The BBC Factor
As magazine Your Computer noted at the time of the sale to Grundy: "When the plans for the NewBrain were first announced, it sounded both novel and competitive, but the endless delays in its development mean that it has now lagged behind a new generation of personal computers. It is now almost certain that the NewBrain will never repay its development costs."
Part of those costs involved pitching the NewBrain to the BBC as the basis for the Corporation's own-brand microcomputer.
In 1979, ITV produced a documentary based on Christopher Evans' book The Mighty Micro, itself inspired by the microcomputer revolution taking place in the US. The BBC produced a similar programme, The Silicon Factor, later that year.
The Corporation then commissioned a ten-part series entitled Hands on Micros. Scheduled to be broadcast in October 1981, the show would would introduce viewers to the computer and help get them using one. It would form the basis of what would become known as the BBC Computer Literacy Project, devised by The Silicon Factor Producer David Allen.
Early in 1980, Allen and his team decided that the Computer Literacy Project and the TV series that Hands on Micros needed a machine which the public could buy and use to gain real 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 Computer Literacy Project - no less than a mass education of Britons to IT - be realised.
Acorn 1, Grundy 0
The Basic language was the obvious starting point, but with no 'standard' dialect available, it was decided the BBC should devise and promote one of its own, using the BBC brand as a stamp of authority.
Meetings held by the BBC with the Department of Trade and Industry led the Corporation's team to the NEB and then to Newbury Labs. The result, it has been claimed, is that the BBC selected the NewBrain to be the BBC Micro but dropped it when it became clear the machine would not be ready for the proposed October 1981 broadcast of Hands on Micros.
The NewBrain was well-placed to become the BBC Micro, having been first promoted early in 1980, while planning work on Hands on Micros was under way. But if the NewBrain's unsuitability was to force the BBC to look elsewhere, it happened very early on. BBC documentation shows Acorn's Atom follow-up, the Proton, had been chosen to be the BBC Micro by February 1981, long before Hands on Micros' scheduled appearance.
A variety of add-on units were promised
There is no specific evidence to suggest the BBC selected the NewBrain and then dropped it. Quite the reverse: the NewBrain's spec needed to be changed to meet the BBC's requirements. The hardware had to be tweaked. It seems likely it was this effort that stopped Newbury bringing the NewBrain M, MB and MBS to market in 1980 and perhaps even 1981.
Newbury's sale of the NewBrain to Grundy on September 1981 suggests that it was indeed unable to bring the machine to market, and that fresh minds - and more money - would be required to do so.
Grundy had both, and was able to finalise the development and begin manufacturing the machine. At long, long last, the NewBrain was launched, in July 1982.
Next page: NewBrain released
Re: Further reading...
>Sounds like GBS didn't really know how to develop, sell or support the NewBrain. But then it was the early days of microcomputers..
Yeah. These days you don't have to suffer shoddy support, release dates slipping or broken promises. Manufacturers have learnt so much over the years.
Pricey back then..
The ZX81 was only £50 when my dad bought me one, and the Spectrum £130 (sold the '81 for £40, added pocket money, and parental contribution). The £200+ jobbies were way out of our league, used to see ads of it thinking, wow, a proper-ish keys AND an LCD, cool! I hated the BBC Micro, because if was just so expensive at £400, had great graphics and sound, and I never did own one, ever. Oh and the only chap in the class who had one was held up as being the only one with a 'professional' dad. Enough envy there to turn one a very deep shade of green indeed!
Fascinating article though, but the idea of trying to load 256kb off tape! Rough guess, a 3k bit per sec baud turbo loader could manage it in about half an hour. Did disk drives ever come out for the New Brain?
Re: Really good article series...
Oooh! oooh! —Do one on the Oric. It never gets a nostalgic mention.
Promise and potential but management handicapped
Basil Smith and Mike Wakefield joined the project after the design was well underway; something I didn't realise until many years later.
The design for the BBC micro was the Newbury NewBrain. The change in software and hardware, particularly adding colour was the result of Acorn actively bidding for the contract. Newbury did not supporting the bidding for the contract and Acorn at least had a working and commercial computer in the Atom. Newbury, then Grundy Business Systems, had only the battery powered Vestic machine with built in ROMS. Management did not want to supply the BBC micro and didn't try to get the contract.
The battery power machine relied upon CMOS components and was never made. The battery module for the Model AD would run for about an hour. Some owners replaced as many of the components, in the AD, as they could and achieved longer battery life.
In 1982 there were plans for modular cases to house the modules and expansion boards. This wasn't happening so the tower shown was made as a stop gap. As even these didn't appear in numbers loans of machines to software companies where supplied with an 'oil rig' tower to support the monitor with floppy disc controller and 96K expansion module in slim brown cases held together by locking keys. The brick at the back was the multiple power supply for four modules (the computer/keyboard module being one of them). This was so over engineered that it would also run a pair of 3.5" floppy drives (in house custom alteration).
Disc controllers and expansion modules were sold in limited numbers. All the components for a production run where supplied but there were hold ups in soldiering the boards. Tradecom battled to get these as the contractor hadn't been paid, but had been making a little return selling completed but untested disc controllers. The same contractor also was sitting on components to built NewBrains - which Tradecom then got completed. Existing customers wanted the expansion boards. New customers were waiting for the arrive of the long promised expansions. It would have cost very little to have turned the stock of components into machine for the Christmas market.
The plug was pulled in August 1983, but heralded the collapse of the other microcomputer companies in in 82/83 leaving Acorn, Sinclair and the late to market Amstrad as games machines with business having moved to the IBM PC.
There were many comments in the press and from people who didn't own a NewBrain about the keyboard. The keys have a full bounce and metal springs mounted on a metal plate. The spacing is exactly the same as on professional typewriters but the keys are straight, not tapered as used on most keyboards at the time. The small return key and short space bar where the only compromise for lack of space. There were many discussions about replacing the caps with ones that filled up the gap between keys so they looked 'proper'.
Cambridge based development gave overoptimistic delivery dates for modules but Teddington marketing gave unrealistic dates. At least they didn't stock pile customer's money months in advance.
Given the described history of UK then Holland, I'm curious where the model on Page 1 was destined. It seems to have a French AZERTY keyboard.
Speaking of keyboards, I think people sometimes underestimate the effect they had. I know that for many of my friends one of the major deciding factors for going the BBC Micro route was that it had a "proper" keyboard, not a chiclet-style one.