Today is the 30th birthday of the ZX Spectrum, one of the most popular home computers ever made, and probably the single most important factor in the creation of the IT industry in the UK. The ZX Spectrum, made by Sinclair Research in Cambridge, England is usually considered the UK equivalent of the US-made Commodore 64.
Hardware-wise, the ZX Spectrum was completely unremarkable. There was an 8-bit Zilog Z80A CPU, a graphics chip capable of outputting 32 columns by 24 rows (256x192px) with 15 colors, and either 16 or 48KB of RAM. At just £125 ($200), however, the ZX Spectrum was incredibly cheap. The Commodore 64 cost $600. The BBC Micro, made by Sinclair’s arch rival Acorn Computers, cost £299. Despite costing just a fraction of its contemporaries, the ZX Spectrum had comparable functionality. All three computers had similar amounts of RAM and processing power, and all three had similar editions of the BASIC programming language.
How did Sinclair Research pull it off? Innovative design and aggressive engineering. From the very start, Sinclair Research knew that it wanted the ZX Spectrum to be as cheap as possible, and so almost every component was engineered from the ground up with penny pinching in mind. The main printed circuit board was kept as small and dense as possible, which resulted in a very lithe chassis (just 23x14x3cm, compared to the monstrous 40x21x7cm Commodore 64 and gargantuan 40x35x8cm BBC Micro). Instead of using a conventional keyboard with hundreds of moving parts, a rubber, chiclet “island” keyboard with just four or five parts was used. (In the eyes of original users, this resulted in the ZX Spectrum keyboard feeling like “dead flesh” — an early example of a tech meme.) The ZX Spectrum was wrapped in a plastic case and weighed just 550 grams (1.2lbs), compared to the metal, clunky 1.8kg (4lb) Commodore 64, and back-breaking 3.7kg (8.1lb) BBC Micro.
In short, the ZX Spectrum was simply better engineered than its contemporaries — much like iPhone, except Apple uses its engineering and supply line advantage to squeeze out higher profits, rather than slashing prices. Like the ZX Spectrum, it’s not like the iPhone uses fundamentally different silicon or materials — Apple is still limited by the state of the art — but through design, engineering, and supply line expertise, Apple simply manages to cram more tech into the same (or smaller) space — and with a cheaper bill of materials.
ZX Spectrum+, a later version that did away with the “dead flesh” keyboard
The ZX Spectrum would go on to sell five million units — not bad, when you consider there are only 30 million homes in the UK — and net Clive Sinclair, the owner of Sinclair Research, a knighthood for “services to British industry.” Curiously, Sinclair, a serial inventor, recently admitted that he doesn’t actually use computers — he prefers the telephone to email.
To this day, even after 30 years of being hammered at by Moore’s law and accounting for inflation, there are remarkably few home computers that have been sold at a lower price point than the ZX Spectrum (it would cost around $450 today). The Raspberry Pi, a British-made Linux-based PC that will be sold for around $25, is the obvious exception, and the spiritual successor of the ZX Spectrum.