Devised in Cambridge but made in Dundee the ZX81 was a landmark computer delivered in a compact, micro format designed by Rick Dickinson – who later won a Design Council Award for his sleek creation. Buyers could choose between a kit version, assembling the ZX81 themselves, or opt for a fully-assembled model ready for use once plugged into a television and power source.
After Sinclair launched the initial ZX80 in 1980, the market was already ready for a more developed version of the Sinclair micro-computer. So when the ZX81 launched on 5th March a year later, it was an instant hit. The ZX81 was shipped out from the Timex factory in Dundee to WHSmiths on high streets all over the UK and beyond, conceptualised as the first home computer available to a mass market of regular consumers and nerdy coders alike. It went on to sell over one million copies, with the Dundee factory often struggling to keep up with demand for the machines from a new computer-hungry audience.
For many, the ZX81 offered a gateway to not only computing and coding itself, but also into the rich and growing world of video games. Its legacy today is alive and well today thanks to the revival of such computer relics, with similar models showing a renaissance in gaming circles and the wider tech industry.
Kevin Palser, API and iOS developer at online convenience innovator Snappy Shopper, brought the ZX81 back to life with his iOS emulator app, enabling users across the world to experience the monochromatic joy of the ZX81 on Apple devices. As a pet project begun out of nostalgia for the machine, Palser attempted to recreate the ZX81 as a human interest project that became a living tribute to the ZX81’s appeal – with the words of a former Timex employee, “when watchmakers made computers”, appearing upon opening the app.
"Its best feature is its naivety,” said Palser on the ZX81’s significance. “You’ve got so many clones of it around the world. It didn’t just help Dundee but so many other places as well.”
“Dundee was the ZX81’s birthplace in some ways, so it’s a shame that people don’t know more about it,” said Dr Mona Bozdog, lecturer in Immersive Experience Design in Abertay University’s Games and Arts department. “There was an entire community around the factory where people were exchanging tips, making their own games and sharing their knowledge.”
In her 2018 project Generation ZX(X), Dr Bozdog uncovered the her-stories of the many skilled female workers responsible for constructing the popular machine at the Timex factory. The project took over Camperdown Park in Dundee, letting visitors listen to interviews with the women who worked there.
"There were thousands of women working together and creating their own networks of power while finding ways to make work fun and to support each other while working on the assembly line,” Dr Bozdog added. "For young women going into gaming, these stories are so valuable. Hearing that your grandma might have built a computer is pretty spectacular.”