“The things that made the most impact, I suppose, that I’m most fond of, were the home computers; the ZX80, the ZX81, and the Spectrum. The neatest really was the ZX81. The ZX80 had to be done on a very low budget so it had a lot of chips in it. The ZX81 only had four chips in the entire machine at a time when the world’s best competitor had 42.” —Sir Clive Sinclair
The 1970s saw the advent of cheap reliable digital watches made in the far east which caused the demise of all but one American watchmaker; Timex. Throughout the 1980s the company phased out mechanical watches in favour of digital, but it also had a sideline in making computers which came about as a result of Timex being selected as a manufacturing partner by Cambridge, England based company Sinclair Research for its new ZX81 computer.
Timex went on to sell its own domestic version of the machine as the TS1000. Meanwhile Sinclair was working on a successor to the ZX81, called the ZX Spectrum. In 1982, Lou Galie left the Burroughs Corporation to join Timex Computer lead the design and development of the Spectrum based TS2000.
“I was convinced Burroughs had no clue about what would be coming in the area of personal computers; Timex were on the leading edge of this revolution.”
By 1983 Timex had already sold over 600,000 TS1000s. In fact, long after it had left the computer market, Timex continued to sell TS1000 boards to a European commercial refrigeration manufacturer that used them as dedicated controllers.
“I don’t think the boards were manufactured after 1983 though, the orders were filled from inventory.”
The key decision makers were Timex Computer Corporation president Danny Ross, Timex executive vice-president Kirk Pond, and Timex vice-president of research and design Rex Naden who had joined from Texas Instruments.
“Rex argued that the opportunity in the personal computer market was huge and that Timex had product and software advantages over Coleco, Commodore, Atari, Tandy and TI.”
The Spectrum failed to meet FCC part 15 regulations on interference. Timex realized it had to modify the machine and began hiring a team of engineers, starting with Lou.
“Based on the products introduced at CES in early 1983, we decided we’d need something better than a patched-up Spectrum.”
The team was made up mainly of former Burroughs staff, recruited from the closing Danbury, Connecticut engineering group. The rest were local college graduates and a few staff from Timex’s Cupertino, California research facility. Two machines were to be developed; the TS1500, an update of the TS1000, and the TS2000, a complete redesign of the Spectrum.
“The TS1500 was finished in seven months. The TS2000 took eleven.”
Both machines were given a better keyboard, more memory, and a new operating system. The TS2000 also got joystick and cartridge ports, a feature more commonly found on consoles, an extended version of BASIC, and an sound chip. They were also slightly faster, to better synchronise with the NTSC television standard. Despite being able to run only a fraction of Spectrum software, the TS2000 was designed to be 100% backwards compatible.
“We made a special board which let us download a British tape program into memory on one of our ‘plug-in’ modules – and we tested a bunch of packages that way.”
The inclusion of cartridge support was entirely down to the problems the team encountered with loading from cassette.
“It never worked properly. We felt a simple ROM cartridge would solve the 1,001 problems we’d been having.”
The TS2068 also replaced the Spectrum’s logic chip, fixing various errors and adding new screen modes including high resolution, and multi-color. However, software rarely took advantage of these modes as they consumed twice as much memory as the standard one.
“These modes were planned for future follow-ons to the 2068. We had lots of plans for faster speed, better colour, real disk drives, and so on.”
A whole series of add-ons were planned that were never completed, including a ‘Bus Expansion Unit’ that would dramatically extend the machine.
“We had drawings and a simple prototype, nothing solid. But we had plans for a new chip to enable it to access 16MB of RAM.”
Timex bowed out of the US computer market due to the price war started by Commodore. Rumours persist that the unsold stock was dumped on the Argentinean market, and that somewhere there is a warehouse full of unopened original equipment.
“No. The situation was more complex than that. When we decided to exit the market we had hundreds of thousands of unsold units. We disposed of them in various ways, using many different outlets.”
Timex sold about 100,000 TS1500s and about 350,000 TS2068s, but this wasn’t the end of the machine. A modified version of the TS2068 was sold as the TC2068 by TMX Portugal, which went on to produce the FDD and FDD3000 disk interfaces, the TC2048, a cut-down TC2068 with better Spectrum compatibility, and the Unipolbrit 2086 for export to Poland. There was even a third generation prototype called the TC3256.
“We had a really smart Portuguese engineer called Al who was involved with our Timex-Sinclair hardware and software work. When we shut the Portuguese factory in the mid-1980s he went ‘on his own’ and continued work on the 3256. I think he actually built a few.”
Timex dabbled with computers again in 1994 with the Data Link watch that carried scheduling, phone numbers, and other personal information, teaming up with Microsoft to create the communications software. But the final fling was a joint venture with Motorola in 1998 called Beepwear, a wrist pager. After that the company went back to making watches.