FOR a generation of players, it was the machine that revolutionised home computing and laid the foundations for a thriving Scottish industry.
Now, nearly three decades after the last units rolled off the production lines of Dundee’s Timex factory, the Spectrum is on the verge of an unlikely rebirth.
Sir Clive Sinclair, the inventor of the iconic 8-bit computer, is helping to promote a new version of the machine that can slot into a standard home entertainment set up, allowing consumers to pick up where they left off in the 1980s.
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The £100 Sinclair Spectrum Vega uses a low-cost micro controller and software that allows it to run every game developed during the halcyon years of the original Spectrum. The relaunched version, which comes with around 1,000 games built in, allows users to download thousands of other games developed for the system down the years, according to those behind the scheme. Would-be programmers, however, can only play or look on.
Chris Smith, a former Spectrum programmer who is technical director of Retro Computers, the firm developing the new machine, said: “The ZX Spectrum Vega is a handheld games console very much like a games controller.
“It plugs directly into the television with a USB lead for its power and audio and video leads for its output.
“It comes preloaded with many games. On turning it on, you’re presented with a menu which allows you to browse the games and select the one you want to play and off you go.”
Sir Clive’s company, Sinclair Research Ltd, is a shareholder in Retro Computers, a Luton-based start up. As part of a crowdfunding campaign to launch the Vega, early backers of the project can secure a Vega along with concept art from Sir Clive.
With its colour graphics and built in programming language, the original ZX Spectrum inspired a new generation of game developers and acted as a catalyst for Tayside’s thriving high tech economy.
Engineered by Richard Altwasser and designed by Rick Dickinson, it is now regarded as a stalwart of modern British design and one of the first computers to appeal to everyday consumers as well as programming hobbyists.
After it went on sale in April 1982, the 3,500 workers at Timex struggled to keep up with demand. Soon they were producing more than 70,000 Spectrums a month. Sales passed the one million mark by the end of 1983, and eventually five million units were sold.
Dave Jones, the founder of DMA Design, creators of the acclaimed Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings series, worked as an apprentice engineer at Timex. When he took voluntary redundancy from the factory in 1987, the financial package allowed him to start his coding career.
In an interview on the Indiegogo page of the Spectrum Vega project, Sir Clive said the original Spectrum appealed to consumers for a variety of reasons.
“It was a hell of a good price, but it was also a very adaptable machine and very approachable, it was very easy to program and simple to use,” he explained. “Until recently, the Spectrum was still the most used computer in Russia.”
Bitter industrial disputes and Sir Clive’s decision to sell up to Amstrad eventually saw production of the Spectrum switch to Taiwan in 1986, but the entrepreneur is playing a part in the machine’s unlikely rebirth.
The development and marketing of the Vega is under licence from Sky In-Home Service Ltd, who inherited the intellectual property rights to the Spectrum computers from Amstrad.
The Indiegogo campaign with a target of £100,000 has been launched to finance the first 1,000 units. A fully functioning prototype is ready to go into production and Retro Computers has promised to “scale up its production according to demand.”
A recent kickstarter campaign by another firm to develop a Bluetooth version of the seminal ZX Spectrum was widely criticised by developers over royalty payments. The team behind the Vega said they are “seeking permissions from the software rights holders to incorporate their games” in the device.
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