Planet Sinclair


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Last updated
26 Feb 1998

The future is electric

DAILY TELEGRAPH , 17 December 1996


Sir Clive Sinclair dreams of a future of electric cars, umbrella-like folding bicycles and intelligent computers. Interview by Tom Standage.

TO MOST people in Britain, Sir Clive Sinclair will always be remembered as the creator of the doomed C5 electric tricycle. But to computer users of a certain age, those between 25 and 30, he is much more.

To these people he is a godfather. Sir Clive was the man who lit the fuse that led to the home computer boom of the early 1980s when he brought computers to the mass market.

His ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum computers sold in their millions, spawning a vibrant British computer games scene and, with their sponge-like keyboards, causing sore fingertips up and down the country.

Since then, the computing landscape has changed beyond all recognition. The market grew up, banishing the disposable, plastic computers of the 1980s to cupboards and attics.

Sinclair's company did its best to grow up too, launching an ill-fated business computer, the QL. But as the industry standardised on IBM-compatible PCs, the company was helpless in the path of the oncoming Intel/ Microsoft juggernaut.

Today, we do not buy computers to write little programs in BASIC and play stupid games. We buy them to run Microsoft Office, access the Internet, and play stupid games.

Even so, Sir Clive's dream, of a brighter future made possible by technology, and exemplified by the paintings of sci-fi cityscapes found on the cover of the ZX81 manual, lives on. Today he continues his work from a penthouse loft in London.

Appropriately for a geek hero, and self-confessed gadget freak, the lift to Sinclair's flat doesn't have a button for "ground floor". It has a floor number zero button instead.

The trophies of his past, including the millionth British Spectrum, are ranged in a glass display cabinet, and the original sci-fi cityscape paintings hang on the walls.

With several new projects under way, Sir Clive is still doing his best to make the future a better place.

How do you describe yourself?

As an inventor.

What common strand links all your different inventions?

In each case I wanted to find a need, to come up with something that people would then need. Take the pocket calculator: no one was going around saying that they needed one, but once they'd got it they needed it. It's finding something that will be useful to people and change the world in a small way.

What was the thinking behind your first home computers?

The idea was, right from the start, that if you could have a computer that was cheap enough, and sell direct to the public, people would want to have one at home to learn about it. And it all worked extremely well.

But once you'd seeded the market, it was other companies that benefited.

I benefited at the time, and I did what I wanted to do. I'm not personally interested in building big empires or anything. I'm interested that the empires occur.

So what are you working on now?

We make a device called the Zeta, the zero emission transport accessory. I love using Zs and Xs in my products. They're rather sexy, I think. We made an electric bicycle, the Zike, and that did quite well, but we had some technical snags. But there was good demand.

So I thought if we make a unit that goes on any bike, then that's much better. We've sold about 15,000 and we've done a survey of the people who've bought them and it's been extremely successful. So we're staying with that product category.

Transport, that is?

Yes. And there's another area that I've been working on for a number of years, and that is a lightweight pedal bicycle. Pedal bicycles have got no lighter for 100 years. You read every few years that someone has made the frame a bit lighter, but it's really a very small part of the weight anyway. To really make any dramatic change to the weight of the bicycle you've got to redesign all the parts.

My ideal is that if you have a bicycle that is as easy, literally as easy to carry as an umbrella, you'd use it in the way that you use an umbrella. If you've got something that weighs a very few pounds, then you could take it on the train, on the bus, use it for part of your journey. It helps to promote mixed-mode transport, and could make a considerable change.

And because the bicycle has to have lots of new bits and pieces, it's led us into materials technology. One of the problems with electric cars is getting the weight down, so a lot of what has gone into the bicycle will be applicable to electric cars.

You seem very confident that practical electric cars can be built.

I believe the approach being taken by a lot of companies, - making cars that are basically like petrol cars but with electric engines in them - is not going to really solve the problem, because they compare poorly with petrol cars.

Most families in the States, 70 per cent, and probably getting on for most families here, have two cars. So the answer, I believe, and other people are starting to see this as well, is to make an electric car that is fundamentally different to a petrol car. What you need is a car that's dedicated to local journeys: it's only ever going to do 30 or 40 miles per hour, it's only ever going to go 30 or 40 miles, and if you've already got a Volvo in the garage, or you can rent one whenever you need it, then it can be a very different sort of car. It can be very lightweight indeed, because now you've only got a small battery.

I foresee a time when this sort of electric car is the car you normally use, and just occasionally you want to go on a long journey, so you use a petrol car. That will be much more attractive, because it will be so much cheaper.

And that is why people will buy them?

Absolutely. People might pay lip service to environmental problems, but fundamentally you have to offer people a better, cheaper product if you want to succeed. And it can be done: I'm talking about something that will cost 2,000 or 3,000.

You've spent longer on electric cars and bicycles than you did on computers. Do you see this as your life's work?

Yes, I do want to solve the transport problems, or contribute towards solving the problems, and certainly it's what interests me most. I am still interested in computers, and probably will do something more in that area, perhaps quite soon, but in a sense the opportunity to make a radical change isn't there to the same extent. But it will be when we start thinking in terms of highly parallel computers.

But artificially intelligent computers were expected to be just around the corner in the early Eighties, and nothing happened.

It has taken longer than expected, I believe because of a wrong turning in computers - it's the hegemony of Intel and Microsoft that has bogged things down. I'm not blaming them, they're doing a terrific job in certain areas, but everybody who makes computers is focused on one standard. So the way computers are made at the moment is bloody awful. It's very disappointing the way it's gone. Having a processor and memory in separate packages and linking them the way we do is chronically bad because it slows things up so much. You want to have relatively small processors, and then you want to have loads and loads of them, hundreds of thousands, even millions, and you can then start to do things so much faster.

And you think intelligence will necessarily follow from this?

Yes. Very much so. We are talking about things which are many orders of magnitude more powerful than the things we have today. It will be the biggest development in the history of mankind, because the increase in wealth that will result will be dramatic. It's very much a second industrial revolution.

You seem to be generally optimistic about the future, and the ability of technology to change things for the better.

I'm very optimistic, about the world in general, and extremely optimistic about Britain's place in it, thanks to the Thatcher revolution. I think we are incredibly well placed as a country.

What about the Blade Runner scenario, the idea that the future will be worse than the present rather than better?

Oh, utterly wrong.