Go back one pageReturn to front of my home page

Copyrights are hereby fully acknowledged. Original article produced by Linda Bishop and written for the Sinclair User 1983 annual. HTML conversion and incoporation of original pictures performed by Hercules.

During 1983, Sinclair user made a number of behind-the-scene visits to Sinclair Research, speaking to the people involved closely with various important developments in the company. Much of what they had to say has proved interesting in the light of later developments. For example, Nigel Searle, head of the computer division, said it did not occur to him in June that Boots, Currys or Rumbelows now sell the ZX-81. In July of 1983, Richard Altwasser and Steven Vickers two of the leadinfg figures in the design of the Spectrum, were keeping their plans secret after leaving Sinclair Reseach. They have since launched a major competitor in the home computer market, the Jupiter Ace.

Nigel Searle

Plotting the course for company growth

Nigel SearleThe launch of the Spectrum is only part of the development plans of the Sinclair Research computer division. The company also intends to market a full range of peripherals and software for all its computers and to expand overseas and into the educational market. The man behind the ambitious expansion plans is the head of the division, Nigel Searle.

"I expect the Spectrum will not replace the ZX-81 but will sell alongside the ZX-81 and be the beginning of a range of computers", he said.

"They will be fully-supported in terms of peripherals and software. We have already developed a mass storage device which is of our own design and that will be announced later".

He added that in future Sinclair intends to launch new computers with a full range of software.

Of the educational market, Searle said: "Many schools have a ZX-81 but the price of them is such that many schools ought to have 20 or 30 of them. We hope to penetrate that market in the U.K, and elsewhere".

That lies with plans for overseas growth. The company is in the middle of searching for foreign distributors.

"We expect our overseas sales to increase substantially", he said.

Searle has a long association with Clive Sinclair. He first joined him in the Sinclair Radionics company 10 years ago designing pocket calculators. He then moved to the U.S., first in California and later in New York, where he was responsible for promoting the company's watches and calculators. He stayed with the company until 1977, when he left. "The calculator business was not doing too well and also it was not really the same company once the National Enterprise Board was involved", he said.

Two years later Clive Sinclair formed Sinclair Research, launched the ZX-80 and Searle rejoined him. He ran the U.S. office in Boston, concentrating on selling the ZX-80 and 81 until taking his new job. Software is an area in which Searle is particularly interested. The company has begun selling a software development project which should build the library to 200 programs.

"They will be available only through W H Smith, 26 to start, which is just the tip of the iceberg, covering games, education and some business. It is an area we have neglected in the past but we have spent time getting together a wide range of software for the ZX-81".

Searle was involved closely with the launch of the Spectrum and decided to continue the unusual Sinclair marketing strategy of concentrating on mail order.

"With minor variations we are launching our new products the same way we always have done", he said, but added that "there are no plans at present for putting the new machine into W H Smith, which is Sinclair's only retailer".

He said the reason was that "not many others are selling so many computers as we are. We have sold far more computers by mail order than anyone who has sold through stores".

He added that the original idea behind the mail order decision was that when Sinclair first went into the computer market there was no obvious retail outlet for a personal computer.

"It does not occur to me, or anybody else, that Boots, Curry's, Rumbelows, would sell a computer. It also makes good sense financially to sell through mail order. We do not have to give a discount to retailers which you normally have to do".

Nigel Searle and Sir Clive SinclairThe promotion of a new product through retail distribution can cost so much that the price of the product has to be raised by 50 percent. Heavy advertising is still essential and Searle again adopts an unusual policy by not having a pre-determined budget.

"We are willing to spend as much on advertising as will produce a profitable number of sales", he explained. Last year the cost was slightly more than £5 million and in 1982 it looks as if it will be more than 10 million. Where that is spent depends on the product, which advertising in the technical computer journals, particularly the magazines, and the Sunday magazines".

"So far we have had products which have been of interest to both the specialist computer market and the general enthusiast market but we might well have products in the future which would be of interest only to the serious computer user".

For the Spectrum, Searle is concerned not only with selling the machine but also with persuading people that is it better than rival products, "We would not introduce a computer unless it was significantly different from our existing one", he said.

His return to Britan has made life much more hectic that it was when he was in Boston selling the two ZX computers.

"So far working here has been a bit like jumping on a train which is passing at about 60mph. It seems as though there are many things to be done".

Jim Westwood

Backing Sinclair

Jim WestwoodOne of Jim Westwood's first pieces of engineering wizardry was the contraption which enabled him to carry-out soldering work from the comfort of his bed. Were it not for the fact that he was only 12 years old at the time, that might be mistaken for the sign of an extremely lazy character. As it is, it merely emphasises the trait of ingenuity which has helped him during his 20-year working relationship with Clive Sinclair.

During those two decades, he has had a hand in such innovative products as the Sinclair pocket calculator, the three more recent computers and the promised flat tube TV, not to mention the transistor radios and hi-fi equipment of the early days.

Today, at 34, he is known as senior or chief engineer, with Sinclair Research, a role which combines engineering and management skills. It is a far cry from the early 1960s when he joined Clive Sinclair and one secretary straight from school and relied on trial and error, as much as natural aptitude, to take him through his first days as a technician.

"Engineering of a kind was always my hobby, even when I was very young. Wherever I went you could be sure of finding a trail of broken torches in my wake. I had to take everything to pieces and gradually I was able to put it together again", he says.

It is that consistent, if unorthodox, philosophy which has stood him in good stead for so many years and ensured that the products in which he had a hand were always at the forefront of technology.

"I think it must be unusual to find someone like me in a fairly senior position without formal training", he says modestly, "but when you are always working unconventionally, as we are at Sinclair Research, I don't think training matters very much. Aptitude is more important".

From his small office in Cambridge, surrounded by an orderly chaos of electronic equipment, he seldom works on fewer than three ideas at a time. Of those, few come to fruition and only a handful reach initial design stages.

"The most difficult part is deciding what we want to achieve in the first place. We start with a mess which we call a breadboard. That has a very basic outline of our concept".

"All of us here have electronics in our bones and so when we first discuss an idea we know roughly its chances. Because we always produce 'firsts' we can be reasonably sure there will be no competition. The real worry is always whether it will catch on. You might feel sure there is a certain demand in the market but you are never sure just how it will sell".

Westwood admits that he still flinches at the sound of some of Clive's ideas but adds: "It's a challenge managing to achieve something without using expensive components and I like that challenge".

"Of all the products with which I have been involved I think the ZX-80 is my favourite. It was a real breakthrough in the use of cheap components. It is something which ought to be in the Ark by now but I am still proud of it".

Westwood is a modest and unassuming man, dismissing his early role at Sinclair simply as a matter of "fiddling with the components and trying to get the thing working".

His confidence grows as he talks of Sinclair generally and it is clear that he recognises the combined talent in the company, a team which would be sadly incomplete without him.

"We are always surprised at how long it takes the rest of the world to catch up with us. After working with Clive for years, you learn that it is worth trying to do things other than the straightforward way. It has amazing benefits. All our products show imagination and inventiveness; they make other people envy us and want to work for us".

"We spend a long time getting all the people together and now we have a very strong team, which is one of the main reasons for our success, in my view".

Westwood, who is married to a former teacher and has four children under the age of 10, is adament that his family will not be reared on a diet of TV games. A seemingly bad advertisement, perhaps, for his work, but he is already introducing his children to the concept of computers as an aid to living - and they love it.

"My only adverse reaction to the whole thing is that the instruction manuals leave much to be desired when you are trying to teach children".

Aside from the sheer technology of his job, he has become involved increasingly in management, taking part in the decision-making and ensuring that ideas are carried through the system.

He enjoy's decision-making and the follow-up process, including the field trials which, for the flat-tube TV, will take him around the world.

"There has not been a great deal of travelling so far. Of course, I go to Dundee often and our private aircraft has made a huge difference to that; it beats the sleeper away.

"It will be another challenge to work on the field trials. We will have to set up small laboratories or take the equipment with us, trying it and perhaps modifying it slightly to suit the various surroundings".

Ask what follows the flat-tube TV and Westwood is overcome by a sudden vagueness, at odds with the forthcoming nature of the rest of the interview. He may be untrained, he may be shy, but Westwood knows when he is being tapped for a secret; and, like all good engineers, he is giving away nothing.

Steve Vickers and Richard Altwasser set up on their own

Search for gold at the beginning of the Rainbow

Steven Vickers and Richard AltwasserTwo of the leading figures in the development of the Spectrum have cut their links with Sinclair Research to set up their own company.

Richard Altwasser, who designed the hardware, and Steve Vickers, who wrote the programs for the ROM working memory, have formed Rainbow Computing Co. Apart from publishing a book of programs for the Spectrum, the company plans are a closely-guarded secret.

"It is necessary for us to be very cagey and apart from the one thing which we have announced, we would like to leave anything we are doing secret until it is ready for launching", says Altwasser.

They decided to make the move because their major project for nine months, the Spectrum, had ended and, like many people, they wanted to be their own bosses.

"We had plenty of freedom working at Sinclair but at the end of the day the company was run by one man and if a decision needed to be made, there was only one man who took that decision", Altwasser says.

He and Vickers add, jokingly, that they had also been tempted because of the money Clive Sinclair was making.

Altwasser, 25, gained a degree in engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge and went to work for a micro based automation company at Worcester but found the organisation too limiting. After 18 months he left and joined Sinclair Research in September, 1980. He did some work on the development of the ZX-81 and after its launch in 1981 he was made responsible for computer research, which involved him in the design of the hardware of the Spectrum.

Altwasser has also been writing software for the ZX-81 and his Cambridge Collection has sold 30,000 copies.

Before joining Sinclair he had a little knowledge of computing, owning a TRS-80 and having run a course in teaching basic.

Vickers' knowledge, however, was much less. "Two years ago I did not even know what a ROM was", he says.

Steven Vickers and Richard AltwasserVickers 29, was also at Cambridge, gaining a degree in mathematics at King's College before doing his PhD at Leeds. In 1980, after writing for a job to a number of computer companies, including Sinclair, he joined Nine Tiles, a software company consultancy based near Cambridge, which had written the ROM working memory for the ZX-81.

His first job was the adaption of the 4K ZX-80 ROM to make an 8K ROM for the ZX-81. He also wrote the manual for the ZX-81 and went on to write most of the ROM for the Spectrum, as well as assisting with the manual.

Both say that they found working for Sinclair very exciting - "providing you can cope with the pressure without having a heart attack". The main difference they found between Sinclair Research and other companies in electronics was that "deadlines were very real deadlines".

Development of the Spectrum was typical of the way in which Sinclair Research works. A rough specification was worked-out with the main requirements, including colour, high-resolution graphics and improved tape storage device.

That was set in September, 1981 with a final deadline of the Earls Court Computer Show in April 1982. By that time the Spectrum had to be ready to go into production, which meant that not only had all the development work to be done at Sinclair Research but also all the suppliers had to be chosen andthe production lines at Timex had to be tooled-up.

That had to be done in conditions of great secrecy and very little information leaked about the machine, although Altwasser says he was surprised by how much was known about it before the launch. In the end, with many nights of working late, the deadline was met and the Spectrum launched on time.

Other benefits of working for Sinclair were that there was no shortage of money for research and, as it was a small company, it was easy to obtain quick decisions on new ideas and new ways of doing things.

"When I went for interview, I was asked about money being available if a piece of equipment was needed and was told that a request was never refused, but that they might advise about something which would be better", says Altwasser.

For the future, Vickers and Altwasser say they are concerned to prevent a Japanese invasion of the British market. Their plans for doing that are to remain secret.

Asked if their name denoted any link with the Spectrum, Altwasser replies that the only connection was that it has been one of the suggestions for the new machine which they had liked, so they had decided to use it.

One of their major concerns is that they should be able to keep pace with the latest developments in their field.

"There will always be the fear that something you have designed will be out-of-date as soon as you have finished it", he says.

They also think that the present generation of computer technologists will find increased pressure from today's school children. Altwasser says that teenagers are able to grasp ideas with which he had difficulty less than three years ago.

Rick Dickinson

Modesty blazes

Rick DickinsonAward-winning industrial designer Rick Dickinson is modest about his achievements, which so far include the ZX-81, for which he won a Design Council award, and the Spectrum.

"I don't think I have ever been delighted with anything I have done", says the blond, 26-year-old prodigy. "There always seems to be room for improvement".

Dickinson is a meticulous worker and while both the ZX-81 and the Spectrum are selling beyond all expectations, he adds: "I would never let anything go to production unless I was happy with it".

Graduating from the Newcastle Polytechnic pioneering industrial design course, Dickinson and his classmates are equipped, theoretically, to design anything "from knives and forks to ocean tankers".

Dickinson produced items as diverse as a chain saw and a road tanker during his first year as a qualified industrial designer, which he spent freelancing in Wales.

He had already spent some time working for Clive Sinclair while he was studying for his degree and it was not long before he was absorbed as a full-time member of staff and the company's sole industrial designer. He is responsible for the appearance of Sinclair products down to the layout of the components inside and the pattern of information on the keyboards. His membrane keyboard for the ZX-81 was revolutionary and largely responsible for the low retail price of the product.

Dickinson has learned that price is the ultimate justification and on all his designs he has to bear in mind the cost factor as well as the straightforward appearance of any item.

The membrane keyboard was a great success and Sinclair has had to cope with numerous pirate copies since its inception but, as with everything, it had its disadvantages. Its main disadvantage was its inability to register touch. To ensure you have a response it is necessary to look at the screen - there is no reassuring click when you touch each key.

For the Spectrum, Dickinson has returned to a raised keyboard but again he produced a first by making it from rubber. He says:

"I like the Spectrum much more than the ZX-81. It was much quicker to design but much more complicated. It is a step upmarket and I was really trying hard for a super-smart machine. It is not for quite the same amateur market".

The process of design is a long one. Normally it begins when Clive Sinclair outlines his idea to Dickinson, including his demands about size. "He will resolve in his own mind the specifications and he will always say how small it has to be. I think how can it be that small? Yet he is always correct in the end and we produce something which seemed impossible to me in the beginning".

Armed with his brief, Dickinson then spends a few days with his sketchbook, exploring ideas, but he likes to begin work in three dimensions as quickly as possible and is soon modelling in Perspex or plasticine.

The next stage is to produce the finished model in perspex but obviously it has no components inside - it is produced as a solid block.

That model is detailed, even down to the graphics which Dickinson has painted on. Layout of the interior follows, with the designer using all his powers of logic to ensure that each component is in the best possible place. Perhaps the most difficult part is the keyboard. Dickinson says:

"We spent a great deal of time on that. It is the only interface between the user and the product and it has to be right. We were trying also to cram on more information than anyone had ever done. I believe that form should follow function".

Design of the ZX-81 took about six months. The spectrum was quicker but with all his major projects Dickinson also has to set aside time for add-ons to existing computers - the work is never finished. His main project now is the flat-tube TV.

His biggest problem with that is that Sinclair has already been working on it for some time. Normally he is briefed at the same time as the electronics engineers but this time the inside is already finished. It is also another first, which means Dickinson cannot research by looking at existing products in the field.

"That is the most exciting thing with this company, you know; many products are the first of their type, so you are really in on something new".

Dickinson is content with his life in every way. At school he liked the sciences and the arts and his job ensures that he remains involved in both. He spent one year on a foundation course at art college at Grimsby before starting to read for his degree and feels the experience was invaluable. He is happy with his work at Sinclair.

"We all work very closely, very much as a team. Most of the information is in people's heads. There is no time to be formal and put it on paper. It is a good atmosphere in which to work".

For this award-winning Yorkshireman, it abounds with opportunity, too. He has entered the Spectrum for a Design Council award and on his drawing board are the initial stages of the flat-tube TV - another first, and possibly another reward.

[ Valid HTML4.01 ]
Free Web Hosting