ZX Spectrum


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The brainchild of British entrepreneur Clive Sinclair, the ZX Spectrum was one of the pivotal machines in introducing ordinary people to home computing. Featuring a colour display, an easy to learn (yet versatile) built-in BASIC and a very affordable price tag, the Spectrum was first marketed as a low cost educational and productivity tool. In a way, it was all that – an entire generation of programmers wrote their first lines of code on those rubber keys – but, more than that, for a few glorious years in the early eighties, the Spectrum was one hell of a games machine.

It's impossible to speak of the Spectrum without mentioning the man behind the machine: Clive Sinclair. A mathematical whiz-kid with a knack for designing electronics equipment, he is widely recognised as the founding father of the British computer industry, and became a pop icon of sorts in the first half of the 1980's. However, though Uncle Clive, as he was affectionately known, may have been, in many ways, a visionary responsible for designing some brilliant (or, extremely ingenious, to say the least) machines, he was, by all accounts, totally inept as a businessman. His track record as an entrepreneur is a fascinating mixture of unexpected triumphs and spectacular failures, often in quick succession. Of all Sinclair's endeavours, the ZX Spectrum stands out as his great commercial achievement and the machine for which he is still remembered today.

The Spectrum's grandfather – the ZX80 – was launched in February 1980. Though it was not an earth-staggering technological breakthrough, the ZX80 cleverly repackaged current technology in a form that would enable personal computers to move from the realm of the electronics hobbyist to the mass market. And, most important of all, it was cheap! For the first time, a computer was being sold for under £ 100. It was also easy to use: you just plugged it into the power supply, plugged an A/V cable from the computer to your TV and you were ready to go. The ZX80 featured a whooping 1 Kb of RAM, a touch-pad keyboard (which was uncomfortable to use, but enabled Sinclair to save on expensive keys), and a black and white display that went blank every time you hit a key or the computer was performing calculations. It's practical applications were essentially none. Still, the ZX80 had a built-in BASIC, so people could code and mess around with it, creating their little programs and saving them to tape, and that (with a little help from Sinclair's clever marketing) made them feel like they were joining the impending computer revolution. So, the ZX80 sold extremely well: by the end of the year Sinclair had shifted more than 20 000 units, and had succeeded in creating a brand new market. Computer mania was seeping over Britain and there was no stopping it now.

In 1981, Sinclair launched the ZX81, which was little more than a repackaged ZX80 with a few added features. That didn't stop it from selling over 250 000 units in less than a year, putting Sinclair firmly ahead of the micro-computer market. By the end of the year, however, competitors such as Atari and Commodore were moving in with more attractive products: colour graphics, more memory, more processing power. Sinclair was still competing on price, but he needed a new machine that would satisfy the increasing demands of his massive user base. So, elaborate plans were drawn for a new computer that would not only keep Sinclair on top of the home consumer market, but also hopefully bring the company a share of the increasingly lucrative small business market. It was soon realised, however, that such a computer, as originally planned, wouldn't be ready in at least a couple more years, and by then Sinclair could be completely out of the race.

With that in mind, in April 1982 Sinclair launched what the company then considered to be a stop-gap product; a machine that would merely serve to hold Sinclair's grip on the market until the new super-computer arrived. That stop-gap, a place-holder for a machine that would never come, turned out to be the greatest commercial success of Sinclair's business career: the ZX Spectrum.

Rather than the new computer Sinclair had been promising, the Spectrum was essentially an update on the existing ZX series. Memory had been expanded to 48 Kb (a cheaper, 16 Kb version, was also available) and the computer was now able to produce colour graphics (there were 8 colours in all, but massive attribute clashing problems meant that these had to be used very sparingly indeed) and sound through an internal speaker. There actually was a keyboard this time round, though not quite of the "semi-professional" quality Sinclair advertised. The keys were in fact made of rubber, and felt rather odd at first (not to mention unresponsive), but people eventually got used to them, and the rubber keyboard is now one of the features old-time Spectrum users most often reminisce about.

The BASIC was also an update of the ZX81 version, which posed some problems of its own. The ZX80 BASIC featured a unique system for entering keywords. Instead of typing the commands in full, each key on the ZX keyboard was assigned a keyword in BASIC. So, for instance, to enter the BASIC keyword "PRINT" you simply had to press the "P" key. Likewise, you would press "L" for the keyword "LET", "J", for "LOAD", and so on. This was supposed to help beginners learn the language and reduce the number of errors caused by typos. And it generally worked in the ZX machines. However, when the Spectrum was launched, the BASIC had grown to include more than 100 different keywords. Since there were only a little over thirty keys on the machine, the system had become completely non-intuitive. To enter certain keywords you had to perform some extremely awkward and hard to remember key combinations, which, added to the lack of response from the rubber keyboard, could make the process rather cumbersome. However, for all its shortcomings, the Spectrum BASIC was actually quite powerful and easy to learn. In addition, it provided instant gratification in a way no other computer language ever did. That meant that almost everybody who bought a Spectrum, even if they used it mostly for games, did a bit of coding from time to time. Many of those, after mastering BASIC, went on to learn machine code, and pretty soon after the Spectrum's launch, in the bedrooms, garages and attics of Britain a brand new industry was taking its first steps.

With a massive user base of loyal Sinclair customers, a price tag of just £175 for the 48 Kb model and impressive new features, Sinclair were selling Spectrums faster than they could produce them. What the machine needed now was software. And software, of course, means games. However, in 1982 there wasn't such a thing as a computer games industry, which meant a lot of the people (mostly teenagers) who had bought Spectrums had no choice but to go ahead and write their own games. Inspired by the latest arcade hits or whatever weird ideas just popped into their heads, they started coding, and soon found out that they could sell their creations to a huge games-hungry market. Out of those early efforts emerged a number of software houses, some of which still exist today. Rare, which now produces games for the Nintendo consoles, started its life in the early days of the Spectrum. They were then called Ultimate: Play The Game, and were responsible for some of the most original and brilliant games of the time, such as Attic Attack, Jet Pack, and Pssst!. Codemasters as well started its life producing Spectrum software, including the famous Dizzy games. Many other software houses came and went, but lots of those early Spectrum coders are still involved with computer games one way or another. Many classics from that golden age, games such as Deathchase, Lords of Midnight, Valhalla, Tir Na Nog and Jet Set Willy still endure in gamers memories today.

But even as the games market flourished, Sinclair Research was beginning to run into serious trouble. The tremendous success of the Spectrum convinced Clive Sinclair that there was no need to launch a new computer any time soon. In fact, Sir Clive (he was knighted in 1983, for services rendered to the British industry) was beginning to lose interest in computers altogether, and by 1984 he was investing most of the revenue generated by the Spectrum in a long-time project of his: the C5 - an electric powered trike, that Sinclair intended to market as the urban transport of the future, a vehicle that would replace cars altogether. The project flopped for the most obvious reasons, resulting in losses of millions of pounds for Sinclair.

Meanwhile, on the computer front, the competition was getting more aggressive. With no new hardware to bring out, Sinclair decided to release yet another stop-gap. Called the Spectrum +, it was simply a plain old Spectrum with a new plastic casing and a slightly better keyboard. The machine was released in October 1984, with absolutely no forewarning. At the time, most retailers had already stocked up on old Spectrums, which they expected to sell during the holidays, and were outraged to find that their machines had become obsolete overnight. Still, the Spectrum's popularity grew, not only in Britain, but in other European countries as well, spreading as far as the U. S. S. R. and South America, though in many of those countries the market was dominated by illegal clones. In Spain, a Sinclair affiliate called Investronica developed a new Spectrum model with 128 Kb of RAM, and marketed it locally with tremendous success, generating plans for Sinclair to bring it over to Britain.

However, in the Summer of 1985, Sinclair's financial troubles, resulting from the C5 disaster, forced the company to sell off all its existing Spectrum + stock (about £10 million worth) to retailer chain Dixons. At the same time Sinclair agreed not to launch any new computer in Britain for a period of six months, which effectively prevented them from bringing out the Spanish 128 Kb Spectrum, at a time when it would have probably been very well received. By February 1986, when Sinclair was finally able to launch the Spectrum 128, it was too late. The holiday season was over, the market was saturated with previous Spectrum models, and sales of the new machine were poor.

On the verge of bankruptcy, Clive Sinclair was forced to make a drastic decision: on April 7th, 1986 he announced the take over by Amstrad of the entire Sinclair computer division, including the rights to the Spectrum brand name. It was a shock for many of his loyal supporters, and the end of an era. But not quite yet the end of the Spectrum.

In October 1986, Amstrad launched a new Spectrum model: the Spectrum 128K +2. This machine was similar to the original Spectrum 128, but came with a tape recorder attached, a slightly better keyboard, a modified BASIC, dispensing with the cumbersome single key entry system (though you could still use it if you wanted to), and three channel sound. It sold for £149, and Amstrad marketed it purely as a games machine. Though it didn't sell as well as the original Spectrum, its success was impressive, considering the technology was, for the most part, almost 6 years old. Amstrad went on to launch two more Spectrum models: the +2A, and the +3, which featured a floppy disk drive, instead of the tape recorder. Both sold reasonably well, but by 1988 the market was changing: 16-bit computers such as the Commodore Amiga were becoming the norm, and the first wave of Japanese consoles was hitting Europe. The Spectrum just could not compete. Still, its massive installed user base meant that as late as 1989 games were still being produced for it. In a market now dominated by arcade conversions and movie tie-ins those titles may not have had the brilliance of the early eighties games, but some of them are amazing examples of what ingenious programmers can do with very limited technological resources.

By 1990 however, the Spectrum was dead. Still, it would resurface only a few years later in the form of countless web pages dedicated to preserving its memory. A fair reward for a machine that, despite all its shortcomings, was essential in kick-starting the European computer industry and allowed thousands of people to discover the fun of computing.

Dizzy the Egg

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