Category Archives: Cambridge

Zooming in on the Micro Men

A couple of days ago, in my post about Sir Clive Sinclair, I mentioned the entertaining BBC drama “Micro Men“, which covered the exhilarating race between Sinclair, Acorn and others to corner the home computing market in the early 80s. Any Cambridge friends who are interested in computing and haven’t seen it should certainly take a look!

Those who know any of the people (or machines) concerned, or who enjoy watching the ‘Special features’ section of DVDs, may want to take it a bit further. I’ve discovered that, 10 years after the film came out, the Centre for Computing History got together Steve Furber, Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry for a viewing of the film, to get their take on how it recorded the events.

And also a revealing discussion which followed the film:

If, like me, you wondered why, for example, the Acorn Electron was not the commercial success it should have been, given its technical merits, this informal chat will tell you.

An epitaph for Sir Clive

Are there any stores that you like to go into, but rather hope that you won’t be spotted there by anybody you know, because it would be a bit embarrassing? One of these, for me, is Edinburgh Woollen Mills, which seems to have, as its target market, old-age pensioners with little sense of taste or fashion. On the other hand, when I have crept in there over the last few decades wearing my false moustache and dark glasses, I’ve always found their plain woollen sweaters (and a few of their other less-tartaned items) to be excellent value, well-fitting and very hard wearing (which is good, because I then don’t need to visit too often and risk being spotted).

Well, I had a similar desire to conceal my location yesterday, when I was invited onto Radio 5 Live at very short notice to talk about the passing of Sir Clive Sinclair, his influence on the UK’s computer industry, and the importance of having a culture of invention. That was what the text said, anyway, but in fact they ran out of time and so, I think, slotted me in to the last few mins of the show, just to be polite, and join in whatever discussion was ongoing. With the result that we said nothing about Sinclair, almost nothing about computing, and in fact discussed time travel and whether butterflies could fart. (Don’t ask.) It wasn’t the high point of my broadcasting career. The good news is that I suspect there are even fewer of my acquaintances who listen to Radio 5 Live than who shop at Edinburgh Woollen Mills.

I never met Clive Sinclair, though he had a big influence on my life, having produced, in 1981, the first computer that our family could actually own. The BBC’s enjoyable 2009 dramatisation ‘Micro Men’ portrayed him as a bit of a comedic monster, as I remember, and I’m not sure how fair a representation that is. The programme is now available on YouTube, and I must watch it again, because it does depict several people I do know, and generally does them quite well, so perhaps it was accurate. Recommended viewing for all British geeks of a certain age, anyway.

But it is sad, in a way, that Sir Clive is often remembered for the C5 — his low-slung electric tricycle — which was a dismal market failure in 1985, and the butt of much humour, including from me (though as a techy teenager I would secretly have loved one!)

What did impress me, though, as I was making notes for the interview, was the relentless rate at which Sinclair released products:

  • 1977 – The Wrist Calculator and the MK14 kit computer
  • 1980 – The ZX80 – the first affordable home computer in the UK
  • 1981 – The ZX81 – a much better version
  • 1982 – The ZX Spectrum – the UK’s best-selling microcomputer
  • 1983 – The C5 electric trike, and a pocket television! (Which of course, back then, still had to use a CRT.) Also the Microdrive storage system, using tape-based cartridges which could store a whopping 100KB!
  • 1984 – The Sinclair QL
  • 1987 – The Cambridge Z88 – a portable computer with a full-sized keyboard, which ran for ages on four AA batteries. I have one on the desk beside me here.

That’s quite a list for a small company over one decade!

The failure of the C5 basically killed Sinclair Research, and the Sinclair brand was sold to Amstrad in 1986, which is why the Z88 was released under the Cambridge Computer name.

This failure was notable, though, because it followed the great successes of the previous years, which had made Sinclair a household name, and, by deploying affordable, programmable machines into vast numbers of British homes, played a big part in kick-starting the UK’s technology industry. It certainly kick-started my own hobby and eventual career in computing, which is also a good thing for the nation, because otherwise I might have tried to go into broadcasting.

So I would like, if I may, to propose an epitaph for Sir Clive Sinclair:

It is better to have invented and failed, than to never have invented at all.

Office Meeting 2.0.1

In my post yesterday, I forgot to mention the final twist to my open-air Teams meeting, which made it even more surreal.

Just after pressing the ‘Leave meeting’ button on the app, I walked through our village churchyard and fell into conversation with a gravedigger. No, really. He was filling in a hole, and, leaning on his spade, told me that the heavy clay around here was nothing compared that that around Lavenham. It was a strangely Shakespearian encounter; I half-expected him to bend down, pick up a skull and ask if I recognised it.

After a brief but cheery discussion, I bade him good day and departed, thinking that I should probably have tossed him half a crown for good luck, or something.

Definitely not my typical office meeting, I thought to myself, and Tilly and I walked home debating the whims of Lady Fortune in iambic pentameter.

Gunshot

Barton Road Rifle Range

The Barton Road Rifle Range as seen from the next field, on a recent misty evening.

How to confuse foreigners

Small village. One straight road. Two names.

We Brits seem to think this is normal. This is partly why I got confused trying to find a restaurant the first time I went to California, but for the opposite reason.

I was on the right street, at about the right number… but I was in the wrong city.

A rare East Anglian lakeside walk

In the flat, low-lying eastern part of England, where we live, much of the land is only just above sea level, and for many centuries the inhabitants have been working hard to avoid the appearance of large areas of water.

We have rivers, of course, and dykes and canals, and they are all kept carefully in order and they generally behave and do as they are told. There are village ponds, too.

But to see a body of water of any size here is a rarity, which is why I occasionally make the pilgrimage to Fen Drayton Lakes, about 12 miles from my house. Until around 30 years ago, it was a gravel quarry, but that’s been enough time for nature to re-adopt it and flourish around it. Yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far, and it was pleasant to walk in the shade along the tree-lined paths and catch occasional glimpses of expanses of cool liquid.

It’s tantalizing, too, because you can’t go in or on the water: it’s an RSPB reserve, and home to a vast number of birds, who were clearly having a good time. I foolishly only had an elderly iPhone with me, so just took a couple of more general snaps of the scenery.

There are certain areas where you do need to make sure your dog pays attention to the signs.

But it’s a lovely spot, and very different from Cambridge just down the road. There’s even a quick and efficient guided-bus service from the city — when we get buses back — for those without other means of transport.

Despite all this, surprisingly few people in the area seem to know about it. Don’t tell too many of them…

Waning gibbous

Moon over Addenbrooke's Hospital

The moon above Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, on Friday night. Click to enlarge.

Gateway to Autumn

Trinity College, Cambridge

Cambridge: an early-morning stroll

I was in town unusually early on Sunday morning. This is Rose’s college, St Catharine’s, just before dawn.

The river, just a few streets away, was unusually still.

Silver Street, because of the location of the coach-parking areas, is one of the first things that many tourists see. They don’t often see it looking like this, though!

At King’s College, only one chimney showed any signs of life.

Gradually, as things warmed, a brief mist appeared over the water.

But it soon cleared, as the sun rose a little higher, and started to reach the tops of the trees.

The garden at St Botolph’s was also looking beautiful:

The streets were quiet…

And I crept quietly away as the day was beginning.

StarChapel

Last night I was being a little bit creative with my recent photos… 🙂

Heat Haze Hospital

There are many benefits to living close to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, but, as any Cambridge resident will tell you, its effect on the aesthetics of the region is not one of them. Usually the best way to improve its visual appearance is to go a long way away. And then face in the opposite direction.

Even Addenbrooke’s can have its moments, though. It’s about 4 miles from my house, as the crow flies, so this was taken with a long lens from my kitchen window.

Caian coffee

There’s a nice post about the coffee pot webcam on the Gonville & Caius College website this morning. Thanks, Lucy!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser