Page last updated at 09:06 GMT, Thursday, 20 March 2008

Looking back at a computing icon

In 1981 the iconic BBC Micro computer was unleashed on the public.

As a new exhibition at the London Science Museum that explores its legacy is announced, games developer David Braben looks back at its role in UK computing.

BBC Micro
Almost 1.5 million BBC Micro machines were eventually sold
How different people's perceptions of computers were back at the start of the 1980s; it seems incredible to believe now, but computers were fashionable back then.

Endless hours were wasted by many, fruitlessly typing in improbably long programs from magazines only to end in disappointment when their program didn't work.

More hours were frittered away listening to a cassette recorder connected to a BBC Micro or Spectrum as it screeched out a noise not unlike a number of fingernails being scraped across a blackboard in unison - to load a program that would be smaller in data size than an email today.

But it was great, and we all greedily lapped up these indignities so that we could play the numerous different versions of Space Invaders and Pacman in our own homes.

Hello, hello, hello

We were all expected to program these little machines too.

They all came with a computer language called BASIC and tutorials showing how to write programs were provided with the machines.

Few progressed much beyond programs that said "HELLO" thousands of time on the screen, and gradually this started the simmering resentment that has all but killed off the burgeoning creative spirit of learning at the time that drew many people into writing software.

The rise of terms like 'geek' and 'nerd' by the dullards who were afraid to try, guaranteed that later generations would be embarrassed to be seen programming in their spare time.

David Braben
The BBC Micro and its competitors created a generation of software experts here in the UK
David Braben

Gone now, are the days of the bedroom programmer.

This has a real impact today, with entrants to University courses in Computer Science, Maths and Physics at the lowest level they have been for decades.

The BBC Micro was the desirable gadget of its day.

We may look back at it and gasp at the simplicity of it; mock the statistics like 16K of memory (expandable to 32K), or the 2Mhz speed of the processor, but it was this very simplicity that was its charm.

It was easy to program, easy to understand, and so the perfect way to learn.

I look back on it (and its earlier stable-mate the Acorn Atom) fondly because of this simplicity.

You felt that you couldn't break it by doing something stupid - you simply pressed the BREAK key to reset it and all was fine again merely a second later, which encouraged experimentation.

Come again

In comparison, modern PCs are fragile - it is so easy to do something by accident that takes a lot of knowledge to recover from.

I suppose the nearest equivalent today is the iPhone in terms of the difficult-to-explain desirability; perhaps we will be looking back dewy eyed at the iPhone in a few decades time.

I was lucky enough to be one of those people that cut their programming teeth during these heady days, and I am forever grateful for it.

Elite logo
David Braben was one of the co-developers of Elite

It was the start of the Thatcher decade; clearly a mixed blessing, but it was also a time when learning was celebrated rather than criticised, and for me the BBC Micro is the symbol of this, and the fact that the august BBC were part of this process, together with a series of TV programmes was fantastic.

In comparison, today's celebration of the mundane through the sound-bite culture of instant gratification is hateful. Nothing worthwhile is easy, but requires a significant investment of time.

The BBC Micro and its competitors created a generation of software experts here in the UK, and a powerful industry arose from it - a real British success story.

Until recently the UK games sector was third in the world. It is now fourth after Canada, still with a strong balance of trade, but we need to halt this exodus.

It would be great to see the spirit of the BBC Micro live on today; perhaps the excitement of being part of perhaps the most important entertainment sector of the future can be used to entice students into Computer Science, Physics and Maths?

This is something I really care about, and you never know; it may just happen.

David Braben, along with Ian Bell, co wrote Elite - the most successful game made for the BBC Micro. He is currently Chairman of Frontier Developments.

Home computing pioneer honoured
29 Dec 07 |  Technology
Honours for Eighties tech heroes
31 Dec 01 |  Science/Nature
Novel gaming devices go on show
19 Dec 06 |  Technology
The golden age of videogames
23 Nov 07 |  Technology


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