The brains behind the must-have home computer of the early 1980s, the BBC Micro, will gather today to catch up and reminisce about a time when Britain led the way in the domestic computing revolution. Acorn Computers co-founder Hermann Hauser and Acorn hardware designer Steve Furber - now ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at …
was a great game on the BBC B.
I seem to recall that sending 'call!-4' to network machines was great fun too!
I remember those days, during the early 80s, when instead of hanging around street corners and being rowdy I would spend my Friday evenings round at a friend's house playing Elite* all night. He had a Model B with the standard cassette drive and it would take about fifteen or twenty minutes for the game to load.
Because of the frankly weird place to put the Break key, our alloted 1 hour at a time play would be forfeited if we accidentally hit it, as the game would have be loaded again. Then my friend got a disk drive and we marvelled at the ultra short load times of about 10 seconds!
I never had my own "Beeb" but would still spend hours making Repton 3 maps on bits of graph paper before taking them round and "programming" them.
Last I heard, the friend's Beeb was still going strong up until a few years ago, when someone spilt red wine over it.
A very very great computer!
(*I never made it to "Elite", only "Deadly", though I did do the Constrictor mission!)
It was never a "home" computer
It was a school computer. Real people couldn't afford to actually buy one of those. And an extra telly for it to run against as well.
long for the days of old
I remember the days at school spent loading early versions of cad software... printing dot-matrix versions... rattle rattle whizzz... rattle rattle whizz... turn over the floppy for the 'other side'... sigh
rooms full of networked BBC's which we used to programme turtle devices... sending naughty messages via the echo commands and wondering at the geek power which did fancy things with assembler. Hey I even remember writing some assembler... for some fancy function or two.
Then along came the Achimedes... doing my 'GCSE Business Studies' course on the nice devices and spending more time helping as a techie than actually doing my trivial boring work. Three button mice... nice software installations and wow music! (popcorn was popular back then)... The poor Business studies teacher had no clue... she was the old school 'Typewritters are best' variety. I certainly remember some nice DTP packages; and can put myself back into the computer room at Corfe Hills... That must be what... '89 -91... and Mr Cornick the BBC Master Guru.
"The graphics modes ran from 160 x 256 up to 320 x 256, with two to eight colours depending on the mode, some of which were text-only."
Nah, Mode 0 had 640x256 for graphics. Mode 3 was the 640x200 text mode. 2 colours! Great days!
I remember using these at school! Not cutting edge graphics, but still pretty awesome for the time...
By the way, i'm 24. The time was 1997.
Pedantic, I may be
But the highest resolution for the two colour mode 0 was 640 by 256.
Still have one - how retro am i?
The Beeb could do up to 640x256, giving a true 80 column mode for text, as could the *cough* Acorn Electron... which I bought for said reason.
I was crap at Elite
But the BBC did kick-start my entire career, as that's what I learned to first program on.
Our school still had them in 1994 and that's what I did my GCSE Computer Science project on. It helped that my mum worked at a school and could "borrow" one for me to have at home.
<Runs off to search Ebay for one>
Best 8-bit machine ever?
In my opinion, the BBC Micro Model B was probably the best 8-bit machine ever made. It had a very good keyboard (virtually every other rival machine of the day had a far worse keyboard), tightly written OS, a good sound system, a superb BASIC for the day (far better than the Spectrum or C64) and ran faster than pretty well any other 8-bit machine of its time. The US 8-bit equivalents (Commodore 64 and Apple II) were quite poor in comparison really.
It's only downer - and one Acorn never fixed in its lifetime - was the price. It just never budged from 399 pounds for the Model B (yes, 399 pounds can buy you a quad core 64-bit monster desktop nowadays). The UK market was very price sensitive and Acorn just put the blinkers on and never dropped the price, not even when sales began to fall. It's why it was never as popular as the vastly inferior Spectrum (which was a pitiful machine really, but it was very cheap, which attracted a lot of users and hence a lot of games for it - a virtuous circle indeed and one Acorn never cottoned onto).
Yes, I moved onto the Archimedes afterwards and that, again, was a stunning machine for the late 80's (the first mass-produced 32-bit RISC-based machine in the world) - again a superbly written OS, but yet again overpriced and ultimately unable to compete on both price and speed once the PC world caught onto 32-bits in a big way a few years after the Archimedes launched. The Archimedes did have one lasting innovation though - the ARM chip, which is now ubiquitous in mobile gadgets everywhere. A great RISC chip to program on, IMHO.
Oh the memories...
The days when I wandered around with a school bag full of boxes of 5.25" floppy disks, a stack of fanfold printout, and a copy of the BBC Mater (Next after the model B, with software in ROM and numeric keypad) manual, and probably an Usbourne coding book or two.
Picking the locks on teachers desk to get the NetNurse disk, judiciously *unproting, watching the keyboard buffer remotely to get the admin password, getting super user status. Getting caught. Getting kicked out of school. Oh yes indeed my friend, those were indeed the days.
Being allowed back in, abusing the modem to dial into MicroNet over premium rate gateways, getting kicked out again...
Fond fond memories.
Terriby geeky, but...
At the risk of sounding like a total nerd/geek, the BBC B would actually support a resolution of 640*256 (monochrome), "Mode 0".
It took a completely scary 16k of your 32k RAM.
My brother and I convinced my parents to buy a Model B as an 'educational' tool... amazingly enough, looking back, it probably was highly beneficial to our education, as disappointed by the lack of games we were allowed to buy, we turned our hands to creating our own.
The BASIC programming language was easy to pick up and powerful in teen's hands... I probably learnt more crouching over that flickering screen than I did in ten years of Computer Science.
A special mention should be made to the excellent manual that came with it - I still have it on my bookshelf, highly dog-eared but I can't bring myself to bin it (much to the annoyance of successive girlfriends!). The simple concept of pixel graphics (and sprites) opened my mind in ways that my friends could not understand... geeky perhaps, but such a good education!
Elite and Repton 3 were truly astonishing games - expanding the possibilities of computer games beyond the quick five minute alien-bash to the concept of exploring fictional worlds, and user generated content, respectively.
Admittedly the BBC Micro holds a special place in my heart because for many years it was the only computer I had access to - I envied my friends with more games-orientated machines (or even, wonder of wonders, an Archimedes with the beautiful graphics and music of Lemmings...)
I was Elite!
Great machine and fun times. I started on a friends ZX-80, then I got a B.
I thought Mode 0 offered greater resolution than that and Mode 2 offered 32 colours, but it has been some years since I used one.
I remember learning to use interrupt programming to get it to ply music while the tape loaded.
I don't know kids today, they've got it all.......
My second computer (the first was a Vic-20) was the BBC Master 128. I used to laugh at my mere mortal friends and their puny 32K or 64K memory! Not sure where it is now... but I suspect it's still underneath the stairs in my parent's house.
The best version of Chuckie egg was (and still is from all the versions I've played) the BBC Micro version.
On a slightly more serious note, I bet there are one or two BBCs still in use controlling things with the User Port.
The maximum resolution was not 320 x 256, but 640 x 256 in 2 colours.
Also, the 6845 CRTC video chip could be made to do various fancy tricks with interlaced scans, high res gap modes and so on - I know, I programmed it.
Don't forget the fantastic Exile or Revs. Dogfight though was great fun, I personally liked flying into the valley at the bottom of the screen to come out at the top...
I still have my Beeb somewhere, with the floppy drive, it still works as well :)
Better resolution than that...
The maximum resolution on the Beeb was 640x256x2 colours (MODE 0), not 320x256 (MODEs 1 & 4)
Fabulous machine. I still use one, for games mostly
BBC model B
Great piece of kit. We even wired in a 5.25 floppy disc drive which I recall required you to make modifications to the BBC mainboard itself. Sadly (I'll get flamed for this) I sold my BBC Micro on Ebay several years ago now. Despite being stored in less than optimal conditions (some of the plastic chassis had gone mouldy) for 20 years the beast still fired up a treat, including discs. I'd like to see a current generation desktop PC do that.
 obviously 20 years from now of course.
I still have my BBC Model B micro, a tape drive and all the casettes. Still, I rarely actually use it these days due to having discovered BBC emulators that let me play what I want on Linux. Citadel was one of my faves, in addition to Elite.
Although for multiplayer entertainment, 'Way of the Exploding Fist' and a couple of joysticks...
Just how is this Forgotten Tech? :-)
We had a whole room of BBCs at school - everyone was playing Elite and whenever you were about to dock with a spacestation you'd have to find whoever had the floppy disk last and put it in your drive.
Oh and that's "British Broadcasting Corporation" microcomputer - IIRC some Swedish firm had BBC as a trademark and our BBC hadn't bothered trademarking its own acronym, so they had to rename the machine.
PS for those suffering Elite withdrawal symptoms, Oolite for Mac/Linux is the next best thing.
Aliens, because that's who we were zapping in our Cobra Mk IIIs.
Brings a nostalgic tear to my aging eye...
When you achieved it, your status was '- - - E L I T E - - -'
Pedant Mode On
I hate to be the pedant here, but it never ceases to amaze me how even professionals fail to get the system specs of BBC Micros correct.
The original CPU in the Model A and B was a 6502A, but it was not a CMOS version. It was the standard version, complete with undocumented instructions as used by so many games. The CMOS version wasn't used until the B+ and the Master series wherein compatibility issues arose as said instructions didnt do anything in the CMOS version.
The CPU used in the B+ and Master series is a 65C12, not a 6512A. This differs very slightly from the 6502 by a minor instruction set addition and the CMOS issues as noted.
A second processor option was made that used a 65C02 or 65C102 processor that is essentially the same, but this was never fitted as standard.
The maximum graphics resolution is 640x256 not 320x256. Though this was only in 2 colours (mode 0).
I will say El Reg have managed to avoid the usual mistake of claiming the vast array of wierd clock speeds that usually claimed with the BBC Micros. I've seen claims of 3, 3.5 and even 4Mhz for various different models. No BBC Micro's main CPU clock speed ever went above 2Mhz.
You may now return to your regularly scheduled pre-Good-Friday Thursday lunchtime.
Ok, so the beeb wasn't my first...
...but you could only loosely call the ZX81 a computer!
I still have my Beeb, which was a Model A which I upgraded myself except for the Solidisk DFS which was done by some idiot in Hornchurch. Haven't used it in 10 years, but it was the reason why I became such an Acorn enthusiast in the first place. A real shame it all went the way it did.
The national museum of computing
All yuo sad geeks (myself included) who are finding the naotalgia welling up inside them would do well to visit the national Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park http://www.tnmoc.org/
Last time i visited they had a room full of 'old' computers which were all powered up and open to the public to fiddle with! needless to say i went straight to the BBC and found myself, almost automatically, tapping in the wonderfully useful 'Hello World' program... and then naturally went around all the other machines trying the same...
I remember Micro Live, in fact it gave me the basis for one of the programs i submitted for my Computer Studies O level - (remember O levels? back when you had to actually learn stuff!) It was a simple game involving a series of platforms and ladders and some dropping bombs.. or something like that...
Still have one and a bag full of tapes
Hours spent writing code out of a magazine to have you're own modded maze of pacman *cough* sorry, snapper :D
Or custom space invaders - those were the days, game mods were written from the code up, not in some app. =p
@ Richard Lloyd
"It's why it was never as popular as the vastly inferior Spectrum (which was a pitiful machine really, but it was very cheap, which attracted a lot of users and hence a lot of games for it - a virtuous circle indeed and one Acorn never cottoned onto)."
Oooi! Lay-off the Speccy. That 'pitiful' machine launched more careers in computing than Aunties elitist and outrageously overpriced box ever did.
That said, the BBC was a very-very good machine. I certainly wouldn't have said no to one at the time.
Best games on the Beeb? Elite and Castle Quest.
Hey El-Reg, how about a Forgotten Tech feature on *best ever* 8-bit - the Sam Coupe?
One of my schoolmates had a BBC B with cassette drive. We dreamed of elite with a disk drive - all those extra ships you could see....
If memory serves me the Met Office were still using BBC Masters to display rainfall radar pictures in some of their out-stations in 1996. Anyone know when they were retired ?
Shows what you can do with only a little memory and processing power. These days you need a gig just to create a word doc.
One evening a college mate showed off his new BBC micro to us. But he had no games for it. A quick trip to the newsagent's supplied a mag with a type-it-yourself copy of the "star trek" classic for BBC Basic, printed in very tiny print over six pages. Six of us stayed up all night taking turns at the keyboard to type the bloody thing in, finishing at around 6 AM. Then an hour's debugging to find the typos and we were GO.
Some hours later, having exhausted the novelty value and with the pubs being open we asked him for his cassette drive to back up the nice, shiny program we'd worked so hard typing in.................!!
Never since in the field of IT have I heard so much invective directed at one person.
Ah, the beeb
My BBC Master 128, with metalbox Microvitec CUB monitor, 5.25" AND 3.5" FDDs, and an Acorn Music 500 (one of the rare ones that actually worked on the master) is still pride of palce in my old computers collection. I still fire up the music 500 every once in a while, because one of my mates is into his electronic music and likes sampling it.
The other day I managed to hook it up to my windows box via a serial lead and can upload and download disk images. This means that I can use the music 5000 software, rather than AMPLE.
I sometimes feel I need to get out more...
The BBC Micro was ace, though admittedly it does say something about my Primary school that I was still using them in 1997, and when the new Acorn came in I had to teach all the teachers how to use the damn thing.
I still remember running about the school trying to find a formatted disk so I could save this program I'd spent most of the day typing (the rest of my class were not so good at maths, so the few of us that were could go and play "educational" games with the computers), and I couldn't find a disk anywhere. Then when I got one it corrupted overnight, damn old technology.
BBC Master version of Elite FTW !
Oh the hours of my life well spent playing Elite <sniff>
Other fond memories:
- Replacing the CMOS batteries in BBC Masters, 4 x AA Duracell batteries strapped together and plugged into the motherboard.
- Un-soldering the return key(s) switch and swapping it with a more useless key as I'd bashed it to pieces playing Positron
- Putting in volume control & headphone socket as the game noises used to drive my parents insane
- Using my Control IT box to rig my bedroom with boobie traps
- Howling with laughter at my friends C64 disc drive taking nearly as long as a cassette tape to load
- The teachers at school not having a clue how to use the suite of IT equipment we had
Oh and the games....
Still remember my setup:
BBC Master 128k
5 1/2" FDD
3 3/4" FDD
Espon FX-90 Dot Matrix Printer
Co-Processor (that I never used)
Control IT Box
Interword ROM Chip
The stuff dreams are made of....
<< leaves work to raid loft and find it all >>
Bigger and Better
I used to have a Torch. CP/M with a BBC hidden inside it and switchable. I even had a 20mb HD as well as 2 5.25 floppies. After that I had a Torch XXX Unix box which was wonderful, even the GUI. Shame there was no software to run on it.
Those were the days when I was Elite
I remember getting my BBC BD and playing elite, chuckie egg and revs... I even soldered the dip switch next to the keyboard which allowed you to speed up the stepper motor on the disc drive so you could load games faster... alas about 15 years ago my BBC's PSU bit the dust... I think I might check ebay and see if someone is selling one :-)
Hacking the User Port
In 1984, whilst attending Portsmouth ITeC, I built an interface to connect a BBC to a Commodore PET - how sad is that.
It worked though and allowed me to print from the BBC to the printer attached to the PET via the IEEE-488 bus. Crikey, how the memories flood back.
Errr, I am a real person, and I managed to beg a BBC from my parents (who are also real people who lived in a 3 bed semi).
I took great please in upgrading it to a 'B' myself, soldering iron in hand...
Ahhh... fond memories... The 6522 I/O controller, the 8271 disc controller chip which was almost impossible to find at times... Making funny shapes in mode7 with teletext graphics...
You know what, I'm gonna have to plug it in tonight!
(Anyone know the life expectancy of an 80 track 5.25" floppy?)
I assume this Science museum thing is the reason I couldn't get to the computer section on Saturday when I was up there... Grrrr!
we used them..
.. in my primary school most fun as a kid and really liked the clucky keyboard, now oddly i wanted for as long as i can remeber, one wonder where I can get one. (it can go with my collection of old and obsolete tech)
I loved the BBC B.
It made me the geek I am today! .. I visited the Bletchley Park museum recently where they have such a beast.... I could not help but type 10 print "hello", 20 goto 10... ah that was the first "program" I ever wrote.. I got better fortunately!. - I only made "Deadly" on Elite... still trying to make it to "Elite" on my PDA though!
Another joy of Econet, as discovered in my college in the late 1980's.. was the ability to Remote other BBC's... you could remotely load a simple program toa bbc without going near it, we had a whole classroom with "singing snowmen" ringing their bells to the bleepy tune version of jingle bells. It was awesome at the time, honest... we got much grief though.
Ah.... takes me back... good Old BBC Basic (and learning Pascal).
Btw, whatever happened to "Mack" of the bbc live computer program.. and did anyone ever get the "program" played at the end of some of the shows to ever load on their bbc? - they did do that.. 5 minuts of tv's screaming in bleeps and groans that you could record and load on your bbc (or like me Acorn Electron) at home.
Re: BBC model B (Robert Harrison)
"Great piece of kit. We even wired in a 5.25 floppy disc drive which I recall required you to make modifications to the BBC mainboard itself"
I remember a friend having an Amiga with a BBC emulator, and being prompted (perhaps reminded) to take an interest in his Dad's real Beeb because of it.
At my suggestion, we swapped the 5.25" drive with a 3.5" to see if a) it worked as a direct replacement on real kit, and b) it could then be read via the real floppy on the emulator. A(corn)DFS didn't mind, but A(riadne)DFS on the emulator wouldn't read the disks :(
...not put off in the slightest, we printed lots of source code to things and ported it all (although not to the emulated machine) by hand. Hih! Good Times!! :)
BBC Micro machine ahead of it's time and gave birth to many a career. Including mine.
As I sit here writing the I have on my office floor, an original domesday laserdisc player (actually have 3 of em here, but only one BBC Broadcasting Corporation one). One day I'll find a use for it.
BBC B, Z80 2nd CPU, Speech Syn, Expansion board
I had my BEEB max'ed out with a 15 ROM expansion board from Watford electronics, AMX Art, Spreadsheet, Wordprocessor, Speller and then venture to add a second CPU to run CP/M stuff too. This machine ran a small business and had some excellent games, Elite of course, Pole Position, Snapper, Chuckle Egg, just to mention a few.
So what were the machine code registers called again ? Sheila, Oscar?
Unfortunately my BEEB started to show it ages with random characters and overheating. It simply ran for 10 years nearly everyday so to be expected.
BeebEm on the Mac is actually pretty good but still it doesn't compare
Terribly geeky... Except mode 0-2 all used 20k of your 32, not 16...
Mode0 640x256 (2 colour) used 1 byte to store 8 pixels, so that's 640x256/8=20480
The clever bit about Elite is it ran the screen in two modes and actually switched the video controller (6845 I think) mid screen scan!
The wireframe space view was mode0 (640x256 2 colour), the radar at the bottom that needed colours was mode1 (320x256 4 colour).
@ Richard Lloyd & Anonymous Coward
"It's why it was never as popular as the vastly inferior Spectrum (which was a pitiful machine really, but it was very cheap, which attracted a lot of users and hence a lot of games for it - a virtuous circle indeed and one Acorn never cottoned onto)."
On the contrary, the ROM reserved most of the lowest 3.5 kb for itself, then the graphics modes (the joined up ones, not the two dedicated to text mode or the special teletext mode) took a further 10 kb if you were happy with a maximum of 4 colours, or 20 kb if you wanted to use all 8 available colour (TTL logic pervaded — even in "16 colour" mode you only actually had 8 to choose from, the other 8 palette entries alternated between two colours, ala the Spectrum's flash attribute). That could conceivably leave you with as little as 8.5 kb for your actual program, maximum 18.5 kb if you used one of the worse graphics modes.
Conversely, the Spectrum quickly standardised on a total of 48 kb RAM, with just less than 7 kb for the display — giving you a bit more than 41 kb for your program. That and the 3.5 Mhz Z80 was close enough in speed to the BBC's 2 Mhz 6502 (6502s being more clock efficient, though you really have to plan your program around the CPU addressing modes to quite a degree) to mean no significant difference in speed. The Spectrum succeeded because it was cheap and because the power of its CPU versus the complexity of manipulating its display (fewer kilobytes = less work) with its quantity of RAM produced a more powerful system. Youtube for Starstrike 2 or the Spectrum Chase HQ if you want to see the evidence.
The SAM Coupe is at the other end of the scale — it's CPU was far too puny compared to its framebuffer and it wasn't really possible to do any sort of smooth scrolling games particularly well. With the exception of Lemmings, which has a terrible frame rate, I don't think any exist.
There is one thing worth being nostalgic about on the BBC though — the RAM was clocked at 4 Mhz, i.e. twice the speed of the CPU (so that display fetches could be interleaved). It's hard to imagine that now.
No better machine
The BEEB was clearly the most useful teaching computer, possibly of all time.
It was accessible to people who were only prepared to learn Basic, and also to those who were prepared to use assembler. You could teach structured programming on it without any modification, but it also had languages like Forth, Pascal, Logo, and LISP available. Although the networking was rudamentry (and fantastically insecure), it allowed network file and print servers to be set up very easily and cheaply (proto-Ethernet CSMA/CD for PC's at the time cam in at hundreds of pounds per PC plus the fileserver). Although it did not run Visicalc or Wordstar (the business apps of the time), it was still possible to use View or WordWise, and ViewSheet, or ViewBase to teach office concepts. And it was possible to have the apps in ROM for instant startup.
I ran a lab of 16 BBCs to teach computer appreciation, and we had a network with a fileserver (and 10MB hard disk!), robot arms, cameras, graphic tablets, speech synths. speech recognition units, touch screens, pen plotters, mice and more. This was around 1983. Show me another machine of that time that could do all of this. And all for a cost of less than £25K (which included building custom furniture).
I wish that schools still used systems that empowered their staff to develop custom written software to teach their students. Nope. Only PC's.
I know many people (me included) who were prepared to pay for one of these machines at home. A classic.
Elite - Still the best game in the world... ever! And inspired so many others.
Revs - Crammond's forerunner to the hit GP series on the PC.
Teletext - Well it didn't invent it, but the Beeb's cracking 1K of memory mode 7 'text' mode was basically a result of the BBC's development of Teletext. Great for text only programs and games as it left a lot of spare memory. Possibly helped Teletext adoption in UK TVs.
Arm - Well, not in the Beeb, but the Beeb inspired Acorn to develop the Arm for the Archimedes, and we know what success the Arm has been.
Not to mention the amount of BBC TV shows that used BBC Micro graphics! (Doctor Who especially - lol!)
The Beeb had it's failures and was never a successful games machine (though had it's share of cracking games). As said it was sold as an educational machine, it was expensive, and it also was a bit too truthful about memory. i.e. The Beeb had 32k of RAM, free to use (the rest of the 64k of addressable memory was ROM). C64 also had similar free memory. One was sold on the amount of free memory, the other was sold more like most PCs are today. Obviously 64k sounded more attractive, even if you only got half of that to use just like the BBC ;-)
Aviator (another from Crammond).
The Sentinel - Crazy puzzle game, again from Crammond. Like Elite, proved to be a hit on other machines when ported.
I became Elite,but only after typing the cheat program out of Micro User,you could max all your weapons and make yourself Elite just by putting FF in the correct place.I also had a Music 500 which some kind soul upgraded to a Music 5000 by flashing the EEprom.
My BBC tended to lock up after being used for a while,and I had to keep a can of freeze-It around to spray on the ULA chip (I think).
Best Games for me were:-
Repton,Elite,Aviator, and a Fav of mine Cholo.
I also used to have an array of sideways roms,and also a a Replay board installed where you could press a button to freeze the action and could put cheats in that where printed in magazines - Ah Happy Days..
Isn't the BBC Micro just a synonym
for 'middle class'?
Yeah after all these years I'm still embittered and jealous of the owners of these lovely machines.