Jim Westwood

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Steve Jobs

Jim Westwood (born 1948)
Jim Westwood (born 1948)

In August 1979, Jim Westwood, the self-taught Chief Engineer of Science of Cambridge Ltd, a British consumer electronics company, incorporated in 1973 by Sir Clive Marles Sinclair (1940-2021), started a project to design a new microcomputer (to replace the first microcomputer kit of the company—MK14), based on Zilog Z80 microprocessor. Westwood and his group needed only six months to develop a remarkable device—Sinclair ZX80 (it was named after the Z80 processor with the X for the mystery ingredient), and it was announced in February 1980, as a kit form for £79.95, (purchasers had to assemble and solder it together), and as an assembled version at £99.95.

The low price opened up the market completely, with more people now able to afford a home computer resulting in over 50000 unit sales and a waiting list for the ZX80 of several months (an unheard number for the day), before they came out with the improved ZX-81 one year later.

Sinclair ZX80 (see ZX80 Operating Manual) had the ability to outperform many of its competitors and yet was built using readily available components. Proving hugely popular, the ZX80 weighed in at just 340 grams and was the first computer with a price tag of less than £100. In the USA the computer was advertised as The first personal computer under $200!

Sinclair ZX80 (source: www.oldcomputers.net)
Sinclair ZX80 (source: www.oldcomputers.net)

The ZX80 computer was mounted in a tiny white plastic case (designed by John Pemberton), weight only 340 g, with one piece blue membrane keyboard on the front.

Westwood designed the machine using 21 readily available TTL chips (the only proprietary technology was the firmware) around Z80 CPU (in fact, most machines used the NEC μPD780C-1 equivalent), running at 3.25 MHz. The computer was equipped with 1 KB of static RAM (64 KB max) and 4 KB ROM, containing the operating system and programming language—Sinclair BASIC, and an editor. The display was hooked to the TV, with 22 x 32 black-and-white characters. Ports are memory and cassette. Peripherals supported: Sinclair thermal printer.

The Sinclair ZX80 was an extraordinary personal computer, but it did have its drawbacks: No color and sound support; Very limited memory; The built-in BASIC programming language can deal only with whole numbers; Very slow program execution, as there are no video chips, and the CPU performs all of the computer functions; The keyboard is a membrane-type, a flat plastic surface which is difficult to use and wears-out rather quickly.

The always shy of publicity self-taught engineer Westwood stayed with Sinclair through the 1980s (he was hired by him as a teenager in 1963), developing the ZX81 and its successor, the Spectrum. After Amstrad acquired Sinclair Research (Science of Cambridge had become), Westwood co-founded Cambridge Computer with Sinclair in 1986 to design the hardware for the radical battery-powered portable Z88 computer and later to create the Astra set-top box and its associated satellite dish, the “Squish”.