Not-so-humble: The Story of the ZX Spectrum
As this month sees the ZX Spectrum celebrate its 40th anniversary, we’ve invited lifelong fan
and Retro Gamer launch editor Martyn Carroll to chart the history of the UK’s biggest small
When writing about the Spectrum it’s customary to focus on its outward appearance and
small form factor. It’s all too easy to call it modest, diminutive, unassuming, humble. Ah yes,
“the humble Speccy” is a phrase that rolls right off the tongue. But the Spectrum has always
been much more than that. If anything, it’s the antithesis of humble.
Let’s start with its deceptive size. The Spectrum was indeed small, measuring just 23cm
wide, 14cm long and 3cm deep. Its imprint was not much bigger than a piece of A5 paper.
Compare that to a Commodore PET, Apple II or any other beige box of the era. This was the
Clive Sinclair way. He liked to shrink stuff, be it digital watches, calculators or televisions. But
with his computers it wasn’t a case of looking at rival machines and miniaturising them for
the sake of it: they were exactly the size they needed to be.
The late Rick Dickinson, who designed the keyboard and casing for the Spectrum and its
predecessor the ZX81, has revealed that the process began with a simple question: how big
should a key be? It needed to be just big enough for an adult to comfortably press it. And
then: how many keys do we need? It was determined that 40 keys would be enough. So
working outwards from that, the size of the keyboard was established and then the internal
components were arranged to fit beneath it, inside a slick black case.
When it came to those components, the Spectrum was no modest upgrade over the ZX81.
Though a considerable success, the earlier computer was a true entry-level affair. It came
with just 1Kb of memory, no sound output and monochrome graphics. Despite releasing 13
months after the ZX81, the Spectrum was a significant step up. It shared the same Z80
processor but the memory was boosted to 16Kb as standard, with a 48Kb model available,
and an internal buzzer was added to provide rudimentary one-channel sound. Crucially, the
video hardware was upgraded to display seven distinct colours, plus black, which gave the
computer its name. High-resolution colour displays could eat up lots of memory (hello BBC
Micro), so hardware designer Richard Altwasser looked at how Teletext was encoded on TVs
and developed an efficient display system where each 8x8 pixel block was limited to a
foreground and background colour. This saved memory but resulted in the infamous colour
clash issue that became a characteristic of the Spectrum.
Another distinguishing trait was its keyboard. Rather than opt for traditional moving keys,
Dickinson pioneered a solution that utilised a rubber membrane. For many the keyboard,
with its look and feel of cool pallid flesh, was a compromise too far, yet it was vital in
keeping manufacturing costs and production times down. Thanks to this prudent approach
Sinclair was able to sell the 16Kb model for just £125 in 1982. Compare this to the
Commodore 64 (£299) and the BBC Micro Model B (£399) and you can see why the
Spectrum was such an attractive proposition. And then in early 1983, when Sinclair’s market
space looked to be invaded by the Oric-1 and Acorn Electron (cheaper BBC Micro), it
aggressively slashed the price of the Spectrum to £99 for the 16Kb model and £129 for the
48Kb version. It wasn’t a price war as such as the competitors couldn’t respond, which is
why Sinclair sold half a million Spectrums by August 1983 and its share of the UK personal
computer market swelled to 42 per cent.
Hardware sales fuelled software support and vice versa. As the Spectrum was flying off
shelves in high street stores, developers like Bug-Byte, Imagine, Ocean and Ultimate were
busy bolstering the growing library of tape software. Thanks to its fast CPU, quick screen
display, colour capabilities and a generous amount of memory (in the 48Kb model at least),
the Spectrum was a capable low-cost games machine. It may have lacked hardware sprites,
multiple video modes and all that jazz but in the right hands, it was a genuine contender. All
gamers needed was a joystick and some big kid smoking cigarettes next to them for that
A ridiculous number of great games were released for the Spectrum in the 1980s. The usual
coin-op conversions and film/TV licences featured heavily, but there were enough original
titles to keep things fresh. In particular, there was a rich seam of quirky Britsoft titles like
Manic Miner (Bug-Byte), Monty Mole (Gremlin), Skool Daze (Microsphere), Everyone’s a
Wally (Mikro-Gen) and pretty much everything from Automata. The years 1984-1987 in
particular were a golden period for Spectrum gaming.
As the software improved the hardware stagnated. The Spectrum+ model was released in
1984 and featured a better keyboard and little else. Two years later the Spectrum 128
arrived in the UK, adding more memory and a proper sound chip, but the core hardware
remained the same, colour clash and all. Next-gen ‘Super Spectrums’ were rumoured to be
in the works but Sir Clive was preoccupied with his electric trikes and other doomed projects
that weren’t designed to play Jet Set F**king Willy. Amstrad acquired the failing Sinclair
computer business in April 1986 and continued to manufacture versions of the computer
until 1992. So all told the Spectrum was a going concern for an entire decade, during which
time some 5 million units were sold and more than 10,000 software titles were released.
That’s not a bad run for an 8-bit micro with a hardware spec conceived in 1981.
For lots of people, the impact of the Spectrum was not limited to its commercial life. Thanks
to the decent version of BASIC built-in to the machine, and the various assemblers that were
available, many owners dabbed in programming and started creating their own software.
This no doubt led them to more powerful systems but it was the Spectrum that opened to
door and inspired them to code.
This was no more evident than in September 2021 when the news broke that Sir Clive had
passed away. Social platforms were flooded with tributes from professionals who professed
to owe their careers to him and the Spectrum. It’s beyond doubt that the Spectrum played a
significant role in the growth of UK games and wider tech industries. Cut them open and
you’ll surely find deep traces of red, yellow, green and cyan.
This lasting legacy deserves to be celebrated, so on its 40th anniversary, let’s all doff our
hats to the definitely in-no-way humble ZX Spectrum.