back to article Acorn’s would-be ZX Spectrum killer, the Electron, is 30

The Sinclair Spectrum made the Acorn Electron inevitable. In June 1982, less than two months after Sinclair had unveiled the Spectrum - which had still not shipped, of course, even though Sinclair had promised the first Spectrums would be in punters’ hands by the end of May - Acorn co-founder Hermann Hauser was heard talking …

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  1. jason 7

    Ahhh bless.

    We always felt pity for the poor kid with the Electron!

    Always a bit left out.

    1. Yet Another Commentard

      Re: Ahhh bless.

      Bit like a Porsche Boxster - you only buy one if you can't afford a 911. Doesn't make it a bad car though.

      Mind you, I did like the optional use of keywords where you'd hold down an alt(?) key and the main letter keys would each insert a BASIC instruction (DEFPROC, PRINT or whatever). It was a nice halfway house between the BBC typing from a mag with associated errors and bizarre keyboard twister on the speccy to get the instruction.

      1. jason 7

        Re: Ahhh bless.

        Oh I never said it was a bad machine. I had fun playing around on them. But you know what its like when your mates all have other machines (C64/Spectrum) and you are the only one with the Electron.

        Not much game swapping going on there.

        1. Manu T

          Re: Ahhh bless.

          I totally understand you Jason. I felt excactly the same with my Oric 1 while the rest of my puny world all had a ZX Spectrum.

          The Oric's Basic manual was very good though... I learned English from it ;-)

    2. Byz
      FAIL

      Re: Ahhh bless.

      I knew loads of people with BBC B's the difference was I could program and they couldn't :)

      It was like "Pearls before the swine"

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Ahhh bless.

      I only saw one in my lifetime. God knows what makes parents buy these "odd one out" machines.

      That said, it seems it was very popular in terms of demand, but Acorn just couldn't supply enough machines.

  2. nigel 15

    BBC Basic has ruined me

    I can program in modern object oriented languages.

    But i still think in in BBC basic.

    Loved my electron.

  3. Roger B

    My First...

    I remember getting home from school and finding one of these plugged into the TV, ohh the joy of typing in Chain "" (I think it was?) and loading up Cybertron Mission, I don't think I ever did make it to the end, but games were harder back then!

    1. OvAl

      Re: My First...

      My first also...I still remember trying hard not show my disappointment when it was proudly unveiled by my old man, who informed me that he'd chosen it over the spectrum as it had a better keyboard. The truth can be cruel, and little consolation to the ungrateful sprog that I was.

      Still, first cut my teeth in programming on it , and honed my reactions speed on Frogger.

      1. Roger B

        Re: My First...

        Ahh..Frogger with what I always called the "Uncle Ben's Rice" music, although looking at it on youtube it seems to have a different tune? And Repton and Asteroids, if only I'd not sold it.....I remember I started programming on this, then finding BBC Micros at school and after doing the "ohh look it prints my name down the screen" moving on to something which did my maths homework for me and some how got me good marks from the teacher when he had seen what I'd created, no idea what it was though!

        1. lpcollier

          Re: My First...

          Same here. I remember a maths homework task to create a list of prime numbers. I whipped up a little program on the Electron (probably took longer than just guessing the 10 or so required) and left it running all night, producing a printed list running to several pages to give to the teacher.

      2. Jim 59

        Re: My First...

        I suspect it had a better keyboard even than our modern PCs. Your 'old man 'was right on that.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: My First...

      "...but games were harder back then!"

      Naah! You're fingers become loosened up after so many years of texting. That's the only valid explanation, isn't it?

    3. ThomH Silver badge

      Re: My First...

      If you'd used FUNC+K then think how much time you could have saved!

      It was always Starship Command for me, and some Repton 2. Oh, and Gaunlet, the Defender clone.

  4. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Unhappy

    These articles make me so sad ..

    it seems astonishing - nay unbelievable - that in the early 1980s, the country leading the world in computer science and education was the UK. Hands down. I recall reading stories in the US-based computer magazines and science periodicals where they often mentioned how advanced the UK was in getting kids and computers together.

    It was a *Tory* government policy to get a computer into every classroom - hello BBC "B" !

    Briefly, the UK was a world leader.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: These articles make me so sad ..

      It still is in terms of CPU's - heard of ARM?

      1. JimmyPage Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: These articles make me so sad ..

        I was thinking more in terms of computer education. When I started in the 80s, if you did Computer Science, you left being able to program. OK, it was BASIC, and you couldn't get enough GOTOs. But at least you knew how to make the computer do what *you* wanted to. You got an idea of how it was done, and the ways in which it could be done - with all the attendant learning about bugs, data mistypes, control, flow, exceptions, etc etc.

        Nowadays, my 17 year old son comes home, and tells me he's a web developer because he used Dreamweaver at college. I show him a web page in Notepad, and he goes "huh".

        The only real developers I have met, under 30, learned their skills in spite of the education system, not because of it.

        1. jason 7

          Re: These articles make me so sad ..

          I remember writing out my 1987 O level Computer Studies project on my bedroom floor in long hand.

          Then I got to school and typed it up on the BBC B and saved it to 5.25" floppy.

          There was a long queue for the Epson dot matrix to print all our code out on.

          I still have my Computer Studies project folder with all the print outs in. I saved it from the parents bonfire a couple of years ago.

          1. Jon Double Nice
            Coat

            Re: These articles make me so sad ..

            Oh, what I would've give to be able to write it out in long hand on my bedroom floor and type it up on a BBC B and save it to floppy.

            I had to scrawl my project onto scraps of sack, huddled in the coal cellar where I were kept, then etc etc etc...

            1. TheOtherHobbes

              Re: These articles make me so sad ..

              I had to phone mine in by scraping two naked wires together 262144 times.

              If you got it wrong you had to start again from the beginning.

              You were lucky.

              I did know someone with an Electron. Last I saw he was running one of the computing labs at Oxford, so it doesn't seem to have done him any lasting harm.

            2. Hey Nonny Nonny Mouse

              Re: These articles make me so sad ..

              Stop that, it's silly.

          2. Kerry Hoskin

            Re: These articles make me so sad ..

            did my 1987 O level computer studies on the BBC B. Trouble was our comp only had 2 B's and 2 A's all the other computers (about another 6 or so) were Oric's

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: These articles make me so sad ..

          BBC Basic (as used by the BBC Micro) also uses DEF PROC and DEF FN. So you could create procedures and functions without resorting to GOTO's. It was (and still is) one o/t most structured BASIC interpreters.

          "Nowadays, my 17 year old son comes home, and tells me he's a web developer because he used Dreamweaver at college. I show him a web page in Notepad, and he goes "huh"."

          ... and then they wonder why "engineers" get hampered with meaningless crappy jobs until they resign (or commit suicide in the case of a well-known French telco).

          Does anyone knows what the ex-Acorn guys are actually doing these days?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: These articles make me so sad ..

        Indeed. Which is why I'm keen to promote ARM and how Intel are lying and cheating on benchmarks.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: These articles make me so sad ..

      Where did it all go wrong?

      Probably because by the time the 16-bit machines came out there wasn't really a credible and affordable UK next generation machine until way after Atari and Commodore (and Apple even, but you had to be wealthy).

      The Archimedes didn't arrive until 1987, two years after the Amiga and ST. Okay, most people couldn't really afford such a machine until 1987 but that two year window allowed software to be available and the platform established.

      Amiga 500 was around £520, Archimedes started at £799!!!!!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: These articles make me so sad ..

      "Briefly, the UK was a world leader."

      Yes Sir!

      It became even better when the Archimedes came along. And then some... The Amazing Risc PC.

      IMHO the very best personal computer back then. Truly innovative design, incredibly fast (especially with the StrongARM swap-in cpu-card and a stick of VRAM).

      Those were literally the best years of my computing life. It's a shame that Acorn Computers Ltd. is gone! Those guys where the real UK-silicon geniuses! I have more respect and credibility for the team at Acorn Computers Ltd. than for Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Shuttleworth or Linus Torvalds (or any other egotrippin rich IT-freaks). Even today the folks at RISC OS open deserve our sympathy and support! Especially since RISC OS itself is still around and runs incredibly fast on the raspberry Pi.

      Why Eben Upton (and the other RPI folks) stubbornly keeps pushing Raspbian linux on their RPI is beyond belief. RISC OS is a far better OS suited for educational purposes (as it's been used in education for ages) and it has the amazing BBC Basic right build in.... Press F12, type BASIC (at the *-prompt) and away you go. It's the only real native UK invented, maintained and developed OS!

      Why aren't you Brits proud of your legacy?

  5. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Never used the Electron, but the lab I used to work in had dozens of the old Atoms controlling various kit, as late as 1995. Neat, durable machine built in the UK.

    1. DJV Silver badge

      Atom

      I assembled a few Atom kits for a local computer shop in the early 80s. Not too hard apart from attaching the keyboard to the PCB. You had to get around 120+ stiff, springy wires protruding from the keyboard into the corresponding 120+ holes in the PCB... simultaneously - it was a real bugger (to put it mildly).

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wrong market?

    I always felt that the Electron was aiming at the wrong market. Because although it could be used as a game computer the games and multimedia capabilities which it had were actually hardly impressive. That is; impressive enough, but in comparison to the Commodore 64 not that great.

    But one of it's real strengths was absolutely it's language. BBC Basic for example. At that time and age this critter even allowed me to use inline assembly straight within my basic program. Not even my C64 could pull stunts like that off!

    So to me the Electron always felt more professional than the C64, even though the C64 appealed more to me because of it's multimedia capabilities. But this one was a classic.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wrong market?

      BBC Basic was good. Commodore basic was made by Microsoft. Except the version Commodore shipped was very old.

      Jack Tramiel was the only person to ever get one over Bill Gates. Tramiel wanted a one off payment, Gates wanted a royalty per unit sold. I think Tramiel handed over something like $50,000, the C64 sold millions haha.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Wrong market?

        "Jack Tramiel was the only person to ever get one over Bill Gates"

        Alan Sugar did as well. When the PC1512 went to market, Digital Research's DOS was cheaper than MSDOS so Amstrad went with that. Microsoft got wind and sent a representation to Brentwood to try and persuade Sugar to go with their product instead.

        Sugar told them it was too late and they should stop wasting their time badgering him. A few days later Gates tells Amstrad that they can have MSDOS for nothing! Hence the PC1512 ended up being shipped with both OS's!

      2. John 62

        Re: Wrong market?

        It's probably an urban legend, but I heard Boeing, neighbours of Microsoft, was able to get Office for a nominal fee per user, forever.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Wrong market?

          True - ir was part of a Soviet (or French) plot to destroy the US aviation industry.

          30 years later they are so busy producing stunning Powerpoint presentations that their planes burst into flames and fall out of the sky

    2. Manu T

      Re: Wrong market?

      "this critter even allowed me to use inline assembly straight within my basic program."

      BBC Basic (as used in RISC OS) still can.

      if you have a Raspberry Pi, boot up with RISC OS

      --> press CTRL+F12 (to open a shell window) or F12 (to go outside the desktop)

      --> Type BASIC + enter

      --> type HELP [ (all uppercase, square bracket) <--- to show which assembly commands are available.

      Good stuff :-)

    3. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: Wrong market?

      Yes, I used my Electron as a working machine, when I started working. I could programme ( in an amateur way ) with bits of assembly language that gave me much more flexibility than pure BASIC would have, I could learn other languages, and I could produce programmes that were useful to me ( and others).

      I was never a gamer. I like making computers DO stuff. And the ELK served that function beautifully. But I had to wait until the price dropped before I could buy one.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Wrong market?

        " later Gates tells Amstrad that they can have MSDOS for nothing! Hence the PC1512 ended up being shipped with both OS's!"

        Yeah, that was obviously a mistake on Bill's part eh? Where is he now I wonder?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ferranti

    "specific failings in ULA maker Ferranti’s production process"

    Interesting. During 1983 Amstrad were designing the CPC 464 and were also having problems with Ferranti that threatened their April 1984 launch date.

    I'd have to check my copy of the excellent "Amstrad Story" but IIRC Sugar was so concerned he turned to another supplier in the Far East to get the problems fixed rather than wait for Ferranti and risk being behind schedule.

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: Ferranti

      The BBC Micro also had a ULA, so Acorn were not treading new ground. It appeared to be a troublesome technology, because as far as I am aware, everybody who used them had production problems.

      The ULA on my issue 3 BEEB always overheated on warm days (cue the freezer spray), and I noted that on issue 4 and onward, passive heat-sinks started appearing on both the ULA and the Teletext chip.

      It seems strange nowadays to have a system that did not have a single fan in the case, and as a consequence would have been silent if it had not been for the incessant buzz of crosstalk interference from the speaker. I suppose the silent end of computing has gone to tables. At least they owe a legacy to these machines.

      1. Manu T

        Re: Ferranti

        " suppose the silent end of computing has gone to tables."

        Funny you'd say that.

        My Raspberry Pi is totally silent and it's even build inside a Pi-Cano case (which has a clear plexi sitting 2mm above the cpu see photo: http://www.riscository.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/DSC_0053.jpg). The setup looks amazing.

        I have currently 2 Pi's in this enclosure. One is running Lighttp-webserver continuously for about 8 months now. Needles to say what OS the other Pi runs :-)

        Not to mention all high-end smartphones run totally silent yet they pack some serious computing power considering their size. Whenever I play some high-end 3D games my SGS3 I'm amazed how powerfull it is and yet the SGS4 is roughly twice as fast (with more pixels to move as well)!

        I reckon "ARM-computers" have come a long way since their 6502-forefathers.

        1. Manu T

          Re: Ferranti

          More detailed photos of this PiCano case at

          http://riscpi.co.uk/belges-beautiful-pi-case-design-at-big-ben-clubs-birthday-bash/

          And the page below has a mounting animation + a few details o/t assembly process.

          It's all in Dutch but the photos are self-explanatory and very interesting.

          Click on "Producten" on the left column.

          http://marker.dommel.be/

          Enjoy the pics.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ferranti

        Just checked my copy of the Amstrad story.

        The Amstrad Gate Array contract went to Ferranti had had the lowest bid but their design was "riddled with errors". Sugar phoned them up and explained to them using 1 syllable anglo saxon words what he thought of them and gave the job to an Italian firm called SGS instead to protect himself should Ferranti continue to cock up.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Ferranti

          > The Amstrad Gate Array contract went to Ferranti had had the lowest bid but their design was "riddled with errors".

          It wasn't just their domestic commercial stuff which had that problem.

          > Sugar phoned them up and explained to them using 1 syllable anglo saxon words what he thought of them

          If I'd had their phone number I would have done the same thing - frequently and loudly - from the top of show covered mountains where i was having to replace duff devices.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I had one of them when they first came out, bought to replace my aging vic20 I'd bought myself out of pocket money by my mum for xmas. I was 13 or 14 at the time, and schools were running bbc model b's exclusively, so it gave a cheap platform to have something bbc basic compatible at home to do some computer studies homework on.

    And it served its purpose, I turned in the most sprawling newsagent database driven basic program ever, with menus, printing of address labels, delivery and ordering rosters, renewal and payment reminder letters etc. Got me a A, which to date is my sole computing qualification apart from industry experience based certifications.

    It was what it was, a cheap alternative to get you bbc basic if your parents weren't loaded. I remember the tossers with bbc's sneering I didnt have mode7, I didnt care it did what it did, I had my brothers cast off c64 and the use of his early amiga for better stuff. And they're all plumbers or street sweepers now :)

    1. bm
      Joke

      So they all have job security :-)

  9. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Oh my this takes me back

    That advert - it seems like only yesterday that it was everywhere - is it really 30 years?

    But weren't early computer adverts wordy? Compare that to a modern ad. I suppose they were still trying to persuade mums and dads that this wasn't just a toy and it was a good investment. Now pretty much everyone thinks they know what a computer is and can do, so manufacturers obsess about thickness or colour.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: Oh my this takes me back

      Now they know the majority of computers *are* toys.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Oh my this takes me back

        This is it. Even back in those days most of the public took their real, usable, reasonably powerful for the time, and often pretty expensive ( by regular standards) computers and used them to play at killing imaginary aliens.

        And now they have fruity tablets and do much the same, only the aliens are rather more colourful.

    2. graeme leggett

      Re: Oh my this takes me back

      " weren't early computer adverts wordy"

      I think all adverts used to be more wordy back then, back there does seem to be a lot of text there.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Big Brother

        Re: Oh my this takes me back

        "I think all adverts used to be more wordy back then, back there does seem to be a lot of text there."

        It's the "sue'em" culture. If they put too many words in an advert, you can be sure some chancer will find a way to interpret them in a "beneficial" way.

        Or maybe the in-house lawyers have clamped down on the copywriters to such an extent that long, slow intakes of breath with a subtle head-shake are commonplace?

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge
          Devil

          Re: Oh my this takes me back

          Sorry, no. The only real words in ads now are the ones the lawyers put IN.

          It's the short attention span of the punters ( or at least the ones in the "focus groups") which has made them cut down the words.

  10. Byz

    The electron taught me a real lesson

    First machine I used was an Elliot 903, then a BBC B (both at school)

    I couldn't afford a computer when I left school until a local department school had a basement flood and I got an electron for £50 due to the box being damaged.

    The electron was much slower than a BBC B so code I'd written on the BBC ran like very slowly, so the electron taught me to optimise my code (I was revolving 3D shapes on screen in response to keys being pressed).

    In the end I had a version that ran faster on the electron than on the original Beeb :)

    I've been using what I learn't throughout my career and always look to optimise my code (even now with fast processors) many times by taking others code and thinking about the problem laterally I came up with much faster algorithms. My favourite was taking a program from Scientific American to grow a crystal on the screen that took 15 hours to plot, by thinking through what was going on I got it down to five minutes :)

    What I really learnt was that a better algorithm was much cheaper and efficient than faster hardware (plus far more satisfying).

    I still miss my electron (traded it in part exchange to buy a BBC Master) :(

    1. Byz
      FAIL

      Re: The electron taught me a real lesson

      oops!

      Was going to right ran "like a dog" and then thought better as dogs are quite fast so put in "very slowly".

      So now it reads "ran like very slowly" so now I sound like my children's friends (I keep telling mine off for using "Like" inappropriately).

      :o

      1. Byz
        FAIL

        Re: The electron taught me a real lesson

        Plus I can't spell Write!!!!!

        I'm a paid up member of DNA (National Dyslexic Association).

        ;)

        1. Suricou Raven

          Re: The electron taught me a real lesson

          That is what the spell chequere is for.

          1. Byz
            Happy

            Re: The electron taught me a real lesson

            :D

        2. MrT

          Ran like a dog...

          ... went down like a lead balloon

          ... be blunt and make some very cutting remarks

          Curious turns of phrase all ;-)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The electron taught me a real lesson

      "I still miss my electron (traded it in part exchange to buy a BBC Master)"

      Come on... the master was a fantastic machine, WAY better than the electron.

      I always wanted a BBC micro but by the time i got enough cash the Archimedes knocked on the door of my local computer-shop. Needles to say that I didn't buy that BBC Micro. That waving Union Jack on screen of that A440 looked astonishing... and (quite) a bit later there was this "Lander Demo".... I couldn't believe my eyes how stunningly smooth that was. No Amiga game even came close.

    3. swissrobin

      Re: The electron taught me a real lesson

      Surely the real optimization would be to just render a bitmap of the finished crystal to the screen? :-)

      Pointless optimizations are my pet hate :-) Leave the code doing the obvious thing until such time as it doesn't run fast enough, then go and optimize it, if you must.

      I like all the RISCOS links and chat - I am too old to have had RISCOS whilst I was a school boy - we had a Commodore Pet and a 380Z :-

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_pet

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_Machines_380Z

      So I think I'll get hold of a Pi and give it a whirl :-)

    4. Jim 59

      Re: The electron taught me a real lesson

      I was revolving 3D shapes on screen...

      I did that too. Just simple BASIC and color swapping, nothing real time. Making simple mathematical patterns was strangely fascinating.

  11. Stefing

    No Master

    Excellent article - but no mention of the BBC Master?

    1. A J Stiles
      Stop

      Re: No Master

      No -- it's an article about the Acorn Electron. The article about the BBC Master will be out towards the end of 2015.

  12. Michael Strorm

    32K- the BBC Micro's most annoying limitation

    That 32KB RAM limit on the BBC B quickly became its achilles heel and pointlessly limiting on an otherwise powerful (and expensive) machine. If you tried exploiting its rather nice high-resolution modes you were left with sod all RAM. Even having 48K would have made a major difference.

    I appreciate that RAM was still expensive when the BBC launched in 1981, but they must have known that it was falling fast (*) and made provisions to let existing users cheaply upgrade - at least- and replaced the Model B with a 48K version as soon as it became cost-effective to do so.

    I realise that they eventually released a short-lived 64K Model B+, but that was *much* later (only shortly before the 128K BBC Master came out) so by that point the established base was of 32K machines and software had to be written around that.

    The Electron lacking the memory-saving Teletext mode shouldn't have been an issue, since for the price it should have had 48K by that point. If you take away the rather nice OS and BASIC- and the marketing glow cast by its association with the high-end BBC Micro- the Electron looks a bit overpriced against its intended competition. (In fact, I came across a contemporary magazine that described the Electron as an underspecced machine giving the impression it was designed to milk the user on expansion units).

    Despite this my understanding is that Acorn probably *would* still have sold a lot if it had launched in quantity in time for Christmas 1983. (**) However, I've heard it commented that the Electron's inherent limitations probably would have been an issue in the long run.

    (*) Apparently Jack Tramiel delayed the release of the Commodore 64 until RAM prices had fallen enough to make its 64KB RAM affordable.

    (**) i.e. before the non-availability of the Electron had led them to buy competitor's machines instead- which of course increased *their* user base and not Acorn's- instead of later on when most people had a computer and Electrons started being produced in large quantities just as the market was slumping

    1. jason 7

      Re: 32K- the BBC Micro's most annoying limitation

      I always felt the BBC B could have done with losing a couple of expensive and probably not that often used ports and bumping the ram another 16k at least.

      Wonderful connectivity but.......

    2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: 32K- the BBC Micro's most annoying limitation

      The basic limitation of the BBC Micro was the way that the memory map was laid out. There was 32KB of the address space reserved for ROMs, normally 16KB for the OS, and 16KB for the Basic, or whatever sideways ROM you were using. This was at a time when Sinclair has all of their OS and Basic in a16KB. This only left 32KB without some address-trickery for RAM.

      The segregation of the OS and sideways ROMs was a great feature for speed, and allowing separation of the OS and other packages, and really allowed you to do a great deal. The architecture allowed you to have 'service ROMs', essentially add-ons to the OS to handle interrupt driven hardware (the OS could bank-switch the ROMs to handle interrupts), which meant that you could add things like floppy disk drives, mice, teletext adapters, software sprites (Acorn's Advanced Graphics ROM), sophisticated music hardware and even networks and hard disks relatively easily.

      With one of the ROM positions populated by static RAM (there were several side-ways RAM boards, mine is an ATPL board with a write-protect switch) you could even (dare I say it) load ROMs from disk. I got the Acorn ISO Pascal Compiler (two ROMs, one an editor and runtime, and the other the compiler) running in a single 16KB bank of RAM by re-vectoring the OSCLI ROM bank switch vector, and loading the compiler from floppy or Econet and then swapping back at the end of the compile.

      The BBC OS was a masterpiece of good software engineering, and with the associated Advanced User Guide, which mapped the OS and rest of the system out like a blueprint (and even contained a board schematic), enabled magical things to be done.

      When the B+ came along, Acorn copied what Solidisk and Watford had done as add-ons, and moved the 20K graphics screen and some of the low memory pages used by the sound, floppy disk, and other queues into "shadow" memory in the address space normally occupied occupied by the ROM and OS by bank switching, meaning that the low 32KB above 0x700 (I believe, it was 0xE00 on a normal model B without additional filesystems) to be used for programmes. The Master 128 took this even further by adding bank-switched ROM images as standard. "Shadow" screen memory generally broke programs that directly manipulated the screen bitmap without using the OS.

      Of course, if you wanted the full 64K of memory, the you could have bought the 6502 Second Processor, which not only gave you a lot of mode-independent memory, but ran at a screaming 3MHz. Playing Elite on a BEEB with a second processor and a Bit-Stick attached gave you smoother full mode-1 four colour graphics (without the screen-tearing divide between the two colour mode 4 and four colour mode 5, something the Electron version could not do because it was missing the interrupt timer used to switch modes at the appropriate position), but also gave you incredible control of the ship!

      I always thought that the 64KB claim of the Commodore 64 was a swizz, because the first thing it did when turned on was copy the OS and Basic out of the ROM and into RAM, effectively leaving you with only 39KB (if I remember properly) for any programs, and it did not have the high resolution modes (640 pixels wide) that allowed you to do 80 column text, which enabled us to use the BBC as a terminal to the minicomputers at the Polytechnic where I worked at the time. On the C64, you could use something approaching the full 64KB, but only if you wrote the whole thing in machine code, and disabled Basic.

      1. Test Man
        Thumb Up

        Re: 32K- the BBC Micro's most annoying limitation

        " always thought that the 64KB claim of the Commodore 64 was a swizz, because the first thing it did when turned on was copy the OS and Basic out of the ROM and into RAM, effectively leaving you with only 39KB (if I remember properly) for any programs, "

        Seem to vaguely recall similar on a Vic-20.

        And then the BBC Master 128 had 64K RAM, 64K sideways RAM? And while you could store programs in sideways RAM, you couldn't run it from there?

        1. Bod

          Re: 32K- the BBC Micro's most annoying limitation

          "And then the BBC Master 128 had 64K RAM, 64K sideways RAM? And while you could store programs in sideways RAM, you couldn't run it from there?"

          Basically a paging mechanism as I understood it. You could get sideways ram for the plain model B also. Sat in one of the ROM chips and like those it you would page it in and out of the 64K addressable memory. So one of the ROMs would have to take a back seat while you use the ram.

          One thing I never got my head round though was I swore the 32K Beeb had 64K worth of actual dram chips. I remember believing they were 4K each or something and counting them up and that makes 64. I assumed it was same as the C64 then where the 32K of ROM was copied into RAM... but seems not?

      2. Michael Strorm

        Re: 32K- the BBC Micro's most annoying limitation

        Interesting feedback, explains some things- thanks.

        I do vaguely remember the sideways RAM thing; we used COMAL (*) for programming at school and IIRC had to load it from the networked hard drive into the sideways RAM.

        I have to say that, for all this cleverness of design, having to limit the main RAM to 32K *maximum* as a consequence was still a major price to pay, essentially crippling the usability of the high-res modes.

        The 64K "overshadowing" on the C64 was a limitation, I agree- my 64K Atari 800XL had the same problem. However, the space *was* usable for machine code games in both cases. Not ideal, but not quite a swizz either.

        (*) COMAL was supposedly a hybrid of BASIC and Pascal. However, since BBC Basic already incorporated many of the "structured" features of Pascal, COMAL- on the BBC at least- ended up being not significantly different in practice anyway.

      3. Paul Shirley

        Re: 64KB claim of the Commodore 64 was a swizz

        Not quite. BASIC probably did copy the 4K character ROM into RAM at the same mapped address (not going to find the manual to check). Everything else was simple bank switching, the RAM was still writable and usable for graphics even banked behind ROM.

        The default memory map had 40K of contiguous user RAM, 38K available to BASIC and another 4K high block for direct access before doing anything tricky. Any graphics was on top of that, not taken from it. I had little problem using 60K of the RAM for games.

        Was fairly similar on the other machines of the time, only the Electron and BBC seemed to have such crippling hard limits. I remember the painful explanations our BBC porting guy gave about squeezing games onto the Electron, requiring slicing the graphics then reassembling mirrored and rotated pieces in realtime. Further sapping performance.

        Even lowly machines like the Oric were fully capable of paging large amounts of RAM into a simple, >32K memory space. Have to wonder what they were thinking at Acorn.

    3. moonface

      Christmas 1983.

      I agree that the Electron would have been a lot more successful if they had produced sufficient quantities before Christmas 1983. To me, this was the time everyone upgraded their Atari 2600's and Intellivisions. My parents waited hours outside an independent computer shop in Edgware ( a few miles from my home) to get an Electron for Christmas. Other parents found it far more convenient to get a C64 which were available everywhere. Went back to school and I was the only kid with an Electron. However, I loved it and it lasted me until an Amiga 500 upgrade.

  13. TheTrouser
    Happy

    Acorn Atom

    I had one of these before the Electron came out - spent hours and hours on it programming games with the tiny < 1K RAM

    30 years later I still spend hours and hours on my Alienware PC using the latest programming languages as part of my job.

    Wish I'd kept the Atom though :(

    1. GettinSadda

      Re: Acorn Atom

      Erm... the Atom came with 2KB of RAM as the lowest

      1. TheTrouser

        Re: Acorn Atom

        Yes - but only < 1K was available was available for programming with - the OS used the rest.

      2. 8Ace

        Re: Acorn Atom

        Part of the first 1K was used as "Zero Page". This was used in the Atom & BBC Micro as an extra set of 256 fast registers as the 6502 could address this area using a single byte. The rest was buffers etc IIRC.

        I concur that the BBC OS 1.2 was a superb piece of work. I disassembled and dumped the whole thing on a dot matrix printer, the printout was about 20cm thick. There were all sorts of gems in there, the whole thing was so elegant and well thought out.

    2. Simon Harris Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Acorn Atom

      I got mine with the 2K RAM (1K shared 512 bytes video text mode and 512 bytes program memory, and 1K workspace) at the beginning of the school year in 1980. My Christmas present that year was an extra 10K of RAM chips to give it 6K screen, 5K program and 1K workspace and the floating point ROM. If you were sneaky and didn't need graphics you could use the 5 1/2K of unused screen memory for additional program space.

      Mine ran (mostly) happily overclocked from its standard 1MHz to 2MHz. I say mostly because the RAM was nominally 650nS access time, so I had to swap it around until I found a combination that put the slower chips at the end of video memory so I could use most of the graphics modes overclocked.

      Still have it in a cupboard at my parents' house! Of the 9 or so computers that I've owned (excluding the ones built from the chips up!) the Atom is still my favorite, and was my main computer from 1980 until 1987.

  14. Robigus
    Happy

    Valuable life lessons wringing it's neck.

    T'was as good as I could afford on paper-round money. No Mode 7, but that was no biggy. Solid enough to play tennis with. Really.

    It provided a very useful lesson in life. I was writing some code and I'd wrung the neck out the Electron and I'd tried everything I could think of, loads of in-line assembler, turning off the screen updates during processing etc.

    I wrote a letter detailing the things I'd tried to "Your Computer" magazine to the agony uncle page; Tim Hartnell I think it was. My letter was subsequently published with my bullet points stripped out of the question and placed as the answer.

    If I was to write a letter to my young self it would express the sentiment that "The World is full of bullshitters and people wanting undeserved credit. You'd better get used to dealing with them."*

    * I hasten to add that in my experience pretty much everyone is quite nice really.

  15. Peter Mount
    Happy

    Ah memories

    Did my O level on one in 1986 & by 87 had a second one with 64K of ram (Slogger Master Ram board) which replaced the CPU with a daughter board, a faster CPU & 32K of shadow ram.

    That machine had a 3 way toggle switch added which provided 3 modes:

    * Normal - where it ran as a standard electron

    * Turbo - where the new cpu ran at top speed (can't remember the speed off hand)

    * 64k - where the video remained on the original ram but the OS ran on the shadow ram - so BBC Basic had more ram available than the BBC B had.

    Then there were the floppy drive (+3) added to it.

    Ah takes me back.

    1. ThomH Silver badge

      Re: Ah memories

      The Slogger has a really neat trick — if the program counter goes beyond D000 (if memory serves) then writes automatically go to the video page. Othwise they go to the shadow page. Why? Because that's where the ROM routines for graphics output are and the original machine ROM is used unmodified.

  16. BigAndos
    Happy

    A good few years after the Electron, my primary school replaced its BBC Micro with a couple of Acorn Archimedes machines. I have very happy memories of sneakily loading the Lander demo every time the teacher's back was turned.

  17. IHateWearingATie

    Hurrah, a bit of love for the partially forgotten Electron...

    Nice to see the Electron given a write up - it's the forgotten cousin of the BBC Micro and not usually mentioned in the stories written about the time.

    I had an Electron, bought for me second hand by my Dad well after they had stopped production (couldn't afford a new computer). Still, it played Elite and The Last Ninja so I was happy!

  18. signpost
    Happy

    Ah the memories

    I loved my Electron, despite ending up with it after a failed attempt to buy a BBC model A at the original price.

    However I do blame it for reducing my 'O' level grades. Instead of studying, I spent my time trawling through the machine code of BBC games I'd acquired. Searching for delay loops & changing/removing them to make the games run at a decent pace on the Electron.

    I seem to recall that my favourite of the time was Free Fall (http://www.iancgbell.clara.net/freefall/index.htm), although I still occasionally hum the tune from Frak!

    Happy times.

  19. hugo tyson
    Coat

    Last ADFS bug...

    I remember an all-nighter getting the last (hah!) bugs out of ADFS for the Electron. *COMPACT would sometimes corrupt the disc. Like on the Beeb, *COMPACT uses the screen RAM as working buffer by default - you get to watch your data flashing by as the disc is defragmented.

    This works fine on the Beeb where the screen RAM is just memory, and the cursor is a hardware sprite.

    But on the Electron, to save having that hardware, the cursor is written into the screen RAM using software in timed interrupts.... simple fix: turn off the cursor during *COMPACT. But the time it took to work out WTF was going on... you had to be there.

    But at least we found it, so it wasn't me personally that cancelled Xmas.

  20. harryb

    The replacement for the Ferranti ULA was actually made by Synertek and used their standard cell library. As a student fresh out of uni with my head filled with tales of how easy VLSI was I was hired to work on it (along with one other - hi John!)

    The fancy production techniques were with the Synertek chip because it could be flipped upside down and then using ultrasound bonded directly to the PCB (plus a blob of expoxy on top).

    We spent quite some time working with Synertek on simulation and trying to make sure the chip would work first time. Apart from getting the signals on one pin the wrong way up we achieved it, which was good going in those days.

  21. Spoonsinger

    Florists M2105's...

    Cleaning them up, re-soldering keys, re-soldering the modem, sending them back. Happy day's with no stress and a shiny future leading to other better paid prospects. (ps they were crap and outdated as games machines even when they were released, rock solid in an industrial/retail roll though).

    (pps M2105's are Electrons with bits bolted on - for informational purposed to people of a certain age - i.e. young).

    1. Thomas Gray

      Re: Florists M2105's...

      I was just coming to post that the machine found a niche market as the ordering system for InterFlora. I remember going into a florist in Lincolnshire in the mid '90s and being surprised to see one in the back room, still functioning.

  22. ecofeco Silver badge

    Hard to believe

    It's hard to believe it's ONLY been 30 years and my outdated bargain smart phone has more power than those old PCs, yet they were no less astounding and inspiring and opened new worlds for many.

    Love these old program and PC articles. Keep them coming.

  23. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Fond memories indeed

    On a slightly sadder note, what challenges do today's kids have that they will remember in years to come?

  24. Christian Berger Silver badge

    Manufacturing issues

    What I don't understand is why they didn't have more dynamic manufacturing. I mean back then automatic mounters probably were rare, much of the assembly had to be done by hand. In a nutshell it seems like it would have been easily possible to produce nearly on demand, avoiding stockpiles.

  25. HippyFreetard
    Happy

    Happy Birthday Electron!

    My parents bought us (to share) the Electron with tape player and games, and a brand new portable colour TV. It was a real live computer, the kind of thing only "other" kids got.

    Once you'd played the games, there was only one thing left you could do with it, and that was to go through the "Learn Programming" book.

    Did anyone have "Computer Fun" with little monsters - with names like Deadeye Dick - where you would write the program from a book and have to look up in the back what the different lines were for your machine? (and/or "Machine Code Programming for Beginners" with robots?) Did anyone else have "Legend of Silver Mountain" which was a type-your-own adventure game?

    The great thing is that my kids love it when I fire up Electrem or Beebem and they love to play my old games. Great games are timeless :)

    Thanks for the nostalgia, Reg!

  26. OrsonX
    Coffee/keyboard

    You are at a crossroads, there is a lamp here and a bearded pirate.

    Good times.

    Still got mine.

  27. Zot

    "How Olivetti stitched up Acorn"

    [url]http://elleeseymour.com/2012/02/24/how-olivetti-stitched-up-acorn/[/url]

  28. Jay 2

    Ah the Electron. Like most people I knew of someone who had one. Whilst there was the fact that it could run the same stuff as the BBCs, there didn't seem to be too many games. And the odd bit of code aside, I'm sure most kids wanted computers to play games.

    As a quick aside I was still messing about on a BBC Master in 1992 when I was doing A-Level Computing. Though we used COMAL rather then BBC Basic.

  29. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    Master Compact

    The mistakes of ripping too much hardware out of the Electron were learned when the Master Compact was designed - keep MODE 7, remove all the additional hardware, but not munge everything into one amorphous lump, so the hardware map and system environment still "looks" identical to the processor, just with functionality missing.

    Nice little machine, the Compact, I managed to lever in a floppy drive under the keyboard.

  30. Martin H Watson

    It is in the loft next to my 512kb Amstrad, but I do still have mine

  31. Robinson

    I had one...

    I had one, mostly used it to play Elite. Elite on the Electron wasn't as good as the BBC B original (wasn't fast enough to do sun twinkling and didn't have colour, for example), but it was OK. Friends with C64's had the best games, the best graphics and the best sound. But I was OK with it. Taught me how to code (BASIC and Assembler) too.

  32. Arwel2

    Ah... but the fun with BBC basic was the assembler, no? Just a little square bracket and away! I once wrote a key-logger that sat on the school BBC, waiting for "*Iam" commands, using the screen refresh event to watch all key presses, and passing anything other than the login commands unmolested to the command line interpreter, but saving the next twenty characters whenever anyone tried to log in (on econet). Got the teachers password within hours. Happy days! :o)

    But the ability to just drop in assembler into BBc Basic so easily was amazing.... just something like this, I think...

    10 DIM code 12

    20 FOR opt=1 TO 3 STEP 2

    30 P%=code

    40 [OPT opt

    50

    60 *****INSERT ALL KINDS OF FUN ASSEMBLER HERE!*****

    70

    80 ]

    90 NEXT

  33. Ossi

    I had an electron. Loved it. I was more into programming than playing games (although I played Eclipse *a lot*). It helped me with my computer science GCSE (I was in the first year of GCSE's, so it still meant being able to program a computer back then, in lovely BBC BASIC). It's still got the best keyboard I've ever used. In fact, I've still got it. Just waiting for it to become a valuable antique now.

  34. Stuart Halliday

    I remember converting several BBC programs to the Electron.

    I even converted a £250 graphic/mouse BBC B program to the Electron. Not surprisingly, the company wasn't interested in releasing a 'low cost' Electron version.

    Oh happy days... :)

  35. Stuart Halliday

    Happy Days...

    I loved the way that RISC OS used vector based addresses.

    So when you needed to upgrade any part of the OS you just ran the new software. No need for a reboot.

    When I moved to Windows XP, it seemed so backwards and primitive.

  36. Sean O'Connor 1
    Thumb Up

    Thanks Acorn

    Still got my Electron in the garage. I've built my career on what I learned using my Electron when I was a kid so thanks to everyone who ever worked at Acorn!

  37. heyrick Silver badge

    Got two in a box...

    ...I really must dig them out and play, just for nostalgia's sake.

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

      Re: Got two in a box...

      If they haven't been powered up for a long time you may be disappointed.

      Old chips had pnp layers with large depletion zones. Powering up removed these zones and allowed current to flow.

      Over time, the depletions zones can actually get so large that when it draws enough power to ovecome them, the chip fries :(

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    For anyone who missed it,

    check out the brilliant tv drama "micro men" shown a few years ago....

    Brilliant viewing...

  39. robnww2

    What's the game they're playing in the advert?

    I've been after that game for years, does anyone know what it was called?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What's the game they're playing in the advert?

      I had a quick shufty at bbcmicrogames.com - seems to be Acornsoft's "Monsters!"

      1. robnww2

        Re: What's the game they're playing in the advert?

        Thank you

  40. AndyJT

    Electron - Your were wonderful, but now you make me look old!

    Its funny, I always felt sorry for the other kids who didn't have an Electron. I not only (and proudly) owned an Electron, but had a Plus 1 and a Plus 3 (3.5 inch floppy disks when everyone else was using 5.25 inch, It was like I was in Star Trek!) I even owned a Kensington Joystick port and had my electron upgraded by Slogger with a Turbo/64k memory upgrade. Spent many hours playing games and programming. When I first joined O-Level Computer Studies (late during Form 4), I was amazed as I could already program BBC Basic, leaving my classmates in the dust. I still remember my IT teacher saying you couldn't find out how much memory a program took, so I taught him HIMEM, TOP and PAGE. My friends spent too much time playing Jet Set Willy on their ZX Spectrums. Meanwhile I even got to Play ELITE before them, Commodore and Spectrum users had to wait a few years for Firebird to port it.

    I even learned to type (really typing without looking and using an electric typewriter), so I could type programs from Electron User magazine, and I didn't need to learn the RUBBER keyboard, I had a proper one. All I ever saw were Spectrum users with problems (remember the Spectrum plus, if you took it out of the box upside down, the keys fell out!). Yes I loved my Electron and maybe the little boy inside me still does. Problem is, the 30 year tag has me now as a dinosaur compared to the people I now work with (usually their first computer ran Windows XP!).

  41. The_Regulator

    This...

    Mannnn, never had an electron butdid have the xx spectrum with the cassette drive. It used to take 15-20 minutes to load up a game and then sometimes would crash tight at the end but bringing my friends over to play on my "sick" computer was awesome fun and is definitely one of my strongest early childhood memories.

  42. John 61
    Go

    My Electron is on the shelf as a constant reminder along with a Cumana disk drive, Slogger Disk Interface a PRES Plus 1 and a Viewsheet cartridge. I bought all the Input magazines (still have them somewhere) and read stories about older types who had bought houses by writing computer games. I wanted to get into this and do the same! Didn't happen though. I didn't leave enough time to complete my computer studies O level programs, so I had to borrow one. I flunked the exam by not documenting the programs properly. I also flunked my other exams, but used the electron until 2003 to do job applications and CV's, when the Star LC-10 printer finally packed up in March, shortly before my father died. It still works after 30 years, which is, I believe, a testament to it. It lives on along with all the games in a couple of emulators, where you can crank it up to the speed of a BBC B. Ransack (the only game I played on both machines) is absolutely nuts at 800% faster than normal!

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    I had one of those

    Still have it in the attic I think. I learned fast to use abbreviated commands in basic to speed up the games. So even BBC games keyed in from magazines worked fast.

  44. Stretch

    had one with tape drive

    wrote my first computer program on one of these, age 10.

  45. Fenton

    Two electrons

    I ended up with two electrons both with plus 1 expansion packs, one with the plus 3 (3.5"" floppy drive).

    I learned pascal and a pit of lisp via the cartridge slots.

    Best thing was you could slave the two together via the RS423 port, use one machine for graphics (i.e. use the full 20k for modes 01,2,3 but still retain the memory on the other machine for your programs.

    OK not good for real time graphics, but I cut my teeth on ray tracing with some quite complex models in memory. Took about a week to render.

    Also one of the best keyboards I've ever used.

  46. Robinson

    Atom?

    Oh jeez, you're talking about the Acorn Atom too. I had one of those. It had 12k of RAM (I think 5k was used for ROM actually, or the screen or something, I can't remember). It also had really annoying "snow" on the screen whenever you did graphics (if you didn't know about interrupts to get the timing right, which I didn't at the time).

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    plain text only no HMTL

    otherwise you might post links to videos on youtube of a sam coupe animation that is out of this world!

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