Everyone will have heard of "Uncle" Clive Sinclair.
He can arguably be called the man who brought home computing to the masses in
February 1980 with the launch of the 1K ZX80 - the machine I borrowed off my
Physics teacher and became immediately gobsmacked that I could make it do things.
Yes, the keyboard was awful, yes the maths were integer only, yes the machine
couldn't think and display at the same time, but the whole machine was around
8 inches square and could display on your telly! Best of all it was available
pre-assembled for £99 - less than a third of the cost of the competitors.
The first dalliance with computers was produced by Chris
Curry while he was working at Sinclair Radionics. A company called Science
of Cambridge was set up to make what became the MK14, a small kit machine reminiscent
of a cut-down CBM/MOS Technology
KIM-1, with a hex keypad, hex display and an odd CPU called the SC/MP....I've
read that this CPU was used because National Semiconductor (the company that made them) offered to manufacture
the MK14 for free....obviously I don't know how true that is, but back then
everybody in Cambridge seemed to be doing other people favours and/or reverse
engineering someone elses kit! I've also been told that the MK14 was pretty much a copy of the SCAMP, which was the demo board for the SC/MP processor.
The modest success of the MK14 prompted Chris to approach Clive
with the intention of upgrading the MK14 to include, amongst other things, a
BASIC interpreter, but Clive wasn't interested so Chris jumped ship and started
Acorn with Herman Hauser.
The reason Clive wasn't interested was he was looking at designing
the machine that would ultimately become the Grundy
Newbrain after changing hands twice, but when it was discovered that this
machine couldn't be made for less than £100 (it was aimed at sub-£200)
it was sold to Newbury Labs, who up until that point made VDUs. The machine
that appeared instead was the ZX80, designed by Jim Westwood. The paragraph
at the top of the page describes it nicely, and it even spawned a copy - the
MicroAce (details of which are scarce to say the least!) produced by MicroAce of California.
I've been told that the ZX81 is what the ZX80 should've been,
but wasn't possible at the time because of problems experienced by a few companies
trying to implement ULAs (uncommitted logic array); essentially many separate
chips packaged in one. The technology was pretty new but the rewards were great
- reduced manufacturing costs and massively reduced chip count. Unfortunately
things tended to run hot and melt! Apparently the ZX80 was released because
of ULA problems, and the ZX81 was released once the problems had been cured.
After the museum's appearance in Silicon.com
I was contacted by Kate Grant, the wife of the man who's ultimately responsible
for me sitting here typing this now - John Grant of Nine Tiles. As seen below,
John was responsible for the ROM code of the ZX80; he also had a part in the
ZX81 ROM code and Spectrum firmware as well as doing bits for the Grundy Newbrain,
another well specced but poorly received machine. (I guess because it didn't
play games). Hopefully more news to come on this soon, but in the meantime hats
off to John and Kate!
I was chuffed to find Steven Vickers on the web. Steven's the man responsible for part of the ZX81 ROM,
all of the Spectrum's ROM and most of Sinclair's manuals as well as the Jupiter Ace with fellow Spectrum designer Richard Altwasser. Here's an extract of a mail from him:
"I did more for the Spectrum than just write the manual.
I also wrote almost
all the ROM code (in Z80 assembler). This was when working for a small firm
called Nine Tiles Information Handling Ltd, who were contracted by
Sinclair's to write the ROM code for the ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum.
In more detail,
ZX80: ROM code written by John Grant, boss of Nine Tiles.
ZX81: ROM code put together by me (the greater part I wrote new, the rest
adapted from ZX80 code). I also wrote the manual.
Spectrum: ROM code written almost entirely by me, and I also wrote the
Ace: ROM code and manual by me, hardware by Richard Altwasser (who had
worked on the Spectrum H/W at Sinclair's)."
Originally I had more bumf on this page relating to the ZX81, Spectrum and
QL, but I overwrote it with an older version - clever me. However, this has
led me to do more research and someone called Stephen Williams has written a
history essay on Sinclair products. Hopefully he'll let me reproduce it here,
but in the meanwhile you can find it here.
Interesting, if sad, trivia: courtesy of Andrew Owen comes a sad note - Ben
Cheese, one of the QL Engineers has passed on.....a small reminder of Ben is
in this paragraph:
>The Microdrives whirred at different speeds too. If you took eight,
carefully selected for tone, and hooked them up to a QL (I guess an
Interface 1 would do just as well, but never saw it) you could play tunes by
turning the appropriate motors off and on. Christmas carols were popular...
this particular silliness was cooked up by Ben Cheese, an incredibly
talented and even more incredibly nice chap who was one of the QL engineers.
He also did mildly subversive cartoons for the Sinclair in-house newsletter
(WHAM!, or What's Happening At Milton), and played saxophone. With Shakatak,
on one occasion. He went on to work at Flare with some other SInclair
engineers (Martin Brennan and John Mc... um), who had their own Z80
Spectrumalike for a while, then did various oddities including the Atari Jaguar and a disk drive chip
for Amstrad that fully explored various
out-of-spec conditions in the ASIC process used to fab it.