ZX Spectrum's chief designers reunited 30 years on

ZX Spectrum More than five million copies of the various ZX Spectrum computers were sold over the family's eight year lifespan, not including third-party clones.

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Click here to see how the computer's design evolved

The ZX Spectrum is 30 years old. The successor to Sir Clive Sinclair's ZX81 - at the time the world's best selling consumer computer - it introduced colour "high resolution" graphics and sound.

It also offered an extended version of Sinclair Basic, a computer language with which hundreds of thousands of users were already familiar.

The thin Bauhaus-inspired design was sleeker than anything else on the market, but what was more impressive was its price: £125 for the basic model with 16 kilobytes of RAM, or £175 for the 48k model.

That allowed adverts at the time to boast: "Less than half the price of its nearest competitor- and more powerful".

Sir Clive believed hitting the low price points was crucial.

Rival Acorn Computers had beaten him to a contract to build a tie-in computer for an educational BBC television series which started in January 1982.

It seemed the best way to overcome that promotional advantage was to undercut the BBC Micro's £299/£399 charge - and the strategy worked.

Manic Miner packaging and screenshot Titles such as Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy and Head over Heels helped drive the Spectrum's appeal

It also protected the Spectrum from the higher-specced, but more expensive, Commodore 64 which was unable to dislodge Sir Clive's computers from being the UK's number one selling computer.

Although some bad business decisions forced the sale of Sinclair Research's computer business to Lord Alan Sugar's Amstrad in 1986, the Spectrum remains a 1980s icon.

Sir Clive was the face of the company, but credit is also due to the original ZX Spectrum's engineer, Richard Altwasser, and its industrial designer Rick Dickinson.

The BBC reunited the two men about 25 years after they last spoke to discuss their work's legacy:

How much of an effect did hitting Sir Clive's price target have on the design?

Dickinson: Cost has always been very high on the agenda with all Sinclair products no matter how far back you go and Clive knew exactly where a product had to be priced.

Literally every penny was driven out where possible. So one of the consequences was that we would very rarely take an existing technology and simply mimic or buy it, but instead would engineer another way of doing it.

So for example with the Spectrum keyboard we minimised it from several hundred components in a conventional moving keyboard to maybe four or five moving parts using a new technology.

Altwasser: On the electronics side we needed to keep the silicon real estate as small as possible and continued to use the very cost effective Z80 processor. Much of that was achieved by having a very good BASIC interpreter design that could be kept in very little ROM memory space.

Rick Dickinson stands next to drawing board used to design the ZX Spectrum Rick Dickinson's drawing board - used to design the Spectrum - is now in London's Science Museum

Demand was phenomenal - within three months there was a 30,000-strong backlog of orders despite it initially being restricted to mail order. Was the scale of its popularity a surprise?

Dickinson: No matter how much history one might have with successful products like the ZX80 and 81 there is always a niggling doubt in one's mind that to come out with something new and significantly different is a risk. I think that we were all overwhelmed by the demand and the number of products that were sold.

Altwasser: I think with hindsight the BBC did an awful lot to popularise the use of micro-computers, and if we consider the fact the Spectrum was selling for half the price of the BBC Micro we shouldn't be surprised it was very successful.

I clearly recall having discussions that a time would come when every home would have a computer. We could see the applications and uses for everyday purposes.

We'd have these discussions with friends and family and people outside the computer club in Cambridge and people would scoff and say: 'Why on earth would a family want a computer in the home?' The success was I think beyond anyone's expectation. But perhaps with hindsight it wasn't totally unpredictable.

The success was also driven by videogame sales - the machines were originally marketed as an educational tool but you ensured titles were ready at launch.

Altwasser: Whilst as engineers we were hoping that people would turn on the computer and find out within a few minutes they could write a simple program and become programmers, clearly a lot of people wanted to use the computer for playing games.

ZX Spectrum keyboard Different key combinations were needed to write each Basic command

By providing them with computer programs that they could either read from a little book and type in or load from a cassette, I think that we bridged the gap between those that wanted to learn a little bit about programming - perhaps starting with someone else's programs and making modifications - and those that wanted to primarily just have a usable game.

Dickinson: In the earlier days there was a mild disappointment that we were launching computers and not games machines but I think the games market eventually turned our machines into games products.

Once the company accepted that, Sir Clive realised that it was the clear route to one's bread and butter. There were a lot of companies set up writing games for the Spectrum and we also approached companies and writers specifically to make our own in-house games.

Not all the feedback was positive. Some described the keys of the original models of feeling like dead flesh.

Dickinson: I love reactions like dead flesh - you could certainly relate it to that. People seem to forget what they've paid for an instrument or a product. At the time there was probably no other way around it to meet the cost targets.

Even if some sort of miracle we had theoretically designed a better product I don't suppose for a moment it would have been any more successful and that we would have sold any more. I don't think there was anything I would change or have since regretted.

Richard Altwasser Mr Altwasser left Sinclair in 1982 and subsequently launched the short-lived Jupiter Ace computer

Another point of contention was that when you wrote code in BASIC you had to find the right key combination to trigger a command rather than letting the user type in the instruction letter by letter. That was changed in later models.

Altwasser: This was a concept that had been pioneered by Sir Clive in earlier models and had proved to be very successful. I think what it achieved with the Spectrum was the ability for a beginner to enter programs much more quickly than if they had to type in all of the individual letters.

In hindsight maybe the disadvantage of this was that we did add a lot of different keyword functions to different keys, so using the less frequently used keywords was a little bit complex.

Talk of computers today and many people think of games consoles or PCs that run ready-made applications. Even in UK classrooms programming fell out of fashion. That appears to be changing - but how much was lost?

Altwasser: I'm an engineer so I'm delighted at the thought that people are going to be encouraged through the availability of the Raspberry Pi to learn to do programming. If I look at the capability of that machine - the graphics pixel rate is 140 times greater, the processor speed is 200 times greater, there's thousands of times more memory.

So you would think the speed and power of that device compared with the ZX Spectrum gives it every possible advantage. But my impression is that the attention span of young people over the last 30 years has probably not lengthened.

What is important is not the technical speed of the device but the speed with which a user can get their computer out of a box and type in their first program.

Clive Sinclair shakes hands with Alan Sugar Clive Sinclair sold his computer range and brand name to Alan Sugar's Amstrad for £5m in 1986

Dickinson: I concur totally with what Richard has just said. Although many Spectrum were sold for games, there were a lot of people who really gripped what all this was about - and what Clive was interested in in the first place - learning about programming and what you can do with programs.

Clearly we've spawned a generation which is now quite mature and has produced software for the many products that surround us.

Sir Clive sold out to Amstrad in 1986 and after a couple of revisions - involving the addition of a built-in cassette player and then a disc drive - production ceased in 1990. There are still some people who continue to code for it using emulators on PCs. But why do you think it ultimately failed?

Altwasser: I think I'd question the premise that the Sinclair model failed. Having a product lifetime of nearly 10 years and selling 5 million units - which I think is more than three times the volume sold for the BBC Micro - I don't think you can characterise that as failing.

I've been working in the computer industry recruiting software developers for more than a decade, and I'm continually meeting people who cut their teeth on a ZX Spectrum.

Part of that legacy is that we now have a generation of computer programmers who first got hooked by opening a box, looking at a screen and within a minute saying 'hey I've done something', within five minutes they'd written their first program and then they were spending every evening and weekend programming. I think the legacy of that is to be seen in the software engineering population of this country.

ZX Spectrum+ Later models of the ZX Spectrum did away with the original's rubber keys

Dickinson: I am rather sad that there isn't son of Spectrum around and the death of that was purely down to commercial aspects and the sale of the business to Amstrad which is well documented.

Sinclair products were born out of staggering innovation and clever shortcuts to get things into ever smaller packages at lower costs. Companies like Amstrad - which I have also worked for on a freelance basis - were more about taking existing technologies and finding special ways to stitch them together.

The Sinclair approach was far riskier as it was going out there and pretty well creating new markets. There was a purity in way the Sinclair products operated - raw access with pure simple code. And I think a lot of current day enthusiasts find that quite exciting compared to today's offerings.

Sir Clive declined to take part in the conversation.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    II was proud user of SINCLARE 48K. My children loved to play games through a cassette player 25 years before. I still possess it without using it any more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    We've come a long way in 30 years; I can now store and play every piece of Spectrum software created in the palm of my hand, on an emulator on my mobile phone. Yet it's 40 years since human beings travelled beyond Earth's orbit, and passengers used to be able to travel from London to New York in just over 3 hours, rather than the 7.5 it takes today. Science builds the future; we must invest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    I got my first computer: a ZX Spectrum 16k for Christmas 1982. I once wondered, back then if in the future I would go to meetings with other people my age and talk about and look at old compters, the same way my father went to car rallies and looked at 1930s cars. It hasn't quite happened yet but it's going that way! The nostalgia I have for the Spectrum is so very powerful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    I have always believed that I was one of the first people to buy a Spectrum. I remember getting the train down to London with my dad and waiting outside Olympia for the launch. I ran with the £125 in my hand to be met and served by Clive Sinclair himself!!! Got it home to find it didn't work and had to send it back immediately, but in those days we didnt really mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    I remember ordering my Spectrum in October 1982 while there was still a backlog. The advert for the mail order said to wait 28 days for delivery. In the end it arrived on the 23rd of December. I was 14 and loved it, I developed programs on it, including a computer dating program. It helped to get me hooked up with a sweet girl who is now my wife! 21 great years of marriage, thanks Mr Sinclair!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Never had had a ZX81 but I did have the very first Sinclair computer, the ZX80 with 1K of RAM. For those not in the know you need 1 million kilobytes to make a gigabyte, a bit low for Windows 7 today.

    I later owned a Sinclair QL and this had a massive 128K of RAM. The storage device was a pair of miniature tapes called micro-drives; these were ‘interesting’ (other descriptions invited).

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    My 48Ker died in 1990 :( In 2010 I learn what was wrong with it and whipped out the soldering iron. 15 minutes later and a new 7805 regulator and I've never been so happy to see © 1982 Sinclair Research Ltd on the screen.

    /Reliving the youth


  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    The first computer I owned was a ZX81, I then followed the tech through various Atari's, Commodores and Acorns but the one that is dearest to my heart is my ZX Spectrum 48k, simply because it was the most accessible to use of them all. The BBC Micro was a wonderful machine but I can't help feeling that it was a little bit pompous in comparison with the venerable, if somewhat simpler, ZX Spectrum

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    I remember where I bought my Spectrum, it was WH Smiths in Notting Hill, that store is still there! I had owned a ZX81. The Spectrum was a beautiful machine, easy to use, small. I learned to program on this machine.

    Yesterday I was at the 60th reunion of the first business computer, the LEO 1. Designed and built in the UK by a catering company J. Lyons. We have a great tradition of innovation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    #90 I did something equally immature in WH Smiths:
    10 PRINT "this is cheaper at Woolies"
    20 GOTO 10

    Happy days tho. Almost tempted to get mine down from the loft to see if I still 'have the nous".

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    At school we used a RM380Z which used a key to start! The ZX81 was a revolution! Apart from the RamPack which could crash the machine if knocked, but I loved it! The Spectrum opened the door to colour graphics and those games. I started with an Acorn Atom which had a massive 12K RAM! 6502 Assembly still has a place in my heart. I've ordered a Raspberry Pi for my son. Full circle perhaps?

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    If it was that good do tell why are Apple who they are with no UK mico comp industry left? Most curious is the arch-parasite living in luxury on an inflated salary in the HoL paid by us now picking up even more public money from an overrated and erksome TV programme working or yes .. unbelievably the BBC whoose crassness meant the growing UK mico-comp market would crash and burn. Answers please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Great memories with various Speccy's in my childhood, for both games and programming. I took these skills with me to the PC world and the then growing world of HTML and the web. Despite stepping away from this as a career, I'll always be a techy geek, although not quite as up to speed as I used to be. Thanks for the memories Spectrum :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    I used to love programming Z80 machine code. Feeling the electrons flickering around in the registers, whilst tapping away in the gloom at 3 am, gave rise to absurd but enjoyable delusions of grandeur. Despite a subsequent software career of several decades, I'm not sure I ever had quite so much fun with programming again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Remember 'poke 23609,20' to make the keys beep when you pressed them? Geeky nostalgia...

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Acorn Electron for me. Still got it somewhere, no tape player though. The good old days of programming in BASIC to get my computer A level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I did spend most of my time programming my Speccy. I had the Currah uSpeech module and the SpecDrum module too. I painted on it, made music on it and I played a few games too; Elite, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Zombie Zombie, Sabre Wulf, loads really. But mostly I programmed. And I still do, not only via emulators but also on my restored Spectrum, which has pride of place in a bedroom in my house.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    The golden era of computing. Glad to have been a part of it as a pre-teenager. I remember plumping for an Atari 400 and tape deck, and avoiding the Spectrum and the Sinclair ZX range before it, even though I used them all at friends' houses. Sirclive made a packet selling out to siralun, whose computer products sounded the death knell for the British home computer sector.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    10 POKE 23659,0
    20 FOR F=0 TO 7
    30 BEEP .1,F
    40 NEXT F
    50 GOTO 20
    You'd go round all the shops typing something like that in. It'd make a repreated noise. When they came to BREAK OUT using SHIFT and SPACE, the initial POKE would make the system Crash!
    No reset switch, so the only thing they could do then is PULL THE PLUG!
    Yes, the Spectrum incited thousands of kids to become HACKERS!

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Isn't it strange how a resolution of something like 320 x 200 pixels and a whole 16 colours seemed almost magical and produced a plethora of unique and interesting games, and yet, now we have far in excess of that, the shops are lined with clone upon clone of Quake?


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