$99 proved too expensive
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Sinclair ZX81, the second generation of the earliest affordable home computer -- and a distance cousin of our smartphones.
Inventor Clive Sinclair specialized in small devices. I recall picking up a brochure of his diminutive calculator while in England in 1974. He also designed a tiny, unsuccessful automobile.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I watched the personal computer scene with its confusing array of standards -- S-100, CP/M -- making me hesitant to take the plunge. Part of the problem was that the prices were not personal; a typical desktop computer (as we call them now) fitted out with all the kit came to over $10,000 in today's dollars.
Timex brought the British-made ZX81 to North America, the idea being that the maker of low-cost quality-made watches would be just as successful with low-cost home computers. The problem ended up being that the ZX81 was not quality-made.
Nevertheless, I was desperate for my own computer. For a couple of years I had been programming my HP 41CV calculator (even got the overpriced card reader for it!), but was bumping up against its limitations.
For a time, I considered the ZX81, as it was just $99 in Canada. But then I added up all the stuff I would need to add to actually make it work, such as the 16KB RAM module. For instance, I did not own a tv, so I'd have to buy one. The final tally came to $500 for a computer that only displayed monochrome uppercase text and used a membrane keyboard. I decided against it.
Six months after the ZX81 was released, IBM shook the industry with the release of its PC for $1,500. It de facto established the technical standards still in use today. But that price tag also got you just the box and motherboard: no floppy or disk drives (you were expected to supply your portable cassette recorder, no monitor (you were expected to supply your home tv set), and only 64KB RAM. Fully kitted out, it came to $6,000 at time when a starting engineer's wage was around $10/hr -- so, four months salary. (Last week I bought a new high-end laptop for four days wages.)
Then in early 1983 a local computer dealer put their Victor 9000 kind-of-compatible-with-IBM personal computers on sale, and I took a loan from my parent to acquire it. Buying the Victor helped get me the job at CADalyst magazine and launch my lifetime writing career in CAD.
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The link to our cell phones?
The success of the ZX8x-series in England caused the BBC to commission a company called Acorn to produce the BBC Micro home computer for viewers to purchase and follow along how-to-use-a-computer series broadcast at the time. Acorn was the company that later produced the ARM CPU design, used today in every single smartphone, except for some older ones that used CPUs from Intel and nVidia's unsuccessful forays into handheld computing.