ZX80 Article: A New Means to an Old End

By Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy


A New Means To An Old End

One of the unshakeable tenets of microcomputing mythology insists that Sinclair's ZX80 computer kit established the parameters of price, computing capacity and marketing stance that shaped the entire first generation of home micros. There are many who regard this as a laudable achievement, while others, like respected computer journalist and author David Ahl, refuse to regard Sinclair's influence as a necessary good:

Sinclair ZX80: with an unusable keyboard and a quirky BASIC, this machine discouraged millions of people from ever buying another computer.
 
(Personal Computer World, October 1985.)

Although none would dispute the machine's limitations, the ZX80's launch is nevertheless regarded as heralding a new era of consumer electronics. This is not to say that the Sinclair machine was by any means the first personal computer to be marketed in the UK. In 1979, a number of US products were providing the foundations for a growing number of retailers specializing in computing equipment. For example, Tandy's TRS-80 was on offer for just under £500, while bargain-hunters could pick up a Commodore PET for around £450. However, high prices ensured that the emphasis was on 'personal' rather than 'home' micros, and the majority of imports was aimed at the business and academic market.

As we have seen from the MK14 saga, Sinclair has never been particularly interested in the machines that made him a millionaire. Nevertheless, it is still easy to forget that it was only by default that computers - for many the quintessential emblem of new-age technology - became a part of Sinclair's vision of the future. As a result, one of the incidental problems plaguing any attempt to chronicle the development of the Sinclair companies is that the man himself assumes little more than a cameo role in the creation of the products with which he is popularly associated. One of the most consistent characteristics of Sir Clive's business career is that he has allowed his personal obsessions to determine corporate strategy, rather than making any serious attempt to address consumer demand. Norman Hewett's assessment of Sinclair's approach to his market during the Radionics era is equally applicable to subsequent developments at Sinclair Research:

Marketing-wise, the situation was quite extraordinary, in that I tried tactfully to inquire how we knew what the customers wanted, and who, indeed, the customers were supposed to be! This was greeted by a very marked lack of enthusiasm by Clive, who was quite convinced, and is to this day, that he alone knows what the customers want. And that what they will want is ingenious, and difficult to make, by definition.
 
(Interview, 16 October 1985.)

Hewett's view of Sinclair's attitude to market demand is one of the few plausible explanations of Sinclair's obsessional preoccupation with commercially dubious projects such as the flat-screen television and the electric car. Although it's tempting to consider the cost of such an approach solely in terms of the millions sunk into fruitless research, at least as important is its disastrous effect on the formulation of strategic priorities for the companies. Because of Sinclair's lack of interest in home-computer products, in the post-Radionics era, there has been a tendency within his companies to neglect the sole area of the consumer electronics market in which he managed to establish a significant market lead.

Every profile of Clive Sinclair contains a reference to the man's determination and drive. In the spring of 1979, when Sinclair realized that it was only a matter of time before he and Radionics parted company, it is unlikely that Sinclair was particularly concerned about losing a company that he had built up from scratch. His companies are simply a means to an end, and in 1979 the goal in question was still the success and public acceptance of the miniature television, just as it had been when he first approached the NEB. The loss of Radionics simply amounted to a cessation of the funds required for the realization of his dream. Friends and commentators alike seem to agree that Sinclair has little interest in the acquisition of wealth for its own sake. PCW's Dave Tebbutt, a personal friend of Sir Clive, is adamant that while he will spend - and spend lavishly - if there's money around, wealth becomes an issue for Sinclair only when its absence inhibits the pursuit of his obsessions. Speculating on Sinclair's state of mind when faced with the spectre of commercial impotence following the loss of Radionics, Tebbutt is certain that such circumstances would merely have strengthened Sinclair's resolve. This view appears to be supported by a description of the period immediately following Sinclair's departure from Radionics:

At this point Sinclair became profoundly calm. His irascibility vanished; he was, according to his mother, 'charm itself '. Nigel Searle recalls him musing, 'I really wonder whether I ought to be feeling as good as I do', and those who knew him were puzzled enough by his serenity to recall it afterwards as noteworthy . . . After the collapse, Sinclair felt free to rebuild his success with exhilarating speed and single-mindedness.
 
(Fortune, March 1982.)

This 'single-mindedness' had little to do with the need for personal financial security or the bolstering of self-respect in the aftermath of what many would regard as an era of significant failure. Instead, Sinclair's energies were devoted to generating the capital required to pursue the research interrupted by the shortsighted obstructions of the NEB.

In 1979, as in the years to follow, very little of Sinclair's attention was focused on the problems and potential of developing and exploiting the home-computer market. The products that were to determine his business strategy and hold his interest in the post-Radionics years were flat- screen televisions, electric cars and, later, wafer-scale chips and portable phones. However, when circumstances dictate, even the purest of visionaries must resign himself to the strictures of pragmatism - or, in this case, the realities of consumer demand. The limited but encouraging success of the MK14 suggested an untapped source of revenue that could be profitably mined without exhausting the decidedly limited resources of Science of Cambridge. In short, the ZX80, Sinclair's response to the success of the MK14, was born of commercial necessity; that the machine spawned a range of home computers that revolutionized the consumer electronics industry must be regarded as the triumph of fortune over intent.

John Rowland, then with W. H. Smith, first met Sinclair in 1980 when exploring the viability of marketing the ZX80 through the high-street stores as part of the company's move into consumer electronics. Rowland is convinced that initially computers were intended to play only a supporting role in Sinclair's plans for the new company:

The company was set up to develop the flat-screen TV; the computers came almost by accident. They were just produced to fund the TV project.
 
(Interview, 18 October 1985).

In an interview with the Sunday Times in April 1985, Sinclair himself acknowledges the irony of the genesis of the ZX range of computers, and confirms Rowland's impressions: 'We only got involved in computers in order to fund the rest of the business.' An earlier interview with Martin Hayman reveals an ambivalence verging on indifference as far as computers are concerned:

I make computers because they are a good market, and they are interesting to design. I don't feel bad about making them or selling them for money or anything, there is a demand for them and they do no harm; but I don't think they are going to save the world.
 
(Practical Computing, July 1982.)

Sinclair's opinion of the most successful products his companies have produced and his motivation for entering the market in the first place is significant only in the light of subsequent events. After all, there's no particular reason why any entrepreneur should be especially interested in the products he or she markets. However, Sinclair's inability to isolate his personal predilections from corporate strategy is axiomatic to an understanding of his business failures, as will become clear later.

Rodney Dale, in The Sinclair Story, conscientiously reiterates the received truths celebrating the ZX80 as a revolutionary concept in microcomputer design. He even suggests that Sinclair and Chris Curry parted company over Sinclair's determination to stick to his principles as an innovator. According to Dale, 'It was on the question of quality that Sinclair and Curry diverged.' As the ZX story develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine what Sinclair had in mind when addressing that 'question of quality'. Certainly Curry left Science of Cambridge in 1978 to set up his own company, Acorn Computers, and in 1979 launched the Acorn System 75. In contrast to the pioneering design concepts behind the ZX80, Dale feels safe dismissing the Acorn machine as 'little more than an MK14 with a proper keyboard'.

Whatever the System 75's failings, in many respects Dale's description is equally applicable to an assessment of the ZX80's hardware. John Grant, the owner of Nine Tiles Information Handling Ltd, whose company was responsible for the machine's software, suggests that the only sense in which ZX80 hardware was an improvement on that of existing kits was that it was encased in injection-moulded plastic. When fully assembled the majority of kits, like the Nascom and indeed the MK14, were used with their boards exposed. In short, it is incorrect to think of ZX80 hardware as in any way innovative. According to Grant, even the much acclaimed television monitor circuitry can hardly be attributed to the imagination of Sinclair R&D. This cheap and imaginative solution to an old problem is strikingly similar to an electronics project in an American book called The Video Cookbook. It's worth stressing that although the ZX80's video circuitry is clever and undoubtedly innovative, it offered an economic rather than efficient solution to the problem. As a consequence, many ZX80 users who progressed to bigger and better machines were amazed to discover that a flickering display was a characteristic of the machine and not a fact of computing life.

It is not our intention to in any way detract from Sinclair's success in marketing the ZX range of computers. What is important is to be precise in our recognition of the components of that success. The ZX80 did not represent a development of existing technology, merely its competent application. Thus this particular product does nothing to support the popular image of Clive Sinclair the inventor. Indeed there is nothing in the development of the entire ZX range to suggest that he had even the slightest interest in performing such a role. When summing up Sinclair's technical role in the creation of the ZX80, John Grant recalls:

Clive didn't have a big involvement. He knew the kind of machine he wanted and the market he wanted to sell into. His interest was in checking around to find the cheapest components for the job.
 
(Interview, 8 September 1985.)

Although the ZX80 reveals no evidence of technical innovation on the part of Sinclair or his R&D department, the machine's success is a testament to the company's remarkable marketing achievement. By tailoring the computer's capabilities to what could be achieved using the cheapest components available, Sinclair was able significantly to undercut the competition. The low price tag offered a potential expansion of the market, but such an audience would have to be encouraged to sit up and take notice. So the unsightly innards of the ZX80 were hidden by white and blue plastic, and computing was promoted as a meal ticket to the future. The micro had begun its drift from the world of the hobbyist into the mainstream of consumer electronics. Seven years earlier, Radionics had helped perpetrate a similar shift in the market image of a commodity. With technology diminishing size and price, the promotions ensured that the calculator ceased to be a tool exclusive to the labs and came into use in business, ultimately descending into the hands of the student. Sinclair's packaging and advertising eased each transition, soothing consumer anxieties while opening new markets.

While technically insignificant, the ZX80 is important as the machine that formed a bridge between the demands of the hobbyist and the toys-of-technology ethos of consumer electronics. Certainly the second half of this assessment is shared by Sir Clive himself, who in 1982 explained:

When we introduced the personal computer, there was no doubt we would sell some in the hobbies market, but we also went out with advertising promotion to the man in the street, on the grounds that there would be a completely new market there.
 
(Director, July 1982.)

By 'the man in the street' Sinclair presumably means the 'middle-class male professional' with a taste for technological chic. After all, just under £100 for an image accessory was beyond the pockets of the inhabitants of humbler streets. This is partially confirmed by subsequent surveys, which revealed that the first purchasers of the ZX80 were professional males aged 25 to 40.

The kit was launched at a computer fair in the first week of February, and it was priced £79.95 (plus a further £8.95 for the power supply). The 'ready-assembled' model was launched a month later, priced £99.95. John Rowland, who at the time was W. H. Smith's marketing development manager, recalls that the discrepancy between launch dates fed the rumours that the more expensive versions were simply customer-assembled kits returned to Sinclair for repair. Whatever the truth behind such stories, their popular currency says much about the company's image even at this early stage in the game.

Before moving on to chronicle the development of the ZX80, a word should be said about the machine's price. At the launch, both versions of the computer were significantly cheaper than anything else on the market. However, the company's ability to smash, or rather circumvent, the £100 price barrier cannot be equated to its role in the fall of calculator prices a few years earlier. It was genuine advances in technology and design that facilitated the price cuts that established Radionics as a pioneer in the calculator market. It was Sinclair's manipulation of product image that was behind the company's early domination of the home-computer market.

In designing the ZX80 as a 'crossover' product between the hobbyist and consumer-electronics markets, Sinclair's promotional master stroke was to mutate the market image of a microcomputer until it described the low-cost machine he could profitably produce. When discussing Sinclair's initial brief to the hard- and software engineers who created the ZX line, it soon becomes clear that it was the price of components that established the limitations of application, not an informed assessment of the tasks to which a home computer might usefully be applied. This impression is confirmed by Steven Vickers when describing his work with John Grant on the development of the ZX81:

As far as Clive was concerned, it wasn't a question of what the machine ought to be able to do, but more what could be crammed into the machine given the component budget he'd set his mind on. The only firm brief for the '81 was that the '80's math package must be improved.
 
(Interview with Steven Vickers, 23 July 1985.)

One of the most conspicuous economies incorporated into the design of the ZX80 was the 'touch-sensitive' or 'membrane' keypad. To avoid incurring the relatively high manufacturing costs associated with full-sized typewriter-style keyboards, the Sinclair machines made use of a top sheet of plastic, on which simulated keys were printed, the underside of which had a printed-on metallic circuit to contact a similar sheet underneath when pressed. The size and design of the membrane keypad made it an awkward and unreliable means of entering data; since there was no 'feel' to the keys, and no sound when they were pressed, a great deal of care was required checking whether a keypress had registered. Furthermore, with sustained use many keypads ceased functioning altogether.

Although condemned by reviewers and users alike, savings in manufacturing costs ensured that the membrane design would become a consistent feature of the ZX range, modified but never abandoned. According to Tony Tebby, one of the QL's designers, the development of the Quantum Leap machine three years later saw an inexplicable decision to stick with the unpopular, non-standard design which was clung on to with a determination verging on perversity. Given that the QL was to be marketed as a business machine and should thus offer a quality keyboard suitable for word processing, it seems incredible that the company should have abandoned alternatives in favour of an enhanced, but still membrane design. A number of Sinclair's R & D team have indicated that Sir Clive himself vetoed the use of standard keyboards, insisting that the membrane design was an intrinsic part of the image of a Sinclair computer. Whatever the reasons, apart from initial savings in manufacturing costs to Sinclair Research, the only group to benefit from this policy has been the peripheral manufacturers, who have provided a wide range of alternative keyboards.

Although the basic ZX80 was relatively cheap, the realities of such economy can be judged only in the light of the final cost of a halfway useful machine. One of the most significant weaknesses of the basic computer was that it arrived with only 1K of RAM - not nearly enough memory to enable owners to write serious programs. With this in mind, Sinclair developed and marketed memory expansion peripherals, which became available just after the launch of the kit. By mid-1980, Chris Curry had co-ordinated the launch of Acorn Computer's second product, the Acorn Atom microcomputer. The assembled version of the machine was priced £330 and equipped with 12K of RAM. Now although at first glance the Sinclair product appears to offer a far better deal, such impressions are dispelled when the ZX80 is upgraded to meet the Atom's modest memory specifications. The costing is as follows:

1 assembled ZX80 (with 1K RAM) £99.95
1 power supply £8.95
11 1K memory chips (@ £16.00) £176.00
4 memory boards (@ £12.00) £48.00
TOTAL £332.90

Apart from offering a larger memory than the ZX80, the Atom also arrived with a full-sized keyboard, a floating-point maths package (as opposed to the integer-only capacity of the ZX80), a potential for colour graphics and sound capabilities. Thus although the ZX80 was notionally cheap, it was also only notionally a computer when one considers the capabilities of its rivals.

When compared with subsequent Sinclair development programmes, that of the ZX80 appears smooth, fast and relatively untroubled. However, it must be remembered that although work on the ZX80 started only in May 1979, the development of the Radionics computer that would become the NewBrain had been progressing since July 1978. Since the R & D work on both machines was carried out by much the same personnel, it's clear that the ZX80 programme benefited from a year of Radionics experience. The incestuousness of the two projects is highlighted by the fact that today few of the engineers involved seem capable of remembering who they were working for during this period.

In April 1979, Clive Sinclair arranged a meeting with John Grant of Nine Tiles to discuss the development of the successor to the MK14 kit. At that time, Grant was working on the software for the Radionics computer, and Sinclair made it clear that the new Science of Cambridge project would be shaped by many of the decisions defining the machine that would later become the NewBrain programme. The Radionics machine was designed around the Z80A microprocessor (as opposed to the MK14's SC/MP), and because of the development team's familiarity with the chip it was decided to use the Z80A in the Science of Cambridge machine. Grant recalls that Sinclair's brief to Nine Tiles was mainly concerned with ensuring that software development was tailored to the limitations imposed by the components he had selected. At all times the design of the ZX80 was driven by the goal of producing a computer that broke the £100 barrier, yet still returned a comfortable profit. The product's capabilities were of secondary importance.

It's clear that Grant's involvement with the development of the ZX80 was not inspired by expectations of significant financial gain. The feeling at Nine Tiles was that the creation of a mass-market microcomputer was in itself an exciting project, and one with which the company was interested in being associated. Given that the estimated R&D costs for the entire ZX80 project are generally agreed to have just about reached the five- figure mark, Grant's cut of such a budget would have offered his company little more than pin money. Once again, it's worth emphasizing that a major percentage of the 'creative' design work on this new Sinclair product was not performed by the company itself, but contracted out and defined by an unusually nebulous brief.

The month following Sinclair's initial meeting with Nine Tiles was particularly fraught for him, since in May 1979 the NEB announced its plans to sell off Radionics' television and calculator interests. While Sinclair was busy penning his resignation from Radionics, work started at Nine Tiles on the development of the ZX80 software. It has often been argued that the success of the early Sinclair machines played an important role in establishing BASIC as the resident computer language for the majority of home computers. In retrospect, this situation has been regretted by many in the industry, since it is generally agreed that BASIC is only moderately successful as a learning tool and positively obstructive to the development of serious programs. However, because BASIC had been selected as the Radionics computer's resident language and full documentation was readily to hand for the ANSI Minimal BASIC dialect, Sinclair instructed Nine Tiles to prepare a similar implementation for the Science of Cambridge machine. Grant remembers suggesting that a more flexible language such as Forth might offer more progressive facilities to the new programmer, but, since such an approach would have required a longer development programme, the possibility was never seriously considered.

Nine Tiles's work on the ZX80's software is generally hailed as a triumph of ingenuity over primitive resources. Given that Grant and his team had only 4K of ROM into which to squeeze the machine's operating system, editor and BASIC interpreter, the product of their labours set new standards for concise programming. Another unusual quality of the company's work was that it was completed more or less on time, an event almost without precedent in the world of R&D. The bulk of the ROM was written in the months of June and July, but the resultant code required 5K for its storage. Thus August 1979 was spent trimming the code to fit the ZX80's 4K ROM restrictions.

While the ZX80's software development can be chronicled in detail, a shroud of mystery hangs over the design of its hardware. Even at the time, Grant recalls a 'cloak-and-dagger' aura to everything associated with the machine's hardware. One possible version of the story is that Mike Wakefield, who at the time was working for Newbury to design the NewBrain's hardware, may have assisted Science of Cambridge. The hardware was not completed by the August deadline. Some participants suggest that Wakefield simply hadn't managed to design and build the circuits required, others that Newbury was threatening to cause trouble over his participation in the Sinclair project. All sources appear to agree that, by the end of August 1979, the ZX80's hardware had been handed over to the redoubtable Jim Westwood who, reliable as ever, finalized the work by the end of October.

The events of 1980 must have been extremely gratifying to Clive Sinclair. Having resigned from Radionics in July 1979, Sinclair took the £10,000 golden handshake offered by the NEB and concentrated all his efforts on carving out a future for his new enterprise. By August, still desperately short of working capital, he reluctantly parted with his vintage Rolls-Royce and sold his house. Undoubtedly, the autumn of 1979 must be regarded as one of many make-or-break points of Sinclair's career.

The launch of the ZX80 heralded a turning point in Sinclair's fortunes. In the eight months following the first appearance of the kit at the Wembley computer fair, Science of Cambridge sold 20,000 units into a virgin market. Having decided that in-house production had led to an overall inflexibility at Radionics, with the ZX80 Sinclair initiated a policy of 'subcontracting everything that could be subcontracted'. The early machines were put together by a small electronics company in St Ives, but before long production was shifted to the Timex factory in Dundee. This move to Scotland marked the beginning of what would become an important relationship between Sinclair and the American watch manufacturer, a co-operation that would prove more enduring than Sinclair's commitment to home computers.

The contract between Timex and Science of Cambridge was the realization of a significant new strategy for Fred Olsen, the 'Norwegian Howard Hughes' and the tycoon behind the privately owned and intensely secretive Timex corporation. Myron Magnet, writing for Fortune magazine (8 March 1982), explained the problems facing the Connecticut-based company at the beginning of the 1980s:

Timex fell behind technologically as watches became digital in the seventies: unit sales stagnated, market share declined, and profits dwindled to virtually nothing by 1979. So Olsen has reason to diversify out of the mechanical watch business that has long been Timex's mainspring.

The arrangement worked well for both companies. Although in 1980-81 the production of the Sinclair machines could hardly have generated enough revenue radically to improve the crisis at Timex, by 1982 the relationship between the two companies had reached the point where Sinclair technology was to be licensed by Timex and marketed under the watchmaker's name in North America. Although the deal turned out to be a disaster for Olsen's company, Sinclair's comments at the time underline the importance he placed on the link that was forged with the ZX80's production:

I think that Timex will be making more money out of computers than watches within the next five years ... It will be a $1-billion-a-year business for them and $50-million-a-year for us.
 
(ibid.)

The lack of resources at St Ives and the production delays incurred with the shift to the Timex plant in Dundee ensured that the public suffered the usual delays associated with a Sinclair launch. As an early example of the type of complaint against Sinclair that would soon become a standard feature in the letters pages of the computing press, we'll take the case of D. J. Harper. Clearly the kind of hi-tech enthusiast the company should have been courting rather than ostracizing, the youthful Harper dispatched his cheque to Science of Cambridge in February 1980 and heard nothing for five months. Although Harper was unnaturally patient, Sinclair's announcement from the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show that Science of Cambridge were to market the ZX80 in the States proved too much to take. A copy of his plaintive letter was sent to Computing magazine:

Dear Mr Sinclair,
 
I was interested to see that you intend marketing the ZX80 in America. Perhaps before attempting to deliver to the States you could try delivering to Colchester, Essex, UK, a distance of 40 miles instead of 4000...

Aside from delivery problems, by the standards of subsequent Sinclair launches that of the ZX80 was relatively trouble-free. Primarily because of the relatively simple hardware design and the efforts of an unusually conscientious software team, the percentage of returns was the lowest of virtually any Sinclair product - official sources put the figure at around 1 per cent. By and large, the first purchasers of the ZX range seemed to have been satisfied with their investment in the new technology. There were occasional complaints about the keyboard, and everybody agreed that the ZX80, like its immediate successors, was prone to overheating. Author Tim Hartnell, in nostalgic mood, recalls:

I'm not sure that programming will ever be like the 'old days'. It may sound silly, but I used to enjoy finding out about the ZX80 while I balanced a frozen milk carton precariously on top to cool it down!
 
(Your Spectrum, May 1985.)

In September 1980, Science of Cambridge released a 16K RAM pack which enabled owners to significantly expand their machine's memory without the problems and expense of multiple chips and expansion boards. At £49.95 the RAM pack was considerably better value than the earlier expansion options, but unfortunately its decidedly clumsy design generated a new variety of problem. Although the new peripheral simply plugged into the back of the ZX80, thus avoiding the tortuous and unstable construction required by the earlier option, the RAM pack was dangerously top-heavy and had a habit of falling out of its socket. As far as the user was concerned, this failure of design was disastrous, since hours of programming could be lost if the RAM pack chose the wrong moment to break loose. However, even in the infancy of the micro boom Sinclair's customers proved themselves to be both tolerant and resourceful. They resigned themselves to the inevitable, and solved the problem with unsightly gobs of Blu-Tack or chewing-gum.

Enjoying the advantages of little or no competition, consumer tolerance born of the pioneering spirit of the times and a general ignorance about what to expect from a computer, Sinclair's company was able to emerge unscathed and in profit despite the unnecessary delays and the thoughtless design of the ZX80. Such conditions prevailed, and protected Sinclair Research, up to and beyond the launch of the Spectrum. While initially enabling the company to consolidate its domination of the market - and at the same time encourage low standards within the home-computer industry as a whole - the enormous success of the ZX range encouraged Sinclair to believe that the company had a God-given right to treat its customers in a manner that would have spelt commercial suicide for a manufacturer in any other industry. Reflecting on the declining fortunes of the Sinclair empire, computer journalist David Ahl made the following prophecy about the logical consequences of such policies:

Sinclair products are highly innovative, interesting and cheesy. In the long run, the lack of quality and utility, and a cavalier approach to customers, will spell doom for the company.
 
(Personal Computer World, October 1985.)

Although much of the early success with home computers must be attributed to the company's pricing policy, credit is also due to the advertising company that co-ordinated the ZX80 promotion. The Primary Contact agency was awarded the Radionics contract in 1971, and retained by each of the subsequent Sinclair corporations until March 1985. In the promotion of the ZX80, the company was faced with the problem of needing to seduce an essentially schizophrenic market; precisely the type of campaign justifiably dreaded by advertising executives. It must be remembered that Sinclair was quite clear that for the ZX80 to succeed the machine would have to gain the support of the hobbyists, while at the same time appeal to a new market of computer illiterates.

The approach adopted by the Primary Contact promotions concentrated on hooking the neophytes, and relied on the obsessional curiosity of the hobbyist to take care of the communication of technical information to those who would understand it. It used flashy, full-colour displays to catch the eye of anyone turning a page, condensed its technical data into self-contained small print, and devoted the bulk of its copy to calming the anxieties of the masses. The idea was to lay the ghost of Big Brother and give birth to a New Image computing, one that you'd feel safe letting loose on the kids.

It is doubtful whether either Sinclair or the majority of his customers would ever admit it, but the benevolent presence of an avuncular boffin behind the early microcomputing products played a critical role in the defusion of the less seductive aspects of an intimidating technology. Although Guy Kewney, the Personal Computer World gossip columnist, is anxious to claim credit for the creation of the 'Uncle Clive' persona, it was Primary Contact that recognized the need to promote a 'human face' as the figurehead of a decidedly inhuman revolution in consumer electronics. Initially Sinclair was marketed as the maverick doyen of hi-tech, the lone entrepreneur with the vision to take on the Americans and the Japanese. The implication was that by supporting Sinclair the consumer was advancing the cause of British innovation in the face of the brute strength of foreign marketing might. David O'Reilly is one of the few journalists to have taken note of the personal emphasis of the early Sinclair campaigns:

By astute use of public relations, particularly playing up his image of a Briton taking on the world, Sinclair has become the best-known name in micros.
 
(Microscope, October 1982.)

This shamelessly patriotic slant was complemented by a campaign that promoted the idea that computer literacy was no longer the intellectual bastion of an elite but the democratic right of the common man (if not yet the common woman). One of the major triumphs of the early years of the home-computer industry is that its promotional campaigns managed to avoid questions as to why the common man should be remotely interested in the technology. The implication was that only a neo-Luddite would need to question the need to become acquainted with the world of the micro. The computer as a symbol of progress was as undeniable as the relationship between a Rolls-Royce and wealth.

As David O'Reilly notes, Primary Contact went 'single-mindedly for the user-friendly strategy'. One of the most successful slogans of the ZX80 campaign threatened 'Inside a day you'll be talking to it like an old friend'. Why you were talking to the machine at all and what the ZX80 was offering in return were questions best answered by experience. However, on one of the rare occasions Sir Clive was inspired to discuss the role of computers in society, he revealed an abstract yet refreshingly homely vision of computers which is satisfyingly reminiscent of Primary Contact's sloganizing:

'Another thing I'd like to do is make robots .. .' he goes on, pooh-poohing the existing industrial kind. 'I mean the ones you can talk to and leave to look after granny. It's going to come.'
 
(Computer Weekly, 23 August 1983.)

Chris Fawkes of Primary Contact was quite clear about the thrust of his company's campaign: 'We brought personal computers to the mass market by showing that you didn't have to be a whizzkid to use one' (Microscope, October 1982). Overnight, the creative imagination of Primary Contact had managed to clevate the 'use' of a computer to an application in its own right! Along with the 'common man', the all-purpose 'businessman' was particularly susceptible to the necessary good of computing. Absurd though it might seem today, the glossy double-page spreads advertising the ZX80 suggested that the machine could play a role in 'managing a business'. In spite of the fact that the ZX80 could deal only in whole numbers and offered barely enough memory to deal with the financial consequences of its own acquisition, the fear of 'falling behind the times' would soon prove to be a far more compelling consideration than any concern about application. Although few knew or especially cared what they were going to do with it, the home computer would soon become an essential acquisition for every businessman. Although in 1980 the industry's marketing machine was still in its infancy, the principles behind the early strategies pioneered by Primary Contact were to prove sound for years to come.

In recognition of the new thrust of the company, and with hopes of more of the same profitability to come, Clive renamed his company Sinclair Computers Ltd in November 1980.