Thirty years ago this week the BBC offered for sale its first Micro, a home computer that went on to change the history of computing in the UK and far beyond.
Launched only months after IBM’s first PC, the 1981 BBC Micro or ‘Beeb’ was aimed squarely at home enthusiasts rather than business and therein lay the foundation of its huge influence.
Costing up to £400 (roughly £1,200 in 2011 prices), the system was built around Chuck Peddle’s famous 6502 8-bit microprocessor running at 2MHz with 16Kb or RAM, expandable to 32Kb.
As basic as this looks on paper, anyone who used one will remember the generous travel and ‘IBM-like’ return of the BBC's keyboard with some nostalgia.
The proprietary operating system was ROM-based (hard disks were far too expensive) but came with a programming language called BBC Basic which formed the centrepiece of the Corporation's computer literacy remit.
In that it succeeded many times over, giving many young programmers their first taste of coding, including experimenting with more advanced assembler for the 6502 itself. That was its primary claim to importance – it fuelled a bottom-up programming revolution that emerged during the 1980s from bedrooms and back rooms and eventually spread through schools. Every British geek of the era will have used one at some point.
By 1987, the BBC had morphed into the Acorn Archimedes. Based on an innovative 32-bit RISC processor and software bundle that beat anything Apple or IBM could do at the time to a pulp, it was bought up by schools across the country.
The spin-off that designed the Archimedes chip, ARM, stuck to its RISC philosophy steadfastly across the subsequent decades and is today famous as the company that invented the low-power processors used inside Smartphones such as the iPhone.
That’s the BBC Micro’s second claim to importance — it fired up a small but important industry of spin-offs, as many as 100 in its Cambridge heartland alone.
“Just look around places like Cambridge's Science Park to see the results. Many of these companies were founded by people whose thorough introduction to technology came through the BBC Micro,” British games guru David Braben told the BBC’s website this week.
The BBC Micro didn't spawn a great British computer company to take on IBM, but it did the next big thing. Three decades on, it has repaid the business ambitions and idealism of its creators many times over.