Loki, Janus, Pandora
The Unreleased Sinclair Computers
Sinclair Research finally threw in the towel in 1986 and surrendered
its computer business to Alan Sugar's Amstrad, a number of
projects were left uncompleted. As the Sinclair design team
was disbanded, details of the projects inevitably leaked into
the public domain.
By far the most interesting
was the so-called "Super Spectrum", codenamed Loki.
Depending on which account one believes, the name either derived
from the Norse god (renowned for his love of games) or as
a derivative of the acronym for Low-cost Colour Computer,
aka LowCCC or LC3.
The Loki was intended to be
an Amiga-beater, with custom graphics and sound chips, a "huge"
512x256 resolution in up to 256 colours and a 128K memory.
The machine would also have a fully-buffered expansion bus,
RGB, composite and TV display outputs, a serial port, two
joystick ports, a light pen (supplied), three different types
of MIDI port, stereo sound in and out, a headphone socket,
and a video recorder/video disc interface. On top of all of
that, floppy disk, hard disk, compact disk, mouse and modem
connectivity would also be available. This remarkable package
would cost as little as £200.
All of this was, of course,
completely unrealistic and the specification amounted to little
more than a wish-list. At the time, the Amiga, which was in
some respects more limited than the Loki specification, cost
£1,500. Much of that cost was due to its sophisticated
custom-designed hardware. The Loki would have cost millions
to develop over a period of several years (the Amiga took
four years) and a £200 price point was far too low if
the developer expected to make any money back.
In the event, the machine appears
to have got no further than the design phase and was abandoned
by Amstrad. Interestingly, however, its concepts did come
to fruition in a very different form. After the Amstrad takeover,
two ex-Sinclair engineers, John Mathieson and Martin Brennan,
set up their own company called Flare, drawing on the Loki
designs to produce a new multiprocessor games console. Atari
were drawn into the project and, seeking to challenge the
Sega Genesis/Megadrive and Super Nintendo, brought the machine
to the market as the Atari Jaguar.
According to Jaguar developer
Andrew Whittaker, "Some of that [Loki] technology also
found a home in a machine called the SAM Coupé, which
was manufactured and produced in the UK by MGT technologies
(Bruce Gordon and Alan Miles, both ex-Sinclair staff also).
It shared many interesting features with the Jaguar in terms
of its video chip, but the machine sold very badly in Europe
and the company folded."
all of Sinclair's uncompleted projects, the Janus is by far
the most mysterious. There is next to no public-domain information
about the machine, although a mockup of it appears to have
been produced (right). Its unusual looks, and particularly
the lack of anything resembling a keyboard, suggest that it
might have been a console of some kind. It may have been an
attempt to use Loki-style technology to go head-to-head with
Sega and Nintendo, as Flare subsequently attempted to do with
the Atari Jaguar. The Roman god Janus, who lent his name to
the project, was distinguished by his facing both ways at
once - perhaps an allusion to the unusual vertical design
of the case.
If you have any information
about this project, please get in touch!
During the early 1980s, persistent
rumours were heard that Sinclair was working on a portable
computer with a built-in screen based on the flat screen technology
which the company had spent 20 years developing. It was not
just vapourware; Sinclair had put a considerable amount of
money into developing a flat screen technology (eventually
brought to the market in the TV80
pocket television) and he wanted to make use of
this in computers as well as televisions.
In 1980, a portable version
of the ZX80
was announced. In May 1981, Sinclair amended this to a ZX81
with a "four or five inch flat screen". Very early
prototypes of the Spectrum, designed in 1981-82, still exist
with a mocked-up flat screen at the rear of the case. In 1983,
was initially envisaged as being a portable machine with space
at the back for a row of batteries along the rear of the case.
In 1985, a Spectrum-based
laptop was announced, with launch envisaged for 1986.
All of these projects depended
on being able to use a scaled-up version of the Sinclair flat
screen. The concept was of a holographic-style display, projecting
the image in mid-air between the lid and the base of the machine.
The name "Pandora", which was attached to the project
as a whole, was a reference to this ingenious display technology
- in the legend, when Pandora's box was opened it brought
hope (and a whole lot else) into the world.
Sir Clive had long detested
liquid crystal displays (LCDs), disdaining to use them on
his calculators even when cheaper and more power-efficient
LCD calculators were sweeping the market. He made his views
clear: "Liquid crystal is rubbish. Nobody pursuing that
avenue is getting anywhere. Nobody in the world has an answer
to the flat display problem - except us." His confidence
proved misplaced, as the difficulties of adapting the flat
screen technology proved insurmountable. Amstrad was unwilling
to continue with the Pandora project and killed it after the
1986 takeover of Sinclair Research's computer business.
However, Sinclair did manage
to salvage the aims of the Pandora project in a rather different
form - the Z88
laptop, which ironically uses a Japanese-produced LCD display.
© Chris Owen 1994-2003