The BBC Computer

In the early 80's, there was one development that exploded onto the consumer scene, with an unbelievable force - the Home Computer. This really was the dawn of a new computer age, suddenly the computer became not just an expensive business product, or something which could be seen down at the local arcade, in a big cabinet, displaying the latest variant of Space Invaders, but as something that the everyday person could have in their home.

1979

In 1979, two Cambridge graduates, Herman Hausser and Chris Curry formed a small company based near Cambridge University called Acorn Computers Ltd. It was from her that they set about designing a simple 8-bit computer which eventually came to be known as the Acorn Atom. Supplied ready-made or in kit form (as was the trend), it had only 4k of RAM, but was very easy to build on to. Remember, this was before the 80's Home Computer boom had got into full swing, the only people that purchased computers of this kind were Electronics Hobbyists, and there was no real software as such. The machine was designed to be programmed, and the Atom was a pretty good kit-computer for the day.

Following the small success of the Atom, Acorn were working on a new computer which was provisionally known as the Acorn Proton, which, of all things was going to include parallel processing and the ability to interface with industry standard peripherals and the like, something which had not really been attempted for a Home Computer at the time. It was then that the company heard of the BBC's need for a computer for their Computer Literacy project. They had been working on a design with another small Cambridge based company, but things were not progressing so they decided to offer round the work to other companies. Acorn were offered the work, as were Sinclair computers, but it was Acorn who caught the eye of the BBC.

It was the night before Acorn computers had to officially display their prototype to the members of the BBC, the hardware design had progressed almost to completion, but for the high-resolution mode, however the systems software was severely lacking, there wasn't even an OS for the machine yet. In one night however, Curry and Hausser set to work and managed to produce a working, if buggy, OS and complete the machine hardware. They showed the machine to the BBC who were delighted with it, it exceeded all specifications which the BBC had laid down, and they were awarded the contract - without which they would have probably faded into oblivion as did many other companies in the area.

1981

The BBC Models A and B go on sale...the Model A with 16k of RAM and the Model B with 32k, selling at 299 and 399 respectively. This was rather expensive for the time, and as a result it was classed as a computer for the middle-classes, but you got a lot for the money, the Model B was by far the most interfacable computer around, more so than PCs of the time.

The machines impressed from the start, news of their excellent build quality and high stability won the company great plaudits, and sales began to increase each month. There was a backlog of orders from people who required a disc interface fitted, Acorn was already having trouble supplying this as the interface chip they used, the 8271 was in good supply around the time of the original blueprint, but had started to become rarer by 1981/1982. Nevertheless, thousands of machines were sold, and the company enjoyed healthy profits.

1982

Throughout 1982, the backlog for machines grew, but Acorn eventually moved into bigger premises and set up an efficient production line for the machines, a demand for which increased throughout 1982. The government was quick to see the benefits of the computer in schools, and announced it was officially backing the BBC Model B as the recommended computer for schools.

During this time, Acorn decided to expand into the USA with the new computer, and set aside 11 million for the marketing of the machine in Northern and Central America. Sales of the machine were awful, it couldn't compete against the American built Apple II, which had been an established Home Computer there since the late 70's. Machines built for the American market were modified slightly to cope with the difference in TV standards, but hardly any were sold in the States, it enjoyed slighly more success in Canada, but not enough to stop Acorn's complete withdrawl from the market there. It had been an expensive mistake, and one which the company would later come to regret.

1983

The Model B was selling well to Educational establishments and richer families, but Acorn enjoyed a distinct lack of success against the big selling Home Computers the Sinclair Spectrum and the Commodore 64. This was something that Acorn tried to remedy with the launch of the Acorn Electron, a scaled down BBC Micro, it had 32k RAM, but the interfaces were slimmed down, and it was not as fast as BBC Model B. Due to extremely poor marketing (a skill which Acorn never ever managed to obtain) the Electron floundered amongst its competitors, and was commercially dead in the water little more than 18 monthes after its initial release.

Acorn had paid for the success of the Model B in the UK and Europe with the failures of it in the US and the Electron, this coupled with falling demand for the Model B in late 1983, saw them slide into financial difficulty. The well oiled production machine had to be slowed, and in the end Hausser and Curry sold 80% of Acorn Computers to Olivetti Inc. this move allowed them to continue the company and develop further ideas.

1984

Growing rumours of a new machine from Acorn to replace the technologically outdated Model B were confirmed by the release of the BBC Model B Plus. This was not the machine people had been hoping for, the only major differences came in the shape of 32K of extra RAM, and a new disc interface. For most this did not justify replacing their exisiting machines, and the B+ was widely regarded as a failure. Even the release of the B+ 128K, the same machine with another 64K of RAM, did nothing to win more customers.

Around this time, Acornsoft, the software division of Acorn, released a new game called Elite, for its time this game was an amazing piece of programming, and won game of the year across the board. It sold many computers on its own, and propelled its two teenage authors, Ian Bell and David Braben to stardom.

1986

Early in the year Acorn announced it was officially stopping production of the original Model B, a move that was widely expected as the machine had become too costly to manufacture. It did, however, refuel rumours of yet another new computer, and these were proven when in Spring Acorn unveiled the Master series of computers.

The Master series were state of the art and fully updated. As well as being largely compatible with the old Model B, they had extended Operating Systems, 128 or 512K RAM, and new Filiing Systems. Five models of the Master were launched, the Master 128k, the Master ET (an Econet Terminal which was cheaper and slimmed down), the Master 512k (which could run MS-DOS programs), the Master Scientific (a machine with the 32-bit co-processor added for scientific uses), and the Master Turbo (a machine with the 6502 second processor for extra speed). Everything that was wrong with the Model B was fixed, and the Master sold well in all the traditional Acorn strong areas.

1987

With sales of the Master series going well, Acorn dropped a bombshell by announcing it was working on yet another successor to its current range. Details emerged that this would be based upon a 32-bit RISC (Reduced Instruction Set) architecture, a groundbreaking way of building a computer for the time.

Surprisingly, sales of the BBC Model B went through the roof at this time, with the old machines selling for half the price they cost in 1981, something which completely surprised distributers, who were cleared of their stocks of Model B's. The cheaper price had won over an audience originally reluctant to spend 400 on a home computer, and the result of this was that the BBC's originally shipped to America were imported back to Britain, modified and re-sold.

As far as this website is concerned, the BBC Story ends here, even though Acorn only stopped production of the Master in around 1994!