My first computer: The BBC Micro

The granddaddy of them all?

The granddaddy of them all?

This article was first published in January 2002 as part of our 'Technologies That Time Forgot' series. We are running the full series again to mark the recent re-birth of Commodore. Parts one and two featured the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the Acorn Electron. Here in part three of the series Joey Gardiner and Ian Jones reminisce about the BBC Micro.

Joey Gardiner writes:

Once again Technologies that Time Forgot takes you back to an age where children's programme Grange Hill was the best soap opera on television and New Romantics were ushering in an era of electro-pop, bright colours and madly coiffured hair that was to last, well, far too long.

However, by the look of the particular technological toreador we are dusting off today, you would have thought it hailed from an earlier era, decked as it was in the browns and beiges redolent of the late seventies. But this old-skool style belied the visionary technology under the yellowing-cream cover, for this was the computer that was to define computing in the eighties.

Not only that, this was one of the main machines to inspire a generation of children to become programmers, and bridge the divide between serious functionality and the kind of fun that 12 year olds wanted.

It was the granddaddy of them all, none other than the redoubtable BBC Micro.

The BBC Micro was first conceived of as a response to the wide public interest aroused by BBC documentary The Mighty Micro about the impending computer revolution.

The BBC Computer Literacy Project (public service broadcasting, say no more) needed a well-built, high-spec computer to base itself around. Thus the BBC Micro was commissioned.

Early discussions with Clive Sinclair were fruitless, when the machine he offered failed to match the rigorous specifications (Spectrum aficionados take note), and eventually only a last minute cobble offered by a small team from a small company - Acorn - fitted the bill.

In 1981, the BBC Micro models A and B were released and quickly became the basic (perhaps I should say BASIC) fare of schoolchildren up and down the land. The government agreed to pay half the price of sales to schools, ensuring the successful decking of computer rooms across the UK with the friendly Beeb.

In the early eighties the UK had more PCs per person than any other country in the world. But the BBC's success was not just down to its 'high level' support. The machine had a charm all of its own but stood out more than anything because of some brilliant engineering.

Despite the fact that model A gave you just 16K of RAM for your £299 (model B had twice the capacity, for another £100), the simplicity of the programming language - BBC BASIC - meant users were quickly won over.

Also, compared to the alternatives at the time, it offered a surprisingly nippy 2Mhz chip and a full size, adult keyboard - less nostalgia value than the 'dead flesh' feel Sinclair had gone for, with its post-ZX81 Spectrum, but far more practical to use.

It enabled users to make the BBC do an incredible range of jobs, with minimum effort. I know of one user who until very recently was still getting his BBC to download share prices off teletext at home - no great shakes in 2002 but a revolution in 1983.

At work and at school the variety of ports and their ability to be manipulated for different functions meant the machine was perfect for monitoring science experiments, or - to quote an example from someone working at the BBC itself - checking the power on the re-chargeable batteries.

The sheer practicality of it kept it working for many people long past the time it should have been safely gathering dust in attics.

But of course for all those of us who didn't really desire the BBC for its, ahem, educational properties (although that's what we told our parents) the games were a joy. Titles like Rocket Raid, Chuckie Egg, Arcadians and Meteor are still incredibly evocative to anyone who had the pleasure of a BBC in their formative years.

Ian Jones writes:

My own experience was with a BBC Model B, which my parents bought for the whole family. I remember the electric anticipation as my dad and I drove to Watford Electronics to buy the fabled machine. The journey home took a lifetime but finally we plugged it into the telly, wrestled with a tape recorder lead which seemed to have far too many connectors, and finally flicked that reassuringly solid black switch on the back of our very own BBC B. What followed was a perfect introduction to computers that has been with me ever since. It didn't work.

The machine powered on OK but it took a while to realise that loading the 'Welcome' tape required a superhumanly sensitive touch on the tape player's volume control. Finally I managed to get it to load and enjoyed such pleasures as Biorhythms, which told me exactly what phase of physical and mental health I was in.

Strangely it never understood the fact that I had a dead leg from sitting on the floor for too long and a headache from a combination of tape recorder grief and irradiating my brain for six hours in front of a 24-inch TV screen.

Almost a year later, I had pleasured myself to the delights of Killer Gorilla, Defender, Arcadians, Escape from Moonbase Alpha and of course the text-only and insanely hard Acornsoft adventure classic, Philosophers Quest.

But now it was time to quite literally take the lid off the true potential of the BBC Micro. We spent a small fortune on a double disk drive from Viglen and an Opus Disk Operating System. Once back at home, the lid was off, and my dad and I were sawing away at one of the main circuit board chips after realising it was only 'plug and play' if you didn't mind cutting processor legs and soldering wires to them.

This was computing at its most raw and I will be forever thankful for the experiences it gave me. It didn't just give me computer games, it gave me my first steps in BASIC, Pascal (we bought the Computer Concepts chip) and machine code programming. And now, looking back almost 20 years, I can still hear that special symphony - the unbelievably noisy 5 1/4 inch drives competing with the hammering of the Epson LX86, only bettered by the reassuring 'ber... beep' of the good old Beeb powering up (which, incidentally, took approximately 1.5 seconds - quicker than your monitor took to warm up - PC makers please take note).

The BBC B was followed up - somewhat belatedly - in 1985 by the BBC B+ and eventually the BBC Master, which both added extra graphics and extra memory. However, despite the fact these both achieved healthy sales, the zenith of the Beeb's influence had undoubtedly passed.

Acorn tried to combat falling sales by launching the high-powered Archimedes in 1987 but this also floundered because of lack of software. However, the RISC chipset it had spent millions creating for it became the basis for another great success, ARM, which was spun off in 1990.

Acorn itself was bought by Olivetti and limped on until 1999, nearly two decades after the first BBCs were built. For many who remember the original BBC machines it was an ignominious end for the company that created the most influential UK computer of all time.

I dare you to disagree.