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Sinclair Spectrum Designer Rick Dickinson Has Died (bbc.com)
140 points by mjul 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

My programming carrier started at the tender age of ten when my parents smuggled a ZX Spectrum in 1985... good old days behind the Iron Curtain. As weird as the eighties were in Hungary, some of it were beneficial to me: in 1987, I attended a Z80 assembly course in one of the community centers every Sunday. From the second weekend on, it became a one on one education because all the other kids fled. But, because of how those years went, they didn't cancel. I wonder to this day whether he would have done the course to the empty room if I hadn't been there. Wouldn't have surprised me!

I would love to hear that story - smuggling a ZX Speccy to Hungary.

In 1985 I was a British army brat with my parents stationed in West Germany. Just like you, I was surrounded by quite a lot of (big) hardware and yet life had to go on. My school probably had a few more bomb scares than yours thanks to the Provisional IRA but you probably had a few snags about what the Western powers were going to do to you.

The Cold War was not nice for you or me or anyone else.

I'd really love to hear about how a shitty piece of plastic with a rainbow on the corner with a Z80 inside and squishy keys got to Hungary.

I am afraid it's nothing too exciting, my parents went on an tour, bought one in Munich (by then it was in the bargain bins) and hid it in the tour bus. Practically everyone was smuggling something and by then they weren't that keen on stopping it. The eighties were weird, contradiction (and corruption) was the name of game.

My first computer was a ZX Spectrum my uncle passed on to myself and my brother in the late 80s. The games took a ton of time to load from cassette, but some of them were great fun. My fondest memory is playing Silkworm in co-op with my brother. I always thought the Sinclair machines looked cool too, they had a certain mystique I can't put my finger on.

Personal anecdote aside, it's safe to say that without the work of Rick Dickinson and his colleagues at Sinclair Research the UK computing industry would have been much slower to take off. The ZX Spectrum in particular was hugely popular in the UK (alongside its main rival the C64), and did more to push forward the UK computing industry than any other computer I can think of (and I say that as an Amiga fan). Even with the passing of Mr Dickinson his legacy lives on.

I didn't understand how pop and push worked.

I thought each register, i.e. BC or DE, had its own stack. I couldn't understand why some programs crashed. Very frustrating when you had to reload everything from tape again, and again, and again...

My 34-year old ZX Spectrum still looks and runs like new!

Only after reading this news did I remember how much its external design and looks excited me and helped develop a deep interest in computers at a young age. I remember how its compact black form factor and silent keys made me want to switch it on three or four times every day and just type something or play something. Back then, to my young mind, it wasn't a mere tool to do something; it was much more - it was itself a source of satisfaction.

Although we had more powerful, more functional Apple IIcs and IBM PCs, their beige bulky looks never really had the same effect on me.

I had never heard of Rick Dickinson before but thank you very much for the beautiful ZX Spectrum.

I'm not being funny but exactly what kind of deal did you cut with the devil in order to keep a Spectrum running reliably for 34 years?

Mine used to go wrong about every two months on average, and then would disappear for the next 6 weeks being repaired. Granted it was pretty heavily used, but still. I loved the machine but it's the most unreliable computer I've ever owned. Although, thinking about it, the +2A it was eventually replaced with was no better. My Commodore 64 and Amiga never gave me a hint of trouble and in fact, 29 years later, the only other computer I've had fail on me was an ageing and much abused 13-inch Macbook Pro (hard disk controller died; disk itself was fine).

Still, as you say, a beautiful machine.

Did you by any chance keep it stored near the TV?

It was not that rare for insufficient shielding to cause machines to start misbehaving from static electricity from the TV. Which would tend to cause lengthy repair shop stays as they didn't find anything wrong, eventually put it aside, tried it again later and found the problem had vanished.

I had that happen with a C64. The C64 was reasonably well shielded, but that one was stored right underneath a 26" TV and it wasn't shielded well enough for that, and after a while it started having weird lockups, and now and again it'd start "typing" on its own. Took us several annoying repairs before we realized what the problem was.

Yes, underneath the large-ish TV in the lounge, and then latterly next to a small 12 inch black and white TV in my room. The +2A lived on my desk in my room next to the new 14inch colour TV bought specially for it. The same TV was used for my C64 and, after than, Amiga. If they were better shielded, and sat next to a smaller TV, that might explain why they suffered no ill-effects.

Man, if that's the reason... I feel irritated with myself even now. Thanks for possibly solving the mystery.

The fun thing is that especially for the early C64's the reason they were better shielded was that Commodore had problems meeting emissions standards for them, and so if you open them up, you'll find RF shields like this [1] (from [2]).

Some earlier models had a foil-covered cardboard wrapping it instead.

I think later models reduced the shield to cover just a small set of components instead.

So they survived better because Commodore failed to figure out how to make them produce less interference.

[1] https://images.pcworld.com/images/article/2012/07/c64_shield... [2] https://www.pcworld.com/article/260232/tweet_from_a_commodor...

Genuinely surprised to read that.

Ours was used heavily by three of us for programming, word processing and games from '84 to around '92, and after that just for daily games till the late 90s. Since the late 90s, I just switch it on fortnightly, play an old game for a couple of hours just for the feels, and pack it back. In all this time, I have never had any problem whatsoever. I expected at the very least a few blown caps but nope - starts right up like it's still '84. It has never undergone any repair. The original cassette player and CRT TV went bad but the Spectrum itself is fine. I had assumed from my personal experience that its reliability was a common experience, but just got lucky I guess.

Sad to say, but I think you did... although I'm pleased that it still works and you still get enjoyment out of it.

They were notoriously unreliable. My mum had a full-on meltdown in Currys over it in 1988, and she's not a meltdown kind of person. My best friend also had one, which also used to go wrong regularly.

This is all anecdata, of course. Still, both the manager of the local Currys (Dorchester), and the owner of the nearest proper computer store - Compute-A-Tape[1] in Weymouth - both said at the time they had nothing but trouble with the Spectrum..

Maybe something to do with the Dorset air but as much as I loved my Spectrum it caused me endless grief.

[1] A trip here was a rare treat, although sadly the place closed down sometime in the 90s.

We had a few problems with our C64, but fortunately Dad was a genius. The 1541 floppy drive eventually started hanging when you tried to load anything; Dad figured out that there was some kind of little metal latch inside it that had come un-latched, and just needed to be clicked back into place. When it kept unlatching once or twice a week, he cut a little hole in the back of the drive that I could poke an eraser through and click it. I learned to recognize the subtle change in the drive's operating whirr and know it needed fixing, instead of waiting 10 minutes before deciding a game wasn't going to finish loading.

Did you have a joystick or RAM expansion on the back by any chance?

Basically the edge connector was not sufficiently protected and a loose connection could fry the ULA or other components quite easily.

Yeah: Kempston joystick port plugged into the back. I also had a light pen that had a separate adapter so there was some swapping around from time to time. Always with the computer switched off, mind. Loose connections on one of the adapters might explain it.

Not sure what the problem with the +2A would have been though, because it had proper joystick ports, and I'd stopped using the light pen by then.

This makes me rather sad, even though this is the first time I've heard of the guy.

My first computer was a ZX Spectrum, bought by my father shortly after he was permitted access to us again.

You see, my parents divorced a couple of years before the ZX81 was released, and my brother and I were constantly used as pawns by our (emotionally and physically abusive) mother against our father. She eventually relented and allowed him access, and so the ZX Spectrum he bought shortly after we moved back into his life became a symbol of the serious improvement in our lives.

I will always be grateful for those times.

"He was responsible for the boxy look of the ZX80 and ZX81 and the Bauhaus-inspired appearance of the Spectrum."

I'm a bit too young and outside the UK to have had any personal experience with the Sinclair Spectrum computers, but I do love watching YouTube videos about old PCs and technology - Ashens, Techmoan, and LGR are my favourites. And I've always that specifically the design of the ZX Spectrum was great.

I'm an instant photography fan thinking of getting a digital one to complement my traditional instant camera, and I really wish the Polaroid Z2300 (which I briefly owned) had better functionality as I love the design - the black one almost looks like a a ZX Spectrum in camera form. The Snap Touch, which I intend to buy, is close, but more rounded. I'm not sure whether there was any design influence or if the timeline on that would even make sense, but the point is that some elements of that design can even look good today - specifically I notice the angled corners and high-contract rainbow on black colouring:

Polaroid: https://i.imgur.com/qwrjL7V.jpg

Sinclair: https://i.imgur.com/hKVtpBu.jpg

The ZX Spectrum 48k was the first computer that was 'mine'. We had a 'family' TI 99/4A before, and my brother had a C64, but the old Speccy was my favorite. I loved the 'sanity' of the Z80 instruction set way more than the 6502. I wasn't too keen on the rubber keyboard though, but still, good times were had.

Notible software: I had a copy of 'Hisoft Pascal'[1] for programming, and my favorite game (of all time?) was Manic Miner [2] and the only hardware extention I had was a 'SpecDrum' [3] for music.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HiSoft_Systems

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manic_Miner

[3] http://www.crashonline.org.uk/27/specdrum.htm

Gosh - I was just reading about Rick the other day. He's interviewed in Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium, which I recently bought. The industrial design of the Spectrum was very interesting and, honestly, it's not an unattractive looking device. Sad to hear this news.

I never owned the original Bauhaus-ish rubber key version, although it was the first computer I played anything on (Jetpac, Manic Miner, Jumping Jack) because my cousin had one. Instead, a couple of years later my mum bought me my first computer: the plastic-keyed Spectrum 48K+.

Again, quite a nice looking device. I nearly picked up one, along with a box of tapes big enough that I'd have struggled to carry it, at the same retro event where I bought the above book. The only reason I didn't is that because although I loved my Spectrum it did break down all the time and I didn't particularly want to relive that part of the experience.

For those of you how would like to indulge in a little nostalgia at this sad time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts96J7HhO28

He was also behind the design of the QL. It's one of the most elegant computers of all time. I'll eventually get keycaps like those...

The keycaps were apparently an off-the-peg design, from a Scandinavian firm iirc. Dickinson did use them nicely, in the QL, the Spectrum+ and Spectrum 128 and also in unused designs like the wafer-scale-integration-based QL https://www.flickr.com/photos/9574086@N02/830029700/in/album... and the Pandora laptop https://www.flickr.com/photos/9574086@N02/829341753/in/album... . (Those two appeared in Delete: A Design History of Computer Vapourware https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/delete-9780857853479/ )

They look nice but they're the same as on the + and the toastrack 128K and incredibly awful to type on - keys rub against each other and don't depress evenly.

Early in my career I was basically a Z80 assembly specialist and I think owning a Spectrum and buying a book that was an annotated disassembly helped pique my interest. I distinctly remember being very clueless when I first got the book - I was confused at the very first line of code - it was XOR A and I didn't immediately understand this trick to clear the accumulator in one byte not the two that MOV A,0 needed.

As I a small kid, I remember my grandmother gave me her ZX Spectrum, and my father helped set it up with a tape recorder so we I could make copies of games, and one of his friends gave me a book of programs you could write, and my neighbour's teenage son introduced me to some of the 'good' games (I was too young to be a discerning gamer), and other kids my age would come round to play it. That's a lot of inter-generational fun from this little computer. Sometimes also we just used it as a prop in make-believe adventures.

In the US, the Sinclair computers were marketed under the Timex Sinclair name [1]. One of these, a TS2068 color model, became my first computer on which I used a Basic compiler to program Conway's Game of Life at unprecedented (for me) speeds.

I just sold my TS on eBay for just under the price I bought it for in 1983.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timex_Sinclair

Not only in US.

Portugal had one of the Timex factories producing those computers, so we had quite a few of them across the country.

My first owned computer was also a TS 2068, bought alonside the ZX Spectrum emulation cartridge.

The extended BASIC was much better, and the three channels sound chip was quite nice, sadly most of the time the emulation stayed inserted, because there was hardly any 2068 specific hardware around.

The SAM Coupé years later was also a very nice machine, but in the end the Spectrum variants ruled our 8 bit market.

One of his last jobs was the Spectrum Next, the Spectrum for our time. https://www.specnext.com

They are perpetually sold out it seems.

They are just trying to ship the initial batch, their case factory pulled out last minute, there will be more when thats resolved.

Thanks for the update. I know that this probably isn't the right place, but I'll go ahead and ask since you seem to be in the know. What languages are implemented for this spectrum? I know Assembly and Basic, but is there a C compiler? I think I saw Forth. I know the chip is really simple, so Assembly is probably 50x easier than x86, but I'd still like to use something higher level that isn't BASIC. I think Forth would work, but someone would have to really explain how it works from the ground up in a tutorial or blog post for me to use it. I think a compiler course would be really neat on the spectrum.

Here is a good introduction to programming on the next, what you have to chose from (rationally) is Z80 Assembler and Basic, the basic is called NextBasic and is an extended version based on the one found in the orginal, hope this helps !


Any reason y basic is the only high level pl? Tradition and compatibility with old software? Thanks btw!

I have very fond memories of fiddling with the Z80 and the Spectrum, when I was 12-13. I remember typing in code from a book called “What you can do with 1k of memory” that’s how much you had with the Z80. Sinclair keys were prone to popping outandcould be used as erasers! The good times! RIP.

Very sad news, one of the companies I worked at (with a few ex-Sinclair folks) used Rick for our case designs in the early 90s.

Always seemed like a nice guy to me and I still remember the very nice BMW (early M6 IIRC) he was driving at the time.

He happened to go to the same design school that Jonathan Ive later attended.

Such a sad day, and a truly iconic machine to me personally! Seeing a ZX81 advert was what made me want a computer in the first place!

My first computer was a Sinclair Spectrum clone called HC-85 (presumably an acronym for Home Computer). These were very popular in Romania in during the last years of the Communist regime.

I remember seeing a Sinclair Spectrum and thinking how much more elegant it looked (the HC-85 was bulky and rather ugly).

Nine hours ago a post was made on HN about a bloke who designed a computer with a Z80 processor, a rubbish rubbery keyboard and came in 16Kb or 48Kb of RAM variants.

That post was about his passing.

Maybe people will notice later.

Wasn't he allowing some remakes?


The title of this article is odd. It's almost as if it implies the US was somehow responsible for his death.

He was traveling to the US for cancer treatments and suddenly died between treatments while in the US. There's no indication as to what killed him, you would presume the cancer but the title of the article would imply it was by virtue of the fact that he was on US soil.

Did I miss something?

Probably an artifact of the article being in British media. We've sanded it out to avoid further snags.

Looks like "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language" applies.

Origin unclear but according to https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/English_language attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

I read the original and did not pick up the nuance until it was pointed out; then the alternative reading was also entirely reasonable even if it was not my first understanding. The cultural ambiguity of English at it's best.

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