So long Sir Clive, and thanks for all the fish

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Image credit: Charis Tsevis

On December 25th, 1982, my life changed forever.

I had discovered the word “computer” a few months earlier and only had a vague notion of its meaning. It is an incredible privilege to have lived through the software revolution and remember that era of discovery. As I am typing this on one of the many devices available to me,  I can still experience the fascination of those pioneering days.

My knowledge was purely anecdotal, we didn’t watch TV at home, and my parents didn’t buy magazines. So I had never seen an ad, but I had heard from a friend that computers were machines one could use to play games. That was all I needed to know to start lobbying my parents.

I focused on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, mainly because it was the only computer I knew. 

My father challenged me to prove my interest by learning how to build a calculator based on wires, switches, and light bulbs. I failed.

These were exciting times! The first computer magazines appeared in newsstands and kiosks. In addition to their articles written in Italian, they published complete code listings that one would input manually.

As I didn’t have a computer yet, so I decided to learn BASIC by reading. But, let me tell you, it is pretty hard to learn a programming language without a computer to practice. Not to mention that I had no notion of the English language.

Looking back to my 12y old self, reading BASIC listings and trying to make sense of GOTO, PEEK, and POKE, I am slightly concerned about whether everything was ok with me. 

I was missing two crucial pieces of information at the time, which made the following few months excruciating.

  • I didn’t know that my father’s challenge was essentially a ploy to make me believe I wouldn’t get a computer.
  • Nor did I know that Sir Clive Sinclair with products like the ZX80, ZX81, and ZX Spectrum would lower their cost to make computers available  to the masses, and contribute to the software revolution.

On that Christmas morning, as I opened my presents, I discovered a brand new ZX Spectrum. The high-end 48KB model, mind you, along with all the necessary accessories, including a small black and white TV. 

I immediately set it up and forgot the world around me. We then went to my grandparents’ house for the traditional Christmas lunch. I vividly remember bringing everything with me and set up the Spectrum again once there. 

Whenever I think about that day, I remember the strange feeling of living through a pivotal moment in my personal history.

One of those few times in life when, although you do not know what comes next, you know it’s not going to be anything like what came before.

From that day onwards, I knew that my life would revolve around making software things. I had moments along the way when I tried other avenues. I studied Mathematics and Physics, then Photography, but eventually, I’d get back to software, either by writing it or by leading teams who do.

Sir Clive Sinclair changed my life by making computers accessible.

Of course, he did not invent computers, nor was he the first to sell them to the general public. The Apple I had been launched in 1976, the Apple II in 1977, the Vic 20 in 1980,  the Commodore 64 in 1982 and all these were inspired by 1975’s Altair 8800. But what all these computers had in common was a very high price ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, limiting their access to the most fortunate families or deeply passionate adults.

On the other end, Sinclair’s computers ranged between a third and a tenth of the cost of those other products. Moreover, instead of specialised monitors and floppy disk drives, they used common accessories, like a standard TV set or audio cassette tape for storage.

Ironically, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was revolutionary because it brought colour capabilities at a low price, hence its name. But, unfortunately, once more, I had to use my imagination for at least two more years, as my TV was only black and white.

Unless you are about my age or very passionate about computer history, you may not know who Sir Clive Sinclair was.

Despite that, he changed your life too.

He put his genius to work to make electronics accessible. Through his machines, many people in my generation discovered computing and programming for the first time, with the ZX Spectrum alone entering more than five million households.

Many of these people have been part of the most profound revolution in human history since the discovery of fire: software.

As Sir Clive Sinclair, unfortunately, passed away a couple weeks ago, they all shared his computers’ influence on them.

Some like Elon Musk to Satya Nadella shared their love for Sinclair’s machines as homage.

Others like Linus Torvalds, remembering his QL days, were recorded much earlier.

The Raspberry PI Foundation, which today proudly carries the torch of democratising hardware by producing powerful PCs that are cheap and small, enough to be available to anyone, anywhere, also shared their respect for  Sir Sinclair.

The Register published a great obituary giving a much better sense of who he was and how after democratising electronics, then computers, he sadly failed to start another revolution: electric vehicles.

The irony of this, 35 years later, as electric vehicles are taking over our roads, didn’t go unnoticed:

William Gibson famously said: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”.

Whether it is hardware, software, knowledge, or information, democratisation and the subsequent wide-scale distribution are necessary for revolutions to happen.

Thank you, Sir Clive, for changing ALL OUR LIVES!

2 responses to “So long Sir Clive, and thanks for all the fish”

  1. Complètement d’accord avec la Dame, merci pour ce partage. Même si personnellement je ne suis qu’utilisatrice ;), je me rends bien compte qu’il aura fallu des gens comme ce Sir pour nous permettre toute cette informatisation tout autour de nous.

  2. Je ne connaissais évidemment pas ce Sir (RIP) mais à l’évocation du jeune Paolo, l’émotion était au rendez-vous ! Comme j’ai cru comprendre que le but de cet « apprentissage public «  (??) était l’échange, je partage à mon tour un souvenir d’ancien combattant : j’avais la télévision enfant mais pas d’ordinateur bien sûr et je rêvais essentiellement pour Noël d’un éléphant (Mon père etc. Mais c’est une autre histoire)… c’est donc une fois de plus bien après toi, vers 15-16 ans que je découvris l’informatique dans un lycée pilote innovant (si si, en forme d’avion/bateau : ). je quittai ce lycée au bout d’un an seulement mais décidai de passer l’option informatique au bac… et donc appris le turboPascal sur papier et y programmai la résolution du fameux problème des tours de Babel à l’aide de ce concept fabuleux : la récursivité, tadaaaa 😜. Je t’embrasse et te remercie toi de partager tout ça.

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