The BBC Micro turns 30
The 8-bit 1980s dream machine
Evolution of the line
With all that tech, it was no surprise the Model B was so expensive. Equally, to geeks, the technology's absence from the cheaper Model A made that a far less desirable purchase. Not that the Model A was unpopular. In 1981, the Department of Industry had decided it would subsidise half of the price for each Model A Britain's schools purchased. Unsurprisingly, many of them took up the DoI's offer.
Acorn had planned to produce 3000 machines in January 1982, but a flaw in the hi-res graphics chip discovered once production was underway ensured far fewer of these parts were available to build into the machines than expected, setting the manufacturing process back. By the time The Computer Programme was broadcast, only a few hundred BBC Micros had shipped.
Playing the education card: Acorn engages with parents
By the end of the January, 1000 BBC Micros had been produced. Some 2500 more rolled off Acorn's production lines during February, followed by 5000 more in March. But by the end of April the order backlog stood at 20,000 units. Production continued to be ramped up, and Acorn was able to report in October 1982 that the backlog had been almost eliminated. New orders were being dispatched in a matter of weeks rather than months.
That same month, the DoI extended its offer to the more popular, but more expensive Model B, an offer taken up be educational establishments with relish. By Christmas 1982, more than 67,000 BBC Micros had shipped. Acorn went from a company with a turnover of less than £1m in 1979-80 to revenues of more than £20m within two years. That paved the way for Acorn's September 1983 flotation on London's Unlisted Securities Market, a process that made Chris Curry and Herman Hauser millionaires.
Thumbs up: Your Computer magazine review the BBC Micro
Click for larger image
But for many would-be buyers, the BBC Micros were too costly. Consumer resistance to the high price of the BBC machines persuaded Chris Curry to propose a cheaper follow-up machine, the Electron, in the hope of winning over the big mainstream – and generally games hungry – audience Sinclair's low-priced Spectrum had grabbed. The £199 Electron would use BBC Basic and all but one – the Teletext mode – of the BBC Model B graphics modes.
The Electron debuted in August 1983, just ahead of Acorn's flotation. However, Acorn's suppliers proved unable to manufacture anywhere near enough of them to satisfy consumers' demand for home computers that Christmas. Some of them took the extra cost on the chin and acquired Beebs – other punters bought rival machines, like the Dragon 32, launched, like the Electron, in August, and the Commodore 64, which only entered the UK in December 1983.
Acorn VIC-torious in the low end? Alas the VIC-20 esque Electron was not the hit the company hoped it would be
Determined not to suffer the same fate in 1984, Acorn drove production hard… right at the point the UK home computer market reached saturation point. So many machines had been sold for Christmas 1983 no one wanted on 12 months on. Though the BBC Micros continued to sell, albeit more slowly, Acorn was left with stacks of unsold Electrons. In February 1985, to avoid being wound up by its creditors, Acorn was sold to Italy's Olivetti.
Throughout this time, the evolution of the BBC Micro continued, gaining extra memory – 64KB and then 128KB – and culminating with the debut of the BBC Master in February 1986. It was intended to tap into the schools and colleges market that formed the core of the original models' sales – to the extent the previous schools' favourite, Research Machines, had already ensured its 1983-launched 480Z, the successor to the popular 380Z, ran a version of Basic that closely followed BBC Basic.
The BBC Micro finally gets a great game: Elite, released in 1984
In June 1987, Acorn released the Archimedes, a desktop computer based on its own ARM2 processor. Two of the first four models – the A305 and the A310 – were marketed with BBC branding and shipped with a BBC Micro emulator on board for backwards compatibility.
But by now the BBC Computer Literacy Project was a distant memory, though Model B graphics and sound effects could still be occasionally seen and heard in Doctor Who.
A final BBC Micro, the A3000, was launched in May 1989. It was the last of the line. ®
The author would like to thank all those fellow enthusiasts for scanning and uploading so many adverts and manuals from the 1980s, without which this article would have been much less detailed.