Acorns land at Bletchley Park

Acorns land at Bletchley Park

Summary: Acorn was a star of British tech in the 1980s, but faded as IBM took hold. Take a tour of the computer maker's lineup in this dig through the archives at the National Museum of Computing

TOPICS: After Hours

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  • Acorn System 1

    Acorn Computers was one of the bright stars in British IT in the 1980s, but faded with the onslaught of IBM PC compatibles. Uniquely, it had one ace up its sleeve — the ARM chip architecture, which has gone on to take over the mobile world. Follow the rise, fall and rise again of this unique Cambridge institution, courtesy of the National Museum of Computing's collection at Bletchley Park.

    Acorn's first product was the Acorn System 1, based on an automated cow feeder designed by Sophie (nee Roger) Wilson as part of her degree course at Cambridge in 1977. The System 1 (pictured) took shape over the summer of 1978, and Acorn Computers Ltd was formed in November that year in order to sell it.

    Built on two standard Eurocard-sized boards, the System 1 had a 1MHz 6502 processor, 1,152 bytes of RAM, 512 bytes of ROM, a 300bps cassette interface, and it cost £70.

    An emulator and much more information is available here.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

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  • Acorn System 234

    Acorn's next systems were all rack-mounted Eurocard systems. They added various combinations of video, memory and floppy disk interfaces to the standard CPU, which was still a 1MHz 6502, but with a larger ROM containing more firmware. Called Acorn Systems 2 through 5, prices varied from £320 to around £2,000. The System 2 was released in 1980, and the System 5 in 1983.

    The most interesting was Acorn System 3, which formed the basis for the Acorn Atom, the company's first mass-market computer. The System 3 was also the basic development system within Acorn and hosted most of the hardware and software work on the BBC Micro.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

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  • Acorn Atom

    Acorn's first home computer, the Atom, came with 2KB of RAM and 8KB of ROM, optional colour graphics, Basic, and a proper keyboard. With a kit price of £120 and a built price of £170, it didn't cost much more than the same keyboard sold as a stand-alone accessory for the earlier rack-based systems. A disk drive, costing twice the price of the computer, was not popular.

    Introduced in 1980, the Atom (pictured) lasted until made redundant by the Electron in 1983 — but not before it had been given Acorn's first Econet networking system.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

    See more photo galleries on ZDNet UK.

Topic: After Hours

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • As a schoolkid I started saving for an Acorn System One, but I actually ended up getting an Acorn Atom the Christmas after it was released. I taught myself to program in Basic and 6502 Assembler on the Atom (which I still have) using the excellent manual that came with it, "Atomic Theory and Practise". I also learned Forth on it.

    As a member of the South Yorkshire Personal Computer Group I was also in the lecture hall when somebody from Acorn came to demonstrate the BBC. I can clearly remember him smoking away whilst showing what it could do in a very casual off-hand fashion. There was a stampede at the end of people wanting to place orders for the machine.

    Very fond memories.

    I'm surprised you didn't show the Archimedes though.
  • Fond memories - so much better than many of the alternatives of the day!
  • No mention of the Archimedes or the RiscPC, GUI using ARM Chips back then

    Considering the interest in the Raspberry Pi and the fact that RiscOS, Acorn's first WYSIWYG drag and drop interface was one of the next big leap.. Why start a story and finish it before the end. Acorn was ARM, and I think we all know where that is today.

    I moved from the Electron to the BBC B and then to the Acorn Archimedes and then to a duel CPU (StrongARM 200 Risc) and Intel Pentium 100 two slice RiscPC back in the early 90's and became an Acorn Dealer back then. I have come full circle and now have a Raspberry Pi running RiscOS once more sitting next to my Xeon Intel Powered PC.

    Tom (Electro Technical Officer BP Shipping)
    Tom Waller