Sir Clive Sinclair
dreams of a future of electric cars,
umbrella-like folding bicycles and intelligent
computers. Interview by Tom Standage.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
several new projects under way, Sir Clive is
still doing his best to make the future a better
do you describe yourself?
common strand links all your different
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.
was the thinking behind your first home
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
once you'd seeded the market, it was other
companies that benefited.
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
what are you working on now?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
seem very confident that practical electric cars
can be built.
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.
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
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.
that is why people will buy them?
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.
spent longer on electric cars and bicycles than
you did on computers. Do you see this as your
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
artificially intelligent computers were expected
to be just around the corner in the early
Eighties, and nothing happened.
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
you think intelligence will necessarily follow
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
seem to be generally optimistic about the future,
and the ability of technology to change things
for the better.
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.
about the Blade Runner
scenario, the idea that the future will be worse
than the present rather than better?