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The prescient, quirky legacy of U.K. gadget inventor Clive Sinclair

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25.09.2021

A digital watch that kept poor time and might explode. A keyboard that felt like typing on a corpse. A three-wheeled electric “car” that couldn’t power its way uphill. No successful products for nearly four decades. Why do the British remember inventor Clive Sinclair so fondly? His legendary, affordable personal computers—and his ability to see the future, if not grasp it.

Sinclair died September 16 in London at age 81 after living with cancer for a decade. Renowned across the United Kingdom and Europe in the early 1980s as the pioneer of low-cost computing, Sinclair also developed dozens of other products that came to market before their technology had ripened. He continued to work on projects until his final days, his daughter told the BBC.

The Economist devoted its cherished last page to remembering Sinclair, but in the U.S. his death received only spotty coverage. Technology and gaming publications such as The Verge and Kotaku took note, as did CNN. The Washington Post’s website ran an AP obituary. Other major newspapers such as The New York Times have not (yet) reported his passing. It’s a sharp contrast with how Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs was remembered at the time of his death—and likely will be again on the 10th anniversary next month.

Although he hadn’t had a blockbuster hit in years, Sinclair predicted the future with extraordinary precision, often making either the first electronics product in a category or, if the not first, the smallest and most affordable. This included a vast range of devices, such as a pocket radio receiver, pocket calculator, personal computer, digital watch, calculator watch, portable television, flat-screen portable TV, “mobile” phone, and electric car—or at least an electric tri-wheel vehicle.

Yet while the British called him “Uncle Clive,” and a wide range of people between the ages of about 45 and 85 will wax fondly about his computers and chuckle indulgently about his failures, Sinclair is little known in the United States. A gap between the economies of the U.S. and U.K. in the 1970s and early ’80s—and the U.S. and chunks of Europe at that time—meant many American releases of computing and electronics tech were out of the price range of the majority of Brits and Europeans. Into that gap, Sinclair sold his ideas to a willing market.

Sinclair’s gadgets often suffered from technology that he introduced before manufacturing, chip, and power capabilities were ready. He cut corners so severely to keep costs low that the corners of some of his devices literally fell off. What shipped was sometimes janky, incomplete, or had frustrating limitations. But his indefatigable nature and his homegrown development inside the U.K. meant he was forgiven, again and again.

To understand his impact on tens of millions of people across Europe, imagine Jobs and his Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak rolled into one person—but if, after the Apple II and a couple of additional improvements, the company never released a successful computer again. Our alt-Jobs in that universe spent the rest of his life and nearly all of his fortune pursuing ideas that sold in the thousands, not billions. Consider how he would be remembered now: fondly in the U.S. and forgotten most everywhere else.

Sinclair’s legacy may be best summed up by a few prominent figures in technology who idolized him during his heyday. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who grew up in India, tweeted:

RIP Sir Clive Sinclair. Your innovations democratized computing and inspired so many, including myself. I vividly........

© Fast Company


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