High demand, low supply
With the BBC's imprimatur of quality, however, the Acorn machine proved a much bigger success than it might otherwise have been. On the back of positive comments from the computer press and the promotional opportunity provided by the TV series, it was decided by the BBC and Acorn to commit to the production of no fewer than 12,000 machines during The Computer Programme's January run and repeat broadcasts in April and June 1982.
Having launched the BBC Micro Model A and Model B in December 1981, Acorn quickly took all those 12,000 orders in the weeks before Christmas. The computers would then ship in January.
Promoting the Beeb
At launch, the Model A was priced at £235 and equipped with 16KB of memory. It lacked many of the graphics modes and other features integrated into the 32KB Model B. The latter quickly became the most popular model of the two and a lust object for young geeks the length and breadth of Britain. However, increasing production costs very quickly pushed the prices up and, in January 1982, the A and B were priced at £299 and £399, respectively.
Many enthusiasts forced to use cheaper machines – Sinclair's £99 ZX81 and £125/£175, 16KB/48KB Spectrum; the £129 4KB Commodore VIC-20; and others – tried hard to persuade parents to stump up for the pricier machine. Others sold their current machines and took on paper rounds to finance the rest of the purchase price.
School playgrounds quickly polarised into BBC – or 'Beeb' – and Spectrum camps, with the odd folk with Dragon 32s, Oric 1s, Texas Instruments TI-949/4As, Commodore VIC-20s and, later, 64s, oscillating between the two groups.
Both BBC Models were based on MOS Technology's 6502A processor clocked at 2MHz. Their 16KB and 32KB of memory ran at 4MHz, allowing the graphics sub-system and the CPU equal time access to the memory, ensuring that the video chippery didn't hinder the processor's performance – as was the case with other home systems.
Round the back: (L-R) TV modulator out, co-ax video out, RGB out, RS423, cassette port, D-SUB analogue in, Econet networking
Source: Patrick Dubby
The Model A's reduced memory meant it was unable to drive all the system's possible graphics modes, labelled 0 to 7, the latter delivering the Telextext system courtesy of a dedicated chip on the motherboard, dropped from the A to keep the overall price down. It was the highest resolution modes – 0 through 3, including two-colour 640 x 256, four-color 320 x 256 and eight-colour 160 x 256 – that the A could not support.
Both units had UHF output to drive a TV, but the Model B also had a six-pin DIN connector for a monitor. Four-channel sound was generated by a Texas Instruments SN76489 chip. There was a separate port for cassette recorder storage, but Acorn offered an optional floppy disk controller for the higher-spec machine, and the really keen could equip a Model B with a hard drive controller and interface that tapped into the machine's "1MHz Bus".
On the base of the Beeb: (L-R) Tube, 1MHz Bus, User port, Centronics printer port, disk drive and power
Source: Patrick Dubby
Again, the Model B had RS-232 and Centronics parallel interfaces as standard, both absent from the A. Ditto the 20-pin "user port" for I/O projects, and the 40-pin Tube bus which allowed optional secondary CPUs to be hooked up.
A 16KB Rom chip held Acorn's Machine Operating System (MOS) and a second 16KB Rom stored the BBC Basic interpreter.
Next page: Evolution of the line
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).