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 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

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  • BBC Micro

    The computer which made Acorn famous and Clive Sinclair mad.

    Originally called the Proton, this 2MHz 6502, 16 to 32KB BBC Micro computer (pictured) was designed to be sold alongside a BBC TV programme and was thus specified to include lots of interfaces, be very durable and be accessible and powerful to program. Although the higher-specified Model B cost £399, that version outsold the Model A — in total, some 1.5 million were sold.

    The system was extremely expandable, with room for extra application or language ROMs, a Tube interface for second processors and general purpose parallel, serial and analogue I/O. It also had Econet networking options and a speech synthesiser that used phonemes recorded by BBC newsreader Kenneth Kendall.

    Many BBC Micros are still in use today as process and industrial controllers, thirty years after the design was launched.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

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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