New Scientist 12 June 1986   33

The decline of Uncle Clive 
Knighted by Margaret Thatcher and widely considered as the most well-known scientist in Britain, the chairman of Sinclair Research seemed unstoppable. What went wrong? 
Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy

The third and most intriguing option - and the one which presents the most daunting technical challenges—is wafer-scale integration. This approach to the design of semiconductors offers financial savings by producing complete processing systems, laid down on a single wafer of silicon. It could also pave the way towards compact implementation of the new generation of processing techniques currently under development. The opening in 1983 of the prestigious Metalab research unit near Cambridge provided a base for the realisation of Sir Clive's visions, among them the much-publicised "Fifth Generation" project to develop artificial intelligence. Sinclair made patriotic noises about beating the Japanese at their own game - whatever that might be, and to what end. One of the elements of this fantasy was the investigation of wafer-scale integration.

Ivor Catt: The image of the inventor. 
High-tech products for the high street - but how useful are they? Ivor Catt (above) sold Sir Clive his patents to wafer-scale technology. According to who you speak to in the semiconductor industry, Catt is either a crank or a visionary 

Sir Clive's initiation into the world of the wafer took place in the summer of 1983, with the arrival of Ivor Catt who had answered Sinclair's advertisement for people to work at Metalab. Depending on who you talk to in the generally conservative semiconductor industry, Catt is either a crank or a visionary. For 20 years, he had been refining the theoretical foundations for a revolution in the semiconductor industry, and thus was tailor-made for the Sinclair project. Sir Clive took on Catt as a consultant and bought up Catt's patents to the wafer-scale process. 

Catt himself has succinctly summarised the appeal of the wafer against existing chips and methods of manufacture: "I noticed that the silicon wafer was a hundredth of the cost of the total system, so why not use that cheap commodity to build the system on the wafer instead of sawing it up to form separate circuits?" 

Currently, the computer industry produces multiple chips on each wafer of silicon. The production process involves chopping up the wafer, testing each chip and then separating the working chips from a significant number of faulty chips. The working chips, after mounting, wiring and packaging in plastic, become part of a larger system mounted on a printed circuit board. Catt's alternative method involves preserving the entire wafer (including the faulty chips), which has internal connections between chips so as to eliminate the printed circuit board. It also avoids the need to test and encapsulate each chip. An electronic logic test built into the wafer circuitry allows each chip to be tested. If functional, the chip becomes incorporated in the circuit and then tests an adjacent chip. Faulty chips are bypassed as a spiral sequence of working chips is established on the wafer. The simplest form would be a memory wafer, but there is a potential to develop new, alternative computer architectures on the wafer.

Throughout the 1970s, the attempt to realise such a product dominated the R&D strategies of many of the semi-conductor giants. ITT, Texas Instruments and Burroughs, among others, sunk undisclosed fortunes into the dream. The kiss of death for the wafer as an investment option was the debacle of Gene Amdahl, formerly a designer with IBM. Amdahl's pursuit of a "supercomputer" based on the wafer-scale attracted around $240 million in backing from heavy-weights that included Sperry, Digital Equipment and the Bull Corporation of France. By June 1984, Amdahl's company, Trilogy, had conceded that it could not overcome the problems of implementing its version of wafer-scale technology. 
The failure of the big boys came as no surprise to Ivor Catt, whose approach had always radically differed from those of his rivals. Axiomatic to Catt's technique was a reduction in the number of connections made to the chip. In the latter stages of Amdahl's mega-wafer, the doomed prototype had an astounding 1200 pins packed on to its 6.4-centimetre design. Since, according to Catt's theoretical design, communication with the wafer passed through the first chip on the spiral, his chips were designed as bipolar components, thus needing only two pins as connections. 

Investment in the wafer 

After years in the wilderness, the National Research Development Corporation eventually funded Catt's theories in the late 1970s. This at least enabled him to patent their implications. At Middlesex Polytechnic, Malcolm Wilkinson ran aresearch team which examined the problems of implementing Catt's work. Wilkinson and his team went on to develop their research with Burroughs, where they success-fully realised a provisional "test structure". At this point, the project fell foul of company politics. A new and predominantly American management, presumably with the experience of Amdahl fresh in their minds, wanted nothing to do with research into wafer-scale technology. 

Sir Clive's interest in the technology could hardly have come at a more opportune moment. At the end of 1983, his relatively small, if momentarily profitable, company was able to poach not only Catt, but Wilkinson and a significant proportion of the team from Burroughs. In time, valuable additions from research groups working in related technologies from Plessey, TI, STL and DEC, would arrive. 

Although association with wafer technology does nothing to enhance his self-styled stance as inventor and innovator, Sir Clive's support of these discredited research objectives was undoubtedly a canny move at a time when Sinclair Research was in a position to fund such an enterprise. In acquiring Catt, Wilkinson et al. and the wafer-scale patents, en masse and cut-price, it is arguable that Sir Clive was making an acceptable high-risk investment in the future. Sinclair's appropriation of Catt's work mirrors his advocation and adoption of Denis Gabor's work in the development of flat-screen technology at Imperial College in the late 1950s. 

In a relatively short time it looked as if the investment would pay dividends. By spring 1985, Wilkinson's research suggested that the company could economically produce a wafer with a memory of half a megabyte for Sinclair's ill-fated QL microcomputer. Unfortunately, at the same time, the price of conventional memory chips fell dramatically. A few weeks later the financial crisis at Sinclair Research came to a head, precipitating the sequence of events which ended in theabortive "rescue" by Robert Maxwell. It seems likely that Sir Clive's preoccupation with the wafer-scale project exacerbated his lack of interest in the computer division of Sinclair Research, hastening a deterioration of the financial crisis to the point of no return. The fact that Sir Clive later turned down an offer that would have ensured the survival of the computer products tends to support the impression that, as far as he was concerned, home computers were history. However, while Sinclair may have been intrigued by the "intellectual challenge" of wafer-scale, it is equally clear that his much-lauded vision was decidedly myopic. 

As soon as it became apparent that wafers with memories were unlikely to provide the funding for more sophisticated research, Robb Wilmot, chairman of ICL, was recruited onto the research board as troubleshooter. 

Wilmot's brief was to drum up investment for the wafer-scale project. He soon recognised a potential that had eluded Sir Clive. Up until Wilmot's intervention, Sir Clive's exclusive direction for research into wafer-scales was towards theenhancement and development of Sinclair's existing technology and projects. Wilmot approached the problem of investment with the conviction that a solution to the production of wafer-scale chips could propel Sinclair Research into a position where the company would challenge the leaders of the semiconductor industry. 

According to Wilmot, wafer-scale chips could revolutionise the design and production of all types of computers, and play a major role in communications products and defence systems (particularly radar equipment). In other words, thedevelopment of wafer-scale technology seemed poised to take Sinclair Research well out of its depth. Ironically, the company's capacity to raise finance was in a sense impeded by the exciting potential of its R&D resources. The public'srecognition of Sinclair Research's managerial, marketing and financial shortcomings called into question its corporate ability to exploit effectively such an innovation. During the crisis in 1985, the odds were stacked against even ICUs well-connected supremo, Wilmot, coming up with a result. Malcolm Wilkinson sums up the difficulties facing the project, which are the same today as they were six months ago: "It's semiconductors, which are bad news to the City at the moment . . . It's wafer-scale technology, which has had some notable failures . . . and then there are the problems that Sinclair Research has got, and questions about the viability of the business side of it." 

As a broker commented when the price of shares in Amstrad fell following the announcement of the deal with Sinclair, "The City . . . gets wobbles in the stomach when the name of Sinclair is mentioned." In the event, Wilmot failed to find the backers. A fortuitous deal with the Dixon chain of shops enabled Sir Clive's company to struggle on into the New Year until Alan Sugar came to the rescue in April. 

With the Amstrad deal came the announcement that two separate companies would continue the projects on the radio telephone and wafer-scale technology. Sir Clive made it clear that he would have no part in the day-to-day running of either corporation. Barclays. the company's bankers, agreed to a limited investment package for wafer-scale technology with Sir Clive retaining a majority interest in the company, and the bank having an option to take up minority holdings. Desperately under-capitalised, it is hardly surprising that the team researching into wafer-scale technology is directing its attention towards distinctly unspectacular goals. The only project announced by the company is a wafer with a memory of 5 megabytes. It remains to be seen whether the experimental pilot production achieved in September 1985 can be sufficiently improved to create a product that can compete with conventional memory components in 1987. 

Ivor Catt has always insisted that memory products are merely an incidental spin-off from the main work of wafer-scale development. The main purpose of wafer-scale technology, he believes, is to assist in the design of systems that will revolutionise computer architecture. A growing number of computer theorists are inclined to view these developments with interest, but Sinclair's company is hardly in a position to fund such ambitious research programes. So while wafers may yet hold a hope for the future, it seems unlikely that they hold out much hope for Sir Clive.