Acorn vs Sinclair – An Epic ’80s Computer Rivalry | Nostalgia Nerd

Hello and welcome to a new series I’ll be calling tech-u-mentaries. That is to say, documentaries about technology… Awwww, will I fuck. It’s just a documentary To begin this story we have to go way back
to the 25th July 1961, when Acorn didn’t exist and Clive Sinclair had just formed his first
company, Sinclair Radionics after borrowing £50 and raising finance through article writing
at Practical Wireless magazine. Radionics began by developing hi-fi equipment
such as the Micro-amplifier and selling by mail order. All of Sinclair’s products would
have the ethos of miniaturisation at their core, alongside elegance and style. This very
ethos would often take the place of reliability and stability, with the company facing large
numbers of faulty equipment returns. None the less, Sinclair’s innovation would lead
the company on, with Chris Curry – who would later go on to form Acorn – joining Radionics
in 1966. Curry quickly became integral to Radionics
operation and would help launch their first electronic calculator in 1972 and “Black Watch”
in 1975. But further technical issues and poor sales led to the National Enterprise
Board buying a 43% stake in Radionics in 1976, which would quickly increase. Under the NEB,
Sinclair would launch the world’s first pocket TV and begin development on the NewBrain computer,
designed by Mike Wakefield in 1978. The Newbrain was intended to be a rival for the recently
released Apple II, but it didn’t really fit into Sinclair’s vision of an inexpensive home
micro, and so under the NEB’s guidance was sold off to Newbury Laboratories, who the
NEB also had ownership over. Shortly after this, the NEB renamed Sinclair Radionics to
Sinclair Electronics Ltd, and later Thandar Electronics Ltd… which continues in form
to this day. Clive was subsequently sent packing, along with a nice golden handshake and various
in-development technologies, including the C5 electric car.
Handily, Clive had saw most of this coming, and in 1975 had sent Chris Curry off to run
another company, called Sinclair Instrument Ltd, which under his guidance produced a calculator
watch and in 1977, the MK14, a Microcomputer kit, sold through mail order after the business
re-branded to Science of Cambridge Ltd. Clive hopped across in 1978 but Curry, frustrated
by Clive’s unwillingness to further develop the MK14, resigned and with his friend Hermann
Hauser, who was just finishing up a doctorate at Cambridge University founded Cambridge
Processor Unit Ltd (Abbreviated to CPU – you can see what they did there). In reality,
they had founded the business whilst Curry was still working for Sinclair and they actually
started out by rather cheekily “borrowing” a room at Clive’s Science of Cambridge premises
to provide consultancy. Their first customer was Ace Coin Equipment
Ltd who required fruit machine controller hardware and they would carry on serving various
other businesses in this way until 1979 when they founded Acorn Computers Ltd. With the
name intended to depict a Growing company, whilst also appearing above Apple in the phone
book (remember, this was the 70s, shit like this was an important marketing strategy back
then). Under this brand they would launch the Acorn System 1, based on an automated
cow feeder, designed by undergraduate recruit Rodger Wilson (now known as Sophie Wilson).
It was in many respects like the MK-14, featuring a small keypad and LED display. Acorn would
go on to launch the System 2 and 3 in quick succession, but these were really rack based
Eurocard systems designed mainly for laboratory and industrial use.
Whilst this was going on, Clive, on realising the success of Curry’s MK14, had dreamt up
the idea of the ZX80. A low cost, personal computer, that would break the £100 price
point and demonstrate to the world that computer’s were for everybody, not just professionals
and businesses. The ZX80 was released in early 1980 and true to it’s word, became the first
affordable home micro. Featuring 1kb of RAM and a Z80 CPU, which also generated the display
output, causing the screen to blank out whilst registering key presses. The machine also
had a rather limited Sinclair BASIC, but lacked a floating point, so was arguably not even
a true computer. The ZX80 had beaten Acorn in launching a low
cost home micro, but they were hot on the heels, recruiting Steve Furber, again from
Cambridge, to work on hardware. Only a few months later, they released the Acorn Atom,
based on their System 3 hardware. It boasted a full stroke keyboard – obtained on the cheap
– double the memory of the ZX80 and made use of a new NTSC video chip obtained from the
States, which was tweaked to allow black & white output on PAL televisions.
The Atom was clearly a superior machine, but priced at £120 in kit form and £170 assembled
was respectively, £40 and £70 more expensive than Sinclair’s machine. This led to the ZX80
selling approximately 100,000 units compared to the Atom’s 10,000. But still, this was
above Acorn’s anticipated numbers, and was therefore a commercial success.
With both companies boosted by their success, plans for further machines quickly went into
production. This was alongside a rather heated rivalry between the companies. This was in
part due to the fractious final working years between Curry and Sinclair, with both parties
wanting to show the other, they were taking the best path.
Sinclair quickly followed up their success, with the even cheaper ZX81, released in 1981.
Priced at just £69.95, fully assembled and offering a number of improvements over the
80, including a larger ROM, a slow mode which cut out the display flicker and even floating
point ability, it sold over 1.5 million units, and really was the first machine to become
dominant in the home. It wasn’t without it’s problems though, still retaining the dead
feeling membrane keyboard and this time shipping with a ROM bug in it’s square root calculations.
Curry and Hauser had been trumped yet again, but they had an ace up their sleeve.
Remember the Newbrain machine I mentioned earlier? Well, in 1980 the BBC began the initial
roots of the BBC Computer Literacy Project, partly encouraged itself by a rivalry where
ITV showed a documentary about “The Mighty Micro” and the impending revolution it would
bring. They therefore wanted a branded machine to feature in their new TV show. Newbury were
the first ones to pick up the tab, despite Clive trying to rally objection, even from
Curry himself at the lack of a fair selection process, but in any case were unable to develop
the Newbrain enough to meet production targets. The BBC again put out the tender to other
UK computer brands, for a fairer competition. Sinclair put out a proposal, as did Tangerine
and Dragon Data, but it was Acorn who clinched the deal, re-working their already in development
Proton machine at late notice to fit the BBC specifications.
And when I say late notice, I mean it. Curry headed down to the BBC’s offices in London
and confidently told the Beeb board that they had an ideal machine, ready and waiting. Desperate
for a machine ASAP, the BBC arranged a visit the following week. Of course, the only problem
was, the machine wasn’t ready, waiting, or indeed, even remotely built to the required
specs. What followed was a famous telephone exchange where Hauser convinced both Furber
and Wilson that each other had agreed to the short time frame; and
so it began, 5 days to produce a working prototype.
The team worked day and night, with the machine only coming to life the very morning the BBC
were due to visit. However, the BBC were suitably impressed for Acorn to get the contract almost
immediately, in February 1981, and by June, the BBC Micro was conceived and priced up.
By December 1981, the “Beeb” was fully unveiled, and was an immediate commercial success, mainly
in schools, but also in homes that could afford the £299, or £399 price tag for the model
A and B respectively, with parents willing to cash in on both the entertainment and educational
value. The A was essentially a cut down version of the B, with less expansion ports and 16kb
compared to 32kb. But to Acorn’s surprise, almost all sales were for the model B.
The BBC Micro was a powerful machine, hosting the 6502 processor and an array of expandability,
including an additional Z80 processor to meet the BBC’s requirements of a CP/M compatible
machine. Acorn expected sales in the region of 10-20,000, but the Beeb would eventually
sell a whopping 1.5 million units, allowing Acorn to expand considerably over the next
few years. You can imagine Clive’s face at this point.
Oohhhh, the rage.. the bitter, insurmountable rage. But really, the rage was misplaced,
because by April 1982, Sinclair would launch a machine not only designed to smash Acorn’s
home market success, but to completely dominate the home market in glorious rainbow colouring.
The Sinclair Spectrum! Now, it’s hard to over-estimate the impact
which this machine made on not on the UK computer market, but the global market as well. With
another low cost entry point, essentially half that of the Beeb, at £179 for the 48kb
model and £129 for the 16kb model, this rubber keyed beauty would sell over 5 million units,
with almost every household with an average occupant age of under 40 owning one. The Commodore
64 wasn’t due on the scene for a number of months, and in any case, it was a lot more
expensive. So in the majority of cases, the Speccy was the personal computer of choice.
Packing another Z80 processor, but this time with a lot more memory than the ZX models,
an internal speaker, 15 colours and a keybord which at least had some tactile feel, it would
herald the peak of Sinclair’s fame and fortune. At this point, I’d say that Sinclair had a
slight edge over Acorn. Both had established markets, one in the educational sector, and
one in the home gaming markets. Both were lucrative enough for the businesses to succeed
if they made the right next steps. Steps which weren’t driven by rivalry, ego, or narrow
mindedness. But you can guess where this is going.. right?
A number of business decisions followed. The first was by Acorn to expand their company,
and involved going public and offering shares on the stock exchange. This was ultimately
a success and provided finance for Acorn to expand and continue their operation. However,
Acorn would also attempt to break into the American market under Acorn Computer Corporation,
but would ultimately fail, spending much of the money raised.
Sinclair also sought expansion and unwilling to relinquish control of his business, like
he had suffered under the NEB, tried to expand into foreign markets, including Spain and
America. Sinclair’s affiliation with Timex in the States was designed to cash in on the
people who were currently importing Spectrum’s to the States in their current UK form, however,
the Timex Sinclair machines were mostly incompatible with the existing library of Spectrum software
and so failed to make a significant impact. Penetration into Spain was more convincing,
but the main bulk of sales would remain in the UK.
With continued rivalry in mind, Sinclair was also keen to break into a more professional
marketplace, and Acorn wanted a slice of that huge juicy gaming market. So rather than pushing
onwards and upwards, some double stepping and divergence would follow.
From Acorn’s perspective, it’s market increasing solution was to develop a lower cost, cut
down version of the BBC Micro, marketed at the home and games markets, and designed to
go head to head with the Speccy. This decision contradicted a number of voices within Acorn,
such as Furber and Wilson who were looking into improving the Beeb and 32bit processor
design. But after a provisional order from WH Smiths of 120,000 units, Acorn would go
ahead with it’s cut down plans and produce the Electron for August 1983, utilising ULA
circuitry which would pack the Beeb’s 102 chips into 12, cut down versions. Most of
the BBC requested specs would also be omitted. The plan was to ship 100,000 of the £175
machines by Christmas, but production problems meant the machines didn’t hit the stores until
Feburary 1984. Despite the positive reviews of the hardware, this crucial miss of the
Christmas period, coupled with a slow down in the home computer markets, meant that orders
were cancelled and Acorn was left with a warehouse of unwanted machines.
At around the exact same time, Sinclair would launch the QL machine. A hastily put together
design which was intended to break into the professional and business markets, although
Clive, or Sir Clive by this point, had created some confusion with the head of Sinclair Computers,
Nigel Searle over whether this machine would be more suited as an upgraded Spectrum for
the home or was really intended to break into business use. In any case, even thought the
hardware was fairly advanced, with a Motorola 68010 CPU, the advertising campaign failed,
along with poor reviews on the keyboard and compatibility of it’s new micro drive units.
Coupled with this, the machine wasn’t compatible with the Spectrum’s library of software, meaning
it would also fail in the home market. The Electron sold adequate numbers to ensure
software houses would support it into the early 90s, and the existing backlog of stock
would be cleared in due course, thanks in part by Dixons agreeing to ship them out at
less than cost price, but in the immediate term, it was no where near enough to make
up for Acorn’s debts. The QL would sell 150,000 units, but was still deemed a commercial failure,
unable to make a dent in any markets which were quickly becoming saturated with ever
powerful machines. Further marketing campaigns would lead to
the infamous showdown in the Barron of Beef Cambridge pub, where Clive, filled with rage
from Acorn’s campaign slating Sinclair’s reliability, would stride in, advert in hand and proceed
to clonk Curry in
the face. Both were booted out, with their professional lives soon to follow a similar
path. Sinclair would go back to the Spectrum line
and in 1986 launch the marvellous Spectrum 128+ machine… the firs t Sinclair computer
to sport a dedicated sound chip and be backwards compatible with the rest of the Spectrum range.
Meanwhile Acorn would also launch an upgraded Micro in the shape of the BBC Master, also
featuring 128k of RAM. Both these machines would be successful in
their respective markets, but ultimately the financial damage had been done.
Sinclair’s computer brand was bought out by Alan Sugar in 1986, who swiftly halted the
QLs production and re-launched the Spectrum range in a more fitting tribute to his recently
released, “easy to use” and cheap, Amstrad CPC line, which itself would sell 3million
units. Acorn’s debts meant it would be bought out
by Italian computer company Olivetti, in late 1985.
The Acorn brand would continue successfully, and go on to launch the Archimedes range of
machines AND the associated RISC ARM processor, which would form the basis for the most popular
range of processors in today’s world. Whilst Amstrad’s Sinclair machines would also sell
reasonably well into the 90s. But as for the rivalry. Well from that point it pretty much
done. The exciting era of the early 80s, heralding a new wave of micro computers was over, and
consigned to a beautiful part of history, which is worth re-visiting at every opportunity
you get. Like this one. Both Sinclair and Acorn would leave lasting legacies With Acorn introducing the RISC chips and introducing computers into the schools in the UK. and Sinclair introducing a whole wealth of children to the home computer market in the early ’80s which heralded a new wave of development and creativity. so there’s no real winner here…. well, there is…. and it’s us.

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