The BBC Micro – the machine which, along with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, epitomised the British home computer boom of the early 1980s – was launched 30 years ago tomorrow. Unveiled on 1 December 1981 as the Model A and Model B, the BBC Micro would go on to sell over 1.5 million units before the last of the line was discontinued …
My dad still has his Model A upgraded with an extra 16K of RAM :) We also had an A310, then an A5000 and finally a RiscPC.
upgrading A to B...
and the savy bought a model A and upgraded it to a B for only £60...
Mode 7: definitely a model A feature
I was one of those who took the 'savvy' route - not so much to save the 60 pounds, but more because I wanted a BBC so badly, and didn't want to wait the extra 6 months it would take to save from my Saturday job for a model B.
So I bought a model A and upgraded the RAM about 6 months later. I can assure the writer of the piece that mode 7, the 'Teletext' mode was present on the model A.
Actually, it was all but essential as even the least capable graphics modes used 10K of the just under 16K of available RAM.
My model A was an upgrade from a Microtan 65 - another interesting machine.
I cut my teeth on a beeb master 128, with music 500. I still have it along with the most recent addition to my collection - a master with a 512 board. The hours I spent playing Elite, I still have my commander file somewhere.
Brilliant computers and hats off to the BBC for going all out to educate the nation in this way. You wouldn't get Murdoch or ITV doing that sort of thing.
Ah, the Music 500/5000! The hours I spent doing stuff with that little genius of a box. An 8-channel polyphonic synth add-on which could make a decent stab at emulating the commercial (and expensive) synths of the time, albeit in a somewhat fuzzy and grainy way.
The Music 5000 software was great too. A FORTH-like music language that allowed data structures and access to the Beeb's hardware, and synth hardware driver in ROM, with a complete "studio" environment (including 8-channel mixer, text editor and rudimentary music notation GUI for entering and editing music, plus bucketloads of sounds) in disk-based overlays.
Brilliant! Thanks Chris Jordan and Hybrid Research for your efforts!
My 3rd Computer
Couldn't afford a BBC Micro, so had a 48K Spectrum at first. Then my Dad won an Apricot (remember those), and swapped it with a computer shop bloke he knew for a BBC B with just about every option available.
I was still using it in 1989 to type my girlfriend's (now wife) university dissertation.
Thanks for the memory.
the Acorn Atom and the BBC model B
aaaaaaaah the smell of slightly too hot electronics (on the Atom), 6502 assembler and the B's PIO port
happy times, indeed
The Beeb was just for rich kids
Please stop this absurd idea that the BBC "B" mattered.
There was the Spectrum and there was the Commodore-64, the Beeb along with the Tandy, Oric etc was just a peripheral machine, if it hadn't been for the BBC supporting it or some schools buying them no one would even remember them.
Nobody denies that the BBC "B" had some good things in it, like proper BASIC and a wide range of quality accessories and was a good bit of kit, but it was absurdly expensive and even many schools didn't buy them (mine didn't).
Re: even many schools didn't buy them
A friend of mine was a teacher at a school that decided Spectrums were better value than Beebs. They lasted one or two terms at most before falling to bits. They replaced them with Beebs that worked for years before becoming obsolete as PCs took over.
Steel case, proper keyboard, or plastic case with rubber chiclets, against 11-16 year olds: no contest.
By coincidence, I took my Beeb B to recycling only two weeks ago.
RE: The Beeb was just for rich kids
Too true! I had access to Micro Bs through work, but only a Speccie at home.
While there may have been more Spectrums sold than BBCs due to the difference in price, a quick look down the comments thread of this article shows that a significant percantage of the readership of El Reg remembers them fondly- Possibly an indication that kids brought up with one were more likely to develop a real understanding of computing and go into a related industry?
So it may not have been as common as the speccy, but I would argue it did help create a generation of British geeks, myself included.
They probably didn't matter to most home computer owners. But the success of Acorn ultimately lead to ARM and Pace. I suspect if you own a smartphone or have ever owned a Pace Sky receiver you should be thankful?
"Please stop this absurd idea that the BBC "B" mattered."
Please stop this absurd idea that the BBC "B" didn't matter.
Just because a lot of schoolkids played games on their Spectrums and C64s doesn't mean that there wasn't a hell of a lot of people who did get to use the BBC (and Electron) at every level of education (primary, secondary, tertiary, higher), in addition to the people who did have those machines at home, and no, not all of those people were "posh" or "rich", either.
The absurd notion that the BBC was only as influential as the Tandy and the Oric (which one?) is a bit like saying "That ARM chip led to nothing!" while stroking your smartphone - a clueless retort based on the kind of playground tribalism mentioned in the article that ignores the actual influence on society this specific technology had.
I would tend to agree with this.
It was a nice quality bit of kit. Though I always felt the specification was unbalanced for the time (great connectivity with ports galore but limited RAM/graphics capability) and it was too pricey.
Had the machine not had the backing of the BBC I strongly believe it would have languished like many others such as the Oric and Dragon 32.
However, I am more than happy with how it turned out. It was a fun time to be at school.
The best Computer Studies memory I have was when the BBC B's and Masters were all hooked up to a disk server (this was around 1986/87). We sneaked a look at the manual and found all these extra commands and programs that let you send messages to the screens of the other machines and watch what they were doing.
Oh the fun we had sending messages like "Hello Sexy!" to the girls and watching their amazed faces as such messages appeared then dissapeared. "Whats up Helen?" "Oh...nothing Sir...ermm nothing!" Watching the other kids trying to 'hack' the system and sending messages such as "ALERT ALERT SECURITY HAS BEEN NOTIFIED!"
The fun lasted several months till we realised our O level projects had to be handed in a few days later. I remember I wrote the BASIC code out by hand at home then typed it into the BBC B when I got to school at lunchtime. I managed a C pass. That was before exam passes were given out like sweets.
The Electrons did at least find a home in commercial environments as point to point terminals - relabelled as M2105's by BT, and used by Interflora until the very late 90's.
My brothers and I spent ages playing Exile, Elite and Revs, along with loads others, but those were the 3 I really remember spending time on. Praise the day dad got us a disk drive and we didnt have to be stuck on tape for 20 minutes waiting for the games to load!
I still have a couple of BBC Micro's in my loft. I might dig 1 out tomorrow to celebrate its 30th birthday. Fingers crossed they still work!
if they don't work it will only be the capacitors in the PSU.
I have distinct memories of running a BBC B with a dodgy psu, the startup procedure went something like this....
1. switch on
2. switch off
3. repeat 1 - 2 until a tone is heard from the speaker
4. leave turned on (with constant tone from speaker) and make a cup of coffee
5. turn off
6. turn on and marvel at the nice double beep that meant it had powered up properly
all in all it took about 10 mins per day to get that machine turned on
Yes I had a dodgy Beeb, It used to lock up all the time when it got hot, and I had to spray the ALU chip with some freeze stuff to unlock it. Mine was second hand but had a Econet connector so its past was probably a bit dubious,and I had aMusic 500 flashed to make it a 5000 and a Music keyboard built from a kit from Watford Electronics. Also had the sidways ram module in it and something called Replay that you could input cheat codes etc that were printed in magazines etc.
Still got a BeebEm emulator and a load of disk images,fire it up occasionaly to drive down memory lane...
This brings back many hours spent during school lunchtimes just dicking around with BASIC and trying to produce cool graphics.
I've still got all the BBC user guides and other books I had, wish I'd not got rid of the hardware now :-(
The Mighty Beeb.
Not the first computer I owned, which was ZX81, but I lusted after a Beeb.
I used them at school in the early 80's and spent every break time and lunch time in the computer room writing programs and playing games.
Eventually over time I owned and have built up a collection of most models of Acorn computers. In fact my loft is full and I get strange looks from the wife when I buy more stuff from car boots and Ebay.
Even though I have an Electron, Beeb model B (several), Master (currently setup and using), Master Compact, Archimedes 310 and a couple of A3000's my true love is the humble Acorn BBC Model B which excited me with it's versatility and potential.
The computer revolution in the 80's was a wonderfuly and exciting time and helped to launch both my career and many others into IT and helped to shape the technological future that we now live in.
Happy Birthday BBC Micro.
Someone is confused about the Model A and Teletext mode
The Model A *did* have video Mode 7 (Teletext mode), which was indispensable because it only consumed 1k. It was only the Electron which didn't, which promptly made the Electron unable to run vast swathes of BBC Micro software and killed its major selling point.
There's an upgraded Model A in the loft somewhere. I got it at the launch price. The memory got upgraded pretty swiftly. It later acquire a floppy drive at horrid expense - Acorn had used an Intel FDD controller chip that went out of production soon after launch, and the price climbed horribly. ISTR having to pay about £50 for mine. They keyboard was great, the only keyboard on a home machine in which you really could type. The other major upgrade was a Sideways RAM board, built from a design in one of the mags. I spent countless hours honing my 6502 assembler skills on that machine....
Oxford ACCU will toast this significant day tonight. I'll make them :-)
Far far happier days!
I remember the playground factions...
...and me standing on the sidelines with a quiet "Yay TRS-80!"
Re: I remember the playground factions...
I had a Dragon, so there were at least a handful of us to the hordes of Beeb/Speccy boys, but I know where you're coming from.
CoCo man here, myself. At least there was a Tandy shop in my town
I remember being astonished when I first encountered an IBM clone and had to go scrabbling around for an operating system floppy to get the thing booted.
My primary school was really proud in about 1988 or so (+- a couple of years) to get an RM Nimbus. Being used to the Speccy and a friends' spanking new CPC464 I was both pretty amazed that you had to boot from a floppy, and very confused at why I had to load a program to load a computer.
I was only 8 or 9 years old, after all.
I was just a tad too old...
I really wanted an Atom, or later a BBC B, but by that stage I was at Uni, and had discovered that I had easy access to Apple II's (well, ITT 2020s really, with that bizarre graphics conversion), a VAX, and several ICL mainframes. It was hard to justify spending £200 - £400 on a gadget of my own when I could do far more on the other systems. Maybe if I'd been a couple of years younger when they came out...
I ended up playing with 68K assembler on Force VME boards, now that was *real* computing :)
BBC Spectrum divide myth.
I believe it was the BBC themselves a few years back that put about this idea with a series of programmes. It seems they have now effectively re-written history.
The playgroud divide was clearly Spectrum vs Commodore 64. Parents were quite happy about the fact that the one the kids wanted was the cheaper system. Rare BBC owners were largely ignored by the Speccy/C64 crowd along with Dragon and Atari owners (Don't forget the Atari 800XL, an amazing machine !).
Re: BBC Spectrum divide myth.
Nah. CBM 64 didn't arrive in the UK for a whole year after the Beeb's release. It didn't factor in my fellow comprehensive scholars as much as the BBC and Spectrum did.
Indeed, Revisionist history strikes again.
I remember those great days very well.
I was 12 years old in xmas 1983 and everyone in my high school at that time wanted a 48K Spectrum. No one, I repeat no one wanted a BBC B.
Certainly no one wanted to take on a paper round to buy a BBC B. We all felt quite sorry for the poor kid who's well meaning but mis-guided parents bought him the BBC B or Electron.
Then the C64 came along and it was over for the BBC B as a home machine really. Spectrum or C64 all the way.
The BBC B was fine to do my Computer Studies project on but that was it really. I did however have a hankering for those classic Microvitec Cub monitors though.
I must have missed it
The factions were definitely speccy v C64 when I was in school. BBCs were ingrained as 'school' computers, I can't really imagine any of the kids wanting one for home.
I have fond memories of the A3000s in school too though. I'd have loved one of those, but the Amiga seemed to pip it for home use
If any Android users want a trip down memory lane, do check out Beebdroid at https://market.android.com/details?id=com.littlefluffytoys.beebdroid.
Just downloaded it onto my Tab, there are tons of games you can download for it
Glad you like it. There'll be a boatload more games soon, hoping to provide the whole archive at stairwaytohell.com over the Xmas break.
Built to last!
I was one of those kids who did a paper round to pay for her BBC Micro. The machine taught me all about software, hardware, concurrency, interrupts and basically gave me the founding for my career. I still have the machine. Here is is at Makefaire last year!
I sold BBC computers
i used to work with paper tape at school, so I was told to sell them in Laskys Hifi Cov, I loved the BBC but could never afford one. My Manager sold C 64, we both was surprised how they ran out of the door. Not forgetting Sinclare Spectrum, Oric's, Atari 800XL and don't forget the assessories, Tape player, monitors etc.
Today im writing this on my mobile phone, how times have changed.
We had more VideoGenies at our school than BBCs, yummy wooden case sides :)
Right Square Brackets
Ah, yes, the TRS-80 Model 1 clone?
That was my 2nd computer (after a kit-built ZX80) (went on to Spectrum, CPC6128, Atari ST then a bunch of x86 PCs).
Thing I remember most about this thing was playing space invaders. The game on the TRS-80 fired arrows at the invading hoards, but the Genie fired right square brackets.
IIRC, the sides weren't really wood, they were a sort of printed wood effect which wore off. Very '70's, though.
Actually a pretty good machine for its generation (coincidental with the ZX81), so a little unfair to compare it to the Beeb.
Another "got me into IT" story
My dad was head of CDT - Craft, Design and Technology - at a Luton high school when all this computer malarkey started, so since computers fell under "Technology" it was his department who'd be lumbered with them. He brought home a Model B one Christmas, and I remember seeing it sitting in our hallway on top of a portable TV; and my eight-year-old brain locked on to one thing: the "ESCAPE" key.
What wonders did that button hold? If I pressed it, would I escape to better place? Would it be like being ejected from a fighter plane? Would spies come and sneak me out in the dead of night? I had to find out, and for the rest of that Christmas holiday I immersed myself in the ring-bound manual and learnt all about it - by the time I went back to school I could write a simple game, although what really interested me was the sprites. My dad never got a chance to see how it worked; I can only assume he delegated the computer teaching to someone else as his talent was always in the woodwork, metalwork, drawing and engineering side of things.
Every holiday after that, my dad brought the Beeb home, and if I was really lucky, some weekends too. And if I had been really extra-specially good, I'd get to borrow the disk drive! And as for the couple of times he brought home the Turtle... Over the years I also got to try out the Master, and eventually the Archimedes with it's weird mouse thingy. When my junior school got a BBC a year later I had to show the teachers how to use it, and when I started secondary school I did "community work" by going back to my junior school and teaching computing there.
But I never owned an Acorn until my biology teacher asked if anyone wanted to buy her son's Electron - I snapped it up and bought the add-on backpack for it. Eventually the lack of decent support pushed me to pick up a C64 at a car boot sale, but I still look back with fondness at Elite and Exile.
Notice the cassette machine on Page 2 "Geek chic circa 1982: Ian McNaught-Davis on The Computer Programme" (I had one in 1981) is the one used in Life On Mars set in 1973 :)
I'm sure that model cassette player was fairly new to the 80s, LOL
In the electronics lab.
1) We made a Lego robot controlled from the Atom the obvious way - with the motors switched on with a "high" signal". Problem is, when you reset the computer, the "user port" pins get programmed as inputs. With pullup resistors. So they looked (to our motor driver circuits) like they were "high". The result was that if you reset the computer, all the motors switched on, and stayed that way until you could type in the poke to turn them off. At a School computer show, this happened, and our robot rolled off the table, and flew into 10^4 pieces on the floor.
2) Every so often, the Atom stopped working. The fix was to open it up, then press all the chips in the back of the PCB back in, as the impacts from the keys on the other side shook them out!
I remember particularly the 2nd version of the colour encoder.
You pulled out the 6847 from the main board and plugged it into the 40 pin socket on the colour encoder board, and then plugged the 40 pin header on the colour encoder board into the space where the 6847 was.
Now, that was a pretty big and heavy PCB compared to a single 40pin dip - buggered if I could get the damn thing to stay in after a bit of typing!
I got a Motorola databook from about that time with that video chip and discovered by diverting a few of the control lines to it you could get a few more colours out of it than with a standard Atom.
Ah, the Beeb.
Brilliant BASIC which outperformed machine code on some other machines. Great at games that involved drawing lines (like Elite) but not really up to them otherwise (no sprites or hardware scrolling).
The Beeb did have hardware scrolling, which was used for scrolling text in bitmapped modes and for sideways-scrolling games like Planetoid. Due to the memory layout of the bitmapped screens, vertical scrolling was always a multiple of 8 pixel rows (= one line of text), which made it ill suited for vertically scrolling games, where you would want a smoother scroll. I tried twiddling the vertical sync to move the picture up smoothly and then down again while scrolling vertically. This sort-of worked, but was a bit wobbly.
There were no hardware sprites, but you could do it reasonably fast in software, as evidenced by games like Nevryon, which moved a lot of sprites around at blinding speed.
Computer literacy lessons, were they all awful?
The project is often referred to with rose-tinted glasses but I don't know of anyone for whom these lessons worked.
Every week we'd sit in the 'computer lab' surrounded by Electrons and Beebs to be 'taught' by a teacher that had been roped into doing it, who had absolutely no idea how to use a computer or had any interest in doing so, in addition they were perfectly aware that every lad in the class had a home computer and knew infinitely more about the machines than they did already. The whole thing was just a waste of time.
The highlight for me was being asked to write a script in 'Logos' that drew a square and stated underneath "A SQUARE". This was supposed to take most of the lesson to complete, however 5 minutes later we were all done, bored at this point I fiddled to make it draw different sized squares and changed the text to say "HELLO FOLKS!" (I was 12 years old), the teacher saw this and flipped and I was dragged the the headmaster, to be told; "A computer is an expensive piece of equipment and needs to be looked after, it knows what a square is, but if you tell it that a square is a 'hello folks' it'll confuse it and risk breaking it"! I thought they were taking the piss but apparently not, wasn't allowed to touch a computer again whilst I was at that school.
BBC's were pants anyway, no-one had one outside school.
BBC Master Compact
I still own one of those, tucked away in a drawer somewhere, it ran off 3.5" floppy discs instead of the previously staple 5.25" discs and had to buy an expensive 5.25" disc drive to accomodate those.
One day I'll dig it out of storage, wipe the dust off it and see if it can be brought back to life - I had many many hours of enjoyment programming & playing on BBC Micros as a kid in the 80s, so much so that I'd get stick from other fellow computeers because I would stay after school in the computer room filled with BBC Micros for too long and after school computing would be banned for a week. That happened several times.
BEST COMPUTER EVER!
And it could play Crysis - so there! :P