The EPIC BEEF that Solved Gaming

The EPIC BEEF that Solved Gaming

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The Home computer revolution was here. Computers had finally escaped the realm of full room mainframes and the deep pocket companies to reach homes, living rooms, bedrooms, people. Everyone.  Everyone with enough money to get one, that is. But at the same time, halfway through the world,  one device challenged that. It turned millions of people into gamers. It turned thousands of gamers into professional game makers. And its legacy far outlived its company.

So, it is fascinating to think that this device exists in large part out of spite. A very personal beef that would shape computer and video game history to this day. Brought to you by the CuriosityStream and Nebula bundle. It's the 1970s and it is raining money for the electronics industry. A certain British company   called Sinclair Radionics had grown on the back of electronic kits, radios and instruments.

Leading this company was one remarkable person and definitely the kind of guy who would name a company after himself: Clive Sinclair, a rare combination of great business sense and a great mind for electronics. While the company had quite a reputation at this point, our story begins with one unexpected product opportunity. You see, the British pound used to work this horrible way, but one good day the Queen godmother waved her magic wand and massively simplified it. And of course, everyone was used to the old system and they needed a calculator for pretty much a solid year to make sense of anything. Now Sinclair had an existing relationship  with chip designer Texas Instruments, as they manufactured a lot of the components in their previous products.

Thing is, through them Sinclair heard of a mysterious new chip that sounded too perfect to be true, the most ideal of business opportunities. He needed to try one immediately. Chris, wake up. I need you to take a plane to Texas immediately to pick up some samples. Texas? Clive… it’s the first of January. Do you have any idea of how hungover I am?

I said, NOW! The chip Chris brought back from Texas was the TMS1802. An entire basic calculator in one chip. Clive's rush was justified. This technological innovation allowed the creation of an affordable pocket calculator that quickly took over the market. And made the company a lot of money. Sadly, that fortune did not last. Shortly after, Japanese brands took over the calculator

market with better pricing. Sinclair's company tried to recuperate with a set of unsuccessful follow up products, but that went so bad that the company went bankrupt. Requiring the UK government to intervene and buy more than 70% of it, just to keep it afloat. Clive Sinclair was not the type of person to take suggestions or direction from others easily, especially from the government so this immediately fell apart.  Closure was inevitable and he knew it. In secret, he formed a shell company to continue on some of his projects away from government scrutiny. And of course,

it was Chris Curry that he put in charge of this secret company to get things moving before Clive could come back in and take control. In order to raise capital, this secret company made a number of products that could be built from surplus calculator components they had available. But maybe the most interesting for our story was a kit for people to put together a simple programmable computer made from 14 different chips called the Microcomputer Kit 14. MK14. It's- it's a kit! So people can build their own simple computer. We are going to sell so many of these. That's- that's it? Fine I guess it's better than nothing. We can sell it while we develop something better. Better... better than nothing? Clive, think of what you re missing out on!

Frustrated Chris would eventually meet an Austrian that had come to Cambridge to do a PHD in Physics called Hermann Hauser, who actually agreed with his vision for the future. And they would both form Acorn Computers, a company that could pursue this product away from the clutches of the ever-controlling Clive. And while they had to chase some weird opportunities to get started, soon enough they managed to start releasing computers. Now the thing is, while this was happening, Clive had actually changed his mind about home computers, no doubt in part due to the unexpectedly high sales of the humble MK14 kit. Also, he had started to notice an interesting development in the world of integrated circuits. A few years back a group of engineers from Intel had broken away to form their own company.

And the result was the Zilog Z80. An 8-bit CPU that was comparable to a lot of the stuff Intel had put out, but at a very competitive price. Attention team! I want a computer made around this marvelous Z80 processor. I need it ready soon and I need it under 100 pounds.

I know this is a tall order but I know each one of you are up for the challenge. And since it runs on a Z80 we are going to call it the ZX80, and the X will stand for our own secret ingredient. Now you might be wondering, what was Clive's secret ingredient? A very innovative design? Or a product development cycle that  borders on worker abuse? Ehm... You decide! Clive Sinclair had a very particular way to manage production lifecycles. After gaining a general idea of what the technology would be able to provide in terms of product, work would go into the advertisement campaign that would promise a set of features, and more importantly, an incredibly accessible price. And then it would be up to the engineers

and designers to desperately work to somehow meet Sinclair's draconian price demands before the release date that they had already promised in the ad. Talk about pressure. So, how did they make it happen? Chief engineer Jim Westwood basically took the Zilog Z80 CPU and 17 different readability available chips to implement the logic that would connect it to the rest of the computer. Added a barely usable 1 kb of RAM and 4 kb of ROM to store the operating system, which together with some smart decisions on components, such as a barely usable keyboard, meant it was very cheap to produce. The computer was cheaper and more successful

than what Chris Curry's company was selling at the time. And you would have think that was enough, but Clive Sinclair was not done beating his previous second in command. And he had an additional secret weapon almost ready, that seemed to violate the rules of economics: A better computer that would be even cheaper. You see, Sinclair engineers had figured out how to do the impossible. One of the major sources of cost for the ZX80 was the sheer number of chips it used,

and it was impossible to simplify the design any further without using some custom-made chips. While computer components back then were significantly simpler, fabricating a custom chip was a titanic task. In the most simplified terms possible, a custom chip is made by applying light through a custom mask to etch a layer of circuitry into a semiconductor wafer. Manufacturing the masks for each layer, plus setting up a custom production line for the chip is very, VERY expensive. So, how do you make a cheap all custom chip?

That's the neat thing, you don't. Ferranti, an UK electrical engineering company, had recently perfected an ingenious method. They would fabricate one type of chip, made up of standard components like transistors and resistors that would be exactly the same for every client. And then, they would allow clients to design the mask for

the connections between these components to make a semi-custom chip. And since that means that only the connection layer mask needed to be made, the whole thing was way, way cheaper. Jim Westwood, the lead engineer, had been working with Ferranti on the possibility of designing such a semi-custom chip, with dreams of massively consolidating a lot of the circuitry of the ZX80 into one component to drop the price. Designing the connections for the semi-custom chip however,

proved to be a more difficult challenge than he expected. Ok. That's it. I am leaving for a week. I have better things to do. Hey Rookie. The project is yours now. Good luck designing the chip! Wait- wait. What? So, imagine Westwood's surprise when Altwasser had a fully working prototype when he returned. All in all, Altwasser's design consolidated all the circuitry into a cheap semi-custom chip,  which reduced costs so significantly that it made possible the impossible.

The ZX81 would retail for less than the original ZX80 and have a vastly improved operating system. While the ZX81 was poised to be a huge success for the company, this would not be an interesting story without some unexpected consequences. And something was about to happen that would light a fire right underneath the UK computer industry. In the early 1980s the BBC, the national public broadcaster of the United Kingdom had an excellent idea. If computers were the future of the industry,

shouldn't they have a program to educate the general public on how to use computers? If this was to work, they would need an official computer for the program. The original plan was for the government to develop one, but the project was massively behind schedule. So, they suddenly needed a supplier from another company. It is hard to overstate how big this contract was. Being the official computer for the BBC computer program meant becoming the standard for what computers mean for an entire generation, it meant millions of pounds of free publicity. It was a controversial move that many felt was the BBC working to promote a private company. And of course, everyone wanted a piece of it. And as you can imagine Chris and Clive's

companies were some of the top choices fighting for this position. Sinclair was confident that he had this in the bag as he called the BBC, he had beaten Chris on price twice. So he's should be, obviously, the superior company. However, his focus on ultra-aggressive pricing, achievable by all means possible, plus his already complicated relationship with the government from the early days, meant the ZX81 failed to impress the BBC representatives. The producer of the computer program did an interview for a computer magazine in 1982 that leaves it quite clear. I would have been very reluctant for the BBC to sell something like the Sinclair's ZX81 because it's so limited.

The Sinclair cannot be expanded. It is fundamentally a throw-away consumer product.   Meanwhile, Chris Curry and his company, Acorn computers had been doing some very smart business maneuvering, promising a computer his company still did not technically have, focused on a better keyboard and expandability, which managed to convince BBC representatives to ultimately give them the enormous government contract. It's safe to say Clive did not take this well. He could not believe he had won the battle and lost the war to a previous second in command. The improved ZX81 computers could and would sell well, even with no government help, but this was no longer about pure sales. He promised, he vowed that he would show them how to make a superior product.

His computer would do everything the BBC intended to do, do it better and his company would do it on its own. Out of this spiral of anger and spite, something truly interesting would emerge: a computer called the ZX Spectrum. Now, making this product happen fast enough to compete with the BBC machine was yet another challenge for the engineering team. And so, they mostly iterated on

the existing ZX81 design but improved each component in ingenious ways. A new semi-custom Ferranti chip was designed to basically connect it with everything else on the system and control from the video signal to keyboard inputs. Once again designed by hand by Altwasser, who at this point had been promoted to chief engineer. He made use of almost every single cell and component to optimize space and costs as much as possible. The same familiar Zilog CPU was used as the base, as it continued to be cheap and more importantly, was deeply understood by Altwasser and the other engineers, which allowed them to implement hacks to reduce the pins used in clever ways. But maybe one of the more legendary hacks had to do with RAM. To improve usable RAM to compete

with the BBC computer, minimum capacity was boosted from 1k to 16k, with additional slots for a full 48k of memory, which was very impressive for the time. How did they manage that on a low price? The answer is unorthodox. You see, these chips here provide the extra 32K of memory, but these are actually 64K of memory chips. At the time, the fabrication process for RAM chips was still being improved, and it was still often that defective chips were produced with half of the memory just riddled with errors. Sinclair, cleverly, struck a deal with what appeared to be two main manufacturers: old time partner Texas Instruments and Japanese company OKI Semiconductors, to acquire these defective chips for cheap.

And then the computer would only use the half of memory that was functional. And so, being able to pack the computer with more RAM without the additional costs of better chips. But a computer is only as powerful as its operating system allows it to. For computers at the time, this was stored in the ROM chip and growing the ROM from 8k to 16k meant a much more sophisticated operating system could be commissioned, that would support more advanced features that would open the gates to future developers.

And maybe the most important of those features was 8, that's right, a full 8 colors. That's why it's called the Spectrum. Nowadays this seems like a weird thing to celebrate, but getting any color whatsoever on a computer at that price level was a huge win, mostly because color takes a huge amount of memory and making it work without consuming all available RAM was tricky. Altwasser and the external company developing the ROM hacked around the problem and came up with a system where every tile on screen would only be able to display two colors, background color and foreground color. This limitation is

often confused for a bug since it causes an effect commonly known as "attribute crash" that would be particularly visible in certain games. But a patent filed by Altwasser and Sinclair in 1983 makes it very clear that this was an intentional technique to reduce memory usage in a color display, and a technique good enough that it was worth patenting! And hey, in true LowSpec philosophy, it might not be as good as computers several times the price,  but it gets the job done. Now, there are some aspects of the project's cost saving measures that are less popular than others.

With the amazing power of hindsight, also known as, judging sh*t out of its original historical context, when you bring up this computer one of the most controversial legacies is its keyboard. In fact, the lack of a more proper keyboard might have been one of the reasons why the more expensive Acorn computer ended up with the contract for the BBC, and the Sinclair keyboard caught a fair amount of criticism from the press during its release. However, in context, the original rubber keyboard makes a lot of sense. The previous computers by Sinclair had an extraordinarily uncomfortable but cheap keyboard, and coming from that design the challenge was to improve it, while still keeping within budget. Industrial designer Rick Dickinson explained the keyboard was a simplified design that managed to get physical keys while minimizing expensive moving parts, and in that respect... Yeah, it's much better than this. Now, with that said, the rushed development and the focus on low price did come with some issues. Including a reputation for unreliability on

the earlier models that became the starting point for one of the most hilarious stories of computer history. As Sinclair's ZX Spectrum and the Acorn BBC Micro fought for the UK computer market, the surprisingly personal competition between both men got to a boiling point. Chris Curry authorized an ad campaign that in part pointed out Sinclair's reportedly much higher product return rates. Suggesting that the Spectrum was a faulty mess compared to the more reliable BBC Micro. We can go into a discussion about how those numbers might have been calculated in a way that benefited Acorn.

But the interesting bit is that Clive was so angry at the ad that he marched into the bar that he and Chris Curry both frequented in the city, found Chris having a drink there, and apparently hit him with a newspaper and just started showering him with insults. According to Chris Curry himself, he fled to a nearby pub but Clive was hot on pursuit, and eventually he grabbed Chris from the back of the head and at that point, he had had enough. And the best part of the story is that the pub both men frequented, where the fight got started, was called: The Baron of the Beef. You have to love history sometimes, you can't make up sh*t like this. Just *muak* Well, pioneer computer CEOs punching each other in the face makes for good drama but, why did this matter? Did the Spectrum change anything? YES. On one thing Clive Sinclair was correct. The low price of this computer meant it sold a lot.

The spectrum arrived just at a time where people all over the world were teaching themselves how to program different applications. And that of course meant that there were a lot of people that wanted to make games. So, let's say you wanted to make a Game for   Atari in the early 80s. You need to license everything through Atari, pay a ton of money and buy all the cartridges through them. But if you wanted to make a game for the Spectrum you don't need a license. And to distribute it, you only need to store them in audio cassettes.

You could literally copy and produce the games yourself and sell them via mail. This unprecedented accessibility on a really cheap computer meant that while Atari and the American game market were basically collapsing at this point, on the other side of the world there was a golden age of games made by small teams. And many of those developers moved on to define gaming in other ways. And many,

MANY of them are still active in the industry. And interestingly enough, this was an industry that happened not because of Sinclair but in many ways, despite Sinclair. Through the lifetime of the Spectrum, there were constant discussions within the company as to why the entire machine had not just pivoted entirely to games given the huge market.  Others believed games were a distraction from real computers or other technological progress. Clive Sinclair himself seems to be on that camp, as the next product that was not a Spectrum revision was a computer meant for the office and work. Which would for many reasons contribute to a downward spiral that would eventually kill the Sinclair brand altogether. 

Another unexpected casualty was: Ferranti, the company that created that very ingenious method for making semicustom chips that made these devices possible. Given that level of innovation I was surprised they're not a thing in the current tech industry. I had never heard of them until I started researching this video so, what happened?  Well, it is a story that involves illegal arm deals to nations in Africa, a secret CIA operation and one of the biggest corporate fraud cases in history. I bet you didn't see that coming. 

It is a fascinating tale so it is what I chose as the bonus reward video for this episode in Nebula. Wait, Nebula? Nebula is a rising Streaming service that a growing number of creators built up as a booster pack to your favorite YouTube content. For example: Every new video I am making of this new series always has an exclusive companion Nebula video on tangential topics like how Ferranti came down due to arms trafficking, the fake Nintendo DS prototype made in Japan, and the story of how the Game Boy camera was tested on nude pictures. Yeah. All of this with original content like my documentary on Venezuelan RuneScape gold farmers and extra content from tons of quality creators. And the best part is, it's really cheap to get into it.

We have a bundle with CuriosityStream, the internet's best source for nonfiction content, with thousands of documentaries such as "White-Collar gangster" about the huge Mt. Gox bitcoin scam mystery, now that crypto scams are a bit of a news item again. And if you sign up to CuriosityStream using the button that will appear on screen in one moment, or through the link in the description you get a Nebula subscription for free, and it works as long as your CuriosityStream subscription remains active. 

But the real deal here is that we have an exclusive 26% discount on yearly plans, meaning that you get both services for a bit over a dollar a month. It is ridiculously cheap and you are hugely supporting quality content like this video for years to come.  So, thank you, and thank you to CuriosityStream for sponsoring this video.

2022-02-20 13:47

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