Meet Prestwick’s Bruce McLean, the man behind the Sinclair ZX81 and the Sinclair Spectrum.
So Bruce, what’s your story?
My businesses are involved in the recycling of electronic equipment, specifically TV’s, IT equipment and small domestic appliances. CCL North is in its 17th year and was established specifically to recycle electronic scrap from the Electronics Industry that was very well established in Scotland at that time. I first experienced recycling in the electronics industry in 1982.
Who is your role model and why?
I’m not sure that I have a role model as such, other than my parents of course and there is little chance of me matching their very high standards, however, there are certainly people who I have met through my career that I hold in very high regard. Jim Westwood who, in my opinion, was the brains behind Clive Sinclair was and still is a genius and a true thinker. Willie McGregor is also a champion of mine and someone who I still regard as my mentor. The first time I saw Willie he was speaking at a business seminar in Greenock, probably sometime in the early nineties, and I honestly thought he was never going to stop talking, he was so enthusiastic about his company HM Electronics. I saw in Willie real passion, desire and ambition.
What is the difference between you and everyone else?
That question made me smile! It’s a very unusual question for someone who has an identical twin brother.
If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
I’m not sure I could change the world but I do think we could help ourselves to change Scotland. I would like to see a lot more industry led training. I was very fortunate when I was younger leaving school at 16 and gaining an apprenticeship with Timex in Dundee. And you had to learn. For the first two years you were in a training school alongside maybe 80 other apprentices and your instructors / journeymen made sure you learned and kept up with your peers. You learned in such a way that these skills were with you for life, you never lose them. I am sure that many of the large industries that used to exist in Scotland trained apprentices in (more or less) similar fashion and I am also sure that not all apprenticeships available to our youth today is of equal quality. I really would like to see business, in all types of industries, take greater responsibility to provide full and extensive training for their employees. It has been hugely valuable for me.
Tell me a time that was significant in your career?
I have a number of times which have been significant for me but one in particular stands out is when Sinclair Research chose Timex to manufacture the ZX81 personal computer and then the Sinclair Spectrum Computer.
As a mechanical Engineer I didn’t have a clue about electronics and it was at the time Trade Unions were reluctant to recruit Electronic Engineers, they were keen to retain the existing workforce and retrain them. I had a bit of a ‘Eureka’ moment when I discovered that ‘pneumatic logic’ that I had been taught at college was exactly the same as ‘electronic logic’. I spent 4 or 5 months intensly re-training at the Microelectronics Education Development Centre (MEDC) in Paisley and returned to Timex as an ‘expert’!
Production of the Spectrum computer was well underway. We were manufacturing over 100,000 computers per month and had created our own worldwide shortage of component parts. Prices for the parts had rocketed and a particular set of 5 logic components was costing over £20 a set.
In addition, the spectrum had a bit of a problem with ventilation. When it was in use it could get a bit warm, as all computers do, but, although the spectrum had ventilation slots built in, these were in its base. Most kids tended to play with their spectrum on the floor in front of the telly. This could cause it to overheat and it would crash.
I realised there may be a solution that would solve both of these issues. Firstly, design and manufacture a custom chip that would do the same job as the logic parts for a price that was fixed and secondly use a newer technology for the new chip that was just as fast but used about 1/20th of the power. I presented the idea to Timex and thereafter to Sinclair and to my huge surprise they said ‘Ok. Go do it’.
I think we were all even more surprised two months later when it actually worked. I had spent time working with the Sinclair boffins in Cambridge and while the first chips were being manufactured by Philips in Nijmegen I was working with some other brilliant designers at Prestwick Circuits at Mosshill in Ayr who were laying out a new circuit board to take the new chip. It turned out to be quite a success with the new chip costing £1.08 each and the overheating problem fixed.
What is your superpower?
Making things happen.
What is your background?
I was born in Dunfermline (a couple of minutes after my brother David) and raised in Oakley, West Fife. My dad was a coal miner at Valleyfield. I have many memories of my dad coming home with fairly significant injuries sustained from his line of work. Around the time I was to start High School, my dad decided to leave the pit and took a job working on a farm, and then as a groundsman at St. Andrews University. Four years at Madras College was enough for me and I took the first job I was offered which was an apprenticeship at Timex.
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