Widget Of The Week
Sinclair FTV1/TV80 Slat Screen TV, 1983
Timing is everything in the fast paced world of consumer
electronics. Gadgets and fads can come in and go out of date in an alarmingly
short space of time and it’s something Sir Clive Sinclair knows only too well.
Many of his products, like the first calculator and ZX computers were timed to
perfection, but sometimes he got it horribly wrong, and the FTV1 flat screen
pocket TV (also known as the TV80) was a case in point. It was out of date even
before it started rolling off the production line.
Flat screen video displays were rare in the early 80s but
everyone knew they were coming. Casio, Hitachi, Panasonic and Seiko, to name
just a few, had been regularly demonstrating prototype screens at trade shows
and press events. These were all based on liquid crystal display technology
(LCD), which by then was well established on watches and calculators. The only
question was who would be first to get a flat screen TV into the shops. It was
a close run thing but it was almost certainly Casio, in June 1983 with the
TV-10, with several other manufacturers hard on their heels. Four months later
Clive Sinclair, as was, announced the FTV1 pocket flat screen TV.
This was most definitely not a me-too product, though, and it was typical of
Sinclair to defy convention with a flat display screen that owed more to old school 19th
century physics than late 20th century microchip wizardry.
It was a clever variant of the cathode ray tube (CRT).
Basically it’s a valve, a glass tube with all of the air sucked out where a
stream of electrons is fired from a ‘gun’ towards a phosphor screen that glows
brightly when struck by the beam. The beam can be moved around the screen using
magnetic fields or electrostatic charges, and by varying the brightness of the
beam, and scanning the beam across and down the screen 50 times a second it is
possible to build up a sequences of still pictures that create an illusion of movement. The big
difference with the FTV1 tube is that the screen is at right angles to the
electron gun, and it is viewed through the sidewall of the
flattened glass tube. Electrons from the gun are deflected down onto the screen
by an electrostatic charge. The actual phosphor screen is quite small, just 38
x 18mm, and apparently the wrong aspect ratio (16:9 instead of 4:3) but the
image is magnified and the distortion corrected by a fresnel lens moulded in the viewing window in the
case. It produces a sharp and bright image, but like all CRTs it’s still a
fragile glass bottle that needs a lot of high voltages in order to make it
work, which makes packing one into a small box that you can fit into your
pocket quite a challenge.
The FTV1 was the result of collaboration with several other companies. Much of the key tuning, picture
processing and tube driver circuitry is packed into a single microchip
developed jointly with Ferranti. The designers overcame the not inconsiderable
problem of powering it by using a weird and wonderful flat battery, originally
developed by Polaroid for use in instant camera film cartridges. The P500
Lithium Power Pack did indeed manage to pack a lot of power into a small space,
but they were expensive (3 for £10), and didn’t last anything like the 15 hours
claimed in the marketing guff. Timex in Scotland handled manufacture of the
FTV1 tube and Thorn EMI assembled the parts at their Enfield plant. It was
priced realistically at just under £80 (that’s where the alternative TV80
name came from, allegedly…). Most who
saw it in action commented favourably on picture and sound quality but it
wasn’t enough to for it to fly. Sinclair predicted that production would
eventually reach 10,000 units a month, rising to a million a year when it went
worldwide but there were serious production delays and according to several
reputable sources only around 15,000 were ever built.
What Happened To It?
Two things conspired against the FTV1. Slick-looking Japanese
LCD pocket TVs had a clear technical edge and a lot more kudos, compared with
the rather dull looking FTV1 and this was in spite of first generation
LCD TVs being more expensive and having quite poor picture quality. The second problem
was the initial production delays, rumoured to be due to high rejection rates,
and the subsequent limited availability, leaving the door open for the
Japanese. Production limped on for a year or so but, sadly, it was doomed.
I have half a dozen FTV1s, bought mostly from ebay a few
years ago were they were selling for £5.00 or less. There are still a fair few
of on sale each month though nowadays good ones tend to fetch £20 or more. Mine
still work, though there’s nothing much to see since the UK digital TV switchover.
You can bodge up a connection to the aerial from a VCR or TV game but it’s not
much fun. Power is also a problem, it will work on a mains adaptor but the
wacky flat battery is no longer made. I did once manage to extract something
very similar from a Polaroid disposable flat torch and graft it into an expired
P500 pack, and it worked, but only for a few minutes. No doubt in time they
will become harder to find and prices will go up but it’s unlikely ever to
excite much interest outside of the handful of members of the Sinclair products
and mini TV collector communities...
First seen 1983
Original Price £79.95
Value Today £10
(2-inch) monochrome flat-screen CRT display, 625-line UHC (chans 21 – 68) coverage,
telescopic antenna, 23mm speaker, volume on/off & tuning controls, earphone
jack (mono 3.5mm), external DV power socket, fold out table stand
Power req. P500
6-volt flat lithium battery pack & optional AC adaptor
x 85 x 33mm
Made in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5