Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/20/ft_bbc_micro/

BBC Micro creators meet to TRACE machine's legacy

IF .. THEN .. ELSE

By Tony Smith

Posted in Hardware, 20th March 2008 12:28 GMT

Forgotten Tech The brains behind the must-have home computer of the early 1980s, the BBC Micro, will gather today to catch up and reminisce about a time when Britain led the way in the domestic computing revolution.

Acorn Computers co-founder Hermann Hauser and Acorn hardware designer Steve Furber - now ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester - will be joined by erstwhile BBC staffers John Radcliffe and David Allen at the Science Museum.

Furber was the BBC Micro's principal designer. Allen was Producer of the BBC TV show Micro Live, part of the Corporation's Computer Literacy Project, itself an attempt to get Britons up to speed with the silicon revolution and the raison d'etre of the BBC Micro itself. Radcliffe was Executive Producer overseeing the Project as a whole.

Acorn BBC Micro

Acorn's BBC Micro: 32KB memory lane

Acorn developed the machine that would become the BBC Micro as the successor to its Atom home computer. Dubbed the Proton, the prototype was show to Radcliffe and other BBC executives who were looking for a machine on which to found the Computer Literacy Project. They had approached other UK computer makers, including Sinclair Research and Dragon Data, but found the Proton more to their liking.

The BBC Micro made it to market in late 1981 in two forms the Model A and the Model B. The B was the most desirable but more expensive of the two, with 32KB of memory to the A's 16KB, and a wider range of graphics modes, making it better for games.

That cemented its popularity among hordes of schoolboys of the time, who quickly cottoned on to the pleasures of zapping aliens or accruing wealth in Elite in preference to programming. So while the BBC's Project may not have engendered computer literacy in the way the Corporation originally hoped, it nonetheless had the desired effect of creating a new generation of computer nerds.

The BBC Model B was markedly more sophisticated than its early rivals, thanks to its capabilities, powerful version of the Basic language, port array and full-size keyboard. But the BBC logo carried a lot of weight with purchasing parents hoping the machine would prove more educational to their offspring than a source of entertainment.

Acorn BBC Micro advert

Selling the BBC Micro
Click for full-size image
Scan courtesy 80s Actual Technology

Those of us with folks who couldn't see it - or couldn't afford it - got Sinclair ZX-81s or Spectrums, Commodore Vic-20s or C-64s, or Dragon 32s for Christmas instead.

Both BBC Micros were powered by a CMOS 6502A processor clocked at 2MHz. Later models used the 6512A at the same clock frequency. The units had a modulator to allow them to be connected to a TV, though the Model B also had an RGB monitor port - the machine was often seen in UK schools sat beneath a Microvitec Cub monitor.

The graphics modes ran from 160 x 256 up to 320 x 256 640 x 256, with two to eight colours depending on the mode, some of which were text-only.

The computers used cassette tapes for storage - as all other home computers of the time did - but Acorn offered an optional floppy drive adaptor, and the truly wealthy could purchase a hard drive adaptor, connectable to a choice of 5MB, 10MB and 20MB drives.

Also optional was Econet, Acorn's 100Kb/s networking technology.

Ah, those were the days... when my-computer-is-better-than-your-computer fights were far more interesting than they are today. Taking the mickey out of Apple fanboys? How tough is that?

Acorn revamped the Model B as the B+64 in mid-1985, taking the memory to 64KB and adding the aforementioned 6512A CPU. It was followed by the 128KB B+128, but this was overshadowed in February 1986 by the introduction of the chunkier BBC Master, which also contained 128KB of memory and was the start of a line that ran for three more years, until 1989 when it was effectively superseded by the Acorn Archimedes, which had been launched in 1987.