The ZX81 is a home computer that was produced by Sinclair Research and manufactured in Scotland by Timex Corporation. It was launched in the United Kingdom in March 1981 as the successor to Sinclair's ZX80 and was designed to be a low-cost introduction to home computing for the general public. It was hugely successful, and more than 1.5 million units were sold before it was discontinued. The ZX81 found commercial success in many other countries, notably the United States where it was initially sold as the ZX-81. Timex manufactured and distributed it under licence and enjoyed a substantial but brief boom in sales. Timex later produced its own versions of the ZX81 for the US market: the Timex Sinclair 1000 and Timex Sinclair 1500. Unauthorized clones of the ZX81 were produced in several countries.
The ZX81 was designed to be small, simple, and above all inexpensive, 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 compact audio cassettes. It had only four silicon chips and a mere 1 KB of memory. The machine had no power switch or any moving parts, with the exception of a VHF TV channel selector switch present on early "ZX81 USA" models and the Timex-Sinclair 1000, and it 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 as low as possible. Its distinctive case and keyboard brought designer Rick Dickinson a Design Council award.
The ZX81 could be bought by mail order in kit form or pre-assembled. It was the first inexpensive 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 point when computing in Britain became an activity for the general public rather than the preserve of businessmen and electronics hobbyists. It produced a huge community of enthusiasts, some of whom founded their own businesses producing software and hardware for the ZX81, and many went on to play a major role in the British computer industry. 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.
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