My first computer
Spent many hours playing this:
The BBC Micro – the machine which, along with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, epitomised the British home computer boom of the early 1980s – was launched 30 years ago tomorrow. Unveiled on 1 December 1981 as the Model A and Model B, the BBC Micro would go on to sell over 1.5 million units before the last of the line was discontinued …
I was learned to write code out long-hand in an exercise book, then debug it long-hand, then sit down at a golf-ball terminal (no screen - what are they?) and diligently type it in, before saving it out to punch tape (sometimes cards if we were lucky), and we had to do that 28 hours a day and sleep in a box int' middle o road :-)
But I know what you mean. These little miniature acorn things were such fun!
I knew a whole two people with a Beeb, about 20 - 30 of us with Speccies and even an Oric user.
But never once heard of anyone wanting a an Electron; a Spectrum 128 / QL, C64's yes but an Electron?
Ahh I miss those day. BBC's are Pants Spectrums rule! No Spectrums are toys, BBC are proper computers.
Shame we don't have any of that childish behavior 30 years on.
in my year at school, I was aware of only one person whose parents had bought a BBC (a model B). Everyone else with a home computer either had a Spectrum or Commodore 64, as those were what the majority of games were being released for. The feeling was that anyone with a BBC was an unfortunate victim of parents who wanted a computer their child(ren) could only use for "educational" software.
That said, the one friend who had a BBC became something of a computer whizzkid - the case of his machine was always open as he tinkered with it constantly, adding all sort of home built gadgets and controlling them from his own programs. I only ended up programming my C64 because I couldn't afford many games - I would type in the listings from magazines like Commodore User, and then take the time to understand how they worked.
in 1985 or 86 my father bought one as an upgrade to the zx81. it was educational, we built a business around it, using it to calculate of area of wood needed for hardwood triple glazing that he manufactured. you'd select the frame style type in the size of hole for the window and it would work out the wood required and it had graphics so the client could sign off on it.
it was truly exceptional just rectangles area and a unit cost and all achievable in basic for a 13 year old.
I had an Electron and loved it, although I have to admit that originally it was a BBC B that I wanted.....
It all started In 1982 when I wanted a Spectrum for Christmas (a few of my friends had one and I was forever round at their houses begging a go), but ended up with a second hand ZX81(with ZXPanda 16k RAM Pack) - both parents were out of work at the time, so they bought what they could afford....
So whilst most of my peers were busy playing Jet Pac and Manic Miner, I was a bit more limited with the ZX81 (apart from the odd classic like 3D Monster Maze). The result of this was that I spent more time typing in magazine listings and learning to program than I did actually playing games - and found that I was in my element. The programming bug was well and truly caught and I spent the next year playing about with the ZX81.
Starting sometime in 1983 we got BBC Micros at school and I loved programming those. So for Christmas 1983 I tentatively asked my mum if I could have a BBC B (one parent was working by that point, so a bit more money was available). It was decided that a new BBC B was too much, and they were scarce on the second hand market at the time. So a compromise was suggested - the Acorn Electron, which was "almost" a BBC B (bar the Teletext mode and a few ports round the back); and that's what I got (although I had to wait until my birthday in July 1984 since it was out of reach for Christmas 1983).
What wasn't appreciated until I started using the machine though was, apart from losing Mode 7 Teletext and a few ports, it was also a hell of a lot slower than a BBC B. To maintain the speed, a lot of Mode 2 games from the Beeb (8 colours) ran in Mode 5 (4 colours) on the Electron, likewise a lot of Mode 1 games such as Elite (4 colours) ran in Mode 4 (2 colours) on the Electron.
Having said all that, I loved my Electron to bits for it's BBC Basic and spent many an hour over the next couple of years programming away on it (and admittedly playing games a bit more than I did on the ZX81). It confirmed for me that I had the programming bug and that I wanted to make a career out of it (which I did - and am still doing over 25 years later). For my next computer I went serious and got an Amstrad PC1512 in 1988 since that's what I was using at college at that point.
Happy days !
( Incidentally, although the Electron and PC1512 are long gone, up in the loft I still have the ZX81 in it's original box with the RAM Pack and a box of tapes....wonder if it sill works? )
....that about 6 years ago a local school was fitting the classrooms out with new PCs and the old kit was free to a good home otherwise it was being scrapped. I popped down and walked away with a Master 128, a CUB colour monitor, twin Cumana floppy drives and a box full of discs (including some original Superior Software collections). All in working order and set up at the back of the home office at home office. Every couple of months or so I'll switch it on and play Revs, Codename Driod, Boffin and loads of others just for the memories.
So in the end I got the BBC I always dreamed of, just took 20 years or so !
Oh, yes we do. It's just that the names that are different, now we have 'Android is rubbish, Apple rules', 'Apples are toys, PCs are proper computers'. Or vice versa if that's your thing. (Me personally, I own various devices, each has their strengths and weaknesses, much like the Spectrum and BBC themselves.)
When I was at school computing was only for the folks doing both pure and applied maths, who used to go down the the technical college once a week and play with punch cards.
Some years later I used to help my then landlady's son out with homework from time to time. He started doing stuff on a BBC. It rapidly became clear that I was far better at this stuff without having had the lessons than he was with the benefit of them. So I gave up sheep farming and building greenhouses and went off to the local technical college to do a TOPS course. Not the language, a government training scheme where basically you did the Btech syllabus compressed into about a quarter of the time. Haven't really looked back - except possibly on a warm sunny day when the lambs are frisking round the field. Don't miss 2am lambing in January, that's for sure...
I remember playing Strykers Run (1 and 2) and loving the fact that you could get into a helicopter and fly it about.. I remember hours getting lost in Repton 3. I remember avoiding the big bird in Chucky Egg, or the witch in Granny's Garden..
Dambusters and Cylon attack too.. blub blub blub!
Heh, a friend and I would spend hours in John Lewis in Milton Keynes in their special 'computer room' doing just the same, while the sales staff walked around 'demonstrating' customers the capabilities of the machines by showing them us messing about! Great! :-D
In other news I heard on the radio about an initiative to reitroduce programming into education, we got so much out of these machines when they came out because of the price constraints you *had* to fill your time programming to get anything out of the machine for free.
It certainly was a great learning platform and I still use the skills I gained then to this day, mainly writing macros in Excel which definitely improves my productivity.
I was one of those who took the 'savvy' route - not so much to save the 60 pounds, but more because I wanted a BBC so badly, and didn't want to wait the extra 6 months it would take to save from my Saturday job for a model B.
So I bought a model A and upgraded the RAM about 6 months later. I can assure the writer of the piece that mode 7, the 'Teletext' mode was present on the model A.
Actually, it was all but essential as even the least capable graphics modes used 10K of the just under 16K of available RAM.
My model A was an upgrade from a Microtan 65 - another interesting machine.
Mainly of the Acorn Atom and Electron, which were used throughout the 80s and well into the 90s in various labs here. Two key aspects were that you had the complete schematic, and that all external buses were buffered. It is quite hard to blow up buffered TTL buses, and believe me, various klutzes in the lab did their best.
I cut my teeth on a beeb master 128, with music 500. I still have it along with the most recent addition to my collection - a master with a 512 board. The hours I spent playing Elite, I still have my commander file somewhere.
Brilliant computers and hats off to the BBC for going all out to educate the nation in this way. You wouldn't get Murdoch or ITV doing that sort of thing.
Ah, the Music 500/5000! The hours I spent doing stuff with that little genius of a box. An 8-channel polyphonic synth add-on which could make a decent stab at emulating the commercial (and expensive) synths of the time, albeit in a somewhat fuzzy and grainy way.
The Music 5000 software was great too. A FORTH-like music language that allowed data structures and access to the Beeb's hardware, and synth hardware driver in ROM, with a complete "studio" environment (including 8-channel mixer, text editor and rudimentary music notation GUI for entering and editing music, plus bucketloads of sounds) in disk-based overlays.
Brilliant! Thanks Chris Jordan and Hybrid Research for your efforts!
The Beeb was a very important machine but it did get kicked into touch pretty quickly by the arrival of firstly the Spectrum, then the C64 and finally in April 1984 the Amstrad CPC.
By 1986 you'd struggle to get software on the high street for the Beeb. I had a mate who had one. While I could go into WH Smiths or the local software shop and pick up the latest titles from the likes of Ocean and US Gold, he was restricted on picking up naff looking titles from Superior Software via mail order.
And as soon as the school subsidy ran out, schools started to look look elsewhere. The computer room at my secondary school ended up being kitted out with Amstrad CPC's. Why CPC's? Well I'm guessing the bundled monitor helped. You got 4 times the RAM, a colour monitor and a built in disc drive for the same price as a bare BBC B. Add a 5 inch drive and a monitor and your eyes would start to water at the price of the Beeb.
Not that the Beeb wasn't a remarkable machine, indeed I own a Master, but its high price and the fact it was first to market meant that more powerful cheaper machines quickly overtook it.
Indeed. Nobody I knew had a beeb. It was speccy or C64 mostly.
The BBC was the home PC, largely a more serious tool and massively expandable.
But the speccy had a big following and some talented games designers producing software for it. The C64 lagged a little on that front, but the C64 had the benefit of custom video and sound hardware, the sound chip even putting arcade machines to shame at that time. That's the benefit of getting a sound chip designed by people who know about synthesisers.
Lets also not forget the failure of Microsoft with their MSX platform. I had heard it mentioned by a neighbour who mentioned it was going to take over the industry. So it seems Microsoft had a hype machine even back then.
Quite why we failed to capitalise on those days I don't know. Our one success from that era is the ARM CPU which goes back to Acorn and the Archimedes computer. Lack of compatibility with stuffy American business software probably killed off anything different.
As much as I wanted a BBC, Dad ran the numbers on his Olivetti (mechanical) calculator and came back with a Dragon32. It was good preparation for coping with incompatible later in life.
Apart from playing Defender and Elite on friend's machines, I only really came to know the BBC at Swansea University - Prifysgol Abertawe - where they were used as workstations to access the Prime mini. I spent more time writing a screenscraper in 6502 assembler for the BBC than doing my assignments on the Prime. Happy days.
Indeed the posters comment that Planetoid was released as Defender is 100% right. I own an original boxed version of Acornsoft Defender. I think that Pacman suffered the same fate.
I was on that original waiting list for my BBC Model B although I had the second generation board. Thats a good thing as the first one used to die even more frequently than the second generation. My ASIC died as well.
Totally , totally LOVED that machine. It is in my atic gathering dust of course and maybe I will request it will be buried with me when I died. With my boxed Acronsoft games of course, Elite, Defender, Revs, etc.
I think I've also got that poster with the pyramid as well and the original review by the magazine PC World. Think writen by Guy Cheney.
Awesome... happy days....
I got 306k once - without using the cheat of letting lots of the fast ships that turn up when you take too long finish the level up behind you, then smart bombing them. Can't believe I remember the score...
Also liked Starship Command, Pacman/Snapper, and the Space Panic rip off, Monsters I think. That was a laugh when you got the the double speed levels.
Ahhh, good 'ole days.
Yes, indeed, I cut my teeth on the Dragon 32. It wasn't until years later I realized how awesome the 6809 was compared to the 6502, with it's actual 16-bit index registers.
What do you think of this part then:
"School playgrounds quickly polarised into BBC – or 'Beeb' – and Spectrum camps, with the odd folk with Dragon 32s, Oric 1s, Texas Instruments TI-949/4As, Commodore VIC-20s and, later, 64s, oscillating between the two groups."
For my money, the Dragon users knew the Spectrum was a POS and dreamed of having a BBC, but hey, trying to make the Dragon do things the BBC could do (like 4-channel music) was a great learning experience!
Don't suppose you ever played Space Trek did you? :)
Sadly Motorola changed the 'SEX' mnemonic in the 68k to 'EXT'
The 6800 had a 'BRA' too (and a relative BSR - branch to subroutine for position independent code)
I learned 6800 assembly code on our school computer (an SWTPC computer built buy the computer science teacher), naturally every program had to have labels CUP and STRAP somewhere, and of course you just had to define a constant ASM for the starting address of the code, so ORG ASM would appear at the beginning of the code.
Unlike on the BBC computer, Atom BASIC didn't tokenise anything, so your program was stored exactly as you typed it (except for line numbers which were a 2 byte number).
With only 5K of program memory to play with on a standard Atom, any serious program needed those abbreviations to make it fit into memory - you could end up with something pretty cryptic!
Best abbreviation - to get a disc or tape file catalogue listing (normally '*CAT') you could use '*.'
me and all my mates got species or C64s..
except one poor bastard, who got a VIC20.
It broke.. so his mum took it back and they didn't have any VIC20s.
YES!! He thought = at last a speccy or C64.
His mum came back with the dragon32.
I think he's the only person I ever met that had one.
i wanted a speccy as thats what my mates had but in the end it was a good buy. we used them at school and i ended up writing various bits of code to control i/o and tilt switches etc. not too bad for an 8/9 year old!
our junior school was one of the tech centres in the UK. we had people coming in with the turtle machines - remember those? and various bits of kit that could connect to the BBCs I/O and you could script their movements.
i was on a school's educational video for the stuff i was doing, it was quite exciting at the time
oddly, when i went to senior school they had 1 computer room and for some reason my class didnt get to use a computer for the first 3 years. i then moved school and no computer at that school at all. i lost interest over those years and only got back in computers when i was in my 20s
i sometimes think how fucked over i was by my secondary school education. i might have been something more impressive than a php coding IT manager!
Couldn't afford a BBC Micro, so had a 48K Spectrum at first. Then my Dad won an Apricot (remember those), and swapped it with a computer shop bloke he knew for a BBC B with just about every option available.
I was still using it in 1989 to type my girlfriend's (now wife) university dissertation.
Thanks for the memory.
Please stop this absurd idea that the BBC "B" mattered.
There was the Spectrum and there was the Commodore-64, the Beeb along with the Tandy, Oric etc was just a peripheral machine, if it hadn't been for the BBC supporting it or some schools buying them no one would even remember them.
Nobody denies that the BBC "B" had some good things in it, like proper BASIC and a wide range of quality accessories and was a good bit of kit, but it was absurdly expensive and even many schools didn't buy them (mine didn't).
A friend of mine was a teacher at a school that decided Spectrums were better value than Beebs. They lasted one or two terms at most before falling to bits. They replaced them with Beebs that worked for years before becoming obsolete as PCs took over.
Steel case, proper keyboard, or plastic case with rubber chiclets, against 11-16 year olds: no contest.
By coincidence, I took my Beeb B to recycling only two weeks ago.
While there may have been more Spectrums sold than BBCs due to the difference in price, a quick look down the comments thread of this article shows that a significant percantage of the readership of El Reg remembers them fondly- Possibly an indication that kids brought up with one were more likely to develop a real understanding of computing and go into a related industry?
So it may not have been as common as the speccy, but I would argue it did help create a generation of British geeks, myself included.
Please stop this absurd idea that the BBC "B" didn't matter.
Just because a lot of schoolkids played games on their Spectrums and C64s doesn't mean that there wasn't a hell of a lot of people who did get to use the BBC (and Electron) at every level of education (primary, secondary, tertiary, higher), in addition to the people who did have those machines at home, and no, not all of those people were "posh" or "rich", either.
The absurd notion that the BBC was only as influential as the Tandy and the Oric (which one?) is a bit like saying "That ARM chip led to nothing!" while stroking your smartphone - a clueless retort based on the kind of playground tribalism mentioned in the article that ignores the actual influence on society this specific technology had.
It was a nice quality bit of kit. Though I always felt the specification was unbalanced for the time (great connectivity with ports galore but limited RAM/graphics capability) and it was too pricey.
Had the machine not had the backing of the BBC I strongly believe it would have languished like many others such as the Oric and Dragon 32.
However, I am more than happy with how it turned out. It was a fun time to be at school.
The best Computer Studies memory I have was when the BBC B's and Masters were all hooked up to a disk server (this was around 1986/87). We sneaked a look at the manual and found all these extra commands and programs that let you send messages to the screens of the other machines and watch what they were doing.
Oh the fun we had sending messages like "Hello Sexy!" to the girls and watching their amazed faces as such messages appeared then dissapeared. "Whats up Helen?" "Oh...nothing Sir...ermm nothing!" Watching the other kids trying to 'hack' the system and sending messages such as "ALERT ALERT SECURITY HAS BEEN NOTIFIED!"
The fun lasted several months till we realised our O level projects had to be handed in a few days later. I remember I wrote the BASIC code out by hand at home then typed it into the BBC B when I got to school at lunchtime. I managed a C pass. That was before exam passes were given out like sweets.
if they don't work it will only be the capacitors in the PSU.
I have distinct memories of running a BBC B with a dodgy psu, the startup procedure went something like this....
1. switch on
2. switch off
3. repeat 1 - 2 until a tone is heard from the speaker
4. leave turned on (with constant tone from speaker) and make a cup of coffee
5. turn off
6. turn on and marvel at the nice double beep that meant it had powered up properly
all in all it took about 10 mins per day to get that machine turned on
Yes I had a dodgy Beeb, It used to lock up all the time when it got hot, and I had to spray the ALU chip with some freeze stuff to unlock it. Mine was second hand but had a Econet connector so its past was probably a bit dubious,and I had aMusic 500 flashed to make it a 5000 and a Music keyboard built from a kit from Watford Electronics. Also had the sidways ram module in it and something called Replay that you could input cheat codes etc that were printed in magazines etc.
Still got a BeebEm emulator and a load of disk images,fire it up occasionaly to drive down memory lane...
Not the first computer I owned, which was ZX81, but I lusted after a Beeb.
I used them at school in the early 80's and spent every break time and lunch time in the computer room writing programs and playing games.
Eventually over time I owned and have built up a collection of most models of Acorn computers. In fact my loft is full and I get strange looks from the wife when I buy more stuff from car boots and Ebay.
Even though I have an Electron, Beeb model B (several), Master (currently setup and using), Master Compact, Archimedes 310 and a couple of A3000's my true love is the humble Acorn BBC Model B which excited me with it's versatility and potential.
The computer revolution in the 80's was a wonderfuly and exciting time and helped to launch both my career and many others into IT and helped to shape the technological future that we now live in.
Happy Birthday BBC Micro.
The Model A *did* have video Mode 7 (Teletext mode), which was indispensable because it only consumed 1k. It was only the Electron which didn't, which promptly made the Electron unable to run vast swathes of BBC Micro software and killed its major selling point.
There's an upgraded Model A in the loft somewhere. I got it at the launch price. The memory got upgraded pretty swiftly. It later acquire a floppy drive at horrid expense - Acorn had used an Intel FDD controller chip that went out of production soon after launch, and the price climbed horribly. ISTR having to pay about £50 for mine. They keyboard was great, the only keyboard on a home machine in which you really could type. The other major upgrade was a Sideways RAM board, built from a design in one of the mags. I spent countless hours honing my 6502 assembler skills on that machine....
Oxford ACCU will toast this significant day tonight. I'll make them :-)
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I really wanted an Atom, or later a BBC B, but by that stage I was at Uni, and had discovered that I had easy access to Apple II's (well, ITT 2020s really, with that bizarre graphics conversion), a VAX, and several ICL mainframes. It was hard to justify spending £200 - £400 on a gadget of my own when I could do far more on the other systems. Maybe if I'd been a couple of years younger when they came out...
I ended up playing with 68K assembler on Force VME boards, now that was *real* computing :)
I believe it was the BBC themselves a few years back that put about this idea with a series of programmes. It seems they have now effectively re-written history.
The playgroud divide was clearly Spectrum vs Commodore 64. Parents were quite happy about the fact that the one the kids wanted was the cheaper system. Rare BBC owners were largely ignored by the Speccy/C64 crowd along with Dragon and Atari owners (Don't forget the Atari 800XL, an amazing machine !).
I remember those great days very well.
I was 12 years old in xmas 1983 and everyone in my high school at that time wanted a 48K Spectrum. No one, I repeat no one wanted a BBC B.
Certainly no one wanted to take on a paper round to buy a BBC B. We all felt quite sorry for the poor kid who's well meaning but mis-guided parents bought him the BBC B or Electron.
Then the C64 came along and it was over for the BBC B as a home machine really. Spectrum or C64 all the way.
The BBC B was fine to do my Computer Studies project on but that was it really. I did however have a hankering for those classic Microvitec Cub monitors though.
The factions were definitely speccy v C64 when I was in school. BBCs were ingrained as 'school' computers, I can't really imagine any of the kids wanting one for home.
I have fond memories of the A3000s in school too though. I'd have loved one of those, but the Amiga seemed to pip it for home use
I was one of those kids who did a paper round to pay for her BBC Micro. The machine taught me all about software, hardware, concurrency, interrupts and basically gave me the founding for my career. I still have the machine. Here is is at Makefaire last year!
i used to work with paper tape at school, so I was told to sell them in Laskys Hifi Cov, I loved the BBC but could never afford one. My Manager sold C 64, we both was surprised how they ran out of the door. Not forgetting Sinclare Spectrum, Oric's, Atari 800XL and don't forget the assessories, Tape player, monitors etc.
Today im writing this on my mobile phone, how times have changed.
Ah, yes, the TRS-80 Model 1 clone?
That was my 2nd computer (after a kit-built ZX80) (went on to Spectrum, CPC6128, Atari ST then a bunch of x86 PCs).
Thing I remember most about this thing was playing space invaders. The game on the TRS-80 fired arrows at the invading hoards, but the Genie fired right square brackets.
IIRC, the sides weren't really wood, they were a sort of printed wood effect which wore off. Very '70's, though.
Actually a pretty good machine for its generation (coincidental with the ZX81), so a little unfair to compare it to the Beeb.
My dad was head of CDT - Craft, Design and Technology - at a Luton high school when all this computer malarkey started, so since computers fell under "Technology" it was his department who'd be lumbered with them. He brought home a Model B one Christmas, and I remember seeing it sitting in our hallway on top of a portable TV; and my eight-year-old brain locked on to one thing: the "ESCAPE" key.
What wonders did that button hold? If I pressed it, would I escape to better place? Would it be like being ejected from a fighter plane? Would spies come and sneak me out in the dead of night? I had to find out, and for the rest of that Christmas holiday I immersed myself in the ring-bound manual and learnt all about it - by the time I went back to school I could write a simple game, although what really interested me was the sprites. My dad never got a chance to see how it worked; I can only assume he delegated the computer teaching to someone else as his talent was always in the woodwork, metalwork, drawing and engineering side of things.
Every holiday after that, my dad brought the Beeb home, and if I was really lucky, some weekends too. And if I had been really extra-specially good, I'd get to borrow the disk drive! And as for the couple of times he brought home the Turtle... Over the years I also got to try out the Master, and eventually the Archimedes with it's weird mouse thingy. When my junior school got a BBC a year later I had to show the teachers how to use it, and when I started secondary school I did "community work" by going back to my junior school and teaching computing there.
But I never owned an Acorn until my biology teacher asked if anyone wanted to buy her son's Electron - I snapped it up and bought the add-on backpack for it. Eventually the lack of decent support pushed me to pick up a C64 at a car boot sale, but I still look back with fondness at Elite and Exile.
In the electronics lab.
1) We made a Lego robot controlled from the Atom the obvious way - with the motors switched on with a "high" signal". Problem is, when you reset the computer, the "user port" pins get programmed as inputs. With pullup resistors. So they looked (to our motor driver circuits) like they were "high". The result was that if you reset the computer, all the motors switched on, and stayed that way until you could type in the poke to turn them off. At a School computer show, this happened, and our robot rolled off the table, and flew into 10^4 pieces on the floor.
2) Every so often, the Atom stopped working. The fix was to open it up, then press all the chips in the back of the PCB back in, as the impacts from the keys on the other side shook them out!
I remember particularly the 2nd version of the colour encoder.
You pulled out the 6847 from the main board and plugged it into the 40 pin socket on the colour encoder board, and then plugged the 40 pin header on the colour encoder board into the space where the 6847 was.
Now, that was a pretty big and heavy PCB compared to a single 40pin dip - buggered if I could get the damn thing to stay in after a bit of typing!
I got a Motorola databook from about that time with that video chip and discovered by diverting a few of the control lines to it you could get a few more colours out of it than with a standard Atom.
The Beeb did have hardware scrolling, which was used for scrolling text in bitmapped modes and for sideways-scrolling games like Planetoid. Due to the memory layout of the bitmapped screens, vertical scrolling was always a multiple of 8 pixel rows (= one line of text), which made it ill suited for vertically scrolling games, where you would want a smoother scroll. I tried twiddling the vertical sync to move the picture up smoothly and then down again while scrolling vertically. This sort-of worked, but was a bit wobbly.
There were no hardware sprites, but you could do it reasonably fast in software, as evidenced by games like Nevryon, which moved a lot of sprites around at blinding speed.
The project is often referred to with rose-tinted glasses but I don't know of anyone for whom these lessons worked.
Every week we'd sit in the 'computer lab' surrounded by Electrons and Beebs to be 'taught' by a teacher that had been roped into doing it, who had absolutely no idea how to use a computer or had any interest in doing so, in addition they were perfectly aware that every lad in the class had a home computer and knew infinitely more about the machines than they did already. The whole thing was just a waste of time.
The highlight for me was being asked to write a script in 'Logos' that drew a square and stated underneath "A SQUARE". This was supposed to take most of the lesson to complete, however 5 minutes later we were all done, bored at this point I fiddled to make it draw different sized squares and changed the text to say "HELLO FOLKS!" (I was 12 years old), the teacher saw this and flipped and I was dragged the the headmaster, to be told; "A computer is an expensive piece of equipment and needs to be looked after, it knows what a square is, but if you tell it that a square is a 'hello folks' it'll confuse it and risk breaking it"! I thought they were taking the piss but apparently not, wasn't allowed to touch a computer again whilst I was at that school.
BBC's were pants anyway, no-one had one outside school.
I still own one of those, tucked away in a drawer somewhere, it ran off 3.5" floppy discs instead of the previously staple 5.25" discs and had to buy an expensive 5.25" disc drive to accomodate those.
One day I'll dig it out of storage, wipe the dust off it and see if it can be brought back to life - I had many many hours of enjoyment programming & playing on BBC Micros as a kid in the 80s, so much so that I'd get stick from other fellow computeers because I would stay after school in the computer room filled with BBC Micros for too long and after school computing would be banned for a week. That happened several times.
I was a ZX81 and Spectrum owner myself, but the BBC was a fine machine and I remember it fondly from my school years. I particularly enjoyed playing Elite and Castle Quest in the computer room during lunchtimes (never did manage to get past that f*cking spider in CQ though…).
In the early 90’s I worked at one of the companies that had manufactured the bare PCBs for the BBC (BEPI circuits in Galashiels). On some BBC mainboards you may find the text “Bob’s board” printed in the white legend ink. I was told that this was done by one of the nightshift silk-screen operators dicking about with the production negatives. Eventually ‘Bob’s’ handiwork was found, but not before a few batches of PCBs had been shipped to Acorn. :)
While the BBC models A and B got computers into school, they started a relationship with Acorn that ended up causing considerable problems for the teaching of computing by the end of the 1980s. This was because the government mandated that schools buy the successor to the BBC, the Archimedes, at a time when other computers were more appropriate. Business had largely standardised on IBM compatibles, and in the music world the Atari ST was king. When I did music at Sixth Form college, the music department had a shiny Archimedes with no MIDI interface or sequencing software, so it was literally never switched on. Friends who were doing computing courses at tech college got to learn programming on DEC terminals connected to a VAX, but only because it had been donated to the college - the business computing suite was full of BBC model Bs.
I think you'll find that the Local Education Authority was the part of the hierarchy of government who decided what the money should be spent on, and our LEA heavily favoured the not-quite-IBM-compatible RM Nimbus range, which meant that the school was still stuck with archaic 80286-powered DOS boxes when they could have had a lot more mileage with Archimedes machines. Not that this stopped various departments from going their own way, anyway, without the subsidy and cushy bulk purchase pricing, of course.
The Archimedes versus IBM-compatible debate revolved around whether schools should be training children for jobs (typically secretarial stuff), potentially using "what offices and businesses use". The insistence on such "training", particularly on specific applications, is a complete red herring: even spreadsheets on the BBC Model B weren't fundamentally different from the reigning DOS-based (and later Windows-based) ones, and you can easily argue that various applications for the Archimedes were only really matched a few years later in the Windows era, particularly the desktop publishing stuff. So, people using an Archimedes might have been better prepared for "business" by the time they entered the workplace, according to the logic of the "train the children" crowd. But, of course, the goalposts can always be moved.
Personally, although a fan of the Acorn machines, I believe that the government should have supported a non-proprietary standard for computing, but I guess this would have been too ideologically advanced for the era.
The first computer I got to use at school was a VideoGenie, essentially a clone of the TRS-80 with built in tape deck. But I progressed to the 380Z pretty quickly, and that's where I learned how to program, including Z80 assembler - the software front panel on the 380Z was a great toy for that sort of thing.
I played a bit with the BBC Micro, but it never really appealed to me so much; perhaps it was the thought of having to learn a different assembly language which put me off a bit; to my teenage self, the Z80 with its handy instructions like DJNZ seemed so much more powerful than the 6502 in the Beeb. And, well, the 380Z just looked like a proper computer, with that big case and a key to turn it on and off.
That said, the BBC was certainly very popular with those just a couple of years younger than me, who started out on it.
Somewhere I still have a box of discs with CP/M 1.4B for the 380Z.
"Others sold their current machines and took on paper rounds to finance the rest of the purchase price."
That was me - had a ZX81, wobbly ram pack and thermal printer and sold the lot. Saved up for a Model B with paper round money. 30 years later I'm still designing software, the BBC is up in the loft and the Elite poster (and an Aviator one) is on my wall.
Were usually Spectrum owners vs everyone else except the beeb owners
The beeb owners were universally hated by everyone because their parents were able to afford one
<<<learned his programming on a 2nd hand ZX81 with no keyboard :-( ... and lived in septic tank with 14 siblings
Considering how hurried the design process was, the Acorn/BBC microcomputer was an astonishingly well designed piece of kit, especially from an OS/BASIC perspective.
The BASIC manual is probably the best manual I've ever read. It's still on my bookshelf - I can't bring myself to chuck it.
I had to wait a good year or more before we could afford a BBC B, but it was worth the wait and a great investment.
I vaguely remember various arguments at school but at the end of the day and the spectrum or Comodore were better gaming platforms, but having the Beeb was best if you wanted to program, having a decent BASIC with Functions and Procedures from which it was little effort to us e PASCAL or to move on to VB many years later. They also allowed you to use assembly language within basic as I recall.
It was my secondary school having a room-full of BBC B's that got me hooked on computers (and changed my eventual career path)
Not being able to afford a BBC at home, I opted for a C64, but learn both varients of BASIC.
My parents would leave me in the home computers isle in the supermarket whilst they did the weekly shopping, and return an hour later to see what I'd written. "Look mum I've written a database". So frustrating not being able to save it to tape and having to start over the next Saturday!
Having written my GCSE and then A'Level computer studies projects in BASIC on the Archimedes I eventually pursuaded my parents to combine several birthday and xmas presents to buy an A3000 for home.
After a short stint working for Acorn themselves in the 90's, it's nice to see the tech live on in the form of ARM that lies at the heart of practically every smartphone on the planet.
The memory of being at school and looking over someone elses shoulder at these machines. I was fascinated. The only problem being that I wasn't in a high enough maths set to be allowed to touch one. The result was that I didn't go near a computer for over 20 years. I wonder how many others had a similar experience and to this day still avoid PCs like the plague?
The BBC micro arrived at school when I was in the sixth form. During lunch-times we used to play the Acornsoft games Planetoid, Snapper, Arcadians and Meteroids - all very good rip-offs of well known arcade games. In fact Snapper had to be re-designed due to it being an almost perfect version of Pac-Man and Atari (who had the rights to the home computer versions) complained.
I really wanted a BBC Micro, but could only afford a ZX81, but my plan was always to buy one, until a friend persuaded me to buy a C64 instead, which eventually led to a career in computer games.
I still hold the BBC in very high regard, for being such an awesomely powerful machine, which gave birth to some landmark games, including Elite. Pity it was so expensive though.
My first computing contact with the Beeb was at an institute of higher education which had a large teacher-training facility. They were fitted out with some nice kit, including a bunch of fully-loaded Beebs. Many happy hours were spent chasing down the bugs in type-in listings and many many more when the phenomenon called 'Elite' came out. That caused a few people to look in my direction in the library whenever a sonic inferno of laser fire bellowed out of the speaker.
But I digress, for my very first computer purchased with my own money was the mythical but real Enterprise 64!
I read about this in 1984 in the great magazine 'Your Computer'. Having got over the initial excitement of owning a ZX81, I was beginning to look more closely at specifications and this machine seemed to have the lot. I was torn between lusting after that and a Sinclair QL, but the Enterprise amazingly made it out in 1985 so I got mine.
Apart from the sexy looking case with built-in joystick and colour-coded keyboard (That last feature was rumoured to have been copied by the earlier releasing Amstrad CPC series.) It featured some interesting later work of one of the Acorn Atom designers, Nick Toop, in the form of the very advanced for that time 'Nick' ULA chip for the video system. I messed about with the 'Dave' soundchip, which was not quite as advanced as the C64's SID chip, but certainly more 'custom' than the Yamaha AY-3-8910 seen in most of the other computers of that era and it included "s-s-stereo sound!" (If anyone ever saw the TV commercial for the Enty?)
Software availability was limited, mostly mail-order through their own software label and a lot of those had a distinct whiff of Speccy port. There was the rare game like 'Sorcery; where it showed it could do better though. It also played a mean 3-D Starstrike.
Sad to say, the parent company went bust after a year, the remaining unsold stock went to live in Hungary, where it did rather better with a long-lived and still reasonably active user community if you care to look for it. The current thing seems to be getting enhanced ports of some of the new generation of Amstrad CPC games to it.
My original machine was sold on for a pittance a while back, but I did score a non-ludicrously priced eBayed replacement a while back and there is an emulator, so I'm happy.
I'm now typing this compacted history on a Mac. I first saw the Mac Classic at around that time on show, and considered this to be the ultimate in unattainable dreams back then.
What the article doesn't mention is the BBC's operating system. Unusually for most micros of the age, which mostly consisted of a CPU and some RAM in a box with just enough Basic to let you write programs, the BBC actually had one. It was simple and elegant and very modular: the OS ROM lived in the top 16kB of address space, then you had a paged bank of application ROMs living in the next 16kB section, and the bottom 32kB was shared RAM.
Application ROMs could consist of standalone utilities, proper applications (like the excellent BBC Basic, or word processors like Wordwise or View), file systems (like the fast and simple DFS, the slower but much more sophisticated ADFS, the network file system NFS, etc), and so on. The OS would seamlessly page from one to the other, so an application ROM could make file system calls which would get delegated to the currently selected file system even though they both lived in the same place at the same time. It was even possible to open file descriptors to more than one file system at a time and copy from one to the other!
The OS system call API was fast, capable, well-documented and sufficiently abstract to allow some really neat things: the Tube second processor interface allowed system calls to be executed via RPC from a *completely different computer*. Tube second processors really were CPUs in a box; no I/O other than the connection to the BBC, no ROM other than the RPC stub. So you got 64kB of RAM and maximum perforfmance, with all the fiddly I/O overhead handled by the BBC itself, now acting as a dedicated and extremely capable I/O processor.
And the Tube wasn't limited to 6502s --- they also made Z80, 32016, 68000 second processors, all using that same system call interface. Even the ARM chip, now a juggernaut taking over the world, started life as a second processor connected to a BBC micro!
(I don't believe they ever tried system call RPC via Econet, but it would have been an interesting experiment.)
It's a shame that Acorn's master plan fell through. After the Electron debacle, they regrouped and produced the BBC Master, which was an excellent machine in many ways but not a patch on the machine that *could* have been. With better marketing, we could by now be using BBC-descended multiprocessor systems instead of PCs...
Econet security was almost non-existent.
You could have your BEEB as a privileged station, which enabled you to do all sorts of things like peek at the screen of another station on the network, or even remote control other machines. Tremendously useful in a teaching environment.
The only problem was that the only thing that marked your station out as privileged was a single bit in a particular memory location of your machine. It was easy to poke (well, use the ? operator) this byte, and hey presto, your system became privileged. Yes, we know you did it frequently, Gary Partis, wherever you may be.
Unfortunately, being on a privileged station, you could then do all sorts of bad things to the file server (yes, Econet Level 3 allowed you to have a hard disk based fileserver on the network), so we had to warn the lecturers not to keep their assessment marks on the file server.
Putting together the computer appreciation BBC micro lab we had at Newcastle Poly in the early '80s was one of the most fun things that I ever did in my working life, and as of last year, my BBC Model B with an Issue 3 motherboard, serial number in the 7000's and BBC Basic 1 in EPROM is still working (it's missing the OSBYTE, OSWORD and OSCLI keywords, amongst other things)
BTW. Anybody know where to get double-sided single density soft sectored 5.25" diskettes from? Mine are shedding oxide, and many are unfortunately unreadable.
Certainly in the period until 1984 the divide in the schoolyard was between the Speccy and the BBC. But it's also true to say that the Dragon, Oric, Atari 8 bits and other weird and wonderful machines also had their fans. And in education/science people also forget the venerable Commodore PET (a machine I was still coming across in use in the early 90's).
You then had the C64 arrive in the UK in 1983 followed by the Amstrad CPC in 1984. These two machines quickly knocked all of their competitors out of the home market with the Speccy remaining the top seller followed by the C64 and then the CPC.
Between these three machines they pretty much had the market sewn up by 1986. Amstrad made the smart move of bundling CP/M + with the CPC 6128 which made it an attractive option for software houses to port their professional apps to. While the Beeb could run CPM you needed to spend even more money on the Z80 co-processor on top of the disc drive and monitor. And probably some kind of RAM expansion come to think of it if you had one of the 32k models.
If Acorn had nailed the cost down the Beeb might have found itself in more homes. But it took Alan Sugar to give the world a 128k machine with a decent monitor and a built in disc drive for the same price as an already elderly looking BBC with a measly 32k. Yes the Electron was cheaper but it was pretty awful.
I remember first using BBC B's in primary school, the first school had one but then I moved to a better school and they had about 10 even a couple of master's I think. That's when I really got into computers and used to play on them at school at every opportunity mainly interested in programming. I remember going to book shops and buying books with games and programs you typed out.
I never had one at home but I think I was about 7/8 and my parents got me a commodore 64 for christmas. Still liked the Acorn's at school and then by the time I got to secondary school the Archimedes was out, we had various ones, A300's, A400s, computer suite full of A3000s even some A5000's which was probably the last ones they bought. My parents then got me an A3010 from Dixons one christmas. Most people at the time were getting Amiga's but I preferred the Acorn's.
I had started programming in assembler on the C64 (although not particularly great mind you) and eventually started programming on the Acorn. I wouldn't say I was the best but I was better than the IT teacher we had at school and I remember fixing an Econet problem which he struggled to fix for weeks.
I eventually got an Acorn Risc PC which was the last computer they made but upgraded to a Castle Iyonix PC when they took over the Risc OS operating system but that has since died but i've still got a Risc PC in the attic.
Still I suppose if it wasn't for Acorn there wouldn't be ARM and I bet there's at least one ARM chip in just about every house in the world.
I nearly had a BBC-B 2nd hand. Drove about 40 miles in response to an advert having spoke to the owner on the phone, got there and he had 'just' sold it. I was a little annoyed!!
Ended up with the speccy.
But the article has invoked a few memory cells, do I recall having the ability to download software on a Saturday morning on the computer show,? was it via teletext or from a flashing square in the corner of the screen or both?
Ahh, Saturday mornings, Robinson Crusoe, dubbed foreign children shows that just stopped at the end and cutting edge computers.
Funny hearing all the old war stories above.
30 years on the BBC vs Spectrum vs C64 debate is still going on lol.
As well as being a proud to own of a BBC B, I had access to a lot of machines as I worked in a computer shop at the time. The only within a 25mile radius and saw just about every home computer that ever hit the UK.
The list seems endless but from memory:
- Sinclair ZX81
- Sinclair Spectrum
- Commodor Vic 20
- Commodore 64
- MSX (cant remember which brand)
- Oric (I got one in the loft)
- Dragon (got a colour one in the loft)
- Jupiter Ace (no-one could use as it used Forth - made out of yoghurt cartons)
- Tandy TRS80 (friend had one years before BBC - it was cool)
- Kapro (a CPM Compaq clone - a portable.... errr luggable computer)
- Atari ST
- Commodore Amiga (cool machine, I really ought to have had one of those)
- Acorn Archimedes
- Apple Clone ( we left that alone)
- Amstrad (there were a few)
I probably missed some real obvious machines... happy days..
The BBC Micro was solid with an excellent keyboard. And that's all. In the harsh language of technical specs, it was gainsaid by systems costing literally half the price. What the BBC Micro did have however, was the entire resources of a broadcasting coorporation at its disposal.
Result ? A torrent of free advertising unequalled in history. In early 1982 there were only 3 TV channels in the UK, two of which were controlled by the BBC. Both carried "The Computer Program","Making the Most of the Micro" and "Micro Live". Although well made, these were indeniably 30 minute infomercials for the BBC Micro. Radio 4 played its part with The Chip Shop, and TV news programmes often features "stories" centred around the BBC Micro.
Other manufacturers could not afford a 30 second advert on ITV.
As the article says "Acorn went from a company with a turnover of less than £1m in 1979-80 to revenues of more than £20m within two years. That paved the way for Acorn's September 1993 flotation on London's Unlisted Securities Market, a process that made Chris Curry and Herman Hauser millionaires."
Nice. But isn't advertising supposed to be illegal on the BBC ? And didn't the hapless viewers pay for those adverts with their license fees ? And didn't the same viewers pay again for the huge DoI subsidies to Acorn ? And then pay again the princley sum of £400 for the end product, which they had already paid for to be built and marketed ?
Other manufacturers, without help, were able to outsell the BBC Micro on merit alone.
In hindsight, the literacy project should have been aimed squarely at the mass of the population, not at schools. The chosen system should have been a cheap-as-chips device for everyone to program at home. It should not have ened up as a hyped product with premium pricing.
The BBC cost so much because of the impressive software and hardware engineering, the massive array of interfaces around the back and a modular design to the hardware, even inside the box. As stated in the article, the BBC is also significantly faster than most of its competitors in pure CPU terms — twice as fast as the C64, for example.
So it's a fantastic machine all around for teaching computer literacy. There are lots of ways to interface to it, the internal logic isn't sealed inside a single ULA and the operating system is an actual operating system, logically divided and well written.
It's main failing in the wider market, other than price, was that the video display was far too greedy for the available RAM. The OS takes something like 3.5kb for normal use, then often you lose a bit more to the disk filing system, so if you subtract another 20kb for any of the three highest storage display modes you're looking at trying to fit your entire programme into something like 8 kb. Compare that to the 41.25 kb available for user code on the cheaper Spectrum. You could hit the BBC's CRTC directly to invent your own video mode that gives you more space (eg, Elite reduces the width of the display, if I recall) but then you're definitely buying yourself problems when you come to do the Electron port.
"In the harsh language of technical specs, it was gainsaid by systems costing literally half the price."
Nonsense. Sure, other systems had more RAM than the original BBC Micros, and there were different aspects of those systems that may have been better in some way or other (hardware sprites, for example), but if you compare the architecture of the BBC Micro and the peripherals, none of the competitors come close. To take an example, the C64's disk expansion was regarded as a joke in comparison to those available for the BBC - even the initial 100K per single-sided disc implementation that was in routine use across the nation from the start - and the less said about Sinclair's post-cassette storage strategy, the better.
Amstrad did deliver a "next iteration" product that was cheaper and had better headline specifications, but that's what you get when the economies of production have kicked in and you've hired away the people who've done it once before. Those products paled in comparison to the actual "next generation" products that became available not too long afterwards, anyway.
"What the BBC Micro did have however, was the entire resources of a broadcasting coorporation at its disposal."
I don't disagree with this, and I don't think public institutions should be partnering with private businesses in this way. I would be very much against this happening again, which is why I tend to criticise various deals with proprietary software and services companies when the Beeb wants to roll out some service or other. The Beeb should be promoting and implementing open standards and solutions.
"Other manufacturers, without help, were able to outsell the BBC Micro on merit alone."
You, and perhaps even the author, forget that having to support the BBC Micro was a burden on Acorn. Even though resources were made available to roll out a lot of software and solutions around the BBC, Acorn had to support a much wider range of software than the competitors on hardware that also had to support a much wider range of applications. You might not have cared for 80-column displays, teletext, networking, decent storage options, second processors, and all that, but that's what had to go into the box.
Sure, for some people 256x192 graphics with primitive attribute-based colouring was enough, and maybe the "one size fits all" approach where you end up delivering more than the customer needs in most cases (contrary to your opinion) was a mistake, but the alternative at the time would have been to marshal a bunch of different projects from different vendors and get them to deliver something that supports interoperability in an age where "proprietary advantage" was the mantra. Take a look at MSX to see how well that went.
"In hindsight, the literacy project should have been aimed squarely at the mass of the population, not at schools."
Sinclair aimed his products at the masses and did get bottoms on seats. Whether the Spectrum could have supported the breadth of ambition that the Computer Literacy project had is another matter. You can blame the commercial unattractiveness of the BBC Micro on its gold-plated beginnings, but insisting that it lacked merit is incredibly narrow-minded.
To reply to those rather good rebuttals of my first comment above:
"The BBC also the best BASIC and was the fastest machine of the bunch even though there were other 650x machines."
The speed of its interpeter was a selling point, but the fastest BASIC at the time was Locomotive basic, as incoorporated on the Amstrads. Locomotive also featured real time interrupts and windowing among other programming esoterica. For exactly half the price of a BBC.
"You might not have cared for 80-column displays...". You could have 80 columns for £400 (BBC) or £200 (Amstrad again).
The BBC was a likeable machine. In hindsight though, all the connectivity hardware was perhaps a mistake. I guess they thought that computer literacy would be all about electronics. Very laudable, but electronics can be learned more effectively with some breadboad and a few cheap components. The computer buying public was more interested in programming, games and business applications than in soldering up an interface for a Turtle.
By 1984 Acorn should have brought out a Model C with a crushing spec for £200. But they didn't. Result ? We now have to listen to Alan Sugar on The Apprentice instead of Chris Curry.
""You might not have cared for 80-column displays...". You could have 80 columns for £400 (BBC) or £200 (Amstrad again)."
An 80-column display was just one item on a long list. The Amstrad CPC did well to copy the bitmapped graphics modes of the Beeb, and the disk-based models were also a good idea, although the Hitachi 3" format was a huge mistake. But as I noted, the Amstrad had a lot less asked of it, the benefit of joining the party knowing what everyone else was wearing (having been introduced a good two years after the Beeb), and the benefit of using what had become pretty established technologies at costs much lower than at their introduction. It was merely a "next iteration" machine. Sure, that made it competitive against the Beeb, but it doesn't undermine the significance of the Beeb at all.
"By 1984 Acorn should have brought out a Model C with a crushing spec for £200. But they didn't. Result ? We now have to listen to Alan Sugar on The Apprentice instead of Chris Curry."
Yes, the Electron should have been a Beeb with more focus on the bottom line and less on risky innovation, if possible.
But you have to put up with Sir Alan more because of his later efforts than getting the CPC out there, even though that may have been part of what made him. In fact, if you want an exercise in strategy by hindsight, you (or the author) might want to look into the rumours that Acorn had been considering getting Amstrad to do a low-end Archimedes, maybe even trying to negotiate a deal. In the end, we got the A3000 which was a more expensive machine, but had that deal gone through you might have had Sir Alan turned up to 11 on your media radar, so maybe you don't want to consider such a scenario after all.
I remember doing my Standard Grade Computing (1995-1997) on a BBC MIcro, the last year they were used at my old school - loved using it.
Can still remember finding out you could program sounds on it, and getting detention for playing The Imperial March when the teacher came in. Happy Days.
That was a proper course, not the office skills one they teach now.
I disagree your summation of the BBC. It was a good machine if you take into account of what it included.
Its almost like the Xbox vs PS3 comparison. The BBC came with a lot more as standard and the quality of the equipment was superior when compared to all the other mainstay machines, this drove the cost. I don't know many Spectrum owners who hadnt blown up their machines. C64 faired better but not as reliable as the BBC.
The BBC also the best BASIC and was the fastest machine of the bunch even though there were other 650x machines. The connectivity on the BBC was amazing. Printers , Harddrive, analogue controllers, etc.
For what the BBC was designed to do, it was the best thing out there. Yes it got an unfair boost because of the advertisement that the BBC gave it. So what? Good. Its a British company that ended up spawning the company ARM. Horaaah!!!
Disclosure - I'm a BBC B owner
The BBC micro was launched 30 years ago. For many including myself in the UK, this will have been the first computer they ever owned (or had brought for them). We had an Atari 2600 before that, but this was the first computer. I have been a mainly 'computer gamer' ever since especially when Elite launched or I played my first flight sim about a spitfire gunning down UFO's. Yes, they both used line graphics to give the impression of a 3D world, but it was something I had never seen on a console of the time and was hooked. I moved on to C64's, Spectrums later and then finally PC's, but that is where my love affair of game on computers started.
So here's a glass raised to you BBC micro.
No mention about the connection with ARM the article. Acorn the people who made the BBC, well they had their issues, until they started (with others) what would become ARM holdings to sell their RISC chip designs. Yes, that ARM holdings, the ones that own the designs to the chips in nearly all mobile devices. So the BBC's innovative spirit live on in all IOS, Android and Windows smartphones / tablets and will soon be included as a CPU option for Windows. Not bad...
The Atom was also available as a kit. A local shop bought them that way and I assembled a few for them.
The keyboard was a nightmare! Each key had two stiff springy metal wires that had to be located into corresponding holes in the PCB and then soldered in place. The keyboard was one unit and there were over 60 keys so that meant locating 130 or so wires AT THE SAME TIME. I remember discovering one wire had been squashed between the keyboard frame and the PCB after soldering up more than half of the damned things - not a good moment!
I think I assembled about 3 Atoms before giving up as they took far longer than what they were paying was worth.
I also remember upgrading a BBC A to a B for a customer of another local shop. However, it was a very early model with an inadequate power supply, which meant that the computer wouldn't work properly with all the extra chips in. So the whole thing went back to Acorn for a free (possibly?) upgrade.
Are there any still in active use anywhere? A better title would "BBC Micro would turn 30 if it hadn't died 15 years ago"
Never was a big fan. Not sure if that's because we used them at school, so associated it with school work, or just because I'd been using an Apple][ since I was knee-high to a snail, and two years before I got a BBC Micro to help with school projects, my dad had brought home an Apple Mac to work on, so the idea of the command line interface seemed prehistoric to me.
So by the time you got your BBC Micro it was at least 1986 which means that the Achimedes was just about to be launched and the world's first RISC desktop would arrive pre-dating Apple's PowerPC and causing a law suit.
BTW I love my 21 century Macs. In the 80s there was only one thing better than Apple kit for me and that was Acorn kit.
Although Apple set the standard years earlier with the Apple II, the BBC Micro trumped it and all other 8-bit computers ever made by having the best hardware, OS and BASIC interpreter of its class. Sort of a "UK Mac" for the early 80's if you will and it wasn't until the Archimedes came out in 1987 that the technical prowess of the BBC Micro was finally beaten (yes, I tried an early Mac, but it felt quite straitjacketed even back then).
I helped out in a computer store in the early 80's and saw pretty well every type of 8-bit micro that was going then. Spectrum had the most games obviously, but its keyboard, graphics and sound were so poor as to be actually embarrassing to use. The Commodore 64 probably came closest in terms of hardware to the BBC, but was hugely let down by its poor OS, BASIC and utterly dismal disk system (so slow, that it was beaten by turbo tape loaders!).
I think that the BBC Micro was a perfect design for going into schools to replacing fairly doddering RM 380Z's and the like - its strength was indeed the OS and BASIC - the built-in assembler was a stroke of genius and you could actually develop commercial code on the same machine you ran it on (note that many Spectrum programmers - think Manic Miner and the like - used TRS-80's to code Spectrum games (downloaded via some clever add-ons) on because the Spectrum itself was a disaster to code commercially on.
The crying shame that was overpriced and never actually came down in price during any time in its production run, which ultimately was fatal to it. A drop of 100 quid would have probably doubled its sales. The Electron was horrendous - who wants a machine with no Mode 7 and half the speed of the BBC, especially when it was launched when pretty well everyone who wanted something in the BBC Micro range already had one.
I also felt Acorn were terrible at marketing - you'd hardly ever see ads on TV or print media for it, whereas Spectrum ads seemed to be everywhere. The Spectrum may have been significantly worse in almost all respects except the amount of RAM (the hardware was shoddy, it was slower, the OS and BASIC were simply dreadful), but Sinclair knew that once he got game developers on board, the cheaper machine would win out, even if it was basically a piece of junk.
My path went BBC Micro A, added RAM, added disk interface and disk drive, added speech chip, added sideways RAM (very handy for, er, running ROMs from disk)...then about 5 years later, jumped to the Archimedes A310, which I never bothered with a hard disk because it booted from ROM and 3.5" floppies were quick enough for me at the time.
Loved the Archimedes hardware, OS and BASIC again - a tour de force of engineering, the ghost of which lives on in most mobile phones as the ARM chip of course. Built-in assembler and a module loading system to add functionality, plus a reasonable WIMP for the time (perhaps not as good as the Mac's, but certainly better than GEM and Workbench) combined to make it a dream ARM development system.
It took many years of Archimedes use before a generic PC with Linux finally overtook it both in terms of speed and functionality - yes, I've never used Windows as a primary OS in all that time, though I do it run it via dual boot or VMs occasionally.
The 80's were the golden age of choice in the UK, but the 90's brought us the "one PC fits all" of Windows 95, the "nice but overpriced" of Macs and very little else (Linux really did take a long time to get the distros to be easy to install and use, but now they are technically by far the best OS to use, particularly if you are a developer).
It's well documented that the Oliver Twins used an Amstrad CPC as did many other devs. It had the excellent MAXAM assembler, built in disc drive and the same processor. The Olivers used a link cable to see the results on their Spectrum.
The biggest advantage is that if your code crashed, you'd only crash the computer you had uploaded the code to. The CPC would stay running.
When Amstrad bought out Sinclair they released a Speccy with a proper keyboard and also a disc drive which made life easier for bedroom coders. But to say nobody used the Speccy for coding isn't strictly true as there are examples of code being pulled off of Microdrives for archiving even fairly recently.
My first interaction with a 'Personal Computer'. I still recall it to this day.
Mid/late 80s, 5 years old, primary school. BBC Micro. I wasn't sure at the time *why* it was named after a TV station, especially as it did not share the logo.
2 games in particular stick in my mind:
- Grannies Garden, seems to have been an adventure game, I remember walking through a map and then it would enter a level.
- 'Pod', an interactive game with a tomato. You typed something like 'Pod can jump' or 'Pod can explode' and he would perform these actions. Unfortunately didn't respond to the ruder entries (or indeed typos).
The school kept them on, supplemented with the odd Mac in the late 80s for writing the school Newsletter, notes for home, other DTP tasks.
Few classrooms in the early 90s got RM Nimbus 386s with Win3.0. Microsoft Paintbrush seemed amazing at the time.
15 years later, found a BBC Master at a boot sale, has a 3.5" floppy drive in a PC-style (but otherwise empty) case, CUB monitor too. Sits in the loft collecting dust these days though.
Makes me both sad and glad in equal measures. Which is probably what nostalgia is all about. I never had a Beeb, but wanted one, (and previously mentioned had dealings with the Electron and "TLink" in a commercial environment). I did my whole magazine listing writing thing for beer and driving lessons during the eighties based on Z80 stuff, (although did something for the 6502 Atari 800 and used the 6809 at poly - you know those places which actually taught stuff which was useful), and am very glad for the experience.
However you turn your attention away for a couple of decades and everything goes to pot!. (Just see the beebs weekly quiz on programming for an example @ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15952227. WTF).
Well I lived in Germany where the C64 was king (nobody had a BBC), so my parents got me an Electron. Booooooo.
OK this led me down the IT route. Was given a second electron and connected the two via the RS423 port and had one running as a dedicated graphics card (crap for real time work), so programs had the full 28K available with the other computer as the output.
However what really let it down for me (including teh BBC B) was the graphcs output.
The C64 had more colours much better sound and sprites.
But for programming the BBC/Electron was king (imbedding assmebler within your basic code was cool)
I had BBC Master and used it with the Red Box system to automate home sockets and integrate with motion detectors.
How hard is that to do now!
Many hours getting to about 800,000 credits and the order of elite - I often wish I could play that again too sometimes. Did Raxxla really exist??
Still have a BBC B programming book that I cant bring myself to throw away either.
i remember being proud of myself for working out the maths of how to draw circles and create a nice big clock (until the archimedes gave the circle command)
I miss my archimedes with the 10Mb HDD the most tho :(
"(The Model A) lacked many of the graphics modes, such as Teletext"
Teletext isn't a graphics mode. The model A included all the small memory screen modes 4 to 7, including Teletext mode 7 which only took 1K. It was the large-memory screen modes that were absent.
"The Model A's reduced memory meant it was unable to drive all the system's possible graphics modes, labelled 0 to 7, the latter delivering the Telextext system ... dropped from the A. It was the highest resolution modes ... that the A could not support."
The second (correct) sentence there contradicts the first sentence.
I suspect that was a case of lack of proofreading. It took me a while to understand what was trying to be said at this point!
I would take issue with your idea that MODE 7 was not a graphics mode. Yes, they were very blocky (as per Teletext type 1 graphics generally) but they were graphics. It was just that you didn't use the standard BBC Basic graphics commands to access them; rather you mucked about with CHR$ codes.
The difference came with the Electron and later with the various RISC OS/Arthur machines which emulated the chip that the BBC Micro used for teletext, but even under RISC OS 6 you can still access MODE 7 in BBC Basic.
I used my BBC micro to dial up Prestel. It worked a bit like Teletext as you typed in page numbers to access content. I remember downloading software and sending electronic mail. There was also a multi-user game that you could access through a gateway.
We had Commodore PETs at school on which I learned 6502 programming, although I had to writing an assembler and disassembler in BASIC first. This was the reason I asked my parents for a BBC B.
The most satisfying thing I did was disassembling and removing the copy protection on many games. One of them was encrypted on disk and decrypted itself in memory with some nasty self modifying code. Not sure if it was Elite or some other game.
Ah.. the 300 baud modems which you shoved your phone handset into. Or that speedy upgrade to a 1200/75 modem, Certainly remember Prestel (and news stories of Prince Philip getting his account hacked).
Copying games among your mates in the local computer club. Or blowing your own EPROMs. Doing hardware upgrades inside the box. Controlling Lego robots via umbilical cords.
You actually got to see how it all worked, unlike these monster PCs with their flashy OS's of today.
Certainly started a career path for me after being a lucky early owner. Thanks to the Parents.
BlinkenLights, I'll mention Knight Lore (6512 VIA anyone? Though Sabre Wulf made it too easy by using the same protection software!), Zalaga (Captain Pugwash anyone?) and Revs (*SAVE not blocked - fatal flaw) as probably the 3 "most interesting" copy protection systems used on the BBC Micro.
my school had an RML 480Z. The program I remember most from that was called Jumbo- it involved an elephant, a lorry and a crane and you had to work out the sequence of movements to get the elephant into the lorry. Then we got Nimbuses and played an awful lot of Granny's Garden- best game ever, and the theme tune is my current ringtone.
I was a happy Spectrum user from 1984 all the way through 1992, but the BBC Micro with it's spiffy BASIC, built in assembler, proper keyboard, decent sound and graphics that you could actually use from BASIC (yes C64 I'm pointing contemptuously at your fatal flaw) was the reason I spent most school break periods well away from the sunlight.
I'd pick out the listings from INPUT magazine which had most promise and bring them to school with me just so I could try them out and compare to the Speccy versions. The tricks you could play with some of the *FX and *TV parameters were pretty unique to the Beeb and the Teletext mode was always fun to muck around with. The 80-column text and programmable F-keys were useful too. A true, accessible, "programmer's machine", with one major shortcoming I only discovered much later as I started to get into more ambitious projects: 32K wasn't nearly enough when you wanted 80 column text or full color graphics from BASIC.
Oh yeah and BBC Elite really is the best version, and I say that as a veteran of the Spectrum version which I was still playing pretty regularly several years after I'd supposedly replaced the Spectrum with an Amiga.
Have a Master 128, B+64, B+128, 6502 2nd processor, Music 500, and a teletext adapter. What I would have loved to get my hands on was the 32016 2nd processor. Has anyone actually seen one? Haven't actually switched one on for a while. Real life and having a son seems to get in the way of doing "real" computing these days...
I remember spending hours trying to get Elite to load on the electron. You had to fiddle about with the volume, or sometimes hold down the play button so that the heads on the cassette recorde were pushed in further! Happy days. There were some bloody great games considering they only had 32k to play with. Stranded. Overdrive. Combat Lynx. Phantom Combat. 737 flight simulator - which conveniently switched to radar mode as soon as you took off!
I must have got my BBC B in 1982, I would have been 17 or 18. The previous year the Acorn Bus (Trailer on wheels thing) was doing the rounds of local libraries, I took one look at the network set up of BBC Bs running Snapper, Planetoid, Space Panic and that was it, went away and sold everything I owned, pooled Christmas / birthday money, presents (Saturday job money) and along with my brother we got one.
A couple of years later I was working in Watford Electronics. We had an Econet setup and I had access to all sorts stuff, towards the end of my time there we had a prototype external box for a BBC B that used the 80186 co processor (probably for the Master series computer) and I was running Microsoft Flight simulator on it. My BBC B had a 65C02 processor in it, so I could use the EDIT ROM from the BBC Master (it needed the extra instructions to run). What I remember most is we did our correspondence on Computer Concepts InterWord and Interspell. Ten or so years before Microsoft finally got around to it, I had spellcheck as you type with a custom dictionary (saved to battery backed up sideways RAM). I remember the press release for Word 6.0 much later going on about spellcheck as you type and thinking, took you long enough.
I did not do computing at school, left the year before the BBC B arrived in the classroom, however I did meet many people to do with the BBC Micro scene, sometimes worked the BBC Micro User Show Stand for the magazine when they did the London shows at the Royal Agricultural Halls and once at UMIST in Manchester.
Got into communications with a Pace Grapevine (ne Nightingale) 300 / 1200-75 baud modem and used the bulletin board run by the magazine. That's when I discovered how much telephone calls cost back then to other cities. I think I racked up a bill in the region of £95 in the first quarter (a lot for 1984).
Got into electronics by working with the 1 MHz User Bus to control various things.
Got into machine code thanks to the Beebug Exmon sideways ROM, peeking and poking away.
It was this accessibility to the heart of the machine, using practical tools, that I really believe created a whole generation of pretty decent computer software engineers. Several embedded software coders I have met in subsequent years say they got their start on the BBC B.
I also went to a talk at one of the BBC Micro User shows that described the new Acorn Risc Machine processor and (this from memory so it may be wrong) how the original design was proved by using BBC Micro B with a co-processor and worked first time when it arrived back from the fabrication plant.
I met a lot of geniuses and entrepreneurs during that period from 1982 to 1987 and looking back on it had some of the best times and went to some great parties.
A fond 80's memory of mine was storing about 30 games on a C60 cassette and writing on the tape inlay the name and index number of each game. Worked great.
@nemo2000: You remember obscure commands across 3 decades and yet it is hard to recall that "wget" switch from a fortnight ago. Poke 65495,1
Out in the colonies of NZ, thanks to protectionist measures and exclusive import licenses they were hideously priced (as were all computers)
import duty 45%
importer's markup 100%
retailer's markup 100%
sales tax 40%
Beeb model Bs went for around 1900 pounds in the local currency (about NZ$2500) - and _everything_ that wasn't inside the case was an extra cost item - even the power lead. (Those were the days when retailers would take slip cases out of calculator boxes and sell them as an accessory for 30% of the price of the calculator.)
As a result my first few computers were handbuilt designs from hobyist magazines.
The BBC Ring is here - http://8bs.com/cgi-bin/webring/hub.cgi
My own page on the BBC (I have three) - is here - http://msknight.com/bbc/
...and there are still new games being released for the BBC even today. This year sees the launch of the latest Repton game, and also "Blurp!"
There are so many emulators, and even one has come out for Android.
The work done on the BBC was so complete, such a well designed, all round machine, that it still lives on today.
My class in school (can't remember whether it was Higher Physics or Higher Maths ?) won a BBC A in a competition to imagine the future of computers in schools. It was fun (but not in a good way) compared with the Apple II we were otherwise using.
I've always wondered if it was pre-production, certainly the manual was. It led me into a lifetime of not RTFM since the index either referred you to page 0 or to a page number beyond the end.
The machine also ran hot, very hot. It took a while, but one of the physics teachers did eventually fry an egg on the casing (in a pan obviously).
Its other foible was loading from tape. Fussy was not the word - a cheap cassette recorder supplied by the school just wouldn't load, everyone in the class brought in their own and the result was the same, or worse in that it sometimes did/sometimes didn't. Reel to reel from the music department, no, reel to reel "acquired" from the language lab, no. Eventually a music centre (remember them) belonging to one of the teachers was found to work, but it was hardly an ideal solution.
Whether it was ever got to work reliably I don't know. By that time I was doing CSYS Computing and was allowed evening access to the Apples with their nice reliable floppy drives so bye bye Beeb.
The first production machines used a 'linear' power supply with conventional transformer and regulators which did get quite hot. We quickly sourced a much better 'switched mode' power supply which ran cooler and could provide the extra power required to run accessories such as floppy disk drives. And yes, the first edition user guides were printed with a simple blue cover. These were replaced with the colorful ring bound manuals a few months after production started.
... here's how I took a BBC Micro keyboard out to a plugboard..
... then wired in an Atari Jaguar controller...
...and then wired up an Xbox controller to it...
Now that's what I call ... insane :-D
Man, this brought back memories. I spent an entire day trawling around Cardiff looking for a copy of Elite. Finally picked up a copy in Laskeys in the St David Centre. What a game! The Beeb's now in my brother's loft but thanks to emulators I can revisit Elite (and that other, less known gem "Nutter" - where you controlled a little Adolf Hitler and head butted dropping bombs - they just don't make games like that any more...)
The defence company I worked for ordered about 200 for staff at a reduced price. We paid for them over 12 months deduction from pre-tax salary. After delivery, there was a long queue in the stores corridor. After that, things went quiet as roms were copied to eproms, additional PCBs with eprom sockets designed to fit just above the keyboard. One could switch betwen Elite, the word processor and a clover bod wrote something like a spreadsheet. Another wrote a program that kept the BBC churning over all night generating a simple fractal image. Still got tapes, advanced users manual etc in the attic, but I daren't power it up in case the capacitors all go bang since it was last used 25 years ago.
Rather than just sue each other like they do now....
I never owned a BBC myself but some of my friends had them. I was blessed with another British machine - the mighty Dragon32...
In those days the benefit of multiple computer formats, and not being one huge patent troll of a company with an illegal monopoly, meant that going to someone's house with a different computer meant a whole new selection of games you couldn't get for your machine.... My Neighbour had a Vic20 - it was radar rat race at his - at mine it was Wizard wars ....
As project Manager of the BBC Micro at Acorn and working with the BBC during the project perhaps I can clarify the actual position with some of the points made by Jim 59.
The BBC Computer Literacy Project was squarely targetted at the home user not schools. The schools aspect came about through some far-sighted people at the DES who saw the additional schools potential around the time of the BBC Literacy project and launched the DTI schools schemes. The subsidy for each machine went to the schools not to Acorn, although, of course, Acorn got the sales. The DTI provided no direct subsidy to Acorn.
Although the BBC in one sense 'advertised' via it's Computer Literacy programs, it never had specific adverts and took great care to avoid mentioning Acorn's name. This indirect advertising obviously did help machine sales but Acorn, the manufactuer, was largely unknown. Acorn always paid a royalty to BBC Enterprises for each machine sold bearing the BBC name. You could argue this helped offset licence fees or other BBC program expenditure.
The BBC Micro had a high price as it was a 'premium' product. Few people have any idea how much the product cost to design, tool-up, manufacture and support and provide profit to support the design of future products. Other products may have been cheaper but you get what you pay for. To imply that other much cheaper products had an equivalent specification isn't supported by the facts.
BTW, Locomotive Software's BASIC was not available at the time of the BBC Micro's development. It was subsequently made available as part of the Z80 Second Procesor software bundle. What the BBC Micro had was a real operating system, the MOS, and superb filing systems better than any other desktop computer at the time targetted at the home or business user. It is also not correct to imply that the home user was mainly interested in programming. I can assure Jim 59 that this is not what I found talking to customers at Acorn shows and seeing their correspondence into Acorn.
The picture on page 3 is actually of the Acorn Atom team taken in 1980. I'm not aware of any pictures of everybody who worked on the BBC Micro, but their names are all listed inside the MOS ROM as follows: David Allen, Bob Austin, Ram Banerjee, Paul Bond, Allen Boothroyd, Cambridge, Cleartone, John Coll, John Cox, Andy Cripps, Chris Curry, 6502 designers, Jeremy Dion, Tim Dobson, Joe Dunn, Paul Farrell, Ferranti, Steve Furber, Jon Gibbons, Andrew Gordon, Lawrence Hardwick, Dylan Harris, Hermann Hauser, Hitachi, Andy Hopper, ICL, Martin Jackson, Brian Jones, Chris Jordan, David King, David Kitson, Paul Kriwaczek, Computer Laboratory, Peter Miller, Arthur Norman, Glyn Phillips, Mike Prees, John Radcliffe, Wilberforce Road, Peter Robinson, Richard Russell, Kim Spence-Jones, Graham Tebby, Jon Thackray, Chris Turner, Adrian Warner, Sophie Wilson, Alan Wright.
This list includes key contributors from the BBC and also credits other individuals and organisations who worked with us throughout 1981.
On the pricing: There was some escalation of cost as we included all the features that were determined to be necessary but this was largely offset by purchasing efficiencies as manufacturing volume increased. One major reason for the price increase was a change in Acorn's business model from direct mail order sales to selling through distributors and dealers. This was necessary to give the machine the market penetration and customer support it required but the price had to be increased to provide an adequate margin structure in the sales channel.
You end this piece with a mention that the A3000 was the last BBC Micro. NO IT WASN'T!!!
You either forgot or never knew about the very last fling for the Beeb in Acorn. Some years after the A3000 was brought out, Acorn's chip folk tried again at the "let's put most of the system on one bit of silicon", something they had tried with the Electron years before. To this end, the ARM250 was designed which tied together a number of the functions performed by separate chips in the A3000. The up sides were that the motherboard was far less dense in its population and the resulting systems ran a bit faster, though not as fast as the ARM 3 powered machines that were being built at the time. There were three machines based on the ARM250; the A3010, the A3020 and the A4000. Of these, the A3020 was made as a BBC Micro, complete with the distinctive red function keys, and was a direct replacement for the A3000. The A3010 had green function keys and a slightly different layout within which was aimed at the games market while the A4000 was a three boxer in a half height version of the A5000 case and a standard (for that time) Acorn keyboard.
The disadvantages of the A3010/A3020 machines compared with the A3000 were that the A3000 had more expansion capability than the later machines and, if you were prepared to pay for it, you could up the processor in an A3000 to an ARM 3 which meant that the older machine could feasibly run a lot faster than the newer machines. There were a few other differences surrounding the podule arrangements in the different machines and it was not supposed to be possible to change the functionality of an A3010 and an A3020 between each other without much effort. "Chris's Machines" (link elsewhere in this article) has some examples of the machines in question.
Me? Well, I still have my early model A Beeb (with much upgrading) though it has been many years now since I last powered it up. I was one of the first folk in my class to get one and, as a result, the college I was at then borrowed me and my Beeb to do a display in a local school fete one year. I never found out if they made their target, but I suspect that they did.
The BBC were responsible for driving computer literacy in the UK and making it a real choice for people to attain the skills as a career.
Sure there was some insider dealing, but it was the right machine for the time and lit fires under many children's interest in computing.
I had a Dragon then an Electron and finally a BBC B before I got my first PS1.
Great article by the way - excellent!
After 9 months of a Commodore PET at school, my Beeb was delivered in March 1982 (a very late Christmas present after being ordered in around October 1981).
I was hooked. Built in 6502 assembler. Wonderful. A BBC, Electron, C64 and Apple ][ development system free of charge! :-)
For me, a career in hardware and software engineering from a 1980s hobby...
Sold first commercial product in mid-1983, whilst doing my O Levels.
Used the BBC Micro in high school from 1989 to 1994, they upgraded soon after I left. "Edutainment" games included - "Petra's dream", some game about African cattle herders "you sell butter and buy one cow", another one about climbing Everest that always crashed, one with giant mushrooms and "timeslip"