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Acorn was founded in 1978 by Clive Sinclair colleague Chris Curry and his friend Hermann Hauser. The company was actually called CPU Ltd, with Acorn Computer Ltd the trading name for its PC business — CPU also had a consultancy business.
The £80 Acorn Microcomputer was launched in early 1979 for engineering and laboratory use. Four more iterations followed, with the last Acorn rack-mounted product being 1983's System 5. Meanwhile, Sinclair had launched his ZX80 system, prompting Curry to target the home computing market with the Atom (which is unrelated to Intel's processor family of the same name). Acorn then wanted to provide a 16-bit successor to the Atom, and found a willing partner in the BBC.
The BBC was keen on launching a computer literacy drive, as were the Department of Industry and the Department of Education and Science. Throughout the 1980s, the Acorn-made BBC Micro series of microcomputers became a British staple, and Acorn became extremely profitable.
At the same time, Acorn decided to create a business computer using its existing technology. This became the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM) project, which now manifests itself in the architecture used in almost all mobile phone processors today. However, Acorn's Electron — a competitor to Sinclair's ZX Spectrum — suffered supply issues in the Christmas 1983 period, and the company was also spending much of its resources on development. Acorn's finances hit a rocky period and, in 1985, the Italian firm Olivetti took a controlling share.
Acorn went on to work alongside Apple on ARM, which was spun off in 1990. It also enjoyed some success in the set-top box market, and had an educational computer joint venture with Apple called Xemplar. However, ARM became much more successful. The Acorn brand disappeared in 1999, as the company became a silicon developer for digital TVs.
Photo credit: Stuart Brady