Minimalist: Britain's Eccentric Sinclair Makes Complex Products Simple

Article excerpt

Sir Clive Sinclair, who gave the world both the pocket-sized calculator (respected) and the electric tricycle (ridiculed), is resurrecting himself. . . again.

Certified genius, Knight of the Realm, visionary and playboy, Sinclair has made millions from inventions like the $150 portable computer and the pocket-size television, and lost much of it on marketing failures and shortsighted investments.

Now his company, Sinclair Research Ltd., is back on the innovation trail, with three new products Sir Clive thinks can change the world: a tiny, cheap microprocessor for multimedia equipment, a battery-powered electric motor for standard bicycles and a streamlined electric bike.

"He's a little like Thomas Edison," said Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, an economic think tank, and a friend from Mensa, the genius society. "Without the resources of gigantic corporate laboratories, he manages by sheer inspiration to create domestic inventions."

True to form, while some snicker, many others - from retailers to royalty - are dazzled. Hammacher Schlemmer is offering the $1,199 low-to-the-ground Zike bike in its summer catalog of gizmos and gadgets. And Queen Elizabeth II has already ordered the electric bicycle, which Hammacher Schlemmer targets at affluent senior citizens, for Balmoral castle.

Sinclair, 53, is a minimalist who makes complex products simple and in the process cuts costs and size.

A bespectacled, balding man with a ginger fringe, he says an ultra-light-weight collapsible bike is "my great passion of the moment." Next on his agenda: an electric car for city use.

The fact that an electric vehicle would put him in competition with multinational heavyweights like General Motors doesn't distress Sinclair, who's made a career out of tilting at windmills.

At 17, he became a technical journalist. Four years later, he founded Sinclair Radionics, which sold radio and amplifier kits and hi-fi systems by mail-order.

In 1967, Sinclair's pocket calculator - at 2-by-5 inches, the first of its kind - hit the market, selling for $120, a remarkably low price for the time. It became the U.K.'s best-selling calculator.

Hit by a downturn in 1986, Sinclair sold his stock of computers and his by-then famous trademark to Amstrad PLC for $5 million.

He created one of the world's first digital watches, but lost money because of inadequate supplies of chips. Later, the electronic tricycle was derided by the press and dubbed a "doodle-bug" because of its egg shape. …