Before the Atom had even been launched, executives at the BBC's education programming department, enthused by rival broadcaster ITV's 1979 series The Mighty Micro, developed a plan to help encourage ordinary Britons to learn to use computer technology.
Instigator: Christopher Evans' 'revolutionary' book
The Mighty Micro, presented by physicist Dr Christoper Evans and based on his book of the same name, had forecast how computer technology would utterly change working practices and the economy in the near future. He'd seen how the computing scene had exploded in the US on the back of kit from the likes of Apple and Commodore, and how it had not merely appealed to enthusiasts, but had also begun to transform business.
In 1979, the BBC produced a three-part series, The Silicon Factor, to explore the social impact of the microchip revolution. In November of that year, the Corporation began preliminary work on a ten-part series, provisionally titled Hands on Micros and scheduled to be broadcast in October 1981. It would introduce viewers to the computer and help get them using one. It would also form the launch of what would become known as the BBC Computer Literacy Project (CLP), steered by The Silicon Factor Producer David Allen.
In March 1980, the BBC began a consultation process to shape the Computer Literacy Project. It discussed the scheme with the UK government's Department of Industry, the Department of Education and Science, the Manpower Services Commission, and other organisations. By happy chance, it learned that the DoI was planning to name 1982 the 'Year of Information Technology'.
Internal review: in 1983 BBC detailed the progress made by the Computer Literacy Project
It was decided that the Computer Literacy Project and the TV series that would launch it needed a machine which the public could buy and use to gain hands-on experience of what was being discussed in each episode. Only that way would the audience truly engage with the new technology and the goals of the CLP be realised. Around it would be assembled a full array of guides, adult-learning courses and software packages.
However, the BBC quickly realised that, with no standard platform available, particularly when it came to Basic, the lingua franca of home micros and the language the show would be using to present examples of programming, it would have to specify one itself. With currently available machines all sporting different dialects of Basic, it was felt that choosing one of them would hinder viewers who had bought a different machine.
The only option, then, was to define a standard, to specify a machine that would incorporate a Basic that would have a great deal of commonality with other dialects, but would be well structured to foster good programming practice. It would specify all the features a computer ought to possesses, even if those features – such as floppy disk and hard drive support, extended I/O options, and the ability to download programs over the air through the Teletext system – were absent from many current machines.
Geek chic circa 1982: Ian McNaught-Davis on The Computer Programme
It became clear that to give this 'standard' some weight, it would need the BBC's clear stamp of approval – to be, in fact, the BBC Microcomputer. That, in turn, would necessitate the close involvement of BBC Engineering, the department charged with handling all of the Corporation's technical endeavours.
Building a new machine from scratch was impossible – it would take at least two years, more than the Computer Literacy Project schedule allowed. So the CLP team decided to approach the likes of Acorn and Science of Cambridge – soon to be renamed Sinclair Research. In all, the BBC met seven computer companies in the UK, six of whom were keen enough to detail how they would work with the BBC and the machine they would produce.
Next page: NewBrain? Never
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.