Sinclair Research/Timex Group. 1981. Plastic, metal. 6 1/2 x 6 7/8 x 1 5/8 in. (16.7 x 17.5 x 4 cm).

From the Exhibition:

The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Personal Computing

In 1983, the United Kingdom-based publication New Scientist published a story discussing a recent trend among computer hobbyists and music lovers in England: the packaging of “pop programs,” or loadable games and graphics, along with 7-inch music singles and cassettes.1 “Pop records with programs for home computers on their B sides are beginning to appear in British shops,” wrote the author, citing “the first computer-game pop single” released by the musician Chris Sievey that year, which even included a photograph of Sievey using the Sinclair ZX81 (1981) with a turntable and television.2

The majority of these “pop programs” were made for the Sinclair ZX81 and its big brother, the ZX Spectrum (1982),3 with others that were also loadable on computers such as the BBC Micro (1981). The inclusion of these programs with albums was short-lived; the trend seems not to have lasted beyond the following year, likely caused by complications in successfully loading and syncing them with the audio.4 Nonetheless, it marks a fascinating if anomalous moment in British pop music and personal computing, which was made possible by the new wave of affordable microcomputers in England.

England’s place in the history of early personal computing has been somewhat overlooked in most scholarship on computing,5probably because of their more memorable and comparatively successful American competitors. The microcomputer enjoyed primacy in the early 1980s after more than a decade of experimentation. Among the most profitable were the Apple II and the Commodore 64. England’s answer to the microprocessor was to be found in two particular devices marketed for novices, the ZX81 and the BBC Micro. Released in 1981 and marketed as an easy-to-use and cheap option for beginners at under £50, the ZX81, the brainchild of Sir Clive Sinclair, enjoyed brief but widespread success.6 At just twelve ounces, it was compact and lightweight; it utilized one’s television rather than a monitor and stored data externally on cassettes. Its 1KB of memory did, however, prove a problem,7and numerous unlicensed peripherals were produced in order to improve the unit’s capabilities. By the following year, however, Sinclair Research released the ZX Spectrum (1982) with an enhanced memory capacity of up to 48K. This seems to have been a case of “right place, wrong time,” since before the release of the Spectrum, the BBC had approached Sinclair in the production of their own microcomputer. Ultimately the BBC chose to work with a relatively unknown company called Acorn, later noting that the extremely limited functionality of the ZX81 was the main deterrent.

The BBC Micro Model A, which had an introductory price of £235, was developed in 1981 after the BBC detected an interest in and need for more microcomputers. It too made use of a television rather than a designated monitor, but unlike the ZX81, the BBC Micro was easily configured for expansion and had a hearty operating system. At 16K, its memory was an improvement, and its memory capability in successive models, such as the BBC Micro B/B+ (1982), was doubled.

In 1979, the BBC had aired a documentary series called The Mighty Micro, hosted by the computer scientist Dr. Christopher Evans and based on his book of the same name. The series detailed the history and rise of the microcomputer, as well as its predicted significance in the future of medicine, economics, labor relations, popular culture (including music), and education. This last area is where the BBC Micro is particularly remembered; the computer’s launch was also spurred by the BBC Computer Literacy Project, which resulted in a government-subsidized effort to bring computers into classrooms during the 1980s. Throughout the decade, the BBC produced television series in support of the BBC Computer Literacy Project. These programs, The Computer Programme (1982), Making the Most of the Micro (1983), and Micro Live (1983–87), aimed to demonstrate the BBC Micro to a wide audience.

In the first years of production, demand for both computers exceeded supply. The BBC Micro had been expected to sell 12,000 units, but in fact sold more than 1.5 million.8 The success of the ZX81, and that of its more popular successor the ZX Spectrum (which sold an incredible 5 million units), led to the production of scores of games, even within the realm of do-it-yourself music production,9 as well as periodicals devoted to the devices such asSinclair User (1982–93) and Your Sinclair (1983–93). It is among gamers that Sinclair’s computers are chiefly remembered. The BBC Micro was also incredibly popular for gaming, much to the chagrin of BBC broadcaster Ian McNaught-Davis, who allegedly believed that computer games were “degrading” and a menace to the perceived seriousness of programming.10

Despite the popularity of their devices, both Sinclair and BBC lost their foothold with consumers by the early 1990s. Above all, the market share of American personal computers was steadily growing, and the last of the Acorn computers associated with the BBC, the BBC Master, was discontinued in 1993. Nonetheless, the successes and failures of companies in the United Kingdom such as Sinclair and Acorn left an indelible mark on the history of personal computing in relation to both education and recreation.

1.See “Pop programs need to fall into line,” New Scientist, July 7, 1983, 27.

2.The single for “Camouflage” included a game written by Sievey called “Flying Train,” as well as a music video that contained the song lyrics.

3.In 1983, musician Pete Shelley released his album XL1 with a program for the Spectrum that included lyrics and graphics.

4.An article in New Scientist later noted the obvious: that “vinyl pressings are a clumsy medium for data storage,” because of their easily scratched surfaces. “From Morse Code to the Digital Disc,” New Scientist, April 11, 1985, 20.

5.See, for instance, Paul E. Ceruzzi, The History of Modern Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), and Christian Wurster, Computers: An Illustrated History (Cologne: Taschen, 2002), which discuss Sinclair models but ignore Acorn and the BBC. One area in which the Sinclair models and the BBC Micro have been talked about is in gaming. See John B. Purcaru, Games vs. Hardware: The History of PC Gaming: The 80s (Amazon Kindle Edition, 2014).

6.Both computers were also marketed in the United States, though with somewhat less success. Timex licensed American versions of the ZX81 as the Sinclair 1000 and Sinclair 1500, and Acorn briefly attempted to market their computers in the U.S. on the basis of the BBC Micro’s success in the UK as a tool for use in schools. An article in the New York Times noted the hopeful impact of Acorn computers in American schools; see “Acorn Computer Makes U.S. Debut,” New York Times, October 7, 1983.

7.See Herb Friedman, “The Five Friendliest Computers,” Popular Mechanics (February 1983): 94–97.

8.Mark Frauenfelder, The Computer: An Illustrated History From Its Origins to the Present Day (London: Carlton Books Limited, 2013), 144.

9.Programs such a “Organic Tunes” and “The Fantastic Music Machine” enabled users to turn their Sinclair into something akin to a digital synthesizer. As one review of a program noted, “If you have cassette-recorder storage and a TV set display, you’re ready to bloop and bleep with this $10 toy … [but] you probably won’t see Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock whip out T/S [Timex/Sinclair] 1000s for a jam session.” Erik Miller, “Review: The Fantastic Music Machine,” InfoWorld, December 19, 1983, 60, 63.

10.Chris Garcia, “The BBC Micro,” Computer History Museum, 2012;