Retro Is the New 'New'

10/06/2015 18:02 BST | Updated 10/06/2016 10:59 BST

Like many other inventors I have always been excited by the knowledge that my latest invention was something new. Its newness might perhaps be that it was significantly smaller, or much better functioning, or several pounds less expensive, or perhaps all of these, when compared with products that were already on the market. In fact I've always strived to achieve all of these improvements and more, whenever I started thinking about a new product design.

More often than not I was able to succeed, though occasionally I invented products which were superlative in some respects but were too expensive to be commercially successful at the time when they were launched. But I always had the satisfaction of knowing that, in some ways at least, all of my products broke new ground. New, new, new. That was my mantra.

Looking back over the first 50 years of my career as an inventor (it is now my 55th) I can identify certain products which were characteristic of these goals - products which excited me greatly because of their novelty and what I was able to achieve with their design. One example is the 'Sinclair Executive' calculator, which I launched in June 1977. I had been puzzled as to why the electronics in calculators had hitherto needed what I considered to be too much battery power. The Texas Instruments calculator chip alone needed 300 milliamps, plus power for the LED display. Instead I felt that it should be possible to run a calculator off tiny hearing-aid batteries and still deliver a very decent battery life. The trick we came up with was inspired by the discovery that the calculator chip did not need to be powered continuously - it would be sufficient to send it short pulses, each lasting 1.7 microseconds, and to do so very infrequently when the processor was not actually calculating. In this way our Executive model was able to give about 20 hours of life from three small 'button' cells. That 'pulsing' idea was new at the time, and was the core reason for our product's commercial success. It enabled the Executive to run off 10% of the battery power of previously existing calculators.

One of my bright new ideas which failed commercially was my first attempt to design a portable television. In the mid-1960s I had commissioned AEG Telefunken to develop a miniature (two inch) flat screen cathode ray tube exclusively for my company, Sinclair Radionics. I integrated this tube into my design for the TV, but Telefunken were unable to deliver the innovative CRT when I needed it and we had to abort the product launch and do a redesign. When I was finally able to launch the Microvision towards the end of 1976 it was the world's first multi-standard TV, able to operate in every country which used the PAL, NTSC or SECAM system (i.e. almost every country throughout the world). But ironically the product turned out to be too much of a new thing. Demand for the Microvision at launch time far outstripped our capacity to supply, and by the time we had ramped-up production to meaningful quantities the excitement amongst consumers had waned and the product became a commercial flop.

The ZX Spectrum computer, which I launched in April 19982, was my biggest commercial success by far, as well as conforming to my goal of designing products that were new, new, new. For the Spectrum we developed four custom chips that could do the work of 44 in the closest rival product, the Tandy TRS-80. My idea in using a small number of custom designed chips was to reduce the manufactured cost very significantly. This was a novelty in the early days of home computing, and it enabled the Spectrum itself to become another new idea - a colour computer at an amazingly low price. It was the first low-cost colour computer on the market suitable for use in the home, and we sold more than five million of them.

These are just a few of examples of the new ideas I have introduced into my product designs. As I say, it's the newnesss of my ideas that has provided much of my raison d'être, and I feel certain that the same is true of many other inventors. But recently I have come to contemplate a new trend which, in some ways, runs counter to the inventor's traditional desire for new design ideas. This trend, which appears to be gaining traction quite rapidly, is a push back in time to the past, a few decades ago. A push for 'retro' products. Walking around in London nowadays, looking in shop windows, I see more and more products whose designs are clearly inspired by the designs of the past; and capturing in some way the essence of those past products. Retro radios, retro cars such as the Mini Cooper, retro kitchen equipment... and now I am able to understand why a retro version of my own ZX Spectrum computer design appears to be attracting interest like wildfire. The ZX Spectrum Vega, as we are calling it, succeeded spectacularly on the Indiegogo crowdfunding web site when it was launched last December by Retro Computers Limited, a UK company in which I have an interest.

From the feedback we are receiving about the Vega project it appears that nostalgia is playing a massive part in this move towards retro products. One visitor to the Indiegogo campaign site (GCD Consultancy Limited) wrote: "We cannot wait to receive the Limited Edition Vega, to play such classics as Spyhunter in the office ☺". While P.S. Wales wrote: "Such a great idea. Takes me back to my childhood. Can't wait!" And Ben James wrote "Very nostalgic about this. I'd love to think I can excite my kids about playing Pssst or Atic Atac." But my favourite comment of all on the Vega's Indiegogo campaign site says, simply: "Clive Sinclair for President!" Thank you very much Simone Giudice.

Sir Clive Sinclair is one of Britain's most famous inventors, ever. His new venture, Retro-Computers Ltd., which manufactures the ZX Spectrum Vega games computer, can be found at