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 ABC

    The Acorn Business Computer was the first sign that even when Acorn could build computers, it had the greatest trouble marketing them.

    The Acorn Business Computer (ABC) was a BBC Micro with more memory and a selection of second processors, such as the Z80 or 80286, packaged in a large monitor. Launched after the IBM PC, it's hard at this distance to understand the logic of a computer based on an educational machine, with many incompatible variants, but priced as a business computer.

    In fact, the ABC was never really launched at all, and the entire range was cancelled before any were delivered to customers — although one was rebranded as the Cambridge Workstation to appeal to engineers. It didn't.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

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  • Acorn Communicator

    The Acorn Communicator was a computer with a built-in modem, word processor and spreadsheet, and it was based on the 16-bit 6502 variant, the 65816. It had from 128KB to 512KB of memory,  reused the Electron's Aberdeen ASIC, and had no storage devices. Instead, Acorn produced — or was going to produce, it's not clear which — a stand-alone file server that connected via Econet.

    The Communicator (pictured) saw few sales. It is reputed to have been used by Pickfords and Italian travel agents as a Prestel/Viewdata terminal for access to early online systems. Nothing came of Acorn's plans to sell it to other companies to badge as the mainstay of early networked office systems.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

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  • Acorn Master

    In an attempt to prolong the life of the BBC Micro, Acorn repackaged, upgraded and expanded the design with a slightly faster processor, more memory, and a wide variety of configurations, all under the 'Master' brand.

    In play from 1986 to 1993 — not bad for an 8-bit computer — the Master line included versions that ran videodisc software, which were at the heart of the Domesday project. Other versions had 80186 co-processors that could run the GEM operating environment.

    The last one to make any sort of an impact was the Master Compact, which had a 3.5-inch disk drive, a mouse and Acorn's first GUI. This was sufficiently different from the BBC Micro to exclude it from almost all existing software, and by this point nobody was much interested in developing new software for such an archaic architecture.

    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