Clive Sinclair (1940-2021) Part two — Radionics’ last, great hope: the microcomputer

In part one, we saw how the young Clive Sinclair created Sinclair Radionics — twice — and built it into a successful business that launched hi-fi products in the 1960s and the first ever pocket calculator in 1972, but soon suffered badly as its digital watch efforts foundered and competition crushed its calculator sales. Read on to learn how Radionics met its end, but (almost) gave birth to a new microcomputer…

Clive Sinclair in 1983

Clive Sinclair was not a happy man at the start of 1977. He had a few reasons to be cheerful. Sinclair Radionics, the business he had established in 1961, had finally shipped its long-delayed pocket TV. Launched under the Microvision brand, model number TV1A went on sale for £225 and was backed by a £20,000 advertising campaign. Radionics’ had spent a fortune developing the product: more than half a million pounds over the past 12 years. The TV1A didn’t feature Radionics’ own flat-tube display, as Clive Sinclair had once hoped it would, but rather a miniaturised conventional cathode ray tube made by Germany’s AEG Telefunken. Unfortunately, no matter where the technology came from, Britain or Germany, consumers proved resistant to the charms of the Microvision’s tiny, two-inch monochrome screen, and feeble piezo-electric speaker. Contrary to Sinclair’s long-held expectations, the British public did not have a burning desire to watch television wherever they happened to be at the time, and his carry-anywhere TV was not a success.

Meanwhile, at Sinclair’s other business, Sinclair Instruments, its first gadget, the Wrist Calculator, had also just gone on sale and, despite the inevitable technical hiccups, was actually selling reasonably well. Nothing to worry about there, then.

No, the cause of Sinclair’s irritability was much closer to hand: the management imposed upon him by the National Enterprise Board (NEB), which had ridden to Radionics’ rescue the previous Summer with a £650,000 cheque in its hands. The quid pro quo was that the NEB would receive ownership of 43 per cent of Radionics’ ordinary shares, valuing the business at £1.5 million, equivalent to £109 million today. Sinclair remained holding the majority of the company, so he was at least still in charge and was able to continue work on his pet projects, including the pocket TV and the Cambridge University electric car project he was funding.

Under the terms of the Industry Act 1975, the Act of Parliament which had established the NEB, the organisation was required to seek Ministerial assent for the acquisition of more than 30 per cent of any company it in which it chose to invest. So though the Radionics rescue plan is usually referred to as a done deal in August 1976, in fact it was first referred to the Secretary of State for Industry, Eric Varley, for his approval. Varley didn’t rubber-stamped the deal until 20 October 1976, but it’s likely NEB money was already being used to keep Radionics afloat by that time.

Why did the NEB, whose remit was to gain for the state a measure of control over companies perceived to be of national importance and whose collapse might prove injurious to Britain’s technological and export rankings, continue to pour money into Sinclair’s ailing firm? Could it truly be said of Sinclair Radionics that it was of national importance for its electronics know-how? The NEB, and in particular its first Chairman, Don, Lord Ryder, certainly thought so. Radionics’ products were being exported to the US, with some modest success, and as a consumer electronics company it might very well require assistance helping it compete against what was then the chief business bogey, Japan. Radionics had even managed to export a significant number of its first pocket calculator, the Enterprise, to Japan. But now Japanese calculator and digital watch companies were aggressively and successfully thrashing Radionics in the domestic and overseas markets. They did so by having the temerity to offer products that were cheap, worked well and, thanks to their used of liquid crystal displays, a technology that Sinclair was aesthetically opposed to, didn’t gobble up batteries. Unless you, as a consumer, were obsessed with the look of glowing red-on-black numerals, or had a patriotic streak, why wouldn’t you opt for a more reliable Casio or a Sharp over one of those cheap, plastic Sinclair things?

Ryder was particularly keen on Sinclair’s plan for flat TV tubes, which he thought had the potential to lead the world as the next generation of television display technology. Before we dismiss that view as deluded, bear in mind that the notion that consumers would prefer flat-screen TVs to the big, boxy cathode ray tube-based sets of the day did indeed prove to be the case. Sinclair and Ryder were, in that regard, completely correct. What they got wrong was how a migration to flat-panel televisions could be achieved. They believe that miniaturising and re-organising the cathode ray tube so that its beam of electrons could be directed toward the phosphorescent screen from the sides rather than the back, thus creating a flat tube. In fact, it was achieved by adopting a completely different technologies, from laser-activated screens and gas plasma displays to the LCD and OLED panels that, in the 21st Century, came to dominate. Once again Sinclair’s talent for spotting the destination but being unable to choose the correct path to it, would cost him dear. Or perhaps it’s more charitable to say that not all the paths available were yet obvious and that sometimes you just have start hacking through the foliage in the hope of finding it. For instance, Sinclair was dead right to perceived that electric vehicles would be the way of the future. Even if he had understood that the public would only take to them when they looked like real cars, there was no way he would be in a position to offer such vehicles in the near future. In the meantime, a single-person electric tricycle would have to do.

No, come to think of it, he got that one wrong too.

Unfortunately, if you can’t sell the products you are offering now, dreams of future success, no matter how realistic, won’t help you very much. That’s the situation Radionics was in as 1976 rolled into 1977. Its primary lines, the calculators were not making enough money, even with the NEB cash injection, to keep Radionics afloat. Even as Sinclair smiled for the cameras as the TV1A was brought to market, he must have been crossing his fingers tightly that his new gadget would fly off the shelves and generate the cash required to fill the gaping and growing hole he had already seen in the company’s finances. As we have seen, it did not.

Cash injection 2.0

The upshot was that the NEB would need to put even more money into Radionics. In June 1977, it agreed to pump an extra £1.65 million into the business and to extend it a further £1 million in loans, though two-thirds of that facility would be used up before the year was out. Again, Sinclair was forced to hand over more shares: this second round of funding saw the NEB increase its stake in Radionics to 73 per cent and thus take ownership of the company. Now the NEB would be calling the shots and it used its controlling position to implement what it saw as much-needed management changes. It installed Nicholas Barber on the Radionics board as the representative of its interest and appointed him interim Managing Director until a more permanent incumbent could be found. Barber immediately got to work setting up a proper management structure at the business: he recruited a new Finance Director, Derek Holley, to put right Radionics’ loose organisational and cashflow-oriented accounting structure, a relic from the early days of Radionics that had never really been updated to meet the company’s changing circumstances. He also began interviewing prospective full-time Managing Directors and, in June 1977, Norman Hewett, formerly of GEC’s heavy cable division, was confirmed in the role.

Clive Sinclair was left with the chairmanship of the Radionics board and special responsibility for the company’s R&D, the best place for him to dream his dreams and oversee their implementation without the distraction of administering the business. Entrepreneurial zeal does not always, or even often, translate to adroit business administration. Up until the early 1970s Sinclair had just got away with it. That’s not to say Radionics’ problems wouldn’t have occurred under experienced business leadership, but more formal product development and production management structures would certainly have made them less likely. But Radionics was where is was and now the right approaches would be taken — or so the NEB thought. The company could be turned around and its behaviour corrected, it believed. It even attempted Sinclair to do the right thing: it gave him the right to buy back ownership of the company if profits were able to reach at least £3.5 million for two in three consecutive years.

It’s interesting to note that it was around this time that Sinclair Instruments, running separately under Chris Curry, was renamed Science of Cambridge. The change was authorised at an extraordinary general meeting of the company’s officers — essentially just Sinclair and Curry — on 17 June 1977. The change was formally registered a month later. Did the NEB, now it owned Sinclair Radionics, insist that it could no longer accept the existence of another Sinclair-branded company competing with it? Whether that was the instruction from Sinclair’s new bosses, or he was anticipating such an order, it’s interesting to note that he got the name back as soon as he could. Science of Cambridge became Sinclair Computers at another extraordinary general meeting, this one held on 15 October 1980. Sinclair would bring out his home computers first as Sinclair Computers and then soon under the less prosaic, less product-specific name of Sinclair Research. However, what he produced has it roots, conceptually if not physically, in work done at Radionics.

The Radionics microcomputer plan

It is 1978, and Science of Cambridge has begun selling the MK14 microprocessor kit. Close, but not a real multi-purpose microcomputer. It is, however, inexpensive to the point where it might be considered a discretionary spend. At £200, the Nascom 1 kit is more of a real computer, but it’s still a kit. The Research Machines 380Z is not a kit, it’s a pre-packaged microcomputer system, but it’s not priced for the consumer, either. The computers from the US that will shortly arrive in the the UK — in price order, Tandy’s TRS-80, Commodore’s Pet 2001 and Apple’s II — will fight it out for the middle and higher reaches of the business end of personal computer market, those costing north of £500.

So there’s a gap in the market: for a machine that is offered at an enthusiast-friendly price but comes pre-assembled in a case like a proper consumer product and is ready to use. To make it a little more reachable, perhaps it can be offered in kit form too, if that’s what the hobby computer folk want. In short, can we put a Nascom inside a nice box that will appeal to the High Street buyer but charge no extra for it?

That’s the question that some engineers at Radionics asked first themselves and then the company’s management. The response they received was positive: the company urgently needed innovative new product lines, and this could be one of them. Do some more research, the engineers were told, to see how much such a product might cost to develop and bring to market, and what kind of sales figures it might generate. You can even go and build it. Then we’ll decide whether we want to proceed. Radionics Managing Director Norman Hewett was keen. He saw that this was exactly the kind of new technology product that a business like Radionics should be pursuing. Sinclair took Hewett to the States to visit the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to help educate him in the ways of the market. Hewett later recalled his colleague taking a particular interest in the microcomputers on display: “[Sinclair] and I were both in Las Vegas in 1977 at the electronics fair. Apple was there, I think for the first or second time, and of course he spent most of his time going round looking at Apple and the other computer firms, with a view to doing the same thing himself.”

Sinclair recalled a few years later that what he got out of the trip was an understanding that “it was a new market which was dominated by the Americans and where clearly if the cost could be reduced substantially, the market could be expanded”.
In short, a business challenge rather than a technological one.

Sinclair considered what kinds of personal computers the Americans were making — the very machines he’d seen demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show — and duly decided that they were getting it all wrong. To excite the potential buyer, a Radionics computer — if there ever were to be one — had to impress with its price. Equally it needed to be physically striking. That meant not a huge, clunky box that could only sit on a desk, but a small, compact unit that implied miniaturisation and the cunning application of the latest technology. It might even, he pondered, be small enough that the buyer could carry it with them and use whenever and wherever they needed it, just like the pocket TV and the pocket calculator. In the late 1970s, this vision of portable computing was one few other technologists shared, not least because almost no engineer would have accepted that such a device could be realised with contemporary technology. Yet this notion of a compact, mobile, truly personal computing device would drive the development of all later, Sinclair-branded computers, in particular the machines that would become the QL and the device codenamed ‘Pandora’, which was never released and killed off when Sinclair sold his computer business to Alan Sugar’s more pragmatically minded Amstrad in 1986.

“My belief for years and years, right back to the days of Sinclair Radionics where we had an internal project for a portable computer, was that [mobility] was the way computers ought to be,” Sinclair claimed some months after the Amstrad deal had been struck.“For computers to really be useful they’ve got to move with you. And they’ve got to work without the need for print and paper. To do that they’ve got to be with us all the time.”
Sinclair would never realise that vision himself. He would come closest to achieving his goal when he released the Z88 portable in 1989, but that too was a compromise: merely what could be achieved with the technology of the time. But Sinclair would eventually see his vision brought to life by other innovators, when the first modern smartphones arrived in the mid- to late-2000s. These devices, which we all now carry, all of the time and to which we use not just for communications but for information access and even creation — these are the truly personal computers that Sinclair glimpsed way back in the late 1970s. Time and again, his ideas would be defeated and usually made seem ridiculous by the compromises imposed upon his engineers by the technology or production techniques of the day, and sometimes because Sinclair himself was correct in the broad thrust of his vision but not the specifics. Invariably Sinclair’s frustration with his designers’ inability to deliver the devices he could picture in his mind turned to anger and one of his frequent outbursts of bad temper, usually accompanied by the crash of prototype circuit board being flung at a nearby wall. The truth is, they didn’t lack his vision, only the advanced technology by which it might be realised. The inevitable compromises only served to highlight the gap between what could be achieved and what Sinclair wanted to achieve. But in his outlook, Sinclair was unlike so many of his contemporaries in the technology field. They were content to make the best possible products as defined by the technology available to them; Sinclair attempted to make the best possible product according to how he perceived they would be used.
The far-reaching cast of his vision would come to hinder Radionics’ attempt to create a personal computer, though for once it didn’t result in quite the compromise that it might have done. The eventual collapse of Radionics would send the design off on a long and unexpected journey, but throughout it remained true to Sinclair’s initial concept.

Feasibility study

First, of course, Radionics had to design and build its machine. Now that the project had Sinclair’s assent as both R&D chief and company figurehead, work could begin. Assigned to the development of the hardware was Radionics engineer Mike Wakefield; the computer’s software would be written by his colleague Basil Smith. Having been given the go-ahead, the two began by defining the machine’s capabilities, mapping what was required of its functionality onto what contemporary technology could do, and drawing up the resulting specification. The project appears to have begun as a research endeavour, the two engineers not content simply to design some hardware, write some software to run on it and then have Radionics stick it in a box and take it to market, but to really consider how to create a very different product from anything yet on the market.

Smith and Wakefield probably began work in the Spring or Summer of 1978. Dates provided in near contemporary accounts range from late 1977 to July 1978 and one other, slightly earlier account maintains that development work on the Radionics Computer didn’t commence until Clive Sinclair saw the success his other business, Science of Cambridge, was having at selling its MK14 microprocessor kit — that would have been around the Spring of 1978 at the earliest. It’s safe to say proposals were made and work begun during the first six months of that year.

Certainly development of the Radionics computer was underway when Science of Cambridge’s Chris Curry started to think about a follow-up to the MK14. In his mind was a product that would be more advanced than the microprocessor kit: one that was less of a gadget designed to teach its users the rudiments of microprocessor programming and more the basis of a true personal computing system. It was Radionics’ efforts in this field that, in part, persuaded Curry that the only way he would be able to evolve his products the way he wanted to would be to leave Sinclair and form his own company. Which is exactly what he eventually did.

Meanwhile, Radionics management doesn’t appear to have driven Wakefield and Smith hard in the hope of getting a computer to market quickly. Perhaps they no longer believed this might be the product that might return Radionics to its former glory, or they were content to wait and see how the nascent domestic microcomputer market would grow. It is also possible that the concept of creating a low-cost, battery powered computer with an integrated display was understood to be a significant engineering challenge that was not going to be overcome within a few months or even a year. Bets were clearly hedged: by all available accounts, only Wakefield and Smith were working on the project full time, which suggests Radionics bosses, and presumably Clive Sinclair, with his product development chief’s hat on, didn’t feel it yet warranted extra engineering effort. That’s not surprising if the pair were considered to be first evaluating technical options and then devising a proof of concept.

Cold feet

Radionics managers’ enthusiasm for the project certainly appears to have waned when Wakefield and Smith eventually showed, probably early in 1979, that bringing their proposed design to market would require an up-front cost of nearly £500,000. At this stage, their design incorporated a custom chip that would integrate many of the machine’s secondary electronic circuits. This would soon become a common technique in microcomputer design. Such custom chips were known as an Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA). They contained hundreds of logic circuits that could be fixed into specific pathways to yield the equivalent functionality of a dozen or more standalone chips and their ancillary components. Much more expensive than any one of the integrated chips it replaced, the ULA was nonetheless cheaper than combined cost of all of the parts they replaced. They also made the circuit boards into which they would be fitted less complicated and therefore less expensive too. Sinclair electronics wizard Jim Westwood would shortly use just such a custom chip to cost-engineer the Sinclair ZX80 design down, allowing the ZX80’s successor, the ZX81, to be released at a much lower price.
Unfortunately, the work required to design and test such a custom chip would only be cost-effective if at least 20,000 machines were subsequently made — in other words, the manufacturer would require that many orders up front. That was the trade off: much lower production costs, and thus lower retail prices, in return for a higher up-front development costs. Radionics bosses knew that the company could ill-afford such a cost and commitment at that time. They were concerned that the level of sales needed to recover the investment were too great to bank upon in an unproven market. What might sales be? There was no precedent to provide guidance. Even Nascom, which reckoned it shipped more than 10,000 computers in 1978 had, at the outset, only estimated it would have a thousand buyers.

It has been suggested that Sinclair was less than impressed with the Wakefield-Smith device because it couldn’t be produced at a price that would make it accessible to the ordinary consumer — just as he was to do with his later machines — and that’s what prevent Radionics bringing the machine to market. Sinclair himself blamed his Radionics’ overseers. “We were developing a personal computer at the NEB, the NewBrain, but they decided we couldn’t afford it and so it was pushed out to Newbury. I don’t know what has happened to it, but it has not seen light of day,” he said in 1981, just a couple of years later.

Enter Newbury Labs

The “Newbury” Sinclair was referring to is Newbury Laboratories, a British maker of VDU terminals which, you’ll recall, acquired Bear Micro Systems and with it the 77-68 microcomputer kit originally designed for the Amateur Computer Club. When did the NEB pass the Radionics computer to Newbury Labs? The project had gone by August 1979 because this is when Mike Wakefield’s work on what became the ZX80 came to an end, either because his new bosses were taking a dim view of him moonlighting for a competitor, or more likely because under a new employer he was naturally no longer free to work on what had essentially been something to do at Radionics while company bosses pondered the future of his primary project, the Radionics micro. It’s hard not to conclude that the Radionics computer project, Wakefield and Smith too, all went to Newbury Labs in the Spring or early Summer of 1979, as the NEB began to break up Radionics and sell off the bits.

Newbury Labs was not perhaps an obvious choice, but on consideration, it was the one company among the NEB’s stable of investments best suited to take on the Radionics microcomputer project. It may even have actually expressed an interest in acquiring the project.

Newbury Laboratories was founded in October 1971 by John Gibson, Gordon Gregory and Robert Smith to design and manufacture video display terminals. These devices were the new and much in-demand add-on for minicomputers and mainframes. Such large computers had typically been operated through a teletype terminal: a kind of wired typewriter on whose keyboard command could be entered and the results printed out on sprocket-holed paper fed up through the back of the machine and out in front of the user. That made them noisy. In fact, very noisy indeed. In contrast, VDUs — Video Display Units — incorporated a TV tube instead of printer so, the clack-clack-clack of their mechanical keyboard aside, they were silent. By the early 1970s, more than a decade of the production of domestic television sets for global consumption, cathode ray tubes were sufficiently cheap for VDUs to become the new standard interface for large computers. Users could see what they were typing and get immediate feedback from the host computer right there in glowing characters. Even more usefully, VDU users could quickly edit a command or entered text before it was sent off to the host. No wonder these so-called ‘glass teletypes’ were hugely popular.

Newbury’s VDUs were designed under the supervision of Technical Director Geoff Tily. The business was successful, though it was never a massive company. Between 1971 and 1975, it had sold no more than 900 terminals, which doesn’t sound many by modern standards, but was enough to keep the new company ticking over as it worked to develop new products and expand its production capacity. “Newbury’s skill lies in producing high-quality visual display units at a realistic price,” praised one contemporary commentator. It was also sufficient to draw the attention of the newly formed NEB, which in August 1977, a year to the month after its initial engagement with Sinclair Radionics, invested £343,000 in the business.

It’s around this time that Newbury’s bosses, seeking expansion opportunities, bought Bear Micro Systems from founder Tim Moore in order to get a foot in the emerging microcomputer market: Bear became NewBear, punning on Newbury, and moved into Newbury’s original HQ in Bone Lane, Newbury, Berkshire. Around this time, Newbury Labs itself moved to larger premises in Odiham, Hampshire. Undoubtedly all of this expansion activity was paid for with NEB money.

Not that the NEB maintained its shareholding for long. In January 1978, the Times reported that the NEB had sold its Newbury shares to another of the businesses under its wing: the Data Recording Instrument (DRI) Company, a manufacturer of storage sub-systems for mainframe computers — the same large computers at which Newbury’s products were aimed. True to its brief, the NEB had spotted a synergy between the two companies and sought to bring them together for the betterment of both.

As we’ve seen, Newbury’s ambitions in the microcomputer market don’t resurface until the Autumn of 1978, when it began to show a Commodore Pet-like machine called Panda. Imagine a 77-68 with all the trimmings fitted inside a Newbury VDU casing. The last reference to Panda as a product comes in an advertisement, from a Newbury reseller, Liverpool-based Microdigital, in December 1978. That suggests — and it is merely a suggestion; there is no direct evidence for the following conclusion — that Panda’s demise was triggered by the impending transfer of the Radionics microcomputer to Newbury Labs. Panda had been an evolution of the 77-68 and like that machine was built on the Motorola 6800 processor, now growing somewhat long in the tooth. The Radionics system was almost certainly based on the more recent Zilog Z80 chip. Whatever the reason, at some point during the first half of 1979, Panda was deemed surplus to requirements.

The deal was done. Newbury Labs took possession of the Radionics design and the software that went with it, not to mention its prime movers, Mike Wakefield and Basil Smith. Work at Newbury Labs continued as Wakefield and Smith had originally conceived it, but it was here that the machine became known as the NewBrain, another pun of the NewBear variety. It also took on its ultimate look, including the very 1970s cream and brown colour scheme, a detail adopted because early prototypes were kitted out using the same plastics from which Newbury cut its other products. The final version may have been intended to adopt brighter, more consumer-friendly hues, but the café au lait styling was never changed, even after the machine passed to a third owner.

In the next instalment: Radionics crashes

Other Instalments

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