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BBC Micro ignites memories of revolution

BBC Micro


More than 26 years after Cambridge company Acorn and the BBC united to produce a computer to help educate the UK about the IT revolution some of the principal creators of the machine have gathered to remember its legacy.

The casings may be slightly worn and the manuals a little dog-eared but a handful of BBC Micros were fired up at the Science Museum on Thursday as part of a Computer Conservation Society event to mark the legacy of the BBC Micro, know fondly as the Beeb.

Four of the architects of the Beeb - Hermann Hauser, Steve Furber and Sophie Wilson who worked at Acorn and former BBC executive producer John Radcliffe - explain in their own words how the BBC Micro came to be created and the impact it had.

STEVE FURBER

In March 1981 we knew the BBC were interested in Acorn. Hermann Hauser told us that the BBC were coming five days before they arrived but we didn't even have a machine.

But we had built several computers already so we were able to build a prototype for the BBC in five days, which I remember as being five days and four nights.

There was a huge gap between what the BBC wanted and what we had planned to build. Their technical specification was basically a Z80 (processor) machine running CP/M (an operating sytem). What they contracted from Acorn was a 6502 (processor) machine running a proprietary operating system.

We ultimately delivered that through the second processor which could be added to the BBC. We did get there in the end

I think their key reason for wanting that specification was that there was a reasonably established market and they felt that with estimate of 12,000 machine sales they'd need to fit into an existing market.

The reality to turned out completely at odds to that: BBC sales completely swamped that of Z80. More than 1.5 million were sold and the BBC became defacto the computer to build software for.

BBC Micro
The BBC Micro was released at the end of 1981

I don't think anyone at the outset anticipated the scale of the take up. Clearly once we were talking to the BBC we were aiming for the market they were planning to target their programmes at, which I think was somewhere in schools but also across to more enthusiastic homes.

They were trying to move it out of the geek hobbyist sector because they saw this technology was going to affect everybody, particularly in business.

We very much felt like pioneers; although we weren't quite the first. We knew that Apple had come out with the Apple II, which in many ways had a similar position in the US market to the one the Beeb had over here.They were a couple of years ahead of us.

We had useful technical advantages over the Apple coming later; we ran the processor twice as fast and of course the Beeb had a lot of interfaces and probably proved to be the most expandable home computer there has ever been.

We had done networking with Atom as an upgrade - which was satisfactory - and that technology wasn't built into every machine and this of course was 10 years before general population began to get involved with the world wide web.

Technically the BBC Micro really caused Acorn to grow and was responsible for the development of the ARM processor, which followed very shortly after the BBC Micro. And the ARM is now the world's dominant architecture in the mobile embedded space, with absolutely unbelievable numbers. They have just past their 10,000 million point.

The other legacy which keeps coming back to me is that a generation of people cut their computing teeth on the BBC Micro so I still meet people who say they did their first computing on the Beeb.

Steve Furber is Professor of Computer Engineering at Manchester University.

HERMANN HAUSER

We knew we were in a competition; there were six firms the BBC talked to and one of them was our arch-enemy Sinclair. We knew we had to work very hard to come up with a solution that was better than Sinclair.

It was a wonderful rivalry: Sinclair and Acorn at the time were the two key competitors in the space and we egged each other on. There was a lot of local rivalry attached to it also.

Steve Furber had been working on a machine we called the Proton, although this was really a machine that was still a vision more than any concrete design. It was quite a specific and worked out vision so when the BBC came with their requirements it was very ambitious as the specification was way above anything that was available at the time.

It was a real stretch but a stretch that a young company enjoys.

One very interesting complaint that I have from lots of computer science departments now is that people don't learn how to programme at school anymore. When they use PCs they don't programme them. When they used BBC Micro they programmed them themselves because it was so simple to write in BBC Basic.

It was this generation that grew up programming BBC Basic that is partially responsible for the tremendous position we have in gaming.

One of the great advantages of working with the BBC apart from the tremendous publicity, was the specification it gave to us, in terms of graphics, speed and networking.

It's hard to say if we would have specified a computer similar to the BBC Micro if we had not been approached by the BBC.

The sad part of the story is that we missed a trick. We were so far ahead of the game - and I remember when Bill Gates visited us and I showed him an operating system that was much more developed than MS DOS at the time. We thought this was a clear advantage; not realising that the game had changed and the real advantage was standards.

We would never thought of giving our operating system away; it was our crown jewels. The same thing was true of our Econet, our networking system. We were way ahead with our networking. I remember Bill Gates marvelling at our networking because he didn't know about networking at the time.

By keeping it proprietary we were fighting Intel and Microsoft on their home turf and there was no way that a little company from England could win that. In a way the surprise is how long Acorn managed to hold out. For 10 years we managed to beat Intel and Microsoft with a product that was much more powerful. Our products were more powerful than PCs for 10 years.

Acorn became the Fairchild of Cambridge (Chip maker Fairchild spawned Silicon Valley in the US). There are about 100 companies which can trace their origins back to Acorn and some of them - ARM, CSR, Verata - are billion dollar companies which are bigger than Acorn could ever have hoped to be.

Hermann Hauser is the co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, a venture capital company.

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SOPHIE WILSON

Hermann had agreed with the BBC to show a prototype of a machine which at that stage was only in my head and we'd only discussed it. He sequentially rang up Steve (Furber) and myself and told each of us that the other had agreed to do it.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday we had to draw a circuit diagram of what we were going to build and find all the components and we wanted very specialised things like 4MHz Dram memory chips which didn't really exist at the time; I had read about it in a data book by Hitachi.

We had things like Hitachi reps showing up with the four Drams that were in the country. We built early machines by hand but the BBC machine prototype was built in wire wrap.

Hermann knew people in the Cambridge computer lab who wire-wrapped their equipment and we got a man called Ram Banarjee to come and help us. He was nick-named the fast gun in the West and was a demon at wiring things. [Wire-wrap is a simple way to prototype equipment].

We built the actual machine Wednesday night, and into Thursday evening and then of course it didn't work and we had to start debugging it.

That debugging took all Thursday evening into Friday morning. I had to go home and get some sleep because I knew I would have to write some software for the machine.

I came back 6am Friday morning by which time it was working.

By the time the BBC people arrived at our offices we had an operating system and Basic interpreter running so that we could type on the screen and that stuff could come out.

Before they left we had random graphs showing on the screen.

We were fairly confident we had built something that would stay working during the demonstration. It was a rush to try and alter things to a state that we thought would be interesting to look at, to show them things they would understand.

It was a massive arms race to build the machine into reality - it meant designing two logic arrays - what we call today system on a chip - one for video and the other for a cassette interface and get all of that ready.

We also had to write the operating system and software to a spec that the BBC wanted.

I think there were five of us in the offices writing the operating system for the machine on the day Charles and Diana got married. We had a little TV in the office and had a five minute break to watch her walk down the aisle and then we were back programming and soldering.

We realised it was something special because before there were even production machines we were involved in technical help for the TV programmes. The very first TV programme that came out, Steve and I were there in the studio making sure the machines performed.

Steve to this day says he remembers he had a soldering iron and I was programming busily to make the machines work.

People wanted to know about computers. It was a unique moment in time when the public wanted to know how this stuff works and could be shown and taught how to programme.

Sophie Wilson is chief architect at Broadcom.

JOHN RADCLIFFE

It was very radical and unusual thinking; we did it because the BBC felt it was necessary.

The BBC looked at it on all sides very cautiously. BBC Engineering and Engineering Research had a very positive view and the fact they thought it would be educational and beneficial to the BBC technically was a factor which weighed with top management.

We were in the business of developing computer literacy. We had 10 television programmes but people don't learn very much from programmes. There's nothing like getting your hands on a machine to find out what it can and can't do, what it consists of.

We had this notion that we needed a computer associated with the project, that we could do demonstrations in the studio and that people could go out and buy it and use it in the home.

In order to do that we had to have a standard; a software standard that ran right through the programmes and that standard was BBC Basic.

That was the underlying rationale of having the Micro.

Seven companies were identified by the Department for Trade and Industry as being possible candidates. We wrote to them all with our specification and six bid.

We looked at the bids very carefully, with BBC engineers and consultants from outside and we decided that Acorn was the best offer.

We were surprised by the reaction. We had audiences between 500,000 and 1.2 million late night on BBC One. We managed to reach 16% of the adult population with one programme or another; so our reach was very wide.

We had a basic book, The Computer Book, following the series and 80,000 copies were sold in half a year; we had a course to learn BBC Basic in 30 hours and 120,000 copies were sold.

The penetration of the project into the population was very great.

This wasn't just because of our genius; it was because it was timely. There was enormous curiosity about the subject, about computing.




SEE ALSO
'Beeb' creators reunite at museum
20 Mar 08 |  Technology
Looking back at a computing icon
20 Mar 08 |  Technology
Home computing pioneer honoured
29 Dec 07 |  Technology

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