The BBC Micro is back to school

June 2015

BBC MicroAs a true product of the 80's the BBC Micro arrived in a cream case, with striking piano black keys contrasted by the vivid red function keys across the top and a dot-matrix like Owl emblazoned in the corner reminding you of your wisdom in choosing this machine over its arch-rival the Sinclair Spectrum. Gareth Baxendale FBCS CITP reminisces and discusses a worthy successor.

For just £300 you could have one at home and pretend you were Matthew Broderick in the 1983 movie War Games and launch a nuclear attack on the world... just me?

It does, however, pain me to accept that over 30 years have passed since the BBC Micro was launched. I was about seven years old when the first BBC Micro's arrived at our school and so began my lifelong fascination with technology and the art-of-the-possible.

The mighty micro

Early in 1980 a BBC documentary aired called 'The Might Micro' where Dr Christopher Evans predicted the oncoming computer revolution. It was this documentary that prompted the BBC to embark on a new initiative called the 'BBC Computer Literacy Project' where viewers would be taught via a TV programme called, wait for it... 'The Computer Programme'.

The BBC Engineering team were called upon to draft a specification for new microcomputer that would complement the TV series and it was ultimately Acorn who won the contract to build the BBC Micro, much to the consternation of Sir Clive Sinclair who failed to secure the contract for his company Sinclair Research.

The BBC Micro's success was its simplicity and being true to its basic tenet: 'to help a generation learn to use and code computers'. It came in various models, all of which ran an 8-bit MOS based CPU running at 2Mhz and for the rich kids there was the fully loaded BBC Micro Master with 128k as opposed to the 16k or 32k models for the lower classes. It could handle eight colours and had four channels of mono sound output.

A real selling point for the BBC Micro was the ability to add physical ROM chips to the mainboard which offered instant access to dedicated programmes from the command line. Coding in BASIC could be done straight from the command line as well and kids all over the UK were wowing their peers with their very first 'Hello World' programmes.

BBC Micro command line

The BBC Micro command line, it actually says it all...

It was a true success with 80 per cent of British schools enjoying a BBC Micro along with a CUB monitor, floppy drives and printer all loaded onto a trolley to be moved from classroom to classroom, it was a different sort of mobile computing in those days...

It also spawned many games that are still talked about, or even played today, such as Elite and Meteors and educational games such as Granny's Garden which many have fond memories playing at school.

Elite

Elite set a new standard in games

The BBC Micro Jr

Roll forward 30 odd years and the BBC have recently announced a successor to the BBC Micro. In partnership with over 25 organisations, including Samsung, ARM and Microsoft, they plan to give a personal coding device free-of-charge to every child in year seven across the country. This equates to around a million devices in total. This initiative is in support of the UK government’s new national curriculum where children as young as five will learn how to code.

The Micro Bit prototype

BBC Micro Bit is simple and to the point

The BBC Micro Bit, as it's being called, is a small, wearable device with an LED matrix display that kids can programme via USB and a PC. The BBC Micro Bit is very basic, which is a good thing as teaching kids how to code has to start at the beginning and have a sense of quick success to keep the interest going.

The BBC press release for the Bit suggests 'The BBC and its partners recognised that a hands-on learning experience could help children grasp the new computing curriculum in ways that other software and traditional classroom learning couldn't. In particular, the Micro Bit can help learners develop an intuitive understanding of physical concepts in technology and computing, which helps develop complex thinking, analytical and problem-solving strategies. Early feedback from teachers has shown that it encourages independent learning, gives pupils a strong sense of achievement, and can inspire those who are not usually interested in computers to be creative with it.'

BitTV coming soon

The BBC are planning some serious support for this across their TV programming as well. They plan to have content on CBBC, live BBC Learning lessons and other partner content to support teachers, parents and kids to make best use of the BBC Micro Bit. They have suggested that major shows such as Doctor Who, EastEnders and The One Show will also be used to promote creative thinking around the BBC Micro Bit.

The BBC have made it clear that they do not wish to compete with the Raspberry Pi, in fact the BBC Micro Bit will complement the Pi as it will allow connectivity between devices. It's also reported that Pi's creator Eben Upton is planning to line up resources in support of the Bit.

So it seems that everyone is excited about this new initiative and rightly so. The original BBC Micro was instrumental in educating and inspiring a generation in coding and computers, teaching us the art-of-the-possible. Many of us began our careers in technology thanks to the influence of the BBC Micro and no doubt the new BBC Micro Bit will have the same impact on a new generation of kids, some of who will no doubt be writing a similar article to this one 30 years from now.

Comments (4)

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  • 1
    David Wright wrote on 1st Jul 2015

    The BBC micro opened up social internet features like online forums and downloading applications and live data from Ceefax. The domesday project recently rekindled was educational and inclusive. Well structured BBC Basic inspired me to create readable code through my years in IT. The Micro Bit has a lot to live up to. Good luck.

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  • 2
    Iain Stewart-Breakey wrote on 1st Jul 2015

    The BBC Micro was my true entry into the world of Computing. I thought that the BBC Basic was great with its use of Procedures and the ability to build in Assembler. Later as a Tutor in a Clinical environment I wrote an Cardiac Arrest Simulation as a teaching aid - all in 32k with graphics. Truly a wonderful piece of kit.

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  • 3
    John Rabson wrote on 1st Jul 2015

    In its day, it was the best-documented 8-bit system I ever came across. Unlike some of its competitors, new versions had very nearly the same underlying memory map.

    I even started porting IPS (a FORTH-like language used for satellite software) to my BBC.

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  • 4
    Jeff Hughes wrote on 2nd Jul 2015

    The explosion of software developed by "ordinary" people created an alternate industry that was extraordinary. Although the BBC Micro was the platform used in the UK, especially for educational and games software, there were a massive variety of other platforms with devotees creating with imagination and, often, very few resources and prior formal learning or experience.

    The spin off of this wide participation has been the springing up in the UK of world class software developers and publishers, especially in the games field. As with the present rapid development of apps, we saw programs which addressed needs and ideas of great variety. Unfortunately there was consolidation and growing reliance on BIG professional teams. There was not as much nurturing of the back room creativity that had been released in the 1980s. Perhaps we now are seeing this change back again with a "can do" culture of app creation.

    My personal interest in the 1980s was the educational aspects of this revolution, not only with the computer as the object of learning but also as the platform on which learning materials were presented. In the field of Special (Educational) Needs we saw the UK take a lead in developing not only software but also hardware to enable the inclusion of people, especially children, who had disabilities. This lead is still there although some more encouragement is definitely needed again to drive progress now.

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