Friday the 5th of March 2021, marked the 40th anniversary of the arrival of the machine that did more to awaken ordinary Britons to the possibilities offered by home computing than any other to date: the Sinclair ZX81. While its successor, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, got the nation playing computer games, the ZX81 was the tipping point that turned the home computer from nerd hobby into something anyone could buy and use. Sir Clive Sinclair would later say his Science of Cambridge company - later Sinclair Research - developed its first computers to make the money needed to fund other projects closer to his heart: the portable TV and what would become the infamous Sinclair C5 electric car. The ZX81 was designed to be small, simple, and above all cheap, using as few components as possible to keep the cost down. Video output was to a television set rather than a dedicated monitor. Programs and data were loaded and saved onto audio tape cassettes. It had only four silicon chips on board and a mere 1 KB of memory. The machine had no power switch or any moving parts, and used a pressure-sensitive membrane keyboard for manual input. The ZX81's limitations prompted the emergence of a flourishing market in third-party peripherals to improve its capabilities. Such limitations, however, achieved Sinclair's objective of keeping the cost of the machine as low as possible. Its distinctive design brought its designer, Rick Dickinson, a Design Council award. The ZX81 could be bought by mail order in kit form or pre-assembled. In what was then a major innovation, it was the first cheap mass-market home computer that could be bought from high street stores, led by W.H. Smith and soon many other retailers. The ZX81 marked the first time that computing in Britain became an activity for the general public, rather than the preserve of business people and electronics hobbyists. It inspired the creation of a huge community of enthusiasts, some of whom founded their own businesses producing software and hardware for the ZX81. Many went on to play a major role in the British computer industry in later years. The ZX81's commercial success made Sinclair Research one of Britain's leading computer manufacturers and earned a fortune and an eventual knighthood for the company's founder, Sir Clive Sinclair. Launched in January 1980, the predecessor to the ZX81, the Sinclair ZX80 was a DIY kit. It had a Zilog Z80A processor, 1KB of memory and used a cassette recorder for storage. The ZX80 had a key flaw - literally. Press one of the touch pad-style keys and the display momentarily blanked, as the CPU was diverted from maintaining the display to reading the keyboard buffer. Orders had been taken so SoC had to ship the product, but before the ZX80 was officially released work had begun on its successor. A year on from the ZX80 debut, in January 1980, the ZX81 was still in development. But then the BBC came knocking on Sinclair's door. The Corporation was looking for a cheap home computer to tie in to a series of programmes it was planning to broadcast later that year. Having seen the success of the Apple II, Tandy TRS-80 and Commodore Pet in the US, BBC senior management believed Britons needed to be quickly awoken to the personal computer revolution. It established the BBC Computer Literacy Project. A series of programmes would show viewers the potential of computers in their business and daily lives. The machine itself would get them directly involved. The ZX81 was developed by a team led by Science of Cambridge's chief engineer, Jim Westwood. Its BASIC interpreter and OS was written by John Grant and Steve Vickers at Nine Tiles, a company contracted by Sinclair for the ZX80's software. A bigger Rom chip - 8KB to the ZX80's 4KB - allowed Grant and Vickers to extend the new machine's functionality considerably, in particular floating point maths and trigonometry functions. Science of Cambridge's Rick Dickinson designed the iconic casing. The look was based on the ZX80, but out went that machine's vacuum-formed cover in favour of superior injection moulding. Once again, SoC used the Z80A CPU and equipped the ZX81 with 1KB of memory. A 16KB Ram Pack add-on would later be offered, and become the source of much annoyance - but hilarity to owners of rival machines - because its poor fit ensured that any movement could cause it to lose electrical contact, crashing the computer in what was called "RAM Pack Wobble". Like the ZX80, the new machine was offered as a £49.95 kit. But this time - and the use of a quality plastic casing suggests this was always going to be the case - it was also sold pre-assembled for £69.95. Both versions were made by Timex, which would later license the design for the US market, where the computer would debut in the States as the Timex Sinclair 1000. At such a low price - though still beyond the reach of many a computer-keen kid at the time - Sinclair sold truckloads. He was helped in no small part by the retailer WH Smith, which, by offering the machine in its shops, put it in the way of far more ordinary buyers than ads in early computer magazines would have done. WH Smith had an exclusive for six months, and then other high street retailers jumped in too. Sales soared, Sinclair became a household name and even richer as his company's fortunes rocketed. More importantly, a new consumer electronics category was born, and the UK home computer market was defined and led by UK companies. That would change, but not for a few more years. But by then thousands of schoolkids had had their first taste of computers, programming and, - crucially - games. Many games designers and programmers today owe their careers to the Sinclair ZX81, and their entry into the world of home computing, forty years ago last week.
Regular reader Lincoln contacted me in the week, with a piece he had come across regarding the actress Sheila Hancock, who lived and worked in Erith for a considerable time. Lincoln writes:- "I know you like writing about people with a connection to Erith. Maybe you know this already but Sheila Hancock grew up in Bexleyheath and both her mother and she worked in a department store in Erith. Sheila Hancock worked at a family-owned department store, Mitchells of Erith, setting up a café and theatre booking office there after working in gloves and lingerie, having previously worked alongside her husband in pubs and hotels; before her marriage she had worked at a Lewisham pub and a flower shop at Greenwich. After leaving the hospitality industry in 1938, the Hancocks moved to a semi-detached house in Latham Road, Bexleyheath, which Hancock considered "dreadfully dull" compared to "the rough and tumble" of King's Cross. Hancock recalled that there was a sense that "we had definitely gone up in the world... became lower-middle-class." Her sister Billie was nine years older. Hancock was educated at St Etheldreda's Convent at Ely Place, Holborn, then at Upton Road Junior School and Upland Junior School. After wartime evacuation to Wallingford, Oxfordshire (at that time, in Berkshire) and to Crewkerne, Somerset, Hancock attended the Dartford County Grammar School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art". I understand she was an active member of Erith Playhouse for several years, and that she still has a connection to it nowadays. Some time ago I went on a tour of the Playhouse, and got to see many of the areas not open to the public. What really impressed me was the lighting and sound control room which is fitted with a state of the art multi channel digital lighting control system – I used to be heavily involved with stage lighting, and I had a very interesting chat with the lighting engineer, and he demonstrated the two large carbon arc spotlights the theatre owns – they are the last two in use anywhere in Europe (see the photo above, and click on it for a larger view), though sadly this may not be for very much longer. The special copper coated carbon rods that create the light when an electrical arc is passed across the gap between them are no longer manufactured. The rods gradually get burned away as they are used, so they have a very finite life. The chap told me that he had located a stock of rods in a theatre in Grays, Essex, who said he could have them for nothing. When he got there, the box containing the carbon rods had been stolen – apparently by someone who did not realise their rarity and value; they were almost certainly broken up to get a few penny worth of copper coating each carbon road. The only other supplier of carbon arc lighting rods is GEC in America; apparently they have around five hundred in stock, but when these are gone, that will be it, and arc lights will be no more. This will be a real shame, as they form part of our engineering history, and it would be good to keep the last two in working order, even if they are in a museum, rather than in everyday use in Erith Playhouse. What do you think? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The photo above (click on it for a larger version) was taken some time in the early 1990's. It shows the flower beds in Erith Riverside Gardens in full bloom - and very impressive they look too. One can clearly see the Erith Riverside Swimming Baths in the background, whilst it was still open to the public. The baths are now long gone, and replaced by apartment blocks and houses. The Riverside Gardens date back to 1937, when they were created to replace a former Cannon and Gaze flour mill, which was built on the site in 1903. Another firm that was established on the river front at Erith was Herbert W. Clarke and Sons, which was set up in 1890. They started out as barge owners and lightermen, but by 1911 they took over Anchor Bay Wharf, which until then had been owned by Eastern and Anderson. As soon as Herbert W. Clarke and Sons took possession of the wharf, they formed a new import and export business, which mainly exported coal to Holland and Belgium. Nearby was a company called Mayer Newman and Co. who were engaged in the scrap metal business – the scrap yard still exists today. It is now called European Metal Recycling, but is still in the same location in Manor Road. Further East along Manor Road was a truly massive factory and works owned by Turner’s Asbestos Cement Co. Ltd. The site covered a little over forty three acres; by 1912 the company pioneered the development of asbestos roofing material, and also produced a wide range of guttering, piping and fireproof insulation material, as well as a lot of other components for the building industry. We are still living with the legacy of this today; many old buildings need to have specialist demolition contractors to remove Turner’s asbestos building products, as the dust asbestos produces when cut or abraded is severely poisonous. I think if the company was still around today, they would have been sued into bankruptcy – but of course, around a century ago, nobody was any the wiser. Another world renowned company that had a base in Erith were Royal Doulton, who had an extensive factory located just off Church Manorway. They made salt glazed piping and tiling. Royal Doulton also made their fine china in Erith, when experimental designs were produced that depicted local scenes as their decoration. These pieces are now rare and extremely collectable. I recall seeing one piece featured on “Antiques Roadshow” some years ago. Erith has been the historical home to many other manufacturers over the years, some of which are still in existence. One such company is ADM Oils, which has a huge processing facility in Church Manorway, which employs nearly 1,200 local people. It originally started up in 1908, when it was known as Erith Oil Works – the business then was similar to now; they crush and process all kinds of seeds, to extract their natural oils, which are used in foodstuffs, cooking oils and animal feeds. The seeds, then as now are brought upriver in large bulk freighter ships. The distinctive huge concrete silos that are still present on the ADM Oils site were constructed in 1916, where they were some of the earliest surviving examples of reinforced concrete construction in the UK. They were constructed by Danish structural engineering company Christiani and Neilsen, who invented reinforced concrete construction techniques. The earliest recorded industrial company established in Erith was a timber importing business called W.R Crow and Son, which was set up way back in 1795! I will feature more on the history of Erith and the surrounding area in the future. The best reference work on the local history of the town was the four part “A History of Erith”, written by John A. Pritchard, which is now out of print. It was originally written in 1965, and substantially updated and revised in 1989, when it was reprinted. I have not seen a work since which is a patch on this venerable publication.
Regular readers may have noticed that over the last few weeks, a number of ward reports from the Police Safer Neighbourhoods Teams have been missing. This week I have found out the reason. From what I understand, the way in which the Police teams provide weekly status reports to Bexley Borough Neighbourhood Watch Association is currently under review. Hopefully in the near future the issue will be resolved, and normal service will be resumed. A somewhat shorter than usual compilation of reports is below, for your information. Email me at email@example.com.
Firstly the report from Barnehurst ward:- "There have been no burglaries reported over the past week. The only serious crime on Barnehurst ward was on Monday 1/03/2021 on Brasted Road where a resident reports they had their car windscreen and house window smashed with a brick. This is a seemingly unprovoked incident of criminal damage. We’ve had reports over the last year of youths riding off-road bikes in and around Hurstwood Avenue. We had previously warned a 15-year-old identified for this. On Friday 26th of February, we stopped this same 15-year-old again riding an off-road bike on Hurstwood Avenue and he has been reported for road traffic offences and the bike has been seized and will be destroyed" (Photo above). "The team continues to conduct proactive work in and around the ward, conducting several searches for drug possession. Today we arrested an adult male who was wanted for failing to appear at court for a burglary he has been charged for last month". Belvedere ward - no report this week. Bexleyheath ward:- "Between Thursday 25/2/21 17:30 and Friday 26/2/21 08:20 Criminal Damage to Motor Vehicle Long Lane. On Wednesday 3/3/21 between 08:00 and 11:00 Theft From Motor Vehicle Cineworld car park". Crayford ward:- "On Friday 26/2/21 16:00 Theft From Motor Vehicle Iron Mill Place. On Saturday 27/2/21 between 11:00 and 12:00 Theft From Motor Vehicle Kennet Road. On Sunday 28/2/21 11:00 Criminal Damage Stephen Road". Erith ward - no report this week. Northumberland Heath ward - no report this week. Slade Green and Northend ward:- "We have had four positive searches for drugs, issuing a mixture of Community Resolution and PND to the offenders. A moped was recovered which was stolen from Slade Gardens and a suspect arrested for the offence nearby in Larkswood Close. The suspect has been interviewed and released and the investigation is ongoing. The team have patrolled Erith Marshes following complaints about off-road bikes. One bike was seen and rode off on seeing police and we will carry out patrols during peak times this week on Erith Marshes and Canada Road". Thamesmead East ward:- "No Burglaries to report this week. Vehicle Crime - Overton Road Wednesday 24/2/21 3:45 pm The victim reports tools taken from work van without permission by suspect/s unknown. No signs of forced entry. Lensbury Way - Between Friday 26/2/21 6:35 pm and Saturday 27/2/21 11 am The victim reports catalytic converter removed from Toyota Auris by suspect/s unknown. On Sunday 28th of February Thamesmead and Belvedere SNT brought in some more positive results. Having received reports of people braking lockdown rules in the Picardy Street area officers attended and found two males loitering and acting suspiciously. One of the males was found in possession of MDMA and Methadone which was not in the person’s name. He was arrested and taken to a South London Police Station where enquiries are ongoing. The other male was also issued a fine for breaching Covid regulations. Later the same day officers found a male who appeared to be under the influence of alcohol sitting in the driver seat. The male was arrested for being drunk in charge of a vehicle and taken to a local Police Station. When in custody the male was also found in possession of cocaine. We are again sending out a message that we will continue our proactive patrols and tackle crime whilst working in partnership with our local communities". West Heath ward:- "No residential burglaries or motor vehicle crime on the ward this week. One garage burglary in Milford Close took place between Thursday 25/02/2021 midnight and Tuesday 2/03/2021 09.35. The victim noticed the padlock and bracket had been ripped off the garage door. Thankfully nothing was stolen".
The end video this week is a piece of fascinating London history; imagine if you will, a real - life version of the classic Ealing comedy "Passport to Pimlico" - where an area of London seceded from the rest of the country. Well, it actually happened, in The Isle of Dogs in the summer of 1970. What started out as a protest joke actually changed government policy - and just for once the people won. Watch the short documentary below, and send comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.