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The BBC Micro turns 30

The 8-bit 1980s dream machine

BBC Micro

Archaeologic 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).

Acorn's founders: Herman Hauser and Chris Curry

Acorn's founders: Herman Hauser and Chris Curry
Source: Gazstone.com

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.

Acorn Series 1

The Acorn Series 1
Source: Chris's Acorns

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.

Acorn's Atom

No touch-keys, thank you: Acorn's first cased computer, the Atom
Source: Archivus

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.

Acorn advertises the Atom

Acorn advertises the Atom
Source: The Home Computer Hall of Fame

Meanwhile, the state broadcaster was taking an interest in the world of microcomputers...

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