A History of Vintage Consumer Electronics: The Marconi and Sinclair Collections
The history of consumer electronics goes back to the early 20th century, most precisely the 1920s. It was back then, one hundred years ago, when radio broadcasting incorporated the first major consumer product that went into mass production: The broadcast receiver.
Manufacturers were overwhelmed by the demand for receivers. Existing units in dealers were sold out while customers lined up to complete order forms. The craziness for consumer electronics had just begun.
The phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 didn't use electronics until 1927. Since its invention--and for the next 50 years-- only mechanical technologies were used to make it work.
Bell Labs invented the transistor in 1947. This innovation led to important research in the field of solid-state semiconductors just a few years later in the early 1950s. This was, indeed, the decade when television gained global popularity.
Soon after that, the market received consumer electronics products including telephones, personal computers, audio equipment, televisions, calculators, and later on MP3 players and smartphones.
The demand for consumer electronics has not stopped. On the contrary; it increases year after year with the release of novel or improved products.
The revenue in the consumer electronics segment amounts to $12,871 million in 2020, according to Statista.
Since its beginnings, the magic world of consumer electronics fascinated many around the world. This fascination has continued throughout the years. Electronics engineers, researchers, collectors, historians of vintage electronics, technology journalists, and anyone with a passion for learning about the evolution of consumer electronics can hardly resist feeling an uncontrollable attraction for anything catalogued as vintage electronics. This was just enough reason to create a new and dedicated kind of museum: Vintage electronics museums.
Early consumer electronics
Some museums are journeys into the very heart of the electronics products. Such is the case of the online Rewind Museum. The museum has touring exhibitions specializing in early consumer electronics, including first products from consumer electronics manufacturers.
The Rewind Museum Website has been archived by the British Library to maintain a live record available for the future generations. It shows the impact on society, the evolution and history of electronics manufacturing, as well as being a resource for electronics engineers and vintage electronics collectors.
Computing history at your fingertips
Some museums of consumer electronics are an irresistible invitation to those who enjoy interacting with the exhibited products rather than being passive observers of hardware design.
The Center for Computing History Museum, in Cambridge, England, houses working computers, televisions, video games, and phones all of which can be used by visitors. The museum organizes retro weekends and special exhibitions of private collections. This museum is perfect if you want to experience, or remember how the first computers worked in the years before the Internet, wireless connectivity, and social media.
Enrico Tedeschi's legacy: A life-long devoted to researching, collecting, studying, and catalouging consumer electronics
One particular and unique private museum exhibition was run by only one person housing an incredible collection of over 10.000 artifacts in Brighton, England. Unfortunately, after the passing of his owner, Enrico Tedeschi, the exhibition was shut down; although the essence, passion, and work of his creator will live through his books and catalogues.
"Collecting should not be just amassing the largest possible number of artifacts and memorabilia but also and mainly for the research and understanding of how, when, why, and who invented and produced what, and the social impact and consequences that these products had on the life of millions of people. Collecting should be a way of learning, growing, and self-improvement, and not just a hobby, or an investment." - Enrico Tedeschi
Enrico Tedeschi was an Italian-born independent computer software professional, historian, writer, and passionate private collector of electronics for over half a century. He lived in Brighton, where he created his private museum offering private tours that he guided himself. He continued doing this until his passing in 2014 at the age of 74. Born in 1939, Enrico Tedeschi had moved his collection from his first Radio Museum in Rome to England in 1993.
Unfortunately, after Tedeschi's passing, his son, Richard, had to sell all of his father's artifacts, which are now in the hands of other collectors around the world. Enrico Tedeschi self-published two books for collectors and historians of vintage electronics: The Sinclair Archeology, a complete photo guide to collectable models originally published in February 1996, and The Magic of Sony. Both works remain as Tedeschi's legacy.
"Collecting should not be just amassing the largest possible number of artifacts and memorabilia but also and mainly for the research and understanding of how, when, why, and who invented and produced what, and the social impact and consequences that these products had on the life of millions of people. Collecting should be a way of learning, growing, and self-improvement, and not just a hobby, or an investment," Enrico Tedeschi wrote in the Introduction of his 1999 self-published book, The Magic of Sony.
I met Richard Tedeschi in Brighton; we spent a full day going through his father's memorabilia, photos, artifacts, documents, personal stories, and memories. Here below, I have tried to recreate a tiny part of Enrico Tedeschi's magnificent work as a humble homage and recognition to his passionate and valuable work. Throughout all his life, he collected and patiently catalogued consumer electronics not only for his understanding but also for the knowledge and understanding of future generations.
Enrico Tedeschi was, above all, a man who loved and valued electronics beyond their practical use. In a good part, this was the message he wished to pass on during his guided tours while he was sharing his personal collection with everyone who shared his same passion and interest.
Radio Museum in Rome, Italy, during the 1980s
In the photo above, Enrico Tedeschi is holding the Fimi-P 547 Radio inspired by military instruments. It was designed by Italians Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Livio Castiglioni, and Luigi Caccia Dominioni in 1939. The Fimi-P 547 Radio was presented to the market in 1940. The unified case and internal electronics components were groundbreaking for the time.
This iconic radio was part of Tedeschi's first Radio Museum in Rome. The exhibition was made up by the radios that were used in homes in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. At the museum, it was possible to watch films featuring people and places related to inventions and discoveries that made radio so popular.
Visitors could hear the voices of Marconi, Fleming, and other important contributors to inventions and developments of the radio. It was also possible to listen to vintage radio transmissions from the 1920s to the 1940s on the best radio makes of those times. And of course, visitors could consult reference books and magazines from those decades as well, all part of Enrico Tedeschi's private collection.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum
This original 1984 catalogue shown above was self-published and distributed by Enrico Tedeschi's Micro Shop in Rome. This particular issue was dedicated to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum's hardware and software, an 8-bit personal home computer released in the U.K. in 1982 by Sinclair Research.
The Spectrum was released as eight different models, ranging from 16KB RAM released in 1982 to the ZX Spectrum +3 with 128KB RAM and built in a floppy disk drive in 1987. Together, they sold over 5 million units worldwide. The Spectrum was one of the first mainstream manufactured computers in the United Kingdom, similar to its counterpart, the Commodore 64 in the United States.
The Spectrum has been credited as the machine which launched the U.K.'s IT industry since companies started to produce software and hardware specific for it. The Spectrum earned Sir Clive Sinclair a knighthood for Services to the British Industry. His Knighthood was awarded by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1983 and was part of Queen Elizabeth II's 1983 Birthday Honors List for leading what was seen as a renaissance of the British industry.
The Museum of Vintage ELectronics in Brighton: Arrivederci, Italia! Hello, England!
The Radio and Technology Museum moved to the U.K. in September 1993. The news was announced in the Rome-based Italian newspaper Il Messaggero on April 23rd, 1993.
"The indifference of the local institutions continues," Enrico Tedeschi said to Il Messagero, reminding about the importance of the upcoming 100th years of the invention of the radio in 1995. Tedeschi's museum initiative pointed at marking the importance of this event and the impact of such inventions in global modern technology and science. Enrico Tedeschi was a visionary ahead of his time. He understood how the preservation of early technology was paramount, so much as the preservation of any other ancient artifact that today we can see in any other museum.
Disappointed by the lack of understanding of the institutions in his native Italy, Enrico Tedeschi, author of the Guide of The Radio Collector, did not feel enough support in Rome for his radio museum; so he decided to move it to England, together with his family, where there was an interest in the Guglielmo Marconi period compressing the years 1922 to 1929.
Italian electrical engineer and Nobel laureate Guglielmo Marconi was the first to patent a system of wireless telegraphy.
Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), 1st Marquis of Marconi, title given by King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy in 1929, was an Italian inventor and electrical engineer. His pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission, his development of the Marconi's law, and the radio telegraph system led him to sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun in 1909 "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy." Marconi was the founder of The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in the United Kingdom in 1897, which later on became the Marconi Company.
The Marconi Collection: How Enrico Tedeschi saved it for the benefit of future generations
The Marconi Collection included the microphone pictured above. Opera diva Dame Nellie Melba used it in 1920 to make the first live radio broadcast.
Guglielmo Marconi's radio collection and the history of wireless communication valued in £3 million (or almost $4 million), according to The Guardian's report, was almost scattered worldwide at auction in 1997. Marconi's first patents, the 1912 Titanic telegrams, which record warnings of ice and attempts to contact other ships for help, and the microphone used to make the first radio broadcast in 1920 would have been forever lost.
The auction was stopped after Enrico Tedeschi mobilized an international crowd of scientists, historians, former employees, and also Marconi's daughter, the Princess Elettra Marconi-Giovanelli. The entire collection and archive were then transferred to the University of Oxford, where the artifacts are in exhibition at the History of Science Museum in Oxford, England; all the documents and patents are available to scholars.
It was only thanks to the tenacity of Enrico Tedeschi and the success of his Internet protest campaign that the Marconi Collection is now safely preserved and available for everyone to see. Enrico Tedeschi's work and passion for vintage electronics and his creation of a specialized museum have inspired others who with the same passion continue Tedeschi's work.
Radio Phonola Bakalite: Made in Italy in 1939
One of the legendary artifacts part of Enrico Tedeschi's collection was this Radio Phonola Bakalite, made in Italy in 1939. It was the first Italian radio made of a sort of plastic called Bakalite.
Sir Clive Sinclair visits Enrico Tedeschi's Sinclair exhibition at Hove's library
Enrico Tedeschi was a great admirer of English inventor Sir Clive Sinclair and the Sinclair computers. He organized a dedicated public exhibition on Sinclair's work which included many consumer electronics successes as well as the ill-fated C5 electric trike. Sir Clive Sinclair traveled from London to Hove to visit the exhibition in his honor with his two grandchildren, six-year-old Henry Lloyd and nine-year-old Sam.
The Sinclair Archeology and Sir Clive Sinclair's public recognition to Enrico Tedeschi's book
Sir Clive Sinclair sent a surprise note to Enrico Tedeschi through The Argus newspaper after visiting the exhibition dedicated to his work at the Hove Library. Imagine the surprise and happiness of Tedeschi when seeing this personal note from Sir Sinclair while reading his daily newspaper!
The Sinclair Executive calculator
In the summer of 1972, Sinclair launched the Sinclair Executive, his first electronic calculator. It was the smallest and thinnest on the market: 56 x 138 x 9 millimeters / 2.2 x 5.4 x 0.35 inches. It fit easily into a shirt pocket, and the purse of the female executive. The Executive used one of the standard calculator chips of the time, the Texas Instruments GLS 1802. This meant that normal AA-size batteries needed to be used for a decent battery life.
Sinclair was obsessed with miniaturization. He wanted to use button cell batteries, which would have been drained in just a matter of minutes by the chip and the LED display.
Chris Curry and Jim Westwood, who worked at Sinclair Radionics in Huntingdon, England, found that the power to the chip did not have to be on continuously. Instead, it could be pulsed and the internal capacitance of the chip would store enough electrical charge to keep it working till the next power pulse.
A power pulse lasted 1.7 microseconds at a frequency of 200 KHz during calculations, and 15 KHz between each operation. This reduced the power consumption 25 to 30 mW. This allowed the Executive to get about 20 hours of continuous operation from 3 small mercury button cell batteries. More about Sinclair calculators can be found at the Vintage Calculators Web Museum.
The Sinclair Cambridge calculator
After the Sinclair Executive --Sinclair's first electronic calculator-- Sinclair Radionics introduced the Sinclair Cambridge pocket-sized calculator in August 1973. Its success was due to the low price. The Sinclair Cambridge was extremely small, weighted less than 99 grams (or 3.4 ounces), and its size was 50 x 111 x 28 millimeters (2.0 x 4.4 x 1.1 inches); it was powered by four AAA batteries.
The Sinclair Cambridge used cheap components to keep the price low, an 8-digit LED display in scientific format with a 5-digit mantissa and a 2-digit exponent; the LED display was made by National Semiconductor. The Sinclair Cambridge used light-emitting diodes for its display.
The calculator was manufactured in seven models including the Cambridge Memory, Cambridge Scientific, two versions of Cambridge Memory Percentage, Cambridge Scientific Programmable, and Cambridge Universal. They were sold as kit form, kit to be assembled by the purchaser, or assembled prior to purchase. Many Sinclair calculators were available as a self-assembly kit and sold mostly to electronics enthusiasts at an even cheaper price.
Sinclair Wrist Calculator: An early wearable
The Sinclair Wrist Calculator was launched in February 1977. It was available only as a self-assembly kit by mail order. The price was £11, or about $14. This early wearable had an 8-digit display, red LED, four functions, percentage, memory, square root, 8.1v (6x memory cells), integrated circuit, Mostek MK50321N, date coded mid-1976. It was 47 x 45 x 18m (1.9 x 1.75 x 0.7in) The Sinclair Wrist Calculator became a commercial success.
The Black Watch: A smartwatch predecessor?
An interesting idea for the time. Yet, the Black Watch was not a success. Sinclair Radionics launched the Black Watch in September 1975 as a ready/built, and as a kit. It was equipped with an LED display. The Black Watch was marketed as follows:
"If that [the technical description] sounds technical, think of the outcome: A watch with no moving parts, a watch with nothing to go wrong, a watch which gives accuracy never achievable by the most precise mechanical engineering."
The marketing team had no tested the product, which suffered from several technical problems including low battery life: Batteries had only a 10-day life and were difficult to replace; variable accuracy: The quartz crystal was temperature sensitive, which caused the watch to run at different speeds depending on the ambient temperature; it also had a very sensitive integrated circuit. Many watches were returned, giving the company a huge loss.
The Sinclair Portable Digital Frequency Meter
Sinclair was not particularly excited about digital instruments. He described them as "profitable but dull." However, despite not being Sinclair's favorite product they were the most high-profile of his products. Six digital multimeters, one pocket frequency meter, and an oscilloscope were manufactured between 1974 and 1979. The Portable Digital Frequency Meter (PFM) promised to be useful in any field of electronics.
Microvision: TV1B/C/D Pocket Televisions
If you are always in the search for a bigger TV screen, imagine yourself watching your favorite TV show on a Microvision, a very small television set. Sir Clive Sinclair had an obsession with flat-screen TV. He had first sought to create a handheld television set in 1963. The attempts resulted in the Microvision, launched in 1966 but never actually sold, and the TV1A/B/C/D sold from 1976 to 1978 in the U.S., U.K., and continental Europe markets.
Sinclair Flat-Screen Pocket TV
In 1984, Sinclair Research launched the Sinclair Flat-Screen Pocket TV, also known as the TV80, or the FTV1. Only 15,000 units were sold making it a commercial failure. It did not even recoup the £4 million (over $5 million) it cost Sinclair to develop it.
Despite its failure, the idea of a flat-screen TV was another of Sir Clive Sinclair's obsessions. However, the technology was not yet ready for his ideas. He was always looking for innovation; as a visionary, he was well ahead of his time. Sinclair also looked for manufacturing low-priced electronics; hence everyone could afford them.
Looking on the bright side, mistakes and failures that teach lessons can be used into potential betterments in the future. Indeed, any of Sinclair's commercial failures have served as inspiration for many electronics manufacturers such as giants Apple and Samsung.
MK XIV Microcomputer
Released by the Science of Cambridge -later Sinclair Research- in 1977, the MK14 became Sinclair's first computer. The MK14 was based on the National Semiconductor SC/MP processor; despite minimal capabilities by today's standards it was one of the most important British computers ever manufactured. The MK14 sold over 50,000 units.
The MK14 specs
1/2k ROM Monitor
256 bytes RAM (expandable to 640 bytes on board and 2170 bytes total)
8 (or 9) Red LED seven segment display
20 key keyboard and reset switch
Optional 16 I/O lines available by adding an IC
No sound card (design provided)
No backing store (cassette and PROM storage as an optional extra)
Optional VDU supporting 32 x 16 text or 64 x 64 graphics
ZX80 Personal Microcomputer
Released in 1980, the ZX80 was arguably the first British personal computer in a case. Targeted to individual, ordinary users it went on sale for £99.95 (or $130) as a ready-built version, and for £79.95 (or about $104) as a kit form.
Science of Cambridge --later known as Sinclair Research-- sold 50,000 units before the ZX80 was discontinued in 1981. The sales were so significant that this made the United Kingdom the world's leader in personal computer ownership throughout the 1980s.
3.2MHz NEC D780C-1 Z80 compatible CPU
1K Static RAM
4K ROM. System functions and BASIC fit in the 4K ROM space
32 x 24 text display
$199 starting price (widely advertised as the first personal computer for under $200)
8K BASIC Module
16K RAM Module
ZX81 Personal Microcomputer
The Sinclair ZX81 was the first personal computer with a price tag less than $100. It was launched in the United Kingdom in March 1981 at an introductory price of £49,95 (or $65 today). It was discontinued in 1984 after selling more than 1.5 million units.
The ZX81 was small, simple, cheap, and built using as few electronic components as possible to keep the cost down. It was the first affordable mass-market home computer. Its commercial success made Sinclair Research Britain's leading computer manufacturer.
The ZX81 had only four silicon chips and 1KB of memory (64KB max., 56 KB usable)
Storage: External cassette tape recorder at 250 bands
Display: Monochrome display on UHF television
Graphics: 24 lines x 32 characters, or 64 x 48 pixels graphics mode
Power: 9V DC
Dimensions: 167 millimeters (6.6 in) deep by 40 millimeters (1.6 in) high
Weight: 350 grams (12 Oz)
Successor: ZX Spectrum