Image of ZX81 sunset

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ZX81 sunset


Circuit Portraits is an ongoing art project that finally shines some light on that chunk of fibreglass and copper that lurks inside our most loved machines.

The Sinclair ZX81 was released in 1981. I remember it with great disdain, I found it next to impossible to use, and very unrewarding. Only recently it occurred to me that I was only 3 years old when we had one in the house and so maybe I was being unfair to it's memory. These dinky little machines were a big hit for Sinclair though, and they sold 1.5 million of them, so they were doing something right.

I still think it must have been some kind of penance to try and get anything done on that tiny, membrane keyboard, but it looked pretty futuristic, thanks to Richard Dickinson's award winning industrial design on the case.

After acquiring a dead ZX81, I was delighted and fascinated to find that this had one of the first versions of PCB in it, with wonderful free-style, ungridded traces marked on it. Only the top side has solder mask too. This design was made by Richard Altwasser, a talented engineer who worked at Sinclair at the time. He marked out the design on an large-scale plan of the board, using gridding tape to create the lines. The finished board was then photographed and reduced to create the proper-sized negatives.

Because the tracks are not fixed to a grid, this layout is fairly unusual, even for the time. Subsequent versions of the ZX81 are gridded.

So this donor machine was 33 years old, and I imagine it had been sitting in a dusty box for thirty of those years. I solemnly broke it open, cleaned it, stripped the components, scanned it, and traced it, painstakingly laying out the lines like Altwasser did, only on a computer this time. We've got it easy these days, you all know it.

I created separations and screens for the four layers (background, bottom copper, top copper and through-holes). Each layer of each print is individually hand-pulled on a silkscreen press using four different mixed colours of acrylic ink, onto 300gsm textured Somerset Satin paper, in the basement of my studio here in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The printed area is just less than A4 (7 1/2 x 10 inches, or 18.5 x 25.5cm), the paper itself is 15 x 11 inches, or 38 x 28cm. The orientation is not fixed, this can be hung portrait or landscape.

This is an open edition, signed by the artist. That's me. There will be other editions in different colours in the future, so keep your eyes open, or send me a suggestion.


This project highlights the individuality that the people that made these artefacts bring to their work. The circuits I have chosen to feature are ones that have significance to me, either because our family had one, I had good memories of using them at friends houses, or because I coveted them badly!

They are curated from a golden era when consumer electronics still used relatively discrete components and the circuits themselves were open and simple. The days before computer-driven auto-routing could algorithmically calculate the most efficient routing scheme, with the fewest vias and the lowest impedance, in fact, the days when circuits were laid out on light-tables with gridding tape and set-squares. The days of Frogger and Pacman, of Horace Goes Ski-ing and Jetpac.

Engineers had their job to do, but for each design, had to choose only one of a thousand different ways to lay out their tracks. Each line was pored over for it's technical correctness, but ultimately there's a little bit of expression in each mark and swerve, in each routing decision.

None of it was ever intended to be looked at, but nevertheless, stripped of it's contextual markers - the case, buttons, lights, labels, connectors, components, and presented out-of-scale and on beautiful paper, under glass, the patterns reveal their purely aesthetic features and invite interpretation. A variation in density and detail play out a rhythm, and indicate a direction, movement.

Circuit boards, even now, are still produced industrially using a silkscreen technique, so the artists variation of this technique is very apt.


Prints are shipped rolled, face-out in a sturdy packing tube, with acid-free tissue paper and bubble wrap to protect it on it's journey. In the UK, it will be sent special delivery, a next-business-day, signed-for service. European shipping usually takes between two and four days, further afield can take up to ten business days.