Acorn and the BBC Micro: From Education to Obscurity

In the US, the Apple II was considered the gold standard in the education market. The machine was more expensive than its contemporaries, such as the Commodore 64 and TI-99, but it had a very large software library and was heavily discounted to educators. Its position in the market was augmented by Apple’s Kids Can’t Wait program, where every public school in California received a complete Apple II system.

Sinclair ZX80 personal computerBritain was a very different environment in the early 1980s. Although Apple had established a European subsidiary in Brussels in 1981 (it later moved to Paris), it had yet to establish any kind of presence in the market beyond a small number of imported systems. The British microcomputer market was dominated by British actors. Principally, Sinclair (founded by the legendary Clive Sinclair) and Newbury Laboratories.

After 1981, the British microcomputer market would be shaken by an unremarkable home computer marketed by a very small company that produced computers based on the MOS 6502 processor (the same one found in Apple and Commodore computers) instead of a NEC Z80 workalike used in the popular Sinclair ZX80.

Acorn

Acorn System 1 personal computerAcorn was founded in March of 1979 by two former Sinclair employees, marketing director Chris Curry and researcher Hermann Hauser. The company was based in Cambridge, where Hauser had received his PhD in 1977. The pair had left Sinclair to produce a better version of the MK-14 board computer, which was languishing at Sinclair. They used the inexpensive MOS 6502 (a clone of the Motorola 6800) instead of the Z80 workalike but retained the hexadecimal keyboard and LED display used in the MK-14.

The new computer was named the System 1 and was made available in catalogs in kit form (like the MK-14). Besides the 6502 CPU, it had 512 bytes of memory. The computer sold for £91 preassembled – and for less in kit form.

For the first couple months of its existence, Acorn used office space borrowed from Sinclair. Ironically, a few months after Curry and Hauser founded Acorn, Sinclair decided to pursue the microcomputer market and would become Acorn’s biggest early competitor.

Acorn System 1 Specifications

Birth of the Atom

The System 1 did reasonably well for a kit computer, but Chris Curry had an epiphany that would make Acorn a world player in the microcomputer market. According to Hauser (subscription required), “Chris had this great marketing idea that if the System 1 had a nice case, it would have market appeal.”

Atom System 2 personal computer

In 1980, the firm put its limited resources into adapting the System 1 for use as a home computer (with more memory, an integrated keyboard, and a display interface for televisions) and buying ads with very high resolution photographs in Everyday Practical Electronics, one of the early publications to embrace the microcomputer enthusiast.

Preassembled, the System 2 sold for almost the same amount as the System 1, £200. In all, Acorn sold 10,000 System 2s, helping finance two new models: the System 3, which was a minor upgrade from the System 2 (it included an integrated disk drive), and the Acorn Atom, which was a cut down System 3 with a cassette interface rather than a disk drive.

Over 20,000 Atoms were sold over its life span, making it the most popular pre-BBC Acorn micro in the UK.

Acorn System 2 Specifications

Beyond the Atoms

With plum sales on the System 2 and Atom, Acorn was in a position to make a discontinuous jump. By 1981, it was clear that the days of 8-bit microprocessors, including the MOS 6502, were numbered. Additionally, MOS had been acquired by Commodore, a direct competitor to Acorn.

There was a debate within the company on what technology the next Acorn should be based on. The 68000 processors from Motorola were showing up in workstation designs and would be affordable enough for consumers in later iterations (most notably the Commodore Amiga, which began development in 1981 at Atari; it would also power Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh as well as Atari’s ST series). Intel CPUs had gained wide acceptance after the release of the IBM PC 5150 in 1981.

Unfortunately for Acorn, the new processor designs would require too much time.

In 1981, Sinclair was speaking publicly about his home computer designs, and the machinations of Newbury Laboratories were widely known. If Acorn was going to become a market leader in the UK, it would have to release its product quickly – and ideally undercut its competition.

After a long internal debate, a specification was drafted by Hermann for the Acorn Proton, and Roger Wilson, one of the engineers at Acorn, designed it. The chief advantages of the Proton over the Atom were to be better graphics and sound. The enclosure and the software were to remain identical to the System 2.

There was no release date set for the design, although it would be released “very soon”.

Enter the BBC

the BBC Literacy OwlThe BBC had taken an interest in the microcomputer market after Dr. Christopher Evans produced and hosted a very popular documentary, The Mighty Micro, which predicted the rise of the microcomputer – and home computers in particular. The BBC created the BBC Computer Literacy Project (with an owl logo) that would include TV shows and a BBC-branded microcomputer that would be deployed in British homes and schools to teach children programming and to augment other subjects with educational programs.

The entire program (TV shows and all) was scheduled to begin in fall of 1981, so there would be no time to develop an in-house design.

Sinclair’s scion, the Newbury Laboratories, had created the NewBrain, which was being considered as the official BBC microcomputer that would be featured in the TV programs. Newbury had actually collaborated with the BBC so that the specifications for the BBC microcomputer would be almost identical to their NewBrain. Supposedly at the behest of Sinclair, the BBC opened up the selection process to accept proposals of other companies.

The NewBrain was very primitive compared to the Atom (and especially the Proton) or most other British micros, but it was cheap. It had a membrane keyboard and a one-line vacuum fluorescent display. The more expensive model included a TV interface, though it was monochrome.

Unfortunately for Newbury, they failed to enter the NewBrain into the competition, as the company would be unable to fill large orders.

Chris Curry got wind of Newbury’s opting out of the competition and built enough Protons for the BBC to evaluate over a period of four days (most of the team working on the Proton, including Roger Wilson, believed that it would be impossible to prototype the machine so quickly) using the help of graduate students at Cambridge to wire wrap the prototypes.

The Proton was submitted to the BBC for consideration. Sinclair and Dragon (which had essential produced a Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer clone) also submitted designs that were priced well below the Proton’s proposed price of £235.

The Proton was the machine that most closely fit the original specification, since the Sinclair and Dragon did not include networking. Further, the Proton had superior graphics to the Dragon, so it was selected as the official computer of the BBC Computer Literacy Project, which was rescheduled for spring 1982, giving Acorn enough time to bring the Proton (renamed the BBC Micro) into production and for the BBC to adapt the TV shows and literature to the Acorn design.

BBC MicroAcorn was officially awarded the contract in April 1981. It stipulated the company would have 12,000 BBC Micros read for mail order by spring of 1982.

Acorn instantly became the preeminent home computer company in the country and was very well reviewed. Even though its products were far more expensive than some of their competition from Sinclair, Acorn maintained a very high market share and remained the dominant computer brand in education well into the 90s and the advent of multimedia PCs.

The BBC Computer Literacy Project took advantage of the BBC Micro in several different ways. In the first BBC computer literacy TV show, The Computer Programme, every episode would include BBC Basic programming examples and instruction on the operation of the BBC Micro in general. Later programs from the Computer Literacy Project would include instructions and news on other platforms – but usually included a segment devoted to the BBC Micro.

Primary schools across Britain (and some colleges and universities) were outfitted with entire networks of BBC Micros, which was possible through an inexpensive add-on that featured the Motorola 6854 networking controller (it would also be used in AppleTalk on the original Macintosh two years later).

A lasting legacy of the BBC Micro was BBC BASIC, which was based on earlier versions bundled with other Acorn microcomputers. Roger Wilson, the designer for the Acorn Proton/Micro, wrote most of the software, which had several notable features that made it particularly longlived. BBC BASIC, unlike ST-BASIC and some others, allowed programmers to take full advantage of the BBC Micro’s four-channel sound and color graphics, making game development accessible to relatively inexperienced developers.

BBC BASIC’s lifespan extended well beyond that of the BBC Micro. The language was used to develop the entire desktop for Arthur OS on the Archimedes, and some of that code survives in RISC OS. Thousands of school children in Britain and the Commonwealth learned BASIC using BBC BASIC, and there is still a large community of amateur developers creating new games and demos.

Dozens of software houses produced educational programs for the BBC Micro, some of which are still used today, not unlike eduware for the long-lived Apple II.

Competition for the BBC Micro was also similar to the Apple II. The BBC Micro was significantly more expensive than its competition (the Sinclair ZX Spectrum cost £80), but its superior software library (and the infamous membrane keyboards used in Sinclair micros) made the BBC Micro an easy choice for many consumers.

The explosive growth of Acorn hindered its ability to cope with the changing microcomputer industry. In 1982 alone, it had sold more than 24,000 computer, twice the number the BBC had required in its contract. By the end of its run, there had been over 1 million BBC Micros sold in the UK and Europe.

Acorn had difficulty scaling to the huge demand for BBC Micros. Offices were established across England and Wales, but they were perpetually swamped with orders and service requests.

BBC Micro Specifications

Beyond the BBC Micro

Little attention was devoted to the next major successor to the BBC Micro: ARM (Acorn RISC Machine), Archimedes, and Arthur OS (subsequently renamed RISC PC and RISC OS respectively). The Archimedes was notable for being the earliest RISC home computer, but it would fail to become popular because of limited software selection and competition from companies like Amstrad and Apple.

Licensing fees from the ARM line (used in the Apple Newton and countless embedded applications) somewhat supplanted revenues from poor microcomputer sales.

In 2000, after a decade of disappointing microcomputer sales, Acorn was broken up. ARM Holdings survives and has even licensed it’s CPU to Intel. The Acorn brand was recently licensed to a company selling OEM notebooks.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia and BBC News. Sources are linked within this article.

Publisher’s note: ARM processors powered the bulk of PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and remain the architecture of choice for smartphones and tablets.

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