The BBC Micro turns 30
The 8-bit 1980s dream machine
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 in 1994.
The BBC Micro was designed and manufactured by Acorn, a Cambridge-based computer company founded by Chris Curry and Herman Hauser on 5 December 1978 as Cambridge Processor Unit (CPU).
Curry had quit working for Clive Sinclair's Science of Cambridge (SoC), where he had developed the MK14 microcomputer kit. Sinclair was less enthusiastic about the project than Curry, who came to believed that the only way to take the product to the next stage – to build and sell a computer for home use – was to do so outside of SoC.
Hauser, a physics researcher at Cambridge University, agreed. He was aware of the many young, talented computer scientists and engineers working at the university and was able to help CPU quickly tap into this resource.
CPU first developed a controller for Ace Coin Equipment's one-armed bandits, funding the work on the Acorn Microcomputer – later called the Acorn System 1 – which was launched in March 1979.
During the following months, Sinclair began work on the ZX80. Unlike the motherboard-and-not-much-else MK14 and System 1, the ZX80, although sold primarily as a kit the user would assemble, was designed as a cased product with the potential to appeal to a much broader audience than electronics hobbyists.
That move, in turn, may well have inspired Curry to drive the development of the next Acorn machine, the Atom. Seeing the possibilities, Curry and Hauser recast CPU as Acorn. And, a year later, in March 1980, the Atom was launched as the first Acorn Computers machine, combining a case with an integrated keyboard – with moving keys, unlike the ZX80's flat ones – and what was essentially a System 3 motherboard within.
And with the Atom's launch, Acorn's development team began work on its successor, codenamed Proton, a machine they hoped would be a more serious machine than the one-up-on-Sinclair Atom.
Meanwhile, the state broadcaster was taking an interest in the world of microcomputers...
Next page: Corporation Street
Re: i'm off for a walk down memory lane...
Only shame is you can't go and do it in WHSmith, Boots, Laskey's, etc any longer
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...
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.
"Please stop this absurd idea that the BBC "B" mattered."
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.
BBC Micro - best 8-bit computer of all time
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).