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Something special happened in the UK at the start of the 1980s and it altered the face of computing as we know it. You may be of the opinion that all that ever happened in the past was Apple and IBM, but not so, not in the UK at least.
Before 1980 most personal computers in use in the US were S100-based modular machines - big, complicated and expensive.
The newer breed of all-in-one machines such as the PET, the Tandy TRS80, and the Apple II were just becoming available but even these budget machines, which must have appeared an unbelievable bargain in the US, seemed far to pricey for the average UK user.
To put things in context the Apple II cost around £1200 (around £4000/$6000 today, a PET around £600 and a Tandy TRS-80 £500 (both around £2000/$3000 today and the UK market was really looking for something that cost at most £200/$300 and preferably less than £100/$150 for an entry level machine.
This resulted in the single-board "naked" PC style of machine being very popular. This was fine as long as you were interested in electronics, or at least not frightened by it, but there was no real prospect of this sort of machine being acceptable to the mass market.
The point is that while there were machines suitable for home use, the home buyer had no real confidence that they should buy a computer and £500 plus was a lot to risk on the chance that it might be useful or fun.
All of this changed very suddenly in the February of 1980 when the Sinclair ZX80 burst onto the market.
This was something quite new and different. Science of Cambridge, which is what Clive Sinclair's computer company was initially called, had already produced a low cost microprocessor trainer called the MK14 but the ZX80 was a real computer.
It came complete in its own case, with full keyboard, used a TV as a monitor and you could have it all for £79.95 (about £300/$450 in today's money) . Of course it wasn't quite as good as this makes it sound. In particular, if you bought it at this price you had to put your ZX80 together from a kit. A fully finished machine cost £99.95 which was still very reasonable (£400/$600 in today's money).
The low price was achieved by making it's Z80 processor do more or less everything. It was the keyboard controller, video generator and tape interface. This made it cheap but it had its drawbacks. For example the video display vanished whenever the processor had something else to do - which included hitting a key which made the screen flash.
It also only had a non-standard integer-only Basic. But it all did work and in a very small, self-contained package.
At about the same time as the ZX80, Acorn, who also already had a simple 6502 module system, announced the Acorn Atom.
This was a complete machine but nowhere near as innovative as the ZX80. The Atom used a 6502 processor and, like the ZX80, only used integer Basic but it was expandable. It may have been more like a traditional machine but it cost £120 as a kit and £150 built, which made a lot of people think twice about it. Of course its design lead on to the BBC Micro.
After the ZX80 and the Atom things went quiet for over a year. There were new machines but all either up-market £1000 plus systems or single-board naked machines.
Then at the start of 1981 Sinclair announced the ZX81, its successor to the ZX80. This used the same innovative design as the Z80 but it solved most of its problems - no flashing display, a floating point Basic - and it cost less.
At £50 for a kit, it was the first machine that you could afford to buy just to find out if computing was as interesting and as fun as it was supposed to be. What is really amazing is the fact that the tiny machine didn't put a generation off the subject!
Acorn too had a new machine that they were about to launch but they were hanging fire because of the BBC’s attempt to meddle in the market. The BBC had decided to produce a series of TV programs about the micro and educational material to go with it. The really amazing part of this fairly straightforward decision was that they planned to launch a BBC Micro - a machine that the BBC's course could be based around. Of course the machine wasn't going to be designed by the BBC, just endorsed by it.
Sinclair probably decided to sell as many ZX81s as possible to the world before the October 1981 launch of the BBC micro and the start of the television series in January 1982.
Commodore VIC 20
At this stage the only machine to be in competition with the ZX81 was the Commodore VIC 20, which was launched at the end of1981.
The VIC was sold as a real machine with a real keyboard, a proper Basic (Microsoft), colour graphics, etc. but it cost £200. As a competitor to the ZX81 it was just too expensive but against the BBC Micro it had a better chance. Other US imports, such as the Atari 400 and 800, were even more expensive and under-powered by comparison with the soon-to-be-released BBC Micro.
As an interesting aside, the machine that Sinclair designed before the ZX80, and the design that was forcibly sold off when his electronics company went broke, also hit the market at about the same time. The Newbrain, as it was called, was a very different proposition to the ZX81. It was built of lots of TTL chips, it was heavy and used a lot of power. However, it did come in a metal case, had a built in single line display and had a quality keyboard - shame it cost £230.