The British Microchip Revolution

The home computer revolution is success story mired in 1980s pop culture from the Apple Macintosh launched by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1984 and the battle with the corporate giants IBM and Commodore. As well as the birth of the Microsoft Windows operating system home computers or PCs as they became commonly know were fast becoming everywhere. It was giant leap in consumer electronics that had only recently been something of a hobbyist’s activity in the 1970s. However while most people think of the home computer market as an American invention there was also a home computer revolution taking place right here in Britain. While the USA had Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Paul Allen; Britain had Clive Sinclair, Chris Curry, Hermann Hauser and Alan Sugar.

Clive Sinclair had already made his name in the electronics industry with a wide variety of electronic gadgets in the 1970s. In ear radios, amplifiers and in 1972 the world’s first slimline pocket calculator. An innovation that has been a boon to maths whizzes, engineering students and business people. In 1977 he released the Microcomputer Kit 14, better known as the MK14. A small programmable computer that was typical of 1970s computers. Back then the idea of a home computer was an expensive commodity that was used by electronics hobbyists and maths whizzes that relied on people who had a grasp of basic computer science. Most of these home computers however were not of the consumer types that we see today. You bought them raw buying them in components or as kits that you assembled together at home. The MK14 consisted of a board with an integrated number keyboard, a tiny LED display, 256 bytes of RAM (that was expandable to 640 bytes) and 2000 bytes of ROM and cost about £39.95. The equivalent of about £251.23 today. That might sound relatively cheap today and it sure was for a microcomputer, a microcomputer is a small pocket shaped computer the size of a calculator used for small basic programmable functions. Sinclair would later become the father of the British IT market and that story starts with the Sinclair ZX80.

As well as being the preserve of hobbyists home computers were still expensive products. The Apple 2 launched in 1977 cost around £1850, the Canadian computer Commodore Pet was released in the same year and it cost £500, the Atari 800 released in 1979 cost £317. Too much for the common person to consider computing programming worth a try, let alone within their budget. Sinclair had a vision in a computing device would be in every home in Britain. To achieve that he looked to the size of the consumer’s wallets and set about a machine that everyone want as a consumer product, rather than a hobbyist’s toy. With a new company called Sinclair Computers he launched the Sinclair ZX80, a small computer that cost £99.99 in assembled form. It was so popular due to it’s price tag that there was a waiting list for several months for all versions of the machine. It was just what Sinclair had in mind. He believed that in order for a computer to appeal to everyone it had to be cheap and cheerful that someone would want it even if they have no idea what to do with it. By making them cheap to buy he could also reduce the overall cost of the home computer and flood the market with so many models that the competition would be in his hands and every other computer company would have to reduce the price of their own models. Which of course they did. By the end of the ZX80’s production over 100’000 units were shipped. The ZX80 was then quickly followed by the much cheaper ZX81 costing £69.95 in assembled form which sold over 1.5 0million units over it’s three year run. Had it not been for Sinclair’s business strategy the home computers that we have today like laptops and tablets would probably still run in the thousands of pounds, as opposed to the hundreds of pounds today.

While Sinclair appeared to have it all to himself he was not alone in the development of the information age in the UK. One of his former business partners Chris Curry went into business with a friend called Hermann Hauser, an Austrian PhD physics student who came from a family business in wine making. Together they set up an electronics company and staffed it by plucking graduates from Cambridge University. Curry and Hauser set up an in house recruitment vehicle for the business on campus called the Cambridge Processor Unit Ltd (CPU). Later they traded under a different name which eventually became the computer company that they were known for: Acorn Computers. They started out by making microcomputers for firms which made electronic devices. When Sinclair brought out the ZX80, Acorn responded by developing a fully made computer of their own called the Atom. It’s specifications were double that of the ZX80 but it was a bit more expensive and with the way things were going between Sinclair Computers and Acorn Computers it was looking like a PC vs Mac war on this side of the Atlantic. And this was before Microsoft and Apple had locked horns with each other.

If Sinclair Computers was Microsoft, then Acorn Computers was Apple. The two companies would soon be the two titans of the IT market in the UK. Sinclair followed up the ZX81 with a new machine that had been in the works as a top secret project ready to take Britain and the computer market by storm. Called the ZX Spectrum it was launched in 1982 at the cost £125. It was a hugely popular success for the home computer market. Over 5 million units were sold worldwide during it’s production run between 1982 and 1992. This was Sinclair’s magnum opus and it was made to work with his practice of autocratic production where he was churning out thousands of units a month in the factories. He was able to keep up with demand thanks to this and made a small fortune from the Spectrum’s gamming appeal. Whereas Acorn and the BBC Micro were making strides in teaching computer science to the masses, the Spectrum was a world class gaming machine. It had full colour display graphics, 16 KB RAM and 16K ROM, a 3.5 MHz processor and worked through a conventional TV screen. The introduction of the ZX Spectrum led to the world’s biggest computer games market. The games were on audio cassette tapes that could loaded onto the machine using a cassette recorder which often took a long time to load, despite this technical flaw many users accepted it. However there was also a DIY approach to loading games complementary of computer journals and gaming magazines which printed codes written by software programmers. These codes were used by readers to compute into the machine and load the games to play at your leisure. There was a catalogue of some very popular games in the Spectrum range: Jet Set Willy, Manic Miner, Hungry Horace, Harrier Attack, Micro Mouse, Ant Attack, Frenzy, Snooker, Ghostbusters, Pac Man, Potty Pigeon, Monopoly, Chess, etc. There was over 24’000 software titles for the Spectrum, with games making the bulk of the list.

As the home computer progressed Britain was getting better at it and were doing things better in ways that the American tech giants IBM and Apple were not doing well in. Thanks to the low cost price tag Britain had so many units in circulation it was felt that the UK was ahead of the world in computer science. There were various bodies set up by the government to spread their usage as well to improve business and commerce during the Thatcher revolution which would eventually coincide with the big bang of the financial boom. There was demand to get the information age on the school curriculum, which was highlighted by the BBC. They started a project called the ‘BBC Computer Literacy Project’. This would be the development of an educational programme to put a computer in every school backed by the UK government. The Literacy Project turned to a number of computer makers and after receiving several bids Acorn was awarded the contract after they managed to deliver a computer built to their specifications that they would use in an accompanying TV programme called ‘The Computer Programme’, which allowed people to make the most of their computer. The computer was at the design stage at the time that Acorn were working on a successor to the Atom, which was originally going to be called the Proton. Acorn’s top engineers Steve Furber and Sophie Wilson had one week to build a working prototype from the sketch designs and specifications. The programme was due to be screened in January 1982 and the machine which became known as the BBC Micro made by Acorn was released on sale in December 1981. It cost £235, had a 16 kB RAM, 32 kB ROM, 2 MHz CPU, 8 colour graphics, an integrated keyboard and was soon followed by six different models. It was first released in two varieties: Model A and Model B. Each of them had alternating features where Model A had 16kB RAM, Model B had 32 kB RAM with an overclocked processor at 4 MHz. It made quite a spectacular impact on the market with 80% of UK schools purchasing one for computer science lessons. The TV show that accompanied the tutoring of it’s usage was followed by two other programmes which followed on from the first. First it was The Computer Programme (1982), then it was Making the Most of the Micro (1983), then it there was Micro Live (1984-7). Altogether these programmes covered all aspects of computer literacy: programming, graphics, sound and music, teletext, controlling external hardware and artificial intelligence. It was like a DIY programme for IT and computer geeks. Thanks to the success of the Literacy Project the BBC Micro shifted over 1.5 million units over the course of it’s 12 year run from 1981 to 1994. Even before the TV show finished demand for the BBC Micro dwindled as everyone who wanted one got one. It was a product made for just one purpose and that purpose soon fizzled out. One of them being that virtually all the schools had one so there were no further customers to hand them out to. The original Model A and Model B were discontinued in 1986 and newer models of the BBC Micro came along which had a modest success.

Whilst Acorn and Spectrum dominated the UK IT scene there were other computer makers here and there, but most of them never survived the gold rush of the home computer market. These companies only ever launched one or two machines. However there was a successful third player that was taking on Sinclair, Acorn and Commodore. That was Amstrad headed by Alan Sugar, who is perhaps best known today as the boss of the BBC TV series ‘The Apprentice’, but in the 1980s he was a well know business figure famous for his electronics company. While Sinclair and Acorn were based in Cambridge which is the headquarters of the British IT industries, Amstrad was based in Brentwood, Essex. Amstrad had already been around since 1968 and started off making consumer electronic products: TVs, hi-fi stereos and car stereo cassettes. They entered the PC market quite late in 1984, around the same time Apple launched the Macintosh. They had a more formal business setup as opposed to the Cambridge elite who were mostly run by ex-graduates who according to Sugar were ‘only putting a few electronic components in a plastic box’. Amstrad was run by business people who had a better marketing strategy that put Sinclair and Acorn in their place. Amstrad’s first PC was called the CPC464 released in 1984. It had 64 KB Ram, no internal memory but it was stored on cassette that was loaded internally (rather than by an external cassette recorder). It was a far cry from the designs of the Spectrum and BBC Micro where these machines required a TV and an external cassette player. The Amstrad range was amongst the first affordable “all-in-one” computer which consisted of the computer, keyboard and data storage device combined in a single unit sold and distributed with it’s own dedicated monitor. It looked like a real computer you’d expect to see in an office, which was just what Sugar wanted it to be. He didn’t want it to look like the Sinclair computers, which he likened to ‘pregnant calculators’. It cost about £249 with a green screen and £359 for a colour screen, quite attractive for a mid-range PC at the time. The CPC series ran until 1990 and by then it had sold 3 million units. Amstrad would be the last British computer company standing.

By the mid-1980s the UK home computer bubble was starting to burst. Sinclair was trying to expand his range of gadgets with a computer aimed at business users called the Quantum Leap (or QL), a pocket television called TV80 and he tried to kickstart a new market for electric vehicles. The QL was launched in 1984 as an up market counterpart to the Spectrum costing £399 with 128 KB of RAM. It was supposed to have been a rival to the IBM PC and Apple’s Macintosh but it failed to achieve any of those standards because of marketing and production problems. Sinclair’s autocratic production criteria created bad quality QLs and as a result it went out on sale with bugs in the firmware. With premature releases before it was completed production ceased a year later in 1985. In that same year Clive Sinclair released a machine that he thought would change the world. The Sinclair C5, a three wheeled electric bike which was written off as a joke before it even hit the streets and it only ever sold 17’000 units costing Sinclair £7 million. The C5 combined with the failure of the QL and TV80 spelled the death knell of Clive Sinclair’s reputation and by 1985 he was a national joke. As for Acorn they too made a bad business decision with their business. At the height of the Spectrum’s popularity with the games market Acorn decided to challenge Sinclair in order to make their own high street games machine to complement the BBC Micro. It was called the Electron and it was designed and built as a budget version of the BBC Micro with all the same functions. It was launched in August 1983 with an aim of being the best-selling Christmas gadget of the year. Sadly however many customers didn’t receive their orders because of production problems. Only 30’000 machines were ready for purchase out of a pre order of 300’000. In the months after Christmas Acorn was stuck with 250’000 unsold machines filling a warehouse in Wellingborough up to the ceiling! Acorn suffered such an embarrassing blow for reliability. In 1985 the company was in trouble, it’s share prices were declining and the company was in danger of bankruptcy. Help came in the form of a takeover from an Italian computer company called Olivetti. They induced cash into the failing business and started making an upgraded BBC Micro called the BBC Master. The BBC Master would continue on until 1994 when the big American corporations started to dominate the market.

Amstrad also helped to play a part in keeping the flame alive, at least for a while. Alan Sugar bought out Sinclair’s computer business and set about sorting out its mistakes from the recent flops. They started by releasing new models that were more sensible and mature than their predecessors. Amstrad continued to make Sinclair Spectrums upgraded and modified using components made for the Amstrad machines until the range was finally discontinued in 1992. While this going on Amstrad continued to make its own home computer range with the CPC range. It went on for another few years until the range was ceased in 1990 and by then Amstrad had sold over 3 million units. The CPC was replaced by the more popular Amstrad PCW range which sold over 8 million units from 1985 to 1998. These were cost effective alternatives to the IBM-compatible-PC systems which ran software that was used on the original IBM PC systems at affordable prices at the time. The PCW range had a speciality that was suited to the majority of British home computers which was word processing. This allowed Alan Sugar to realise that it could be released with it’s own dedicated printer. Hence the PCW is the Personal Computer Word Processor. It was designed to be used primarily as a computerised type writer, and you got the printer with the machine which included the computer and the monitor. Not bad for £399, but it’s software didn’t do well to keep it’s sales lasting well into the 1990s. Microsoft’s Office software was released and it became a hugely popular productivity software that all other word processors became obsolete. Windows became the universally accepted operating system of the IT industry and computer makers no longer made their own operating systems and software for their machines.

The mid 1980s was a challenging era for the world’s computing industry and by now it was undergoing a dramatic shift in the balance of power and usability for home users and consumers. Almost everyone in Britain had a computer and the technophile hobbyists who used to make up the majority of the home computer market began to disappear. In America Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs was forced out of his company in a power struggle with the board of executives. Microsoft’s Bill Gates started to gain the upper hand when he released the Windows operating system which first went on sale as an operating system used by IBM PCs. Sinclair and Acorn were taken over by mergers and the viability of the personal computer was in doubt as they became were used largely for gaming in the home and productivity in the workplace. People were not using them in the same way that the IT entrepreneurs think they did. It would take another ten years for them to mature to those standards when the graphical user interface phased out the text based programme coding function that was still in use and another ten years for the World Wide Web to make computers an extension of the individual that every person would want one. As for the UK IT and home computer market it apparently faded into the history books of technology. Microsoft’s Windows OS is now on 93 % of all the world’s computers and Apple is now cool again as the byword of fashionable consumer technology, IBM has sold it’s home computer division to Chinese electronics maker Lenovo and the Japanese started and still leads the world in video game technology which took over from the world of the home computers that were mainly used as gaming machines. Is there any sign of British computer making and software programing? Will yes there is.

  • Sir Clive Sinclair recovered from the failure of his computer business and electric vehicle franchise and carried on his main company Sinclair Research Ltd to develop new innovations in science and technology. It operates as a research and development centre and Sir Clive is still inventing to this day. His most recent inventions include a folding bike called the A-Bike released in 2006 and an electric bicycle called the X-1.
  • Acorn founders Chris Curry and Herman Hauser went their separate ways after the Olivetti takeover. Curry went on to run another electronics company called General Information Systems (GIS) where he is currently the director. They make smart card technologies for access control and electronic money like credit cards and access and keys. Hauser on the other hand took an opportunity to reinvent Acorn and it’s purpose. He became vice-president of Olivetti’s research division in 1985 and a year later co-founded Olivetti Research Laboratory (ORL). Later in 1990 while still in Cambridge he headed up one of the companies that came out of the breakup of Acorn: Advanced RISC Machines (ARM). ARM was Acorn’s microprocessor that was based on a design called Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC), which allows computers to process information on a simplified instruction set as opposed to a complex set of instructions when combine with a system architecture that executes instructions using fewer microprocessor cycles per instruction. ARM was made in a joint venture with Apple Computer and VLSI Technology. Today they are one of the biggest microprocessor makers in the world supplying and licencing processor designs to all the major manufacturers of electronic devices: Apple, IBM, Texas Instruments, Samsung, HTC, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Nintendo and even digital cameras, televisions, network devices and satnavs. Rest assured there is certainly one British ARM designed processor in your phone or tablet!
  • Amstrad continued to make electronic devices for the consumer well into the turn of the century. Making computers and video games consoles in the 1990s which didn’t sell very well, Amstrad moved into the home entertainment business making VCRs and DVD players. They then went into to design and make set top boxes for satellite and cable TV services. To this day it’s still making successful set top boxes for Sky such as the Sky+ digital video recorder. Amstrad was later sold by Alan Sugar to BskyB in 2007 for £125 million giving them total control of their own set top boxes and DVRs.
  • In East London there is a cluster of technology companies called the East London Tech City, also known as Silicon Roundabout. Stretching between Old Street and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The companies with offices in the area include Google, Facebook, Cisco and Intel. There’s also BT, Amazon and the IT departments of Barclays and McKinsey & Company and various media companies like Even educational institutions have invested in the area like Imperial College and Loughborough University.
  • Software and games developers are scattered all about the country stretching from Edinburgh to the Southeast of England. They are one of the biggest success stories of the UK electronics market that have been making money for Britain in ways that would have caught consumers unaware of. There’s Activision who are famous for the Call of Duty series, Electronic Arts whom have published hundreds of great titles such as the EA Sports series, the Star Wars games, Mass Effect and the Medal of Honour series and there is also Games Workshop whose famous creation is the Warhammer series. Then there’s one of the most famous game publishers of all: Rockstar Games, creators of the Grand Theft Auto series.

And as these stories tell the UK Electronics and IT industry is alive and well.

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