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Style Cycle

This is the first widely available electronic calculator. It’s a Sinclair Executive and at GBP 79.95 in 1972 you would need to be an executive.

An expensive, stylish and very pocketable gadget which had the “vision thing” of a maverick computer pioneer. Remind you of anything?

Now, I was about to wind-up with a Götterdämmerung of gotcha! There is a theory that fashion operates on a sort of 25-30 year cycle (you may have noticed some rather ’80s influenced clothes on the street recently) but the iPhone dates from 2007 so that’s 35 years. Is that pushing it? Or is the clothing cycle operating slightly faster than the ‘tronics one maybe? Any thoughts?


  1. Mike Spilligan says:

    A little o/t if I may. I remember that our head of IT (though it wasn’t called that in those days of giant tape wheels) bought a Sinclair Exec with his own pocket money. Being an “expert” he forecast to the “Board” that in future they would become smaller and may cost as little as £40 – that’s about £600 at today’s values.

  2. NickM says:

    Not OT at all Mike! What you said means a Sinclair Exec basically cost in real terms pretty much what I’d been considering spending on a high-end PC. See proceeding posts. Indeed the only reason I looked up Sinclair kit is that Sam Duncan had got into his anecdotage about his ZX-81.

  3. Sam Duncan says:

    The first time I saw the PS2′s DVD remote I thought “Sinclair Executive”. And that was what… nine, ten years ago? Which fits right in to the 25-30 year cycle. Apple’s behind the curve.

    Mind you, I’m convinced there was a Sinclair fan in Sony’s design office around that time. The PS2 logo itself was very like the iconic angular Sinclair one, the hardware – two flat black boxes stuck together with parallel linear features – was typical late Sinclair, and there’s a mock-up of a QL-based tower computer – by the legendary Rick Dickinson (Jonathan Ive to Sir Clive’s Steve Jobs, although he arrived after the calculators) about ’85 – that looks strangely similar to the PS2 standing on-end. Too many coincidences.

  4. View from the Solent says:

    But before that one, I remember Sinclair was flogging a build-it-yourself pocket calculator. Iffy components. So the customer did the quality control. If it didn’t work, you sent it back and got one that functioned. And he made a bundle with that business model.

  5. JuliaM says:

    But lost it all on the C5….

  6. wh00ps says:

    Well, I dunno about pocket electronics, but in in my thirty(cough) years I’ve seen stereos And tvs go from wood-silver-black-silver-black (and my stereo is wooden but I haven’t seen a wooden television since on childhood).
    Oh, and I have a watch that’s a replica of that Sinclair digital watch that you had to press a button to light up the 7-segment red led display. Everyone agrees that it’s ‘cool’ but it keeps terrible time.

  7. Talwin says:

    Still hoping for that part of the cycle which brings the return of trousers with turn-ups; if only to justify my forever optimistic ‘They’re too good to throw away & they’ll be back in eventually’.

    Sad or what?

  8. NickM says:

    Oh Julia, it’s back!!!

    (And UK citizens can get up to 50% off courtesy of da government)

    Anyway, the C5 was released to soon. If it had come out later in the ascent of Green it would have sold like banana daiquiri johhnies during Rio gay pride.

    Also, the original C5 was pre-hyped as “an electric car” and the press had their speculations. I recall the Sunday Times showing something that looked like a Ford Fiesta. So when it was revealed… To keep with the theme of things repeating the effect was a bit like the launch of the “World changing” Segway.

  9. NickM says:

    Yes the black/silver pendulum is interesting. I once thought of making a computer in a wooden case – you know looking like something Mycroft Holmes might check his emails on. But you have hellish problems with cooling. I may yet put a fish tank in an old telly.

    Set the trend yourself! Just wander up and down the Kings Road and lig your way into enough par-tays.

  10. JuliaM says:

    “Anyway, the C5 was released to soon. If it had come out later in the ascent of Green it would have sold like banana daiquiri johhnies during Rio gay pride.”


  11. John Galt says:

    The idea of fashion operating on a 25-30 year time-scale sounds about right. The only thing about the Sinclair Executive is that maybe it was ahead of its time. They were still running the Apollo moon missions at the time with a Sinclair Executive, it would probably have acted as a pretty good backup – although truth be told, this was still the era of hard engineering where ‘real men’ still used a slide rule.

    @Talwin: For some of us, the fashion of 1982 never went away – Yes my Denim’s have turn-ups and The Smiths are on the CD player (There’s Panic on the Streets of London) and all is right with the world. If things do go tits up in Europe, it could start looking like 1982 on the streets.

    Why is it you never get decent music during the boom years? Where are The Smiths for the second decade of the 21st century? Let me tell you Justin Beiber just ain’t making it.

  12. NickM says:

    Interesting musical theory. I’m not sure but then I was a Brit-pop kid. I guess if there is truth in it then it’s probably related to unemployment and that suggests a certain lead time… Paging our resident music guru RAB! Anyway, I suspect that technology and crap like X-Factor are the major driving force these days. People are bored witless with the later and the former… Well, we’ve already seen how it can be a game-changer and more shall come.

    Anyway, there shall be no bating of the poor Canadian mite from commentators here – that’s my job.

  13. RAB says:

    At last! A geek tech stuff thread I can join in with.

    I had a Sincair calculator, not the Exec model, something a bit cheaper, but still costing an arm and a leg for the time, when I started work in the Lord Chancellor’s Office, in 1975. Now they give calculators away with 4 gallons of petrol.

    Nah, the C5 is still a bust and won’t ever catch on. Stirling Moss test drove one the first week they came out, and basically said that they scared him shitless. So low on the ground that you were stareing UP at the tailpipe of a Mini, and massively underpowered.

    I shall have to debunk John Galt’s music theory too. Most of the greatest pop music ever made, was made between 1963 when the Beatles arrived and 1970, when they broke up. Swinging Sixties and all that, a time of almost total employment, where you could walk out of a job one week and find another on the monday morning. it was the start of the credit bubble, buy now pay later, on tick and the never never. We are only now getting the bill :-)

    So you had the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Small Faces, Moody Blues, the Hollies and a million others. America too, Beach Boys, Lovin Spoonful, Mamas & Papas, Byrds, Dead, Airplane, every week there was something absolutely new amazing and original to listen to.

    Now from 1970 when the economy was on its uppers, three day weeks, power cuts and rising unemployment, what was the favorite music? Prog Rock! Argh!

    When Punk hit, the economy was still going down. It took till 1979 and Maggie to pull it out of the dive.

    Your Jeans have, gulp, turnups? you poor poor man! ;-)

  14. Tim Newman says:

    But you have hellish problems with cooling.

    Best cooling solution I had for a high-powered gaming computer was sticking it on the window sill and opening the window. It was in Sakhalin in winter, and even overclocked to the max that thing ticked over at a nice cool temperature. :)

  15. RAB says:

    So how good at gaming were you with the thermal underwear wooly hat and mittens on then Tim? :-)

  16. Tim Newman says:

    Heh! Nah, fortunately there was a radiator beside me filled with district-heating superheated steam, as is the norm in Russia. With that fighting the outside air, I wasn’t too bad for 10-15 mins. :)

  17. The Apiarist says:

    I’ve still got a Sinclair programmable calculator; I think they were about £120 when they came on the market. Horrible ‘part-time’ buttons which meant you had to concentrate hard to make sure when you pressed them something appeared on the screen. Doesn’t look much like the Exec model though, let alone an iPhone. (Although it is white!)

  18. Schrodinger's Dog says:


    An interesting piece which brought back a few memories. I was at school in the 1970s and, while I never owned a Sinclair calculator, I had a few friends who did.

    It also prompted me to do some web surfing, which made me come to the conclusion that Sinclair products were stylish, often ahead of their time – and plagued by poor reliability. It’s a pity; a bit more attention to QA on their part and it might have been Sinclair, not Apple, that became the major computer and consumer electronics company.

    Really, though, poor build quality and poor reliability were – with a few very upmarket exceptions – endemic throughout British industry, and played a major part in its demise.

  19. NickM says:

    I agree. I reckon the ‘tronics in my Spectrum (bought early ’84) still work but the bloody membrane keyboards!!! That’s what eventually died on it. I am not alone. I suspect replacements may still be available (they were not too many years ago).

    Sinclair also trod too much it’s own furrow (often to save costs). A prime example were the microdrives (continuous loop cartridges – itty-bitty 8-track dealies) that partially nixxed the QL which was the first computer running a Motorola 16-bit CPU (68008) to market – before the Mac, before the Amiga or ST.

    But… every cloud has a silver lining. Sinclair may have failed but I wouldn’t be an IT geezer without him (and I am far from the only Brit who has to admit that). I am just now looking at a collection of boxes which I just bought today. They contain the parts for a kick-ass high-end monster.

    Back in the ’80s when I was a kid (born 1973) us Brits did super-cool things. Then the UK Nat. Curriculum cam in and taught kids by rote how to use MS-bloody-Excel and called it “ICT” and it bored everyone into media studies. From just a few years ago we were third in the computer games programming stakes. We’re now sixth.

    And that is why very soon my next computer after the one I haven’t built yet will be one of these:

    It shall be considerably cheaper for one ;-).

    PS. To all the folks who chipped in advice on my temptation to buy a custom system – earlier post) I just bought my new kit at my usual supplier (God knows how much biz I’ve put their way over the years in business and pleasure – so I must have suffered a moment of madness – I was always going to go to Aria – they know me, they cut me a cool deal – of course they would! – D’oh!) Anyway. That company is Aria Tech in Longsight/Belle Vue, Manchester. Great company.

    Let’s getting coding again Britain!

  20. Andrew Duffin says:

    My brother, then an engineering student, bought an HP four-function calculator sometime in the early seventies.

    It had that incomprehensible “reverse polish” entry system, and cost about £80 – God knows what that would be today, £500?

    Anyway, within about two years similar items – without the stupid back-to-front entry method – were being given away in cornflake packets.

    Such is the power of Moore’s law.

  21. NickM says:

    RPN has some abstruse uses in mathematical logic but God knows why it got used in calculators.

  22. Sam Duncan says:

    Stacks, Nick.

    I’m sure you know what I mean, but for the less well-informed about these things, sticking, say, 2 and 3 on a stack (a last-in-first-out area of memory that works exactly as its name suggests) then telling the machine to add them and put the result on the stack makes for simpler machines than giving it 2, telling it you want to add something to it, then telling it 3, and then telling it you want an answer.

    Dead right about the decline of the British games industry. It’s still around, but as you say, dropping out of view and consists mainly of development “studios” of foreign publishers. Some of the great names of the industry were reduced to being “Megacorp Studio Dudley” or something, before being unceremoniously shut down. Wikipedia’s list of videogame companies of the UK has 253 entries, most of them defunct. We lost the magnificent Bizzare Creations and the less-well-known Black Rock only this year, closed by Activision and Disney respectively.

    Which is sad, but hey, we’re all free-marketeers here. However, what annoys me about all this is that the huge contribution of those 250-odd companies to the history of gaming is being forgotten under the US-Japanese steamroller. I think it was the blokes from Consolevania/VideoGaiden who said that British gamers are being fed nostalgia for a past they didn’t have. The NES wasn’t imported here (officially) until 1987. My childhood wasn’t Mario and Zelda; it was Miner Willy and Monty Mole. My heroes weren’t Shigeru Miyamoto and Yu Suzuki; they were Matt Smith, Ritman and Drummond, Pete Cooke, and the late Joffa Smith. To name just a few. Open-world 3D exploration? We had that in 1984. The sprite-scaling pseudo-3D that was all the rage in the early ’90s? Pete Cooke was doing that in 1985. Jez San is reputed to have made jaws drop at an academic CGI conference when he showed how smoothly and quickly his 3D routines worked on a 16-bit home computer. Our games industry was awesome. And it owed its existence to Sir Clive.

  23. John Galt says:

    Our games industry was awesome. And it owed its existence to Sir Clive.

    Never mind that. I owe my entire career to Sir Clive. I learned BASIC and the Z80 machine code off the back of a Speccy 48K bought for about £140 or so in Autumn 1982.

    Best investment my parents ever made. I reckon I’ve earned about £¾ million from what I was able to do with that shitty, but fantastic little machine. It’s also taken me (workwise) from Los Angeles to Singapore. Bit difficult to do that as a Ford Fiesta mechanic.

    Mate of mine, Mark Haigh-Hutchinson (I was also engaged to his sister) wrote a whole bunch of games for the Speccy including my own personal favourite Alien Highway. He also did a lot of work trying to preserve electronic copies of the original games for the speccy which has helped the modern emulator movement no end.

    Unfortunately, Mark died of Pancreatic cancer 3-years ago.

    For those who still have the yearning for a bit of Manic Miner, but don’t own a machine anymore, you can download emulators for Windows, MAC and Linux as well as some of the original games from World of Spectrum.

    Go for it – you know you want to…

  24. Sam Duncan says:

    John, Alien Highway was a classic. Sorry to hear about Mark. I try to keep up, but it’s not always easy (you aren’t the only pseudonymous Spec-chum round these parts, but some of us didn’t take the migration to web forums too well). Although we knew most of the names back then, that’s all they were: few were celebrated in the way they are now, and a lot of them are amazed their work is even remembered. I’d heard about Joffa Smith, as I said, but that one passed me by.

    I wish I owed a career to Uncle Clive. Unfortunately, I learned quite quickly that I’m infinitely better at playing games than making them.

    The WOS archives are a national treasure. Hosted – and largely compiled – by a Dutchman, of course.

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