processor is the Z80A, an enhanced version of the Zilog original with a clock speed of 3.5 MHz. The SAM Coupé has a 6 MHz Z80B processor.

Before I go…

Without Sir Clive Sinclair’s pioneering vision, computer gaming as we know today wouldn’t exist. Today’s home isn’t complete without a computer of some sort, whether an old-school desktop system a laptop or an iPad. How they laughed when we thought there was no demand for pocket televisions. Look at the demand now – albeit on today’s tablets and smartphones for YouTube, instead of a pent-up enthusiasm for wanting to watch Crossroads on the go.

The low price point of Sir Clive’s computers not only brought home computing to the masses. They created a multi-billion pound industry whose power base was outside London. Not only Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester – the homes of Gremlin Graphics, Imagine Software and Ocean Software. Places like Ashby-de-la-Zouch (Ultimate Play The Game), Bath (Future Publishing), Bridlington (Task Set), Leamington Spa (Codemasters) and Ludlow (Newsfield Publications).

After being in London, Roger Kean and Oliver Frey fancied moving away from the capital. On a chance excursion, the place they fell in love with was Ludlow – which later became home to two iconic computer magazines with 80,000 to 100,000 monthly readers. Had they fallen in love with Great Malvern, the children at Malvern College instead of Ludlow High School might have made or broken the fortunes of many a software house. In a nutshell, the epicentre of this revolution could have happen anywhere in the UK.

Another key part in the fortunes of Sir Clive’s machines were its outlets. Away from specialist computer shops, microcomputers began to be sold in places like Boots, WHSmith, Woolworths and Debenhams as well as Dixons and Rumbelows. Computer games started being sold in newsagents, petrol stations and superstores as well as department stores. The pester-power friendlier £1.99 price point for budget games helped to expand the market further.

Today, if we need a computer game, all we need to do is go to Google Play Store or the Apple Play Store. Electronic distribution is king. It is easier to buy a computer game for your smartphone than seeing a GP in person. Though the thrill of reading about them or buying them in physical form has gone, it has become more mainstream than charting our favourite singer’s career. Only that it’s Minecraft or Roblox instead of Jet Set *******’ Willy.

One more thing…

If you have any more suggestions to our selection of Spectrum memories, feel free to comment. Reading all this out makes me feel thirsty. I wonder if the release of Chase HQ on the +2 inspired the name of this cola instead of Pepsico’s flagship product?

Not an official Sinclair Research or Amstrad product. Sorry.

S.V., 21 September 2021.

3 thoughts on “The A to Z of the ZX Spectrum

  1. My twin sons had just started at primary school and their grandmother bought them a Vic 20 with a 16k ram pack as an extra. It did have a proper keyboard. There were countless games retailing at £1.99 such as R.I.P., Pedes and Mutants, etc. However when they were seven, their grandmother bought a Commodore 64 to replace the Vic20.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paul,

      The VIC 20 was more advanced in the graphics department than the ZX81 and had good sound for the time (surpassed only by the iconic SID chip on the Commodore 64). I note you are referring to the £1.99 games released by Mastertronic which were also released on other 8-bit formats. (There’s a blog post on The Rise and Fall of Budget Games, or The Golden Age of Budget Games in there).

      It never ceases to amaze me how you could make such great games with less than 128k of RAM. Even more so, it amazes me how many games are still being coded way past the 8-bit era’s commercial peak. One example on the VIC is Trolley Problem, released early this year.

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

      Like

  2. STUPENDOUS POST! Bringing back wonderful memories of an amazing fella and his achievements. Wonder why we’ll never feel the same about Bill G et al. He was the quintessential British genius. You really should send this blog to his family, Stuart ….

    Liked by 1 person

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