Clive Sinclair, Inventive Computer Pioneer, Dies at 81

His inexpensive Sinclair personal computer, one of many inventions, was an introduction to computing for young people in Britain and beyond.

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Sinclair computers are now distant artifacts of technology history. But for a period in the early 1980s, these inexpensive personal computers were the market leader in Britain.

Their success made Clive Sinclair, a British inventor and entrepreneur, a business celebrity in a nation straining to come out of a long stretch of economic stagnation. He was lionized in the media and invited to lunch by Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who pointed to Mr. Sinclair as a model of the entrepreneurial gumption Britain needed. He was knighted in 1983.

The Sinclair computers didn’t catch on in the American market, where buyers were willing to pay for more powerful machines from Apple, IBM and others. But they were an affordable introduction to computing for many young people in Britain and beyond.

After Mr. Sinclair died on Sept. 16, many took to social media and recalled their Sinclairs. Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, was a teenager in India when he got one. Mr. Nadella recalled on Twitter “the sense of wonder and empowerment I felt.”

“It was your device that sparked my passion for engineering,” he wrote.

Elon Musk, who grew up in South Africa, tweeted, “RIP, Sir Sinclair. I loved that computer.”

Mr. Sinclair died at his home in London at 81. His daughter, Belinda Sinclair, told the BBC that the cause was cancer.

Clive Marles Sinclair was born in West London on July 30, 1940, to George Sinclair and Thora Edith Marles. Both his father and grandfather were engineers.

Clive demonstrated a penchant and aptitude for electronics early on, designing radio components as a teenager. He enjoyed free-range discussions with members of British Mensa, an association of people with tested high intelligence quotients. He joined the group when he was 19 and for several years was its chairman.

Mr. Sinclair bypassed a university education to pursue his inventions, and he was prolific. He is credited with designing the world’s first pocket calculator, as well as a digital watch and a pocket television. At times, his creations didn’t get much beyond the prototype stage, falling short of commercial success.

His strength was the new product side of entrepreneurial ventures rather than marketing, manufacturing or management. “I don’t see myself as a businessman,” he said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1985. “I see myself as an inventor.” His company, Sinclair Research, he said, was the vehicle for bringing his inventions to the marketplace.

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Mr. Sinclair with one of his inventions, the pocket television, or “Microvision,” in 1977.Credit…Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

Mr. Sinclair’s work on the pocket calculator in particular showed him what was becoming increasingly possible in electronics, aided by advances in semiconductor chips.

His elegantly designed personal computer kept parts and cost to a minimum. The first model, the ZX80, was introduced in 1980 and priced at less than 100 pounds. His biggest hit was the third version, the Spectrum, introduced in 1982. More than 5 million were sold worldwide over the next few years.

The price for the basic Spectrum was 125 pounds, or about $225 at the time. That was a fraction of the price tag, for example, of a basic Apple II, Apple’s first big seller, which cost $1,300 (almost $3,800 in today’s money).

“Clive Sinclair’s most important contribution was in making computers affordable,” said Martin Campbell-Kelly, a technology historian at the University of Warwick in England. “The British market was much more price sensitive than the American market, mainly due to a lower standard of living at the time.”

Sinclair Research tried to move beyond the home computer market in 1984 with a more expensive offering, the Sinclair QL, intended to appeal to small businesses and professionals. But by then American computer makers like IBM and Compaq were leaders in selling personal computers to businesses, and the Sinclair QL found few buyers.

With personal computers, Mr. Sinclair applied his creativity to technologies that were becoming ripe for commercialization, like electronics, semiconductors and software. The same could not be said for his next ambitious venture: electric vehicles.

Mr. Sinclair was convinced that electric cars were the future of transportation, but he was way ahead of the technology and economics that would one day make them possible. In 1985, he introduced the C5, a vehicle that was aptly described as a souped-up golf cart. Selling for 399 pounds, or about $450, it had a top speed of 15 miles an hour, a range of 20 miles and pedals to assist on hills. Mr. Sinclair described it as a steppingstone toward a full-scale electric car. “The C5 is the first of a family of electric vehicles,” he said.

He had hoped to sell 100,000 of his electric vehicles in 1985. But only about 4,500 were sold, and the business was shut down by the end of the year after he had sunk a lot of his own money into the venture. With Sinclair computer sales beginning to tail off, and short of funds, Mr. Sinclair sold the computer business in 1986 to Amstrad, another British personal computer maker.

Mr. Sinclair endeared himself to the British public partly because he embodied a classic English type — the eccentric inventor, or “boffin,” a complimentary term. His interests and tastes were wide-ranging. He collected modern art, but he was also a lover of classical music and poetry, particularly that of William Butler Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Frost.

His days, described in The Times Magazine article in 1985, typically began with a six- or seven-mile run through Hyde Park in London at 6:30 a.m. (He completed several New York marathons.) “I sort the day out by running,” he said. “I might think about a business problem or a lecture, but I might also think about women, weather or poetry.”

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his sons, Crispin and Bartholomew; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His two marriages ended in divorce.

Mr. Sinclair was tinkering with inventions until shortly before he died, Ms. Sinclair said, “because that was what he loved doing.”

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