Acorn and the BBC Micro: From Education to Obscurity
Low End Mac Reader Specials
Memory To Go Special: MacPro Memory With Apple Spec Heat Sink 2GB kit $346, 4GB Kit $704. MacBookPro / MacMini / iMac IntelCore DDR2-667 SODIMM 1GB $78, 2GB $550. G5 Dual/Quad Core DDR2 PC4200 1GB Kit $88, 2GB Kit $178. PowerBook G4 DDR2/4200 SODIMM 1GB $78. G5/iMac/MacMini DDR/ PC3200 1GB $89. PowerBook/iBook 1GB. SODIMM PC2700 $110. Flash Cards & Hard Drives AVAILABLE.
LA Computer Company: Specials on iMac's, MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iPod accessories, and AppleCare. Apple Original Airport Cards in stock. iPod batteries starting at $8. Call 1-800-941-7654 or Click Here.
Other World Computing: NewerTech NuPower iPod Replacement Battery for up to 20+ Hours Run time! Complete Kits include Tools + Online install videos from $19.99 for iPod 1st/2nd/3rd/4th/5th, mini, nano, photo models! Professional Install also available.
In the US, the Apple II was considered the gold standard in the education market. The machine was more expensive than its contemporaries, such as the Commodore 64 and TI-99, but it had a very large software library and was heavily discounted to educators. Its position in the market was augmented by Apple's Kids Can't Wait program, where every public school in California received a complete Apple II system.
Britain was a very different environment in the early 80s. Although Apple had established a European subsidiary in Brussels in 1981 (it later moved to Paris), it had yet to establish any kind of presence in the market beyond a small number of imported systems.
After 1981, the British microcomputer market would be shaken by an unremarkable home computer marketed by a very small company that produced computers based on the MOS 6502 processor (the same one found in Apple and Commodore computers) instead of a NEC Z80 workalike used in the popular Sinclair ZX80.
Acorn was founded in March of 1979 by two former Sinclair employees, marketing director Chris Curry and researcher Hermann Hauser. The company was based in Cambridge, where Hauser had received his PhD in 1977. The pair had left Sinclair to produce a better version of the MK-14 board computer, which was languishing at Sinclair. They used the inexpensive MOS 6502 (a clone of the Motorola 6800) instead of the Z80 workalike but retained the hexadecimal keyboard and LED display used in the MK-14.
|Acorn System 1
|CPU:||MOS 6502||RAM:||512 bytes/1 KB|
|Display:||8 character LED||Keyboard:||Membrane hexadecimal|
|Enclosure:||Exposed board||Price:||£75 kit, £91 assembled|
|Storage Medium:||Cassette Interface||Expansion:||Eurocard Bus|
The new computer was named the System 1 and was made available in catalogs in kit form (like the MK-14). Besides the 6502 CPU, it had 512 bytes of memory. The computer sold for £91 preassembled - and for less in kit form.
For the first couple months of its existence, Acorn used office space borrowed from Sinclair. Ironically, a few months after Curry and Hauser founded Acorn, Sinclair decided to pursue the microcomputer market and would become Acorn's biggest early competitor.
Birth of the Atom
The System 1 did reasonably well for a kit computer, but Chris Curry had an epiphany that would make Acorn a world player in the microcomputer market. According to Hauser (subscription required), "Chris had this great marketing idea that if the System 1 had a nice case, it would have market appeal."
In 1980, the firm put its limited resources into adapting the System 1 for use as a home computer (with more memory, an integrated keyboard, and a display interface for televisions) and buying ads with very high resolution photographs in Everyday Practical Electronics, one of the early publications to embrace the microcomputer enthusiast.
|Acorn System 2
|CPU:||MOS 6502||RAM:||32 KB|
|Display:||PAL RF Modulator||Keyboard:||Full Travel|
designed all in one (identical to the Acorn Atom)
|Storage Medium:||Cassette Interface||Expansion:||Optional serial, parallel interfaces|
Preassembled, the System 2 sold for almost the same amount as the System 1, £200. In all, Acorn sold 10,000 System 2s, helping finance two new models: the System 3, which was a minor upgrade from the System 2 (it included an integrated disk drive), and the Acorn Atom, which was a cut down System 3 with a cassette interface rather than a disk drive.
Over 20,000 Atoms were sold over its life span, making it the most popular pre-BBC Acorn micro in the UK.
Beyond the Atoms
With plum sales on the System 2 and Atom, Acorn was in a position to make a discontinuous jump. By 1981, it was clear that the days of 8-bit microprocessors, including the MOS 6502, were numbered. Additionally, MOS had been acquired by Commodore, a direct competitor to Acorn.
There was a debate within the company on what technology the next Acorn should be based on. The 68000 processors from Motorola were showing up in workstation designs and would be affordable enough for consumers in later iterations (most notably the Commodore Amiga, which began development in 1981 at Atari; it would also power Apple's Lisa and Macintosh as well as Atari's ST series). Intel CPUs had gained wide acceptance after the release of the IBM PC 5150 in 1981.
Unfortunately for Acorn, the new processor designs would require too much time.
In 1981, Sinclair was speaking publicly about his home computer designs, and the machinations of Newbury Laboratories were widely known. If Acorn was going to become a market leader in the UK, it would have to release its product quickly - and ideally undercut its competition.
After a long internal debate, a specification was drafted by Hermann for the Acorn Proton, and Roger Wilson, one of the engineers at Acorn, designed it. The chief advantages of the Proton over the Atom were to be better graphics and sound. The enclosure and the software were to remain identical to the System 2.
There was no release date set for the design, although it would be released "very soon".
Enter the BBC
The BBC had taken an interest in the microcomputer market after Dr. Christopher Evans produced and hosted a very popular documentary, The Mighty Micro, which predicted the rise of the microcomputer and home computers in particular. The BBC created the BBC Computer Literacy Project (with an owl logo) that would include TV shows and a BBC-branded microcomputer that would be deployed in British homes and schools to teach children programming and to augment other subjects with educational programs.
The entire program (TV shows and all) was scheduled to begin in fall of 1981, so there would be no time to develop an in-house design.
Sinclair's scion, the Newbury Laboratories, had created the NewBrain, which was being considered as the official BBC microcomputer that would be featured in the TV programs. Newbury had actually collaborated with the BBC so that the specifications for the BBC microcomputer would be almost identical to their NewBrain. Supposedly at the behest of Sinclair, the BBC opened up the selection process to accept proposals of other companies.
The NewBrain was very primitive compared to the Atom (and especially the Proton) or most other British micros, but it was cheap. It had a membrane keyboard and a one-line vacuum fluorescent display. The more expensive model included a TV interface, though it was monochrome.
Unfortunately for Newbury, they failed to enter the NewBrain into the competition, as the company would be unable to fill large orders.
Chris Curry got wind of Newbury's opting out of the competition and built enough Protons for the BBC to evaluate over a period of four days (most of the team working on the Proton, including Roger Wilson, believed that it would be impossible to prototype the machine so quickly) using the help of graduate students at Cambridge to wire wrap the prototypes.
The Proton was submitted to the BBC for consideration. Sinclair and Dragon (which had essential produced a Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer clone) also submitted designs that were priced well below the Proton's proposed price of £235.
The Proton was the machine that most closely fit the original specification, since the Sinclair and Dragon did not include networking. Further, the Proton had superior graphics to the Dragon, so it was selected as the official computer of the BBC Computer Literacy Project, which was rescheduled for spring 1982, giving Acorn enough time to bring the Proton (renamed the BBC Micro) into production and for the BBC to adapt the TV shows and literature to the Acorn design.
Acorn was officially awarded the contract in April 1981. It stipulated the company would have 12,000 BBC Micros read for mail order by spring of 1982.
|BBC Micro Specifications
|CPU:||MOS 6502||RAM:||16/32 KB|
|Display:||PAL RF Modulator||Keyboard:||Full Travel|
designed all in one
|Storage Medium:||Cassette Interface||Expansion:||Optional serial, parallel, networking interfaces|
Acorn instantly became the preeminent home computer company in the country and was very well reviewed. Even though its products were far more expensive than some of their competition from Sinclair, Acorn maintained a very high market share and remained the dominant computer brand in education well into the 90s and the advent of multimedia PCs.
The BBC Computer Literacy Project took advantage of the BBC Micro in several different ways. In the first BBC computer literacy TV show, The Computer Programme, every episode would include BBC Basic programming examples and instruction on the operation of the BBC Micro in general. Later programs from the Computer Literacy Project would include instructions and news on other platforms - but usually included a segment devoted to the BBC Micro.
Primary schools across Britain (and some colleges and universities) were outfitted with entire networks of BBC Micros, which was possible through an inexpensive add-on that featured the Motorola 6859 networking controller (it would also be used in AppleTalk on the original Macintosh two years later).
Dozens of software houses produced educational programs for the BBC Micro, some of which are still used today, not unlike eduware for the long-lived Apple II.
Competition for the BBC Micro was also similar to the Apple II. The BBC Micro was significantly more expensive than its competition (the Sinclair ZX Spectrum cost £80), but its superior software library (and the infamous membrane keyboards used in Sinclair micros) made the BBC Micro an easy choice for many consumers.
The explosive growth of Acorn hindered its ability to cope with the changing microcomputer industry. In 1982 alone, it had sold more than 24,000 computer, twice the number the BBC had required in its contract. By the end of its run, there had been over 1 million BBC Micros sold in the UK and Europe.
Acorn had difficulty scaling to the huge demand for BBC Micros. Offices were established across England and Wales, but they were perpetually swamped with orders and service requests.
Beyond the BBC Micro
Little attention was devoted to the next major successor to the BBC Micro: ARM (Acorn RISC Machine), Archimedes, and Arthur OS (subsequently renamed RISC PC and RISC OS respectively). The Archimedes was notable for being the earliest RISC home computer, but it would fail to become popular because of limited software selection and competition from companies like Amstrad and Apple.
Licensing fees from the ARM line (used in the Apple Newton and countless embedded applications) somewhat supplanted revenues from poor microcomputer sales.
In 2000, after a decade of disappointing microcomputer sales, Acorn was broken up. ARM Holdings survived, eventually being rolled into Intel. The Acorn brand was recently licensed to a company selling OEM notebooks.
Recent Orchard articles
- Power Computing: Fighting back for the Mac or stealing Apple's customers?, 02.20. Power Computing, the first company to sell licensed Macintosh clones, seemed more interested in stealing Apple's high-end customers than expanding Mac the market.
- The Pixar Story: Dick Shoup, Alex Schure, George Lucas, Steve Jobs, and Disney, 01.22. From pioneering digital video work done at Xerox PARC and the creation of SuperPaint to Pixar's current position as a digital animation powerhouse.
- What's in a name? Apple Corp vs. Apple Computer, 01.10. Apple Inc. has dropped "Computer" from its name. Here's a look at its three-round battle with the Beatles' Apple Corps.
- More in the Orchard index.
Recent Content on Low End Mac
- 12" PowerBook G4 the new Pismo?, recovering MacBook Pro wakeup failure, MacBook Pro noise, and more, The 'Book Review, 03.02. Also why you should buy a MacBook Pro, Apple Store's inefficient RAM upgrade, PB/iBook lower RAM slot failure, bargain 'Books from $209 to $2,299, and more.
- $25 802.11g card for PCI Macs, drive support for 802.11n AirPort Extreme, Adtron ups flash disks, and more, Mac News Review, 03.02. Also firmware update info for Intel Macs, washable medical mouse and keyboard, TechTool Protogo, and more.
- 20 years of expandable Macs started with the Macintosh SE and II in 1987, Dan Knight, Mac Musings, 03.02. Until March 2, 1987, Macs were closed boxes with no internal expansion slots, no support for color, and no internal hard drives. The Mac II and SE changed all that.
- Low End Mac's best 12" PowerBook G4 deals, Low End Mac Deals, 03.02. Used 867 MHz Combo, $499; SD, $679; 1 GHz Combo, $640; SD, $730; 1.33 Combo, $695; SD, $800; refurb 1.5 Combo, $1,099; SD, $1,199.
- Low End Mac's best Mac mini deals, Low End Mac Deals, 03.02. Used 1.42 GHz G4 Combo, $499; 1.5, $529; refurb 1.66 Core Duo SD, $649; 1.83, $699; new 1.66 Combo, $574 a/r; SD, $729; 1.83, $774 a/r.
- Mac of the Day: Centris 610 (2/93-10/93), the Mac we used when we started Low End Mac in 1997.
- List of the Day: Replace Claris Home Page Group working to develop an up-to-date replacement for Claris Home Page.
- March 2 in LEM history: 87: Mac SE - Mac II - 98: Newton becomes history - 99: A promising new browser - 00: Don Crabb, I truly never knew you - 01: That 70s iMac - Batteries for PB 3400 and Kanga - 05: The 2005 eMac: Where do we go from here? - Mac mini to lure Mac-phobic - 06: Replacing your iPod's battery - The Low End Mac Media Center - Mac mini gets Intel Core
- CrossOver: Run Windows apps on Intel Macs without Windows, Alan Zisman, Mac 2 Windows, 02.28. If you need to run Windows apps on your Intel Mac once in a while, CrossOver may be the least expensive way to do so since it eliminates the need to buy a copy of Windows.
- Low End Mac's best Power Mac G4 deals, Low End Mac Deals, 02.28. Used 350 MHz DVD, $100; 450, $150; 533, $200; 867 SuperDrive, $619; 500 dual, $250; 533, $539; 867, $689; 1.25 GHz, $699; 1.42, $879.
- Low End Mac's best MacBook Pro deals, Low End Mac Deals, 02.28. New 15" 2.16 GHz Core Duo, $1,599 after rebate; refurb Core2, $1,599; 2.33, $1,899; new 17" Core Duo, $1,888; refurb Core2, $2,299.
- More links in our archive.
Best Used Macs
Used Mac Dealers
The Mac Observer
Accelerate Your Mac
Mac Driver Museum
Mac vs. PC Info
The Mac Observer
Accelerate Your Mac
Mac Driver Museum
System 6 Heaven
Mac vs. PC Info