Year Released: 1981
Original Price: £235
Buy It Now For: £20
Associated magazines: None
Why The BBC Micro Was Great: While it was sold as an educational computer and had a large showing in schools, it was also capable of playing plenty of amazing games, from Elite to Chuckie Egg. It really was the best of both worlds.
The story of the BBC Microcomputer can be traced back to a number of unexpected locations, most notably one of Sir Clive Sinclair’s companies, the warehouses of a Welsh fruit machine manufacturer, and even a cattle shed in Harrogate. Since 1966, Chris Curry – an employee of Sir Clive Sinclair – had worked behind the scenes for Sinclair Radionics, developing a number of products including calculators and wristwatches, as well as a pre-Sinclair C5 electric car. Following financial problems, Sir Clive shifted focus from Radionics, and encouraged Curry to work for another of his companies – Science Of Cambridge (SoC). SoC would later become Sinclair Computers Ltd.
Curry’s own focus shifted to microcomputers and, in particular, a microcomputer kit that SoC had developed. Sinclair, however, failed to back further development of the kit and, in December 1978, Curry formed his own company alongside a friend: Austrian-born physics graduate Hermann Hauser. Their new venture, Cambridge Processor Unit (CPU), quickly found a customer in Ace Coin Equipment Ltd, for whom they designed fruit machine controllers. The following year, CPU became Acorn Computers Ltd.
In 1979, Acorn’s first Microcomputer, the System 1, was launched, designed by computer scientist Roger (now Sophie) Wilson. Back in 1977, Wilson had designed a sophisticated automated cow feeder, based around a 6502 processor, for a farm in Harrogate. “The cow feeder led directly to the System 1,” Wilson recalls. “Hermann wanted someone capable of building an ‘electronic pocket book’ – we might call it a PDA now. I showed him the designs for the cow feeder, and for my own computer, and he challenged me to build it.”
Systems 1-5 were designed primarily for engineering and laboratory use. By 1979, however, Sinclair was working on the ZX80, and Curry pushed for Acorn to turn its attention to the home computer market, severing his remaining ties with Sinclair in the process. The first fruits were The Atom in 1980. “This was a time when you were expected to be able to solder in order to use a computer – most machines came as kits,” says David Braben, co-author of Elite. The basic Atom, featuring 2K of RAM, sold in kit form for £120, or, for £50 more, ready assembled, while an expanded model featuring 12K was also available. “For its time it was a fantastic machine,” Braben continues, “one advantage of the kit mentality was that machines had very open designs – circuit diagrams were freely available – and so expanding in unconventional ways was quite practical. Pretty soon my machine was twice the original speed, and had 48K of RAM!” One notable feature of the Atom was support for Econet, Acorn’s local area network, which allowed 250 computers to be networked together.
The machine was considered a relatively successful entry into the market for Acorn. However, some of the technical staff within Acorn were unconvinced. “We simply didn’t like the chips in the Atom,” says Wilson, “in particular the MC6847, which was an NTSC-only video chip.” By the time the Atom launched, Acorn was already hard at work on its next machine, the Proton. “The Proton had been in development before the Atom conceptually,” Wilson continues, “though the impetus to start it as a real project only came after the Atom was financially successful.”
In 1981, BBC Education launched the Computer Literacy Project, revolving around a ten-part television series. “The aim of the project is to introduce interested adults to the world of computers and computing,” said the press release, “and to provide the opportunity for viewers to learn through direct experience how to program and use a microcomputer.” The BBC wanted to build the project around a machine capable of performing a multitude of tasks, which could then be used to demonstrate the fundamentals of computing on TV, and contacted several British-based computer companies. Several computers were considered, most notably the Sinclair-affiliated Grundy NewBrain, as well as Acorn’s own Proton. “The project only gained real momentum with the impending visit of the BBC people to see a Proton prototype – which didn’t exist at the time,” recalls Wilson. “We had a week to build it.”
Despite the tight time frame, the prototype was up and running within a week, and impressed the BBC representatives sufficiently to ensure Acorn obtained the high-profile link up. “I guess we got the contract partly because what we were building anyway was close to what they wanted, and partly because they saw that our engineering was good enough to make it happen,” says Wilson. What had been known as the Proton, hit the shelves in November 1981 as the BBC Microcomputer System, just like Systems 1-5 and the Atom, another computer based around the 8-bit 6502 processor found in Wilson’s cow feeder.
Two different flavours of the BBC Micro were initially available – the 16K Model A, and the 32K Model B, launching at £235 and £335 respectively. Demand outstripped supply, however, and increased production costs soon caused these prices to rise to £299 and £399. “A BBC Model A was the first computer I owned,” recalls Gary Partis, author of several games including Psycastria and Sphere Of Destiny. “It was a Christmas present in 1981 which didn’t get delivered until March 1982.” The Model B soon emerged as the bigger seller of the two, and many Model A users eventually invested in Acorn’s A to B upgrade option on the cheaper model.
The BBC Micro saw the first outing of Wilson’s excellent BBC BASIC, a powerful but simple language, which provided many users with their first exposure to computer programming. “BBC BASIC is a compromise between my advanced interpreter of the day and the BBC’s desire to keep the language ‘standard’,” continues Wilson. “It felt significant at the time – a fast BASIC which was convenient to use, with many advanced features.” Other innovations in the BBC included an interface known as The Tube, which enabled a second processor to be added to beef up the computer’s power.
Thanks to the link-up with the broadcaster, the BBC computers were a considerable success in the education market. In addition, sales were bolstered thanks to an initiative started by the Department of Education and Science, which allowed local education authorities in the UK to obtain computers at discounted prices. While other computers were available under the scheme, the BBC Micro’s established reputation as a tool for learning prompted many schools to buy Beeb. Throughout the Eighties, titles such as Acornsoft’s Podd and 4Mation’s Granny’s Garden were commonplace in many primary and secondary schools.
The BBC branding soon showed itself to be as much curse as blessing, however, as the BBC Micro found itself seen as something that belonged in the corner of the classroom, a conception fuelled all the more as Spectrum and Commodore computers emerged surrounded by a huge games industry. Although never on as large a scale, a substantial games industry did grow alongside the BBC’s popularity, with around 1,200 titles released throughout its life. And key to its emergence was Acorn itself, through its own, highly prolific Acornsoft software label. “Acornsoft were fantastic and a joy to work with. They were both gamers and huge fans of all the technology behind games,” reveals Braben. “In the beginning I thought they set a great standard for everyone to have to live up to,” adds Peter Johnson, the man behind hit titles such as Overdrive and Impossible Mission. “Most of their conversions were pretty accurate – things like Planetoid (Defender) or Snapper (Pac-Man) were great in their day.”
“I saw BBC Micros at a local computer club, and was so gobsmacked by the speed and colourfulness of Planetoid that I decided I had to have one,” says Jason Sobell, co-author of titles such as Future Shock and Vindaloo, “so I sold my Spectrum 48K to one of my college lecturers and went and picked up a shiny new 32K BBC Micro.” An outstanding conversion of the arcade classic, the late Neil Raine’s game was originally issued under the title of Defender, before Acornsoft succumbed to pressure from Wilson. “Some of the Acornsoft games, such as Planetoid, were the early pacesetters in my opinion,” adds Richard Hanson, who would soon find legal pressures of his own to contend with. Johnson’s version of Q*Bert also hit the shelves under the original’s title, without permission for the licence being sought. “It seems shockingly naive now,” he says, “but in those days no one was particularly active in pursuing copyright in the home computer market. We had to pull it after around three weeks after a scary ‘cease and desist’ letter arrived.” The short-lived conversion was released by Hanson’s Superior Software, a company founded in 1982, that would eventually prove to be the most prolific software company on the 8-bit Acorn scene. Hanson was a programmer himself, and prior to starting his own label had written games for the Atom that were released by Leeds-based publisher Program Power (later became Micro Power) another major player in the BBC games market. During the early life of the BBC Micro, Acornsoft, Superior Software and Micro Power were the dominant players on the games scene.
The success of the BBC Micro was reflected in Acorn’s profits, rising from £3,000 in 1979 to £8.6 million by July 1983. By that year, however, rivalry was intense in the home computer market, as Sinclair and Commodore had cultivated enormous games markets around their flagship machines. Sinclair’s Spectrum 48K, in particular, was making enormous waves, and would, by mid-1983, be selling for under £130 (substantially less than the cost of the Model B). Acorn responded to the swiftly moving market by launching a cheaper sister machine to the BBC, in a move that would prove to be a seminal moment in the company’s history.
Four Great BBC Micro Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 42, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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