Father Of The Cambridge Phenomenon

Sir Clive Sinclair is the father of the Cambridge start-up phenomenon.

In common with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Sinclair found formal education tiresome.

“I got fed up with school and didn’t want to go university,” says Sinclair, “I was educated up to ‘A’ level standard and after that, I educated myself.”

“I was very good at maths and physics at school, and I was able to teach myself very rapidly. I found I could teach myself much faster than I could be taught. Because I was interested in it, learning was very easy.”

Sinclair was at school in the 1950’s, left school at 17 and got a job at a publishing company. “I wrote loads of books. I didn’t have to write the books myself, but it was quicker and more fun than finding authors to write them. They were for hobbyists – nothing terribly sophisticated,” recalls Sinclair.

The books were mainly about the use of transistors.

Although invented in 1947, the transistor was regarded by many engineers in the 1950’s as a new-fangled device. It was hobbyists, excited by the new technology’s promise, who were keen to know as much as possible about transistors and who were avid readers of books explaining how to use them.

In 1962, Sinclair left publishing and started life as a professional inventor – a childhood dream – fostered at the age of 6 by a radio programme called Toytown about a fictional inventor.

In 1967, Sinclair moved to Cambridge. After a string of inventions from TVs to calculators he hit the big-time with the Spectrum computer which, in the 1980’s, briefly became the largest selling computer in the USA.

In 1978, Sinclair’s chief salesman, Chris Curry, went off to co-found Acorn with Hermann Hauser.

Out of Acorn came ARM, Virata, Element 14, CSR, Pace and a host of other entrepreneurial companies and the Cambridge Phenomenon was in full swing.



  1. I always thought the success of ARM was assured when Nokia used it whereupon Nokia’s supplier TI took out an ARM licence.

  2. @ Chris I could counter with “Would CSR and numerous other companies exist if Cambridge Consultants hadn’t existed”. And I seem to recall Saxby had them design the ARM on a shoestring because they had no money 🙂

    Also would ARM be the success it is today if it wasn’t for the fact that many companies working on GSM products in the Cambridge area hadn’t used their processor.

  3. Spot on Chris. The cash-generation business aspect of the Cambridge Phenomenon was Sir Clive’s legacy.

  4. Christopher Langdon

    The real question is “Would ARM exist today if it were not for Clive Sinclair?”. Yes, Sinclair sold mass market products cheaply directly to the public, but this was the model that Acorn used to generate a lot of cash, and the expertise to build the first RISC processor which became ARM. We should mention that ARM’s success also spawned Amadeus Venture Capital which has also founded succesful starts ups and is at the centre of the Cambridge phenomenom.

  5. @ Keith “And then there was the Sinclair Scientific calculator which had more bugs than your average jungle.”

    But that was the point of it – it created a whole generation of good test engineers 🙂

  6. You’re right Keith, but IMHO he’s still the guy who kicked off Cambridge manufacturing entrepreneurism because he was personally so attractive to the public as a boffin type who brawled in pubs snd never gave up producing wacky inventions.

  7. David, agreed we will not forget Sinclair (I always wanted the FM pocket radio he sold in the 60’s but it was way beyond my pocket money would allow) and his products were certainly novel at the time.

    However, he tried to make product at the absolute minimum cost, but with inflated specs. And although that may have worked for a while, it was never viable long term.

  8. Technology development earns less brownie points than using technology to make real-world products IMHO, Keith, and whatever view we had of his products, those of us who were around in Sinclair’s day will not forget them – good memories along with the bad.

  9. Sir Clive was good at selling rubbish at high prices. One of his early scams was to buy up reject transistors, find ones that worked but were out of spec, and sell them. He then sold radios and amplifiers with highly suspect specs, taking up several pages of advertising in Practical Electronics (I still have the originals from day 1 in 1964).

    An example was the IC power amp that was the Plessey chip, but he quoted in his adverts far higher power figures that Plessey itself did.

    And then there was the Sinclair Scientific calculator which had more bugs than your average jungle.

    Agree with Mike here, CC were the founders of the Cambridge startup thing.

  10. Funnily enough he had a British father, a Polish mother, was born in Thailand, educated from the age of 10 in England graduating from Birmingham University but, I concede, he did most of his work, both in computers and publishing, in America.

  11. Firstly Osbourne was US 🙂

    It’s true Clive did sell to the public – I used his power amplifier modules for years – but Cambridge Consultants and the others designed numerous products that were then commercialised by their clients so I’m sticking with them as the beginning of the Cambridge startup culture, something which pervades to this day in a way no other area of the country seems able to duplicate in the same manner.

  12. Yes very true Mike, but Uncle Clive was a manufacturing entrepreneur – a bit of a UK rarity in those days – and he sold his stuff to Joe Public, and he was good on telly and he gave a lot of others the confidence to have a go – the Orics, the Acorns, the Dragons, Osborne etc. Andrew Rickman of Bookham says he was encouraged by Sinclair’s example and accessibility. I don’t know, of course, but i bet a lot of others were too.

  13. I think Cambridge Consultants got there 7 years earlier and they led to the creation of Generics, TTP, PA (Cambridge), Plextek and loads of others.

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