No surprise then that the recent Royal Society report1 looking into the provision of computer science teaching and assessment in schools opens with mention of the BBC Micro. With the 30th anniversary of the BBC Micro in mind, IBM Certified Consulting Learning Specialist, Paul Jagger FBCS, reflects upon the BBC Micro - past, present and future.
On 25th March I attended a celebration of 30 years of the BBC Microcomputer hosted by The Centre for Computing History at the offices of ARM in Cambridge. The venue was significant since ARM can trace its history back to the BBC Micro days when it was a division within Acorn Computers.
Indeed the first ARM processor was designed and developed by members of the same team that created the BBC Micro. Many of the team were present, including Chris Curry and Dr Hermann Hauser CBE, Professor Steve Furber, Professor Andy Hopper CBE (Head of Computer Lab at the University of Cambridge), Sophie Wilson, Chris Turner others.
The BBC Micro, or the ‘Beeb’ as it was affectionately known, was the brain child of an immensely talented team working for Acorn Computers in Cambridge.
Acorn was led by Chris Curry and Dr Hermann Hauser who set up business in the centre of Cambridge. Many of the Acorn team were researchers or students at Cambridge back in the late 1970s and early 1980s and several have gone on to become eminent senators of the IT industry and computing science community.
Acorn started life developing a self-assembly computer kit, later known as the Acorn System 1. Systems 2 to 5 followed in rapid succession, and all these systems were available as Eurocard self-assembly or pre-built kits. The first modern ‘boxed’ computer that Acorn developed was the ATOM, a pre-cursor to the BBC Micro that included a ROM based BASIC interpreter and full keyboard with 12K of RAM.
The BBC Micro was the result of a competition that the BBC ran in order to develop a computer for the BBC Computer Literacy Project. Acorn won with their bid using a prototype computer named the Acorn Proton. This became the BBC Micro and went on to feature in the BBC’s TV series The Computer Programme in 1982, and later in two more series Making the Most of the Micro and Micro Live that ran until 1987.
The BBC Micro was just one of many 8bit microcomputers available to hobbyists, home users, schools and small businesses back in the early 1980s. Some of Acorn’s competitors are well known: Sinclair, Atari and Commodore became household names; others were perhaps less well known, including many UK computer manufacturers such as Tangerine Computer Systems, Grundy Newbrain, Dragon Data and Jupiter Cantab.
None was more important in the development of a generation of coders than the BBC Micro, not least because of the widespread adoption of the Beeb among UK schools and the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project.
The base specifications of the BBC Micro was an 8bit MOS Research 6502 processor running at 2Mhz, 16KB of RAM in the ‘Model A’ version and 32KB in the more popular ‘Model B’. Both came with a BASIC interpreter, full function keyboard and support for colour graphics and audio.
The Beeb was blessed with a staggering range of internal and external expansion options that made it the ultimate platform for interfacing with all sorts of devices.
I remember the excitement among my GCE A Level Design and Technology class when a Valiant Floor Turtle arrived and we were given the task of getting the turtle to navigate its way around the classroom floor via infra red remote control from a Beeb. We also had a robot arm and a network of BBC Micros that had dial up access to what passed for the internet in those early days.
Whilst the BBC Micro came with an outstanding dialect of the Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code known as BBC BASIC, a wide range of programming languages were available in ROM, including such venerable high level languages as COMAL, BCPL, FORTH and LISP.
The BBC Micro architecture supported a dual processor arrangement that allowed for the development of such exotic expansions as a Zilog Z80 second processor running CP/M, and a second 6502 processor with an additional 64KB of RAM, splitting the workload between the host processor (handling I/O) and the second processor running a range of programming languages.
Many innovative peripherals were developed by Acorn and others for the BBC Micro, including such curiosities as an infra-red touch screen, an analogue 3D joystick, known as ‘The Bitstick’, various light pens, stylus touch pads and a wide range of musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) devices for use with synthesizer keyboards, amplifiers and other audio devices.
The BBC Micro went through a number of further enhancements, initially the Model B+ with 64K or 128K of RAM. Despite the evolution of popular 16bit home computers from companies like Commodore and Atari, Acorn stuck with their 8bit 6502 based platform and released a new range of computers for the BBC in 1986 under the BBC Master Series brand.
The BBC Master extended the life of Acorn’s 8bit computer systems, adding support for an Intel 80186 co-processor, Rockwell 65C102 co-processor, SCSI adapter, integrated modem, ROM cartridges and an enhanced version of BBC BASIC.
Perhaps the ultimate expansion for the BBC Master was the BBC Domesday System. This entailed connecting a Philips LaserDisc Player to the BBC Master via a SCSI interface and video genlock adapter that enabled interactive playback of the Domesday LaserVision Discs, an early geographic information system combined with virtual reality video and photo tours of the United Kingdom.
The collation of data for the Domesday System was a project I got involved in at school and it inspired my interest in computing and IT as a career, leading to the purchase of a BBC Master at the age of 16.
The BBC Micro and BBC Master could have gone the way of so many other 8 and 16bit home computers of the 1980s and found their way to charity shops, attics and landfill sites all over the UK; indeed many probably did, but the longevity of Acorn’s 8bit computer systems was brought home to me recently when I saw a BBC Micro driving a museum exhibit almost 30 years after its launch.
A quick trawl of the internet shows that there is a healthy second-hand market in BBC Micro computers and associated peripherals and software. In fact there is even a burgeoning market for modern upgrades for these old computers. Having reached that stage of life when disposable income and nostalgia collide.
I have upgraded my own BBC Micro and BBC Master collection in the past two years with such enhancements as: a compact flash and USB memory stick reader, a 16Mhz 6502 Co-processor, an ARM7TDMI Co-processor with 16MB of RAM and many other expansions. Amazingly there are even companies still developing software for the BBC Micro and, in writing this article, I stumbled upon the temptingly titled ‘Arcade Adventure Design Kit’ from Retro Software.
However, there is a more serious side to the BBC Micro in the present day and it still has a role to play in education. The government has announced the cessation of ICT teaching and assessment in maintained schools as a result of the way in which ICT has evolved into IT literacy focused on desktop productivity tools. The Centre for Computing History (Cambridge) and The National Museum of Computing (Bletchley Park) both provide access to BBC Micro’s for schools.
The Centre for Computing History rent out fully equipped BBC Micro teaching packs to schools on a per-term basis, and The National Museum of Computing has a dedicated BBC Micro classroom that schools can book as part of a tour of the museum. Both these options have proven very popular, and for most school children it is the first chance they have to do some programming and really begin to understand how computers work.
The Beeb@30 celebrations held at ARM showcased a wide range of BBC Micro and BBC Master systems still in active use ranging from scientific instrument control to gaming and even a Domesday system. Also on display was the recently launched Raspberry Pi, a UK designed and developed computer for education based upon the ARM processor and available in two versions; the Model A and Model B, a social reference to the BBC Micro - grandparent to the modern ARM-based designs.
In 2011 the BBC put much of the old Domesday data on the web via their Domesday Reloaded project. Unfortunately the complexities of copyright prevent the BBC from publishing all the Domesday system data on the web. Meanwhile the Centre for Computing History have a couple of working Domesday Systems and The National Museum of Computing has developed a Domesday Touchable2 interactive tabletop version of the original Domesday System.
Of course the legacy of Acorn Computers lives on in the development of the ARM processor, originally the ‘Acorn RISC Machine’. One of the very first ARM systems was on show at Beeb@30, connected to a BBC Master in the same manner as Acorn had allowed expansion for second processors some 30 years ago.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the current focus on teaching and assessment of computing and IT in schools there has been much discussion on the impact of the BBC Micro and the BBC Computer Literacy Project in the 1980s.
The BBC Micro and its contemporaries produced a generation that could write software and had a fundamental understanding of how computers work. So what lessons can we learn from those days to revitalise teaching, assessment and wider education about computing and IT in the future?
The phrase ‘digital native’ is often used to describe the always connected socially networked consumer of IT in the modern age, evidence of the pervasive access to and democratization of information technology. However, we don’t hear much in the UK about anyone designing, developing, building or researching in the field of computing science and IT, what I call digital creatives.
Perhaps it is time for a new BBC Computer Literacy Project, even perhaps a BBC Micro 2.0? The Raspberry Pi offers a tempting slice of a solution, but it is not the answer in itself.
The UK needs a new national curriculum for computing science and IT teaching and assessment in schools, and the grassroots campaign Computing at School will continue to be at the vanguard of developing a new curriculum, building teaching skills in computing and IT and fostering links with industry, academia and professional bodies such as BCS.
The National Museum of Computing is predicting that over 90 schools will make use of their BBC Micro Computing lab in 2012, reaching over 2,000 students.
Meanwhile, the BBC appear to be working on a new Computer Literacy Project, details of which are sketchy at the moment, but likely to involve the development of a new TV and radio series, various industry and academic partnerships, a range of projects for school children, teachers and parents, and a software development platform known as BBC Micro 2.0 designed to run on a range of hardware environments including the Raspberry Pi, MAC OS, Linux and Windows.
The BBC Micro had a profound impact on a generation of school children, many of whom did not chose computing as a career, but still remember how to write a program in to print ‘Hello World’ on screen. Others, such as myself, chose a career in computing and still find the digital building blocks that we learned in the 1980s to be of use in our current careers.
It is perhaps fitting that the BBC Computer Literacy Project 2012 has taken as its logo the original Owl symbol that adorned every BBC Microcomputer throughout the life of Acorn Computers.
Happy 30th Birthday BBC Micro.
1 The Royal Society report, published in January, is the result of a study led by Professor Steve Furber FRS who was one of the original Acorn team that designed and developed the BBC Micro.
2 The National Museum of Computing Domesday Touchable