By the start of the 1980s, the microcomputer revolution had been in full swing for a few years. However, price remained a problem – generally speaking even basic systems could run into thousands of dollars or pounds when you added in all the bits and pieces you needed.
This meant that many people couldn’t afford to get involved in this new field, especially in the UK where disposable income at the end of the 1970s was quite small compared to the US. So, Clive Sinclair tackled the issue of affordability head-on to come up with a uniquely British computer that went on to spawn some even more successful offspring.
Sinclair had been dabbling in all sorts of high-tech gadgets for some years, and in 1978 had come up with a low-cost board computer called the MK14. This very simple little computer showed that there was a market for this type of device, so Sinclair’s firm – Science of Cambridge – set to work on something more usable, the Sinclair ZX80.
When it was launched in January 1980, the ZX80 came in ready-built form for a shade under £100. If you wanted to solder it together yourself you could save £20 on top of that. Then, all you would need was a TV, cassette recorder and a couple of cables to make a complete system.
Measuring 22 x 18cm it was about two-thirds of the size of an A4 sheet of paper – a fact that surprised many customers who bought one by mail order who expected it to be somewhat bigger. Despite the diminutive form factor, the ZX80 was an exceptionally elegant design. A blue-on-back membrane keyboard housed in a futuristic white case with “SINCLAIR ZX80” boldly emblazoned across it, the exterior design was the work of the late Rick Dickinson who went on to work on many other Sinclair projects.
Inside were just 21 chips including a Zilog Z80 compatible processor and 1KB of RAM. RAM could be extended to 16KB by using a “RAM Pack” that plugged into the edge connector on the back of the machine. There was no sound and the monochrome output only supported uppercase characters and some simple predefined block graphics. BASIC was built-in to the computer along with some pretty good documentation, so it was possible to get started on the ZX80 straight away and start doing some coding. As with a calculator, each key had many different functions – for example, almost all the BASIC keywords were generated by a single key press.
It had its flaws – primarily the way the display went blank when the computer was processing, and poor ventilation meant that the ZX80 was prone to overheating (the black slots that look like cooling vents are in fact merely cosmetic). However, Science of Cambridge sold around 100,000 units in a lifespan of just over a year and the machine was so popular that there were significant waiting lists.
The ZX81 followed in 1981, which was almost identical in overall architecture but had a lower chip count, more features and crucially was cheaper. In 1982 Sinclair launched the ZX Spectrum, and between them these inexpensive compact computers sold in their millions.
Despite selling so many machines, the ZX80 is a rare beast these days. Typical prices for a complete working system are around £600 or so, quite a bit more than it would have cost in real terms. Alternatively you can buy a modern kit such as the Minstrel and assemble one yourself for much less.
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