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Darren Waters

Remembering the BBC Micro

  • Darren Waters
  • 20 Mar 08, 08:48 GMT

Anyone over 30 is sure to feel a nostalgic glow whenever the BBC Micro is mentioned.

For almost the whole of the 1980s the Beeb, as it was known, was one of the main ways people in the UK accessed computer technology.

BBC MicroIt seems incredible now that the BBC, a broadcaster, partnered with a technology company and put its name on the machine at a time when computers were such an unknown entity.

I can't imagine that happening today - but then again, the BBC's involvement with Freeview, picking up the pieces from ITV Digital, has been arguably as forward thinking.

At the start of the 1980s the microchip revolution was beginning to crank into gear. But to most people a computer was something to be found in the office, in a factory, not in a home.

And an even greater number of people had no idea what to do with a computer.

But a handful of people in the BBC, among them producers John Criwaczekm, David Allen, and John Radcliffe felt differently.

I've been speaking to Tilly Blyth, a curator at the Science Museum, who is reuniting the heroes of the BBC Micro at the museum today.

She told me: "There was a doc that had been put together by Ed Goldwyn, who made Now the Chips are Down, and that caused quite major repercussions in government; questions were asked in parliament about what Britain was doing in the electronics industry."

The BBC drew up a set of specifications for a computer that could help introduce people to the power of the microchip and the corporation decided on Acorn after visiting companies like Dragon and Sinclair.

Elite on BBC MasterBut the BBC Micro was more than just a piece of hardware, it was a network.

Dr Blyth explained: "It was about education and it ran through networks of people interested in programming - teachers in colleges, through training programmes on the BBC.

"There were a lot of workshops set up to understand the BBC Micro."

It's an exaggeration to say the whole nation was programming in BBC Basic but thousands of people got their first experience of computer programming because of the Beeb.

My personal memories of the BBC Micro are strong

I can remember being taught to programme using Logo, and sending messages back and forth between machines because the BBC Micro was fully networkable.

In fact, it was simply to "take over" a BBC Micro by using the REMOTE command.

One of my abiding memories is playing Elite on the machine. Written by two university students, David Braben and Ian Bell, it re-wrote the rules for what was possible on a home computer.

A friend of mine was lucky enough to have a BBC Micro and we would spend days trying to improve our rank - Right On Commander! - climbing our way up from Harmless to Elite.

David Braben has kindly written a column for us, in which he highlights the impact the BBC Micro had in its day.

He also issues a rallying cry: calling on the spirit of the BBC Micro to live on and entice more students into computer science, maths and physics.

And that's an interesting point. What can be done by the private sector, by IT, and perhaps even by the BBC to once again drive people's understanding of the computer revolution?

Is it laughable to suggest that the BBC once again partner with a computer company? Could more be done online, where the BBC enjoys a giant presence?

Suggestions welcome....

Comments

I think the BBC does have the creativity to partner with a technology company to come up with something brilliant. The issue online is adverts though... I guess the BBc could use its curency (ie content/video/audio) to subsidise something cool for the end user...

ie

a mobile with iplayer embedded to provide access to BBC services to those who maynot be able to access...

a mobile provider cooks up a deal with a manufacturer

the BBC Mphone.

....I hope the cheques will be in the post.

Guy

You've inspired me to dig out my old BBC. I'm sure I've got a copy of Planetoid knocking about somewhere.

I believe theres several emulators knocking about and most of the games are public domain. Relive the memories!

  • 3.
  • At 10:33 AM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • James wrote:

It is an interesting question, I mean the world has changed so much in the last 30 years with regards to computing. Now it is common for households of people who are not even considered geeky to have 3 computers and a playstation, several GB or storage, a myspace and facebook site etc. etc.

I think the BBC now finds itself in a tricky place, a corporation with all the anxieties about p2p downloading culture and youtube rip-offs and also a public service who's content has already been purchased by the public through licence fees.

a quandry for them to navigate, and since they helped usher in the computer age, partly there own fault :-)

  • 4.
  • At 10:49 AM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Paul Cowper wrote:

I was born the year after the BBC Micro was released, How ever learning to program on the C64 when i was around 7, I took my programming hobby to my school aswell, which had many BBC Micros being used on a regular basis, some of the tutors who realised I had an interest helped me learn more and more.

Im now a software developer creating software that a lot of people around the world use.

And this is all thanks to the the C64 and the BBC. Without either of those I dont know what I would be doing now.

It is such a shame how ever that programming seems to be less important in schools now and often the schools do not have the resources to help a student who has an interest in programming.

The British computer industry needs a big push, To many projects are being outsourced to other countries.

Being a Geek or a Nerd for me is a term to be proud of, and a title that is earned not just given.

  • 5.
  • At 10:50 AM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Andy E wrote:

The good old days of the BBC Micro...i remeber playing killer gorilla and elite for hours on end. It was also the first machine i learnt to programme on properly. Happy days!!!

Friday afternoon's with Paul McCartney's All the Best tape playing in the background - Jet, C Moon - playing Elite.

Those were the days ...

  • 7.
  • At 11:11 AM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • James wrote:

Our school won a BBC-A in a competition.

While the BBC Micro was a long term success the one we got had a few of the teething troubles of new technology.

There was the manual index that referred you either to page zero or to a page number beyond the number in the manual.

There was the inability to read tapes from anything other than a hi-fi belonging to a physics teacher.

There was the fact that the case ran a "little hot", though we never did quite manage to fry an egg on it.

Despite all the above, it was great (if rather irritating) fun and I remember it with great fondness.

James

  • 8.
  • At 11:17 AM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • ady wrote:

We should use handhelds nowadays, for the same kind of education drive.
Cost, about $5 a pop.

Unfortunately gents like Mr Negroponte think a $100 laptop is needed, when a $5 handheld can do the same thing: Educate.

For anyone who is interested.
Get a Casio PV on ebay for $2
Load OWBasic 5.0 on it.

Voilla.
A handheld BBC type computer with 2 months of batterylife.
(and no crashes....)

We have the kit, we've had it for at least 10 years.
However the will and foresight are no longer there.

  • 9.
  • At 11:50 AM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Danny Monaghan wrote:

I'll always regret lending my sister my Beeb. I had graduated onto the Acorn Archimedes and lent her my model B for her kids. She gave it away to a kids club after her kids weren't interested :(

@ #11 --> thanks for the tipoff - i will look into that, it seems a cool idea

  • 11.
  • At 12:38 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • rod wrote:

Although I was brought up on a diet of many machines (Sinclair, Acorn and Atari), the BBC was always the one which was for "real stuff", namely as it was used in schools. Thanks to the fun spirit which existed at the time, and also teachers who were also discovering new technologies as they taught computing I have been lucky enough to work in IT R&D - developing many of the things which will be on sale in a few years time. Without the sort of fun spirit which existed then I doubt I would ever have been attracted in to the (slightly geeky) world of IT.

  • 12.
  • At 12:55 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • towny wrote:

Planetoid ... killer gorilla ... elite ... gargh, where's my step ladder, I need to get into the loft NOW!

Anyone interested in this sort of thing should get themselves up to Bletchley Park where they have the beginnings of a National Museum of Computing.

There's a BBC up there running and other gems like The Xerox Alto.

  • 14.
  • At 01:30 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Ewan wrote:

You may not be able to kick start innovation in the manner that you once could, but you could get out of the way.

The BBC's recent history in this area has been shameful, first ditching the creative archive project, then siding with two aggressive American monopolists against their own licence fee payers.

What you can do is provide platform agnostic, DRM free streams and downloads of our content, both video and audio, and stand back; we'll show you all the innovations you could conceive of, and some you can't, and we'll do it all for free.

  • 15.
  • At 01:34 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Andrew wrote:

Why can't it support Iyonix (the computer business of Castle - mentioned in the article today)? It runs RISC OS whose main native web browser has just secured some funding from web giant Google. See Drobe.co.uk for details!

  • 16.
  • At 02:24 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Ruth wrote:

I loved the BBC Micro. It started my addiction for programming and electronics at the age of 7. Recording programs from the radio in the middle of the night, spending ages waiting for things on tape to load, making single side 5 1/4 disks double side with a hole punch, taking joysticks to bits and plugging other electronic bits in to make controllers. Playing Granny's Garden at primary school as it was educational and therefore good for you. Learning vector co-ordinates on my own because I wanted to draw pictures on the screen. The beauty of assembly code !! Having a reading age of a university student when I was 10 years old because I spent all my time reading computer books. What a happy childhood ! I wouldn't have had it any other way. Thank you to all those who had a part in the BBC Micro !!

  • 17.
  • At 02:41 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Richard wrote:

Contrary to Ady in comment 8 I think the OLPC is a great idea! It's main advantages that I see are similar to those for the BBC Micro. You can get into the workings of it by hitting the source code button, learn how it works and presumably create your own programs. The language seems simple enough, just like BBC Basic was, so it allows for creativity.

Compared to a full blown Windows PC which is incredibly complex and comparatively very hard to program on, or a handheld which is tiny, the smaller than average laptop seems a great idea! I'd love to see them in this country.

I was brought up on the BBC Micro which did wonders for me, then Acorn Archimedes, then Linux. All of them increasingly complex as I grew older, but easily open to exploration and learning and programming on.

  • 18.
  • At 04:26 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • thomas wrote:

Hi,

This takes me way back to my youth. I used to love watching 'making the most of the micro' and 'the computer programme'. Does anyone know if these tv shows can be purchased anywhere today?

cheers

  • 19.
  • At 04:40 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Mal wrote:

At my school it seemed like the middle class kids were the ones who tended to own the BBC Micro. The rest of us either had a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64, plus a few with a Dragon 32, Oric Atmos or (BBC Micro's sibling) Acorn Electron.

Elite was the must have game for the BBC Micro, though most of the aforementioned rival computers eventually had a version for it, though never as good as the BBC version.

These days, there's unfortunately a lack of diversity when it comes to home computers, either PC or Mac and that's about it.

Also, users now have to decide they want to programme, choose a language and find applications to programme that language with, whereas the old home computers had an instantly accessible programming language in the form of BASIC which often drew in people that never considered giving it a go.

  • 20.
  • At 05:37 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Jonathan wrote:

Computers from the 1980s continue to be popular, with thousands of people still playing them, or emulating them. In fact, dozens of new games are released for 8-bit computers every year.

  • 21.
  • At 05:41 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • John wrote:

This was the best machine to have in it's day; particularly if you wanted to play a game like Elite, which blew my mind when I first saw it.

They were used everywhere, until the early 90's, I remember writing a normal distribution simulation on one at university.

I work in the software industry now and some of my colleagues are buying these machines and their peripherals up, because they think they might be worth something soon!

Personally I can't be bothered, I have enough electonic junk littering my house....

....if you want to play the old games and you don't have a machine, use an emulator on your PC.

Here come the Thargoids....

A little under 20 years ago I was working in a secondary school as a lab tech. One student was essentially blind but was still required to do science experiments. The Head of Science dumped a digital balance, an digital angle measureing devise and a specially adapted chart drawing plotter. All three plugged into various ports on the BBC Computer. With addition of a £12 text to voice program (no extra equipment required), it took me less then an afternoon to write the program in BBC Basic to control everything. It was that simple.

All the student need to do was attach various materials to the balance and the leave on the angle measuring devise. Pull down the leaver and out came a plot of force against stretch.

Wonderful machine.

  • 23.
  • At 06:25 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Jeremy Smith wrote:

I wrote my first commercial program on the BBC Micro - Technocad - and believe me, working with only 32 K of RAM was fun. But it sold well, was used by many schools across the UK and gave me the best post graduation eductaion I could have had. It also helped me on to a successful future in software design. So thank you BBC and Acorn.

  • 24.
  • At 06:28 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Jonathan wrote:

Computers from the 1980s continue to be popular, with thousands of people still playing them, or emulating them. In fact, dozens of new games are released for 8-bit computers every year.

  • 25.
  • At 06:42 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Jeremy Smith wrote:

I wrote my first commercial program on the BBC Micro - Technocad - and believe me, working with only 32 K of RAM was fun. But it sold well, was used by many schools across the UK and gave me the best post graduation eductaion I could have had. It also helped me on to a successful future in software design. So thank you BBC and Acorn.

I’m the same age as the BBC Micro, but I didn't have one of my own until about the age of 7. It was actually rather out of date by 1989 but with its own disc-drive it seemed an amazing improvement to my Acorn with its tape drive. I remember the excitement as my uncle Grahame dropped his over after he graduated up to a PC.

Learning BASIC was a logical stepping stone for me to learn Perl and later PHP, which I later used to launch a number of websites. What’s more annoying for me is that it’s actually quite easy to forget the languages when you’ve become a technology journalist rather than creator.

Good old BBC Micro, it was great and I still have one on the top of my cupboard.

  • 27.
  • At 07:33 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Steve Watkins wrote:

Ah fond memories.

As for the BBC's role in the future, I would think opensource and the web might be good avenues to explore. And theres no need to restrict it to programming and science these days either, the creative tools available gives a lot of room for other sorts of creativity to play a role.

The BBC could build a platform upon which people could write web-based programs which can then be seen and used by others. By carefully picking the right technology & languages to use, and offering a subset of that with a lot of good documentation and examples, and free online tools, you would substantially lower the barriers. People themselves could be encouraged to improve the tools, and some of the tools might be geared towards graphics, animation, storytelling, video, music, which other users could use to create original content that the BBC could promote.

Id love to talk more about this stuff if the opportunity ever arises.

  • 28.
  • At 09:06 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Paul Stodart wrote:

Unfortunately, my programming abilities never really progressed further than :

10 CLS
20 Print "hello !"
30 Goto 10


My greatest acheivement on the BBC was working out that in a game called "Thrust" the advanced "Reverse Gravity" levels were easy to complete if you turned the monitor upside down.

  • 29.
  • At 11:40 PM on 20 Mar 2008,
  • Paul wrote:

My first computer was a BBC micro it gave me the opportunity of leaning machine code and how computers work which is still standing me in good stead over twenty years later

My first programming experience was on these BBC comps. Way back in 1990's. And I've been hooked ever since. :)

I am from India and one of the first computers I laid my hands on was the BBC Micro. Computers in Indian schools 1980s were not common but I was lucky enough to go to a school which did have the BBC Micro and a few other computers.

that was the fastest computer in our computer lab at school and we had only one of them ...
i remember that we had to reprogram our delay times if we try to run our programs on this computer ...
amazing ...

I think the amazing thing about the early 1980s was not just that the home computers available back then were simpler in design without megabytes of OS, libraries, and the other stuff which makes it impossible to truly "know" a modern PC.

It was the fact that they were being treated by the BBC in particular as Serious Business - things like The Computer Programme talked about peripherals and memory maps and system architecture and programming, rather than today's "computer" programming which is almost universally entertainment-style stuff talking about games consoles. If PCs are even mentioned it's usually facile stuff about "Should I upgrade to Windows Vista?". The programming in the early 80s gave the kickstart to millions of kids to figure out what they could *really* do with their computers rather than just playing Manic Miner all day, which in the long run has turned out to be one of the best investments the BBC's ever made in the British economy.

The other problem is that the modern home PC boots directly into a shiny GUI. This isn't a problem as far as making them usable is concerned (it's a good thing!), but older machines which simply booted a language interpreter from ROM and dumped you at a prompt challenged the user to figure out more about what to do with them. Today's PCs running Windows don't even ship with a programming language as standard, and if they did there would be a much higher barrier to entry (even a skeletal application for Windows is tens of thousands of times more complex than the few lines of BASIC people bashed out as their first programmes in 1983).

What to do? Maybe the BBC should look at ways to develop deeper computer literacy than just running applications. A simple, BBC-endorsed or BBC-branded Linux distribution accompanying a series of programmes on how computers *really* work is one candidate for the backdrop of a second Computer Literacy Project. I'm sure there are millions of people who use PCs but secretly would like to know more about how these seemingly magical boxes really work - the key to the early 80s was that computers weren't treated as magical boxes, but as tools which could be understood.

Finally, in my last couple of years of primary school I was regularly "borrowed" out of lessons to set up the school's BBC Micro, load software, and so on - this may have led indirectly to my current career in system administration. I'm lucky enough to be working somewhere really interesting with lots of smart people and in a job I enjoy - and I have the early 80s home computing boom to thank for that.

  • 34.
  • At 06:26 PM on 23 Mar 2008,
  • Jules wrote:

It was the BBC Micro (Model B) that also got me interested in programming and electronics back in the 1980s.

At the time I was not able to afford the BBC Micro, but I did purchase the scaled-down version of it - the Acorn Electron (which didn't have 'MODE 7' and TELETEXT, polyphonic sound, and various hardware ports on it).

I still have the User-Guide and Advanced User-Guide manuals, lots and lots of games, the ROMBOX expansion unit, the BBC Micro (Model B) circuit diagram, 6502 Assembly Language programming books for both machines, 'The Complete Mouse User Guide' (from Watford Electronics) about the workings of the first (parallel) mouse for the BBC Micro, and 'VIEW' - the word-processor.

I recall recording programs/audio data streams off the radio (I think from BBC Radio) in the late 80's, and remember buying Acorn User and Electron User (sadly, I gave these away many years ago - they would have been worth a bit...).

Does anybody remember games such as Combat Lynx (the flight simulator by Durell Software), Jet Set Willy, Repton, PLAN-B, Arcadians, Danger UBX, Chuckie Egg, Mouse Trap, Starship Command, Thrust, and Ziggy ?

For me, the natural progression was from the BBC Micro & Acorn Electron to the Atari ST and then from the PC to Unix/Linux.

I thank Acorn Computers and all the 8-bit computer game manufactures around at the time for all the enjoyment and memories that both the Beeb and Acorn Electron gave me !

  • 35.
  • At 09:29 PM on 23 Mar 2008,
  • Richard wrote:

I couldn't afford a BBC micro, but eventually managed to stretch to a Sinclair ZX81 then Electron then Dragon 32 then Comodore 64 then Amstrad (had a couple of those), then AMIGA 500 then AMIGA 1200 then PC etc etc

Loved every minute of it, still have most of the machines. I now am a mainframe developer who has, in his time, programmed in Assembler, COBOL, SAS, JAVA, PERL script... although still secretly prefer Assembler programming.

The most amazing thing I have ever seen was a fully functioning chess game programmed in 1K of machine code on the ZX81. It was so tight that it used most of the screen memory for code space with the board just an 8x8 character matrix in the top left corner. You could actually see the code running..... You need REAL talent to program like that !

  • 36.
  • At 09:55 AM on 24 Mar 2008,
  • csrster wrote:

In Cambridge in the mid to late 1980's, beebs were used as terminals for connecting to the university mainframe. I wrote-up my PhD on one. They were definitely a lot more than a toy.

  • 37.
  • At 03:07 PM on 24 Mar 2008,
  • Dave wrote:

I had a BBC B in 1982 and rapidly got hooked. Elite has had a lot of mentions which is absolutely right; it was stunning, revolutionary and fast. It sold an unbelievable number of copies and even today I have a version of it that runs on an emulator on my PC!

BBC Basic was easy to use and I was able to use it for many useful things; even helping my dad with his home finances!

I still have a BBC B in the loft and hope - when we've finished extending the house, to find a space for it in the new office! I hope it still works! If it doesn't though -there are a number of emulators that do allow you to relieve the BBC experience.

Incidentally, my 12 year old son is more impressed by Elite than many of his playstation games.

  • 38.
  • At 02:29 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • thomas wrote:

Does anyone know if the 'making the most of the micro' and the 'computer programme' tv episodes are available to buy?

Love to see these again.

  • 39.
  • At 05:30 PM on 27 Mar 2008,
  • Sev wrote:

I'm only 24 and I have fond memories of learning to draw in Basic when I was at primary school! Admittedly it was a private school, but I dare anyone in government to suggest they teach computer programming to the under 11s now!

Also my father was a BBC engineer and he 'saved' 2 from the skip at work and got them working again (he built computers in his spare time) and I have strong memories of trying to load Elite in vain, and poring over the handbook before bed!

Needless to say I am now a full-fledged gaming addict with a paid up WoW account and a huge stack of other games to hand.

  • 40.
  • At 01:22 PM on 04 Apr 2008,
  • Denis Knowles wrote:

I purchased a BBC B Model in 1983. At the time I was MD of a TV mail order company, Tellydisc. It was the beginning of network communication with Data Link providing a service which allowed electronic messages to be sent.

Clive Leach, MD of Yorkshire Television, expressed interest in ITV competing with BBC and invited me to pursue the matter. I knew nothing of computers but was extremely interested in the future of supplying music commercially via electronic transmission. Richard Branson was also an early user of the BBC Micro and I remember sending a good luck message when he attempted the water speed record from New York to England.

My first point of contact was the editor of Commodore Computing magazine. We spoke of involving computer engineers to produce a bread board working model with a view to finding a manufacture. The incentive would have been the exposure it would have had if Clive Leach was able to sell the idea to the other ITV companies. But alas, there was no momentum and idea was shelved.

Still convince of the future for the electronic transmission of music I registered a company under the title of Villatronics, and abbreviation of the electronic village. But it clearly was too early. Also, with hindsight, the trading name was naive.

On July 9, 1987, I had lunch with John Deacon, Director General of the British Phonographic Institute that was funded by all the record companies. My objective was to persuade the BPI to allow me to work between computer companies and the record industry that would enable the industry to go through the learning curve in promoting and protecting intellectual copyright. But few executives if any outside of sound engineers understood the technology and could not relate to my objective.

Despite the problems that the record/music industry is experiencing with a downturn of CD sales, I am convinced that industry growth lies thoughtful use of the internet. The public will gladly pay for downloading tracks that are well presented and of course Apple iPod is currently the main tool. The BBC has a very large library of recorded music including 78 rpm and together with the National Sounds Archive could digitally re-record all analogue music to form a comprehensive library that musicologist and marketers could exploit.

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