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