While the iconic Sinclair ZX Spectrum often gets the lion’s share of the credit for pioneering the use of computers in the UK, it was the BBC Micro that did most to create the first generation of Brits who could actually use them properly.
The gaming-centric Spectrum and, of course, the Commodore 64 may have dazzled with a new form of entertainment, but the BBC Micro brought a vital education focus and took pride of place as the first computer in the majority of schools around the country.
It was born as the lovechild of the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project and built with the idea of accompanying a schedule of new television programming aimed at educating the masses on the new home-computing craze.
Not famed for its hardware-design skills, the BBC issued a tender and commissioned Acorn (beating out a Sinclair bid!) to build the Micro, which was an effective successor to the Acorn Atom microcomputer.
The idea was extremely sound. The Micro was to be the star of 1982’s ‘The Computer Show’. Everything spoken of in the show could be demonstrated on the computer the BBC hoped viewers would have at home.
Unveiled in 1981 and initially called the Acorn Proton, the machine far exceeded the BBC’s requests for a no compromise, state of the art machine. The corporation slapped its name on this device and the ‘Beeb’ was born.
Launch and versatility
Following a delay to iron out production flaws, the BBC Micro went on sale the following year and arrived in two flavours; the £235 (later £299), 16KB ‘Model A’ and the £335 (later £399) Model B which had 32KB. It had a 2MHz processor, which is more than a thousand times slower than the computers of today. It had no monitor and had to be hooked up to a TV.
The computer, housed within a sufficiently large and ultra-rugged keyboard, was renowned for its advanced operating system, but mostly for its limitless expandability. Users could add a large array of accessories like disk drives, hard drives, joysticks, printers, Teletext adaptors, speech synthesisers, networking devices and more.
Users could also upgrade the software and the system by adding to the motherboard. All of these traits represented something most of the Micro’s rivals could not offer.
As well as landing in 80% of schools around the UK, the BBC Micro also united groups of people interested in programming. The BBC BASIC programming language was considered the fastest and easiest to use of its time - even for young children. It yielded a veritable army of talented and enthusiastic developers who went on to found companies like Codemasters, Autonomy, Wolfram Research and Songkick.
The BBC Micro was no slouch in the gaming department either. Despite the Spectrums and Commodores receiving most of the credit, plenty of top titles were written for the BBC Micro, including the legendary and ground breaking space game Elite.
All in all, the BBC Micro proved to be a huge success. The corporation initially wanted 12,000 made, but within a year 24,000 were sold.
After A and B, plenty more models followed (there were 9 in total), most notably the 1986 BBC Master, which came with 128KB of memory as standard and was sold right up until 1994. In total, the BBC Micro sold 1.5m units during its 12-year run.
Downfall and legacy
With the arrival of more powerful machines - namely the Windows PCs powered by Intel’s early Pentium processors - the BBC Micro computers faded from the classrooms and, sadly, coding’s place in the curriculum seemed to disappear with it.
The resulting dearth of British coding and programming talent has been mourned by academics ever since.
However, with any luck, it could be on the way back thanks largely to the Raspberry Pi computer (above), the tiny, £20 credit-card sized modular computer, whose makers were hugely inspired by the impact of the BBC Micro.
Ironically, the ultra-affordable Raspberry Pi is based on the ARM processing architecture originally developed by Acorn for the BBC Micro. ARM systems are still used to power a massive array of smartphones, tablets and computers across the world and the company remains one of the jewels of Britain’s technological crown.
If the Raspberry Pi is able to have the same impact in schools and on the nation’s children as its ideological forebear, then British programming and coding talent could once again lead the world.