Retro Computer Story: Sir Clive Sinclair

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Sir Clive Sinclair has been an iconic and controversial figure of British industry for more than a quarter of a century. Sinclair has achieved in his career numerous and significant successes such as the invention of the first pocket calculator, the first portable television and the most successful English computer of all time: the ZX Spectrum. But Sinclair is also remembered for his colossal failures, including the C5, an horrible and unusable electric tricycle designed for city use.

He was awarded by Margareth Thatcher herself and later knighted in 1983 for her great contribution to British industry.

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Sir Clive Sinclair founded his company in 1958. Sinclair Radionics Ltd produced computers, personal computers and other electronic equipment. Small was beautiful for Sir Clive Sinclair. Even the first digital wristwatch is his invention. Many ideas born of his fervid imagination never saw mass production anyway, because they were too expensive or too difficult to manufacture with the technologies of the time.

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In January 1980, Sinclair Radionics Ltd presented its famous ZX80 at the Wembley show. Then in 1981 the ZX81. Both sold both in assembly kits or already assembled. Aesthetically unattractive and with black and white graphics, they were an unexpected success.

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A couple of years later the ZX Spectrum entered the market and quickly became the most sold British computer in the world (and also the cheapest): distributed in 30 different countries, it won 5 million satisfied buyers, between individuals and companies .

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How could a small company like Sinclair Research (140 employees in the highest productivity peak) reach such a prominent market share in the electronics industry? What made Clive Sinclair into an icon of the 80s? The answer was simple: marketing. Sinclair’s sales systems were simple and effective. Product advertising was innovative and attractive. On balance the advertising was perhaps qualitatively superior to the same products that it tried to sell.

Sinclair products may have been small – like his company – but the advertisement gave the idea that there was an ultra-modern industry behind it. In a few lines these are the characteristics of his advertisements:

Flashy titles, in large letters, which occupied more than a quarter of a page. Double pages, compared to competing companies that used small spaces, full of descriptions and captions. For Sinclair everything had to give the idea, in the layout, that we were talking about a big company.

A photo for each product. Sinclair understood that his potential buyers liked to see what they were about to buy.

Furthermore, Sinclair has never been shy about emphasizing the characteristics of his products. He praised them so much that his advertisements were often fined by consumer protection agencies.

Emphasize innovation … always … even when it wasn’t there. Vary the advertisements, even if the product was always the same. In this way the product always appeared “new” in the mind of the readers.

Always give modern and “strong” names to products. Sinclair was famous for always using the letters Z, X and Q in the names. They were strong letters, little used in the English alphabet and therefore more prominent. Added to this was the extreme use of superlatives and exotic neologisms. A vulgar 10-watt chip became a “Super IC 10” and so on …

At the end of the 70s the electronics market was not as widespread as today. It was material for hobbyists and certainly the specialized computer shops did not exist yet. Therefore the mail-order system was the best way to sell products, allowing him to produce only what was requested. Combining this with a strong advertising campaign, he stimulated the reader not only to book the product, but also to wait with more interest for his arrival in the few electronic stores.

For the launch of the ZX81 Sinclair also relied on those chain stores that, sensing the great potential of the computer boom in the 80s, began to open “computer corners” in their stores. Sinclair managed to snatch big exclusive deals with these companies … even entering into contracts BEFORE the ZX81 went into production, shooting with an exhibition prototype.

However, the sale on demand was also a double-edged sword. The unexpected success of many of its products and the consequent increase in demand created many problems for the small Sinclair industry. On several occasions he was unable to keep up with bookings, accumulating biblical delays in deliveries.

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These difficulties in managing large production volumes combined with investments in highly publicized projects that then proved to be large “flops” such as the C5 led, in the mid-1980s, to a slow decline of Sir Clive’s empire.

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