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.

Related Stories

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.


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    Thank u Spectrum, you taught me well. Loved Z80. Lover assember. Loved hacking around. Loved 68K later for the same reasons but u started me off. Where everything around me was crap, you made me smile. Manic Miner + JSW, Atic Atac, Jetpac, Alien 8, Underwurlde, Bruce Lee, Way of the Exploding Fist, Yie Ar Kung-Fu, Nodes of Yesod, Highway Encounter, Saboteur, Fairlight 1+2 ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    Mine still works!

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    beee-bip [pause] beeee-biddly-biddly-biddly-biddly-biddly [pause basic loader loaded] bee-biddly-biddly-biddly-biddly-biddly [display gfx at $8000 and jmp to machine code loader]
    beee-bip [pause] beeee-biddly-biddly-biddly-biddly-biddly [~3-4 mins later] jmp $c000 [start game or drop to basic to hunt for game cheat pokes by manually converting hex to asm on paper (pre disassembler)]

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    The Spectrum was great in its day, It was then 'enhanced' by several nasty little add-ons - the start of the decline.

    The 'Son of Spectrum' was the real disaster, the Sinclair QL. Produced ahead of the Apple Mac and the Atari ST, it was also horribly unreliable and lacked a floppy disk. Does "bad or changed medium" ring any bells?
    (To be continued)

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    You have to love old Rubberface. Writing an adventure game that no one ever played. Days spent solving a Red Moon adventure which had no pictures. Trying to beat Sam Fox at cards. The beauty of the Spec was that it was so easy to collect games and so many to collect. I still have over 400 in a big briefcase. That's why it beat the C64. We'll see whether the C64 is on BBC in Aug. Unlikely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    I really love the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. They can still be used with modern tech today - games/applications can now be easily loaded via SD memory cards using add-on adapters found on the net. Faster loading times and there still are groups writing/designing games for this machine.

    I have just joined a new Retro club here in Edinburgh, so now I'm getting to play with even older stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    Oh no! The rubber keys of doom! Speccy's were great as doorstops though,,,

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    A lot of us learnt a great deal about structured logical thinking by programming our Spectrums - and even more its better successor the QL which did not need line numbers. But Sinclair was a rotten production engineer and did not deliver to promises, which was in the end his downfall.

    PS Don't talk about the C5!

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    Haha, a computer without all the pretentious branding that accompanies some modern-day tech brands (clue : the company logo is a piece of fruit).

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    I was an early ZX81 owner - £99. I pushed it by writing routines to do eg decimal arithmetic (which it didn't do).
    It fired me to do more. I sold it after a month and bought a Tandy TRS80.
    I look back on the cable to the TV; the programs recorded on a stereo tape recorder; the joy when Infinite Basic proved equal to the task of modelling motor car vibrations. It's easier now - and a lot cheaper!

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    I kept my 16k speccy bought back in 1983. I showed it to my daughter (then 8) a couple of yeas ago. Upon seeing it she said...Dad, where's the screen? She just couldn't grasp the fact that computers once upon a time had no monitor. All kidding aside...fantastic little machine...the thrill of working that little keyboard.

    10 Print "Happy 30th",
    20 GOTO 10

    Happy birthday speccy

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    I had a spectrum 48k and I used it for games. It had a "Quick Fire" brand joystick and I used to love the way the outside of the screen flashed colours while games were loading.
    At boarding school, receiving my monthly magazine (I forget the name) with it's "free" cassette with one full game and loads of demos was always a highlight of the month.
    And I never liked Commodore 64s.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    Happy birthday Spectrum - you've aged rather better than me! Is the Raspberry Pi computer the Spectrum for the 21st Century? I really hope so judging by the fond comments here...

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    i remember coding away for hours on a compukit 101 the zx81 and spectrum then went to an amstrad still miss the days of programming games from magazines the debugging them oh what fun we had with manic minor jet pack willy and the others those where the glory days oh and not forgetting trying to get the cmb fan boys to admit their machines wearnt as good lol

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.


    "Let's not forget the contribution of John Grant's Nine Tiles company. which was contracted by Sinclair's to design and write the BASIC system ROM in the three ZX machines.John himself wrote the ROM for the ZX80, and I did the ZX81 and the ZX Spectrum, as well as writing their user manuals."

    It's a bit late, but Thanks Steve and John! :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    I'm not a programmer but I love technology and was a proud owner of the a zx spectrum 48k... I have owned many gadgets over the years but can honestly say that none has managed to excite me as much as this little machine. As far as I am concerned it was the beginning of home computing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Football Manager by Kevin Toms...the birthplace of a legend and blueprint for a future classic.

    Many happy retro hours...

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    Let's not forget the contribution of John Grant's Nine Tiles company. which was contracted by Sinclair's to design and write the BASIC system ROM in the three ZX machines. As much as the machine itself, this ROM was a big part of the users' experience. John himself wrote the ROM for the ZX80, and I did the ZX81 and the ZX Spectrum, as well as writing their user manuals.

    Steve Vickers

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    There was loads around to teach you how to get the most out of the Speccy. From the 'Horizons' tape that came with it, to Sinclair User's pages of code, things like The Quill for writing your own adventures - the list was endless. You would see that someone had done something, and you could usually find out HOW they had done it. Sir Clive, you're largely responsible for my own IT career. Thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Ha! The comments from old C64 users brought back memories of the rivalry of the time!! However, even as Speccy owner from 83-92 when I got an Amiga 600, I can see in retrospect how good the C64 was, but feel the old Speccy 48k was such a wonderful little machine for all its drawbacks. I'm proud to be a rubber-key junkie!! Happy Birthday Speccy!


Page 3 of 14


More Technology stories



  • Mukesh SinghNo remorse

    Delhi bus rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back

  • Aimen DeanI spied

    The founder member of al-Qaeda who worked for MI6

  • Before and after shotsPerfect body

    Just how reliable are 'before and after' photos?

  • A man shutting his eyes tightlyStrange light show

    What do you see when you close your eyes?

  • Sony WalkmanLost ideas

    What has happened to Japan's inventors?

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.