Happy 35th Anniversary – Sinclair ZX81

This 1981 ad from CVG laid out why everyone should hop aboard the Sinclair ZX81. More powerful than the already popular ZX80 and released a scant year later, the ZX81 also boasted an even cheaper entry point at £69.95 (the ZX80 retailed for slightly below £100). In 1981 values for March, a built version of the unit cost roughly $155.00 USD — far cheaper than its peers such as the VIC 20 which, in the same magazine, was advertised for £189.95 by an outift called Adda Computers Ltd. It was even cheaper (£49.95) if you built it yourself.

In the early 80s as the PC revolution continued to gain steam in North America, the curiosity about PCs also grew, but in the UK, the exorbitant import prices of the day kept costs in the hundreds or even thousands of British pounds. Companies like Apple may have made owning a personal computer simple in the US, but elsewhere, it could be a different story. Clive Sinclair looked to change that.

Sinclair’s groundbreaking work in building the PC mass market in the UK was thanks to the creation of cheap, build-it-yourself PC kits like the MK14 and later, the more advanced Sinclair ZX80 in 1980 which put ready-built computing power in the hands of even more people (the ad above notes that it sold “50,000 in the first 3 months”. But he wasn’t done yet. In 1981, a year after the ZX80 was introduced, the ZX81 arrived not only as an even cheaper alternative but a more advanced one.

As the ad above proudly answered the question of how it could be both cheaper and more powerful:

“The ZX80 reduced the chips in a working computer from 40 or so, to 21. The ZX81 reduces the 21 to 4!”

Ferranti, the UK company that produced the new chip for Sinclair that helped reduce the number needed, was quoted as saying “The ZX81 had four chips when our nearest competitor in this respect, the TRS-80, had 44.”

Arcade hardware enthusiasts would recognize the heart of the machine almost immediately. The Sinclair ZX81, like the ZX80, used a variant of the extremely versatile Z80 CPU which went on to find further fame in a variety of arcade systems as a CPU working alongside Yamaha sound chips in boards from Capcom to Konami.

To further drive down the price, you could even opt to buy it in kit form. Back in those early PC years, a computer kit was exactly that — a kit that had all of the pieces leaving you to provide the work and tools to put it all together with some patience and a soldering iron. No plug ‘n play slots or ZIF CPU sockets here.

The system ran on BASIC and came with a manual to help teach a few programming ropes to help make the most of it. It could use cassettes to save and load programs from (if you thought load times today are long for some games, try several minutes back then) and had expansion options like a 16K (kilobytes) RAM pack (the system came loaded with a monumental 1K of RAM without it), printer, or joystick for games.

Each tape contained a variety of programs at a super low price.

Each tape contained a variety of programs at a super low price. All these programs needed to know was whether you were running BASIC and how much RAM you had. And whether you had the patience to wait for them to load.

There were also a few other reasons as to why the ZX81 was incredibly cheap compared to its peers. For one thing, it couldn’t display upper or lower case letters. Graphics were also monochrome, the keyboard was a membrane-type system that could be difficult to work with, and its resolution of 64×48 pixels was pretty bad. But as a simple computing device that you could hook up to your television and create programs with, it was literally a gateway to a world that many felt was only within reach of big businesses. It was literally the Nintendo Wii of its day and sold phenomenal numbers for its time inspiring programmers and designers, many of which would go on to create their own companies and libraries of programs thanks to the opportunity that the ZX81 had given their imaginations.

Part of its success was also due to Sinclair’s own shrewd business sense which created another reason for the ZX81’s timely release roughly a year after the ZX80. The BBC was planning to create a TV series based around computing in 1982 and wanted to award a contract to someone who could create a PC for it to use as a “BBC-branded” piece of hardware.

The ZX81 was intended to rectify a number of issues with the ZX80 — namely by giving it more RAM to work with and allowing it to deal with more than just whole numbers thanks to the addition of floating point and trigonometric functions.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go Sinclair’s way with the BBC despite cramming so much more functionality into the small PC. Rival Acorn Computers also introduced their own design submission — and won the contract, launching their machine in January of 1982. Not only that, but the producer of the show, Paul Kirwaczek, was quoted as saying that the ZX81 was “fundamentally a throw-away consumer product.” Following the BBC’s decision, a government list of computers went out for schools to purchase from with the aid of a grant covering half of the cost of one.

Sinclair did his own deal offering a ZX81 and the 16K RAM pack for £60 while slashing the price of the printer add-on to half for a total price combo of £90. Since the cheapest option, according to Wikipedia’s entry, was £130, the choice almost made itself.

The decision also proved to be short sighted in view of how many ZX81s sold. By the time the show aired, it was estimated that there were already 400,000 ZX81 users. Marketing projected Sinclair as a “plucky” British upstart taking on American silicon and hardware from Japan. Timex even on to license a clone of the ZX81 for sale in American markets as the Timex 1000 (though it was trumped when price cutting and savvy marketing made its more powerful peers, such as the color-enabled VIC 20, far more appealing).

Creative programmers found ways to make the most out of its limited power. One of those achievements was a game called 3D Monster Maze programmed by Malcolm Evans to push what he thought he could do with the ZX81. It was published by J.K. Greye Software (John Grey was a fellow game programmer who Evans teamed up with to found J.K. Greye Software).

It was one of gaming’s earliest uses of 3D — the person stepped through a maze presented in first-person — while integrating horror elements such as being chased by a hungry T-Rex. J.K. Greye Software soon focused on making more 3D-type games as a result of the wild success that 3D Monster Maze received when it came out in 1982, roughly a year before Tunnel Runner for the Atari 2600 would.

The ZX81 launched its retail assault through mail-order and, eventually, through brick and mortar retail outlets. Sinclair Research became a computing titan in the UK and Clive Sinclair himself reaped huge financial rewards and ultimately, a knighthood for his contributions. But more importantly, it impacted an entire generation of would-be designers and programmers such as Rhianna Pratchett (Rise of the Tomb Raider), Charles Cecil (Broken Sword series), and David Perry (Shiny Entertainment).

One of the intriguing intersections crossing through the early 80s is that between Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi and Sir Clive Sinclair sharing one thing in common — the hope to bring PC computing to the masses at the lowest cost possible. Yamauchi hoped to sneak it into people’s homes in Japan using entertainment as a smokescreen with the Nintendo Famicom. Clive Sinclair did it by simply providing as much power as he could at the lowest price possible in the UK. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs kicked things off first as a hobbyist’s kit eventually becoming a computing juggernaut.

ZX81 was another amazing chapter in Sir Clive Sinclair’s story but the inventor was about to write the most exciting one yet. For as the ZX80 paved the way for the ZX81, the ZX81 would later pave the way for what many argue to be one of the real catalysts for the PC boom in the UK, a device that would send shockwaves through its history with computing for years to come — the ZX Spectrum.


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