Planet Sinclair


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Last updated
24 Feb 1998

Are you, or have you ever been, a genius?



The Hunter Davies Interview: 'Are you, or have you ever been, a genius?': Sir Clive Sinclair is pushing his Zike but he hasn't forgotten about his famous electric car.


WAS IT genius, or what? Ten years ago, he was zooming up the nation's popularity charts, from Flavour of the Month, Businessman of the Year, Innovator of the Decade, to a Maker of the Twentieth Century. Millions rushed to buy his personal computers. A grateful Mrs Thatcher gave him a knighthood.

The general public is not normally fascinated by scientists, yet he achieved mass recognition. Perhaps his face did it. He so looked the part, those specs, silly beard, balding dome, the school swot turned boffin.

Now where is he? Forgotten, or what? Not by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They have his pocket calculator on show, the first our little old world had ever seen. In Britain, behind their hands, behind his back, some say, what did he do anyway, he wasn't all that brilliant, what a nonsense his C5 electric car was, he might have been good at marketing, but he didn't really invent anything.

'I never believed it when they said I could walk on water,' so he now says. 'And I didn't believe it when they said I was under the water when the C5 failed. The Press act as a distorting mirror. They want a story. They don't want to hear that Clive Sinclair is his usual middling self this week.' Before we consider your present middling life Sir Clive, I'd like you to fill in this form. Give yourself marks out of 10, where appropriate. As a long-time Mensa person, you must be used to dopey questionnaires.

1) Are you, or have you ever been, a genius? 'No. Of course not. I believe in the concept. Mozart and Newton were geniuses, but I'm not. You can't scale it, so my score is 0'

2) Would you call yourself an inventor? 'Not in the pure sense, but then nobody ever is. The Wright brothers didn't invent aeroplanes, any more than George Stephenson invented railways.'

3) Are you then an innovator? 'Yes, that's what I do. On that one I'll give myself 7/10.'

4) Are you a businessman? 'We all have to do a bit of that, but I wouldn't say I was very good at it: 3/10.'

5) Are you good at marketing? 'I like to think I know what the public will want: 6/10.'

6) Can you inspire people? 'Yes, and I still do: 6/10.'

7) Can you organise? 'Hmm: 3/10.'

8) Have you a good temperament? 'I get bored easily, though on the other hand, I can concentrate on a project till it's done.'

9) Are you a confident person? 'I've always had self-belief. You can't do anything, if you don't believe in yourself: 9/10.'

10) Are you arrogant? 'I don't believe I am, but it's arrogant to think you're not arrogant.'

He was sitting in his small- roomed, top-floor flat in an anonymous block in Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London, once the haunt of high-class prostitutes. He's 51, divorced, and lives alone. He doesn't cook, but can do bread and cheese. Lots of classical compact discs around, plus classic middle-of-the-road authors and poets - Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Yeats. He did write poetry at one time, but rarely now. He did do marathons, but now it's a jog round Hyde Park twice a week. Put on a bit of weight, so that saturnine look has gone, making him more human than his old photographs. And he's got red hair, what's left of it. It comes with being Scottish, from a long line of Glasgow engineers.

His father, a mechanical engineer, was in funds, then out of funds, throughout Clive's childhood, which led to years of wandering around the London area, from Dorking up to Reading. He can't remember how many different schools or homes he had. At least 12.

When funds were high, he went to public schools, such as Highgate, then another time he went to a secondary modern. 'I made one interesting discovery very early on. The boys in each school were the same.' At 16, he got A-levels in maths and physics, but refused to go to university. 'I had this urge to leave school. My parents were very upset, so I didn't tell them. At 17, I supposedly started a school holiday job, but never went back.'

The job was on Practical Wireless for 7 a week as an editorial assistant. He moved to a technical publishing firm for three years then left to start his own business in transistor radios, but his backer backed out and he was left unemployed. He designed a kit for an amplifier, which any healthy boy could put together, without actually having put it together himself, and without any money. He placed an advert in a trade magazine and ordered the parts from various companies. He and his wife, Ann, whom he had met at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Society, stayed up all night to do the packaging and posting.

In 1972, he created his first 'new' product, the pocket calculator. The microchip existed; the problem was the size of the batteries. He used the chip's internal clock to switch itself off when not in use: only a tenth of the power was required, enabling him to make a calculator a third the size and half the cost of any rival. By 1974, he was selling 10,000 a month. 'The next advance was to produce a scientific calculator. I wanted one which also had transcendental functions, handling logs and trigs. I went to see Texas Instruments with a colleague, and stayed in this hotel in Dallas. I got them to do a chip which we re-programmed and then squeezed into one calculator. They'd thought it was impossible. I think sitting in that hotel, knowing what I was going to do, was probably the biggest fun I've had. No, I can't remember the hotel's name.'

Then came personal computers, a much bigger business, especially when he produced the Sinclair ZX80, the first to sell for under 100. 'I did them for the money. Not for me personally, but so we could expand and do more research.' He was more interested in flat-screen TVs, pocket-size TVs, portable telephones, wafer technology and other new ideas.

There were problems with deliveries, and with his advanced computers, then came the big failure with the C5, his electric car. In 1985, the project went bust. In 1986 he sold his computers to his rival Amstrad for 5m. Today, he doesn't appear bitter at his firm's collapse, or even interested. Anything about the past is boring to him, which is why he has never written his life story. 'It was an inevitable part of the business we were in. In the early years, it was boom boom, the shops demanding more and more. Then one day you wake up and find the shops are sending them back. The market is saturated. Suddenly, we had the most awful cash problems.'

Almost overnight, he went from running a large research establishment in Cambridge employing 140 people to his present staff of four. He also sold his big house in Cambridge and his house in Chelsea. He much prefers it now, living slim.

His latest creation is the Zike, an electric bike, on sale from May at a cost of 499. Didn't the C5 failure put you off electric transport? 'The problem with the C5 was that it was too low down. I was also having marriage problems, which meant I wasn't concentrating as I should have done. This time I'm sure it will be a winner. I think we've got it right.'

The Zikes are being made in the Midlands, not by him, and will be sold by mail order. 'Shopkeepers won't take a chance on something really new. There is always a proportion of the public interested, but you can reach them best by mail order.'

He is still thinking about the electric car, now more than ever environmentally desirable. 'Ten years ago I was trying to work out how to give it a range of 250 miles. I think an electric car should be a second car, kept for local journeys. Your Volvo would be for long journeys, or you could hire one. So I'm thinking small again.'

Will he stay small in his domestic life? A couple of years ago he surprised, nay astounded his friends by getting engaged to a 21-year-old he met at a Mensa meeting. She broke it off. 'I don't think it was just the age gap. She never appeared young, not to me. There was a side of her not right for me, and I'm sure a side of me not right for her. It was very sad.'

Mensa, for him, has always been a social meeting place, as he finds it difficult to make friends with total strangers. He's now its chairman: 'I never went to university, so I don't have an old college crowd. Mensa serves that purpose for me.'

He has three children. Belinda, married with two sons, is studying in Florence. Crispin has just graduated from Stirling. Barto, short for Bartholomew, has dropped out of two universities and now works for him in his rather smart offices near the BBC. Inside, it's nicely disorganised. His room, with a grand boardroom table, also has bits of bike in a corner. Barto, his hair in a ponytail, was hammering at something. In a dusty showcase he has some of his old calculators and computers. He hasn't got a C5. Doesn't want one. They are now collectors' items, selling for 2,000 each.

Mostly, these days, he worries about the future. For us all. 'We can't go on expanding and trying to make ourselves wealthier in the old ways. In manufacturing, machines have replaced muscles. The main industry is now the service industry, by which I include services like health, education, social services. What we have to do next is replace services with machines - machines which have intelligence.'