BBC Micro


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

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 a couple of computers, a playstation, myspace and facebook pages, mobile phones with internet connections, etc...  But for a large chunk of the 1980s the 'Beeb', was one of the main ways people in the UK accessed computer technology.

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.  Looking back it's easy to see how that was about to change, but at the time the sponsorship of home computing by a large corporation such as the BBC was visionary.

The BBC ran a documentary called The Mighty Micro which discussed the impact upon life, industry and the economy of the microcomputer revolution, and then got involvemed with the Computer Literacy Project, aimed at increasing the public awareness of computers. The BBC decided that it needed a machine capable of demonstrating the power of the home computer in their new TV show, The Computer Programme. Showcasing graphics, sound and music, how to program and how to control external hardware.

The BBC drew up a set of specifications for a machine that could help introduce people to the power of the home computing and after speaking to companies like Dragon and Sinclair, Acorn computers was given the right to market their computers with the BBC brand and the computer literacy logo.

The Acorn Proton was released to the public in 1982, branded as the BBC model A, the model B followed not far behind, with enhancements including extra RAM and better graphics.  Sold for £299 and £399 respectively: the Model A containing 16kB of RAM, and the Model B 32kB. Additional models of the original BBC containing more memory were later introduced, such as the B+ and B+128, with 64 and 128kB of RAM respectively.

Like most 8-bit home computers, the Beeb featured a BASIC interpreter (BBC BASIC) which was accessed directly from the command line. It also featured a native assembler for writing machine code.

The advanced features of BBC BASIC are credited as being one of the major reasons for Acorn winning the BBC contract, although their comparatively advanced hardware features are also likely to have been a significant factor.

A range of pages on the BBC's CEEFAX teletext service were devoted to distributing source code for the examples demonstrated in The Computer Programme. An external teletext decoder allowed the teletext pages to be loaded via a modem. The decoder could also be used to access British Telecom's Prestel viewdata service.

There were all types of packages and educational games produced including simple ones like Podd, designed to get young classrooms thinking, where the object of the game is to find the 120 verbs that Podd can recognise (walk, clap, jump) and then the animated Podd would act out the verb.

Although intended ad an education machine it also became known as a gaming platform and an early technology for computer special effects. Many classic games were also produced for the Beeb, classic early platform games like Cholo, Chuckie Egg, and Elite.  In fact much of the cult status that Chuckie Egg earned was helped by the fact that schools used BBC Micro computers, and many schools had a copy of the game, introducing it to a wide audience of impressionable young gamers. 

Cholo had wireframe graphics where you control of a robot drone, taking over other more powerful robots to complete tasks (similar to that of Paradroid). The back story was set out in a novella which was included in the game's packaging.

Elite was the must have game for the BBC Micro, written by two university students, David Braben and Ian Bell, it re-wrote the rules for what was possible on a home computer. Though most of the rival home computers eventually had a version for it, they never seemed as good as the BBC version. You could lose days trying to improve your rank, climbing up from Harmless to Elite.

The BBC Micro was often used to provide graphics and sound effects for many early 1980s BBC TV shows. Including: The Adventure Game, (the BREAK key on the keyboard was covered by a plastic box to prevent accidental pressing by contestants); the children's quiz game "First Class" (where the onscreen scoreboard was provided by a BBC Micro nicknamed "Eugene"); and numerous 1980s episodes of Doctor Who had the Beeb displayed in one form or another whenever some graphic display was required.

It's amazing to think that initially Acorn anticipated the total sales to be around 12,000 units, but eventually more than 1.5 million BBC Micros were sold.  But there are so few out there in working order these days, if you have one, look after it.