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Last updated
26 Feb 1998

An electronic David gets on his Zike

THE GUARDIAN, 28 March 1992


Clive Sinclair successfully took on the Japanese and US giants. Now he is back with a battery-powered bicycle. Victor Keegan meets a prolific inventor.

THIS MONTH a small British company unveiled a new product of the kind which could easily have passed untrumpeted in one of those consumer technology supplements that fall out of the Sunday papers. Instead, crowds of journalists and television crews turned up for the launch which generated plenty of column inches in the national press without the company having to pay a penny piece in advertising. Sir Clive Sinclair, Britain's most prolific inventor, was back in town.

Actually, he never left. Over the past few years he has been beavering away in his component-strewn lair on the third floor of a faded building north of Oxford Street, London, on his latest project, a power-assisted bicycle. The Zike, due for delivery in May, is a technological stepping stone between Sinclair's ill-fated C5 and his long-term ambition to produce an environmentally-friendly electric car.

Sinclair has his detractors, including buyers of some of his less reliable products. But his enduring appeal is based on the potting-shed patriotism of an electronic David taking on the giants of Japan and America and who, with true British grit, survives failure and comes bouncing back. Industrially, he is much more a symbol of the strengths and weaknesses of Great Britain Inc: brilliant at invention, fallible at follow-through. Britain is the most innovative country in the world (with half of the most important post-war innovations to its credit, according to the Japanese), but we can't make a success of them ourselves. Sinclair's inventions list reads like an encyclopedia of consumer electronics including the world's smallest amplifier (1962), a slimline radio, the first small calculator (sold in large numbers to the Japanese), the world's first pocket television (well, almost), the first low-priced computers (ZX80, ZX8l and the Spectrum), the QL computer (which, for all its later problems, stunned the computer world when first announced), the impressive Z88 laptop and the first (and last) C5, the much-mocked electric tricycle with stalled ambitions to become a car.

In 1981-82, while Britain wallowed in recession, he sold more computers than anyone else in the world and, as recently as 1986, could claim 40 per cent of the UK home-computer market.

Sinclair says British companies pay out too high a proportion of their profits in dividends driven by the fear of takeover. ''What is sad is that we have pioneered things like pocket calculators, but the benefit has been taken up by Japanese companies instead of the GECs of this world.''

What would he do about this? ''I wish I had a slick answer. I apologise for not. I can see the fault, but I am just not expert enough to know the answer. You need a different sort of investment. You probably need banks and investors getting on to the boards and, as Akio Morita of Sony said recently, you need engineers running companies. It's a lack of intelligent investment.''

Ten years ago Britain had a Japanese-style cluster of pioneering micro-computer companies, including Sinclair, Acorn, makers of the BBC computer, Dragon, and Research Machines. Any one of these could have become a world-scale company, but didn't. Sinclair says these young companies lacked the mature entrepreneurial approach of the Americans. And there were no bigger electronics companies coming in on the act. In the US Apple managed to mature into a big computer company, but in England none of them did with the exception of Amstrad, a late arrival which, unlike the fledgling British companies, made its computers compatible with the IBM standard which dominated computer systems in the 1980s.

What of the economic climate? ''I think the macro-economic climate was excellent and it was because the climate was good politically and economically that many companies got so far. If it hadn't been for that, you wouldn't have Amstrad today. I would dread to see us going back to the old days, with governments thinking they can manage these things and screwing them up.''

Why couldn't Sinclair have become a world force? ''The trouble is that the IBM standard came along. Had we been better businessmen we would have said, well, we've got to go along with that. But the trouble was we were innovators and that [accepting system standards laid down by IBM] ran contrary to our culture. I don't want to be in the position of making commodity [high volume, standardised] products. It's not my job.'' Sinclair would dearly love the Conservatives to win the election, but, apart from raising marginal rates of tax which he regards as bad, but not disastrous, he doesn't see much difference between the main parties. He will go on inventing.

SURELY, 30 years on, he must be slowing down? ''No, on the contrary, the opportunities are greater now and I have got the hang of it all, I think. The interesting thing about invention is that, in order to come up with something, you generally need to bring different technologies together. The Zike is exciting to do because it requires solutions to mechanical engineering, electrical and electronic problems.''

Sinclair has two long-term research ambitions. The first is electric cars. ''Electric cars,'' he says, ''look attractive and with the greatly increased wealth in the west it might make more sense for people to stop trying to have the one all-purpose car? A family might choose a Volvo because it's a very good car, long-legged and will take everybody. That's fine if they are going on a long journey: but at least 90 per cent of the time they are not doing that at all. What's happening is that one or two people are going around town or going into the village. It's abused for short local journeys for which it is ill-suited and inefficient. There might be another solution; for the family to own such a car just for the long journeys and to have another sort of vehicle for local journeys.'' What about solar energy? ''I think that really is very exciting. It's one of those things that ticks away year after year and we tend to forget about it. For electric town cars it's looking as if it will pay within a few years to cover the available roof surface with solar panels. Even in our relatively gloomy climate it would provide a useful proportion of the energy, say, pessimistically, 20 per cent, but it could well be quite a bit more.

''In California, or Portugal, or somewhere like that, with a lot of sun, it could possibly provide all the energy needed. It's going to be very cheap: the new technologies are coming through, there is nothing to stop them. If you have got fundamentally low-cost raw materials and no fundamentally appalling production problems, you can bet your life you can do solar energy cheaply.''

Sinclair's other long-term ambition is in the application of parallel processing (computers doing lots of functions simultaneously) where he is expecting huge leaps in performance. ''I am interested in a machine that can talk to people. I think we can make a huge improvement in peoples' lives on average if we can provide them at home with the expertise of a doctor, a solicitor, a teacher, in the form of a computer. We will never be able to provide enough teachers and doctors to meet all the needs one would like fulfilled, so we have got to use machines to supplement the human experts.''

The acquisition of knowledge at home is a fitting ambition for a man who is celebrated for his lack of formal qualifications. Born in 1940, he left the last of his 13 schools, St George's College, Weybridge, aged 17 in order to apply his formidable problem-solving brain in the real world. At school the shy, insular Sinclair liked only mathematics and English, which remain his true loves to this day. He became bored by the inability of the syllabus to fulfil his fanatical interest in the burgeoning field of electronics which was being revolutionised by the application of the newly discovered transistor.

While in his early teens he designed a calculating machine which he programmed using a numerical language he had dreamed up consisting solely of ls and Os. He was later disappointed to learn that the binary system had already been discovered. Before taking his A levels he designed his first micro-radio in a school exercise book complete with costings and a planned initial production rate of 1,000 a month. He left in 1957 to become a technical journalist on Practical Wireless, for whom he had already written. Before a year was out the editor retired and he was running the magazine.

The avuncular Sinclair is as well known for his low boredom threshold in some areas as he is for his voracious ability to absorb facts in subjects which interest him. A few years ago, to fathom Britain's economic problems, he enlisted for an economics degree at Cambridge. He was pleased when his supervisor decided to enter him after only one year, but the university told him that as he was at press conferences and running a business at the same time as taking a degree, it was against the rules. ''They said I could take my exams if I wanted to, but they weren't going to give me a degree, so I didn't bother.''

WHAT he did bother with was his Zike, which displays all the Sinclair brilliance of lateral thinking, risk-taking and miniaturisation. The energy from braking and freewheeling downhill recharges the batteries which are themselves shrunken enough in size to fit inside the central shaft with the motor. The whole thing weighs under 11 kg (less than 25 lbs) and takes only one hour to recharge. It costs 499. And, above all, he is launching it, with his own money, in the middle of a recession.

He sounds indignant when asked whether the Zike will prove, like some of his previous products, to have been brought too quickly to the market and with too many teething faults. ''I think that is going back in history a very long way. We never had the slightest problems with the Z88 computer, with satellite receivers or the C5. The Zike is being made by a company in the Rolls-Royce league which supplies the motor industry, and to supply the motor industry today you have to have a quality that is absolutely superb.''

Some people, I said, were worried because the model displayed at the launch was a prototype and people weren't allowed to ride it on the road. ''We allowed 2,000 people to ride it.''

But that was inside the hall.

''Sure, you don't risk life and limb on prototypes.''

But can you go from hand-made prototypes to production in a couple of months?

''They are prototypes because they were the first ones coming off the line.''

And how are orders?

''Um. Very encouraging, but it's early days. There has been a huge amount of interest.''