Bits and Brits: The 1980s



This being the 30th anniversary year* of both the BBC Micro and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, I thought I’d take an opportunity to take a look back at a brief history of British computing. Nowadays it seems that most of the new hot tech comes from the USA or Asia, but once upon a time, us plucky Brits had a fair old whack at the gadget game, and you might be surprised at how long some of it has lasted. To save wearing my keyboard down to the switches, I’ll run down a few of those I believe to be the most important.

These two heavyweights are notable for managing to keep their heads above the waters of an exploding home computer market in the UK, of which there were a great many casualties.

First up, the BBC Micro (codenamed Proton, successor to the earlier Atom), developed by Acorn Computers.

Above: BBC Micro
Image from Wikipedia

Released in late 1981 and endorsed by the British Broadcasting Corporation as part of the BBC Computer Literacy Project which began in 1982, this vaguely wedge-shaped heavy beige metal box was powered by the same 6502 CPU as the Commodore 64 released less than a year later, but running at twice the speed. Their operating system was Acorn MOS and, much like a majority of other machines of the era, the interface was a BASIC prompt.

Above: BBC BASIC prompt

These machines were very highly functional, boasting features and options such as various video output types (UHF, composite and RGB), a speech synthesiser, Econet networking, two types of parallel ports, an RS-422 serial port, a 1MHz peripheral bus and even support for a second CPU of almost any architecture. Storage options were equally open, you could read and write to audio tapes, ROM cartridges, floppy discs and even HDDs, there were even devices made to read from data LaserDiscs as part of the BBC Domesday Project. The Domesday Project, published in 1986, was a virtual survey of the United Kingdom distributed on LaserDisc, it contained photos, maps and full-screen video representing the UK at that time in two 540MB 12″ LaserDiscs using the LD-ROM format, pretty incredible for the time. Another useful addition to the BBC was its teletext video mode, which could be enabled by typing the MODE 7 command. This mode was fully compatible with the broadcast teletext system popular in Europe over the last few decades, a sort of free read-only BBS-like service which provided news, weather, sports, TV guide and more in text form over the standard television signal. If you attached a teletext “wedge” (essentially a TV tuner) to the machine, it could receive these signals much like a normal TV could, but being a computer it had the added bonus of being able to work with the data received using the service. For a period, the BBC broadcasted computer programs written for the BBC Micro via teletext so that owners of the computer and associated teletext adapter could download them over the air. Pretty clever stuff for a data service designed in the 1970s and a home computer designed in the early 80s. Other uses for the machine’s teletext mode included being able to design teletext pages yourself, as indeed the writers of professional teletext pages did, and the provision of teletext-based train station arrival/departure displays which are occasionally still seen in the UK today.

Above: Train departure board displaying a BBC Micro booting.
Image from here.

Being used heavily in schools, there were robotic devices available for the machine too, the most well known of which was the “turtle” robot, a transparent dome with a set of motors and control electronics inside used to teach basic programming using the LOGO language. Using simple commands such as FORWARD 50 and RIGHT 90 a user would “drive” the robot around the floor, and the language allowed for basic loops and such to demonstrate coding essentials.

Now for one of its main rivals, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, released in 1982.

Above: ZX Spectrum
Image from Wikipedia

This distinctive little black number hides a 3.5MHz Z80 CPU and 16KB of RAM, audio input and output for tape access and a single rear expansion port. Being considerably cheaper at half the price of the cheapest BBC Micro model, this machine looked and felt a bit half-arsed in comparison to the BBC Micro and many non-British machines at the time. The plastic casing was much smaller and cheaper, the keyboard was akin to repeatedly jabbing your fingers against a rubber band ball and expansion options were distinctly more limited. Storage was provided by a regular cassette player (which wasn’t included) or the daisy-chainable ZX Microdrive, a proprietary tape-based cartridge system. Only the higher end “+3″ model had an Amstrad-style 3″ floppy disk drive, some 5 years later, the year after Amstrad acquired the Sinclair computer division. There were various other peripherals produced for the Spectrum, official options included a thermal printer, “ZX Net” networking adapter/RS-232 combo adapter and a joystick/ROM cartridge adapter. Unofficial options were also available, including third-party Atari-compatible joystick adapters which were directly addressable rather than emulating keypresses, a speech synthesiser and a couple of dialup modems.

speccymenuAbove: Spectrum +3 boot menu

One feature the Spectrum had that was reasonably unusual was that the keys had Sinclair BASIC commands and symbols printed on them, so rather than typing out entire commands you could press a single button, or instead of looking up graphical character ASCII codes you could find them on the keyboard. Something of a godsend given how abysmal it was to type on the thing, but a serious pain if you weren’t used to it. Being as cheap as it was, the Spectrum enjoyed quite a lot of success in the home market, there were a great many games for the Spectrum despite its often wonky-looking graphics and perhaps also being seen as a less “geeky” option to the educationally-leaning BBC Micro helped a bit too.

Above: Sinclair-branded Amstrad PC200
Image from Wikipedia

Given that the Spectrum range ended up in the hands of Alan Sugar’s Amstrad, I feel I should give them an honourary mention having produced the CPC and PCW series, bought Sinclair and expanded the Spectrum range. They also produced my personal favourites, the PPC512/640 XT luggables and the curious but unusually classy looking PC200, an all-in-keyboard XT based on the guts of the PPC-series luggable breeze-blocks. These XT machines were rather archaic even by the time they were released though, being about 5 years past their own sell-by date, as by the time they were released in 1988, the Intel 80386 CPU was about to be replaced by the 80486 and PCs were shipping with VGA graphics, while these machines were running an 8088/80186 class CPU and could only display CGA graphics. Amstrad also released an interactive desktop “e-m@iler” phone in the early 2000s which could play Spectrum games purchased from the built in games store, but it and its video-call-capable successor are said to have been a spectacular failure. Good job, Sugar.

Above: Amstrad’s second generation em@iler Plus phone
Image from Amstrad

Back to Acorn, the Archimedes series came in 1987 on the tail end of the Computer Literacy Project.

Above: Acorn Archimedes A3000
Image from here.

Just as the BBC Micro holds a special place in the hearts and minds of any British geek who grew up in the 80s and 90s, the Archimedes is such machine, comparable to an Amiga or an Atari ST for specifications and capabilities and with a similar form factor. It’s actually quite important for another reason though: it’s the first machine to be based on the ARM architecture, which we all use extensively today. The first ARM design, the 32bit ARM1, was designed as an add-on CPU for the BBC Micro and used to aid in the development and production of the later ARM-based products, including the Archimedes A300, A400, R140, A500 and A3000 series of machines. All ran the ARM2 CPU at 8MHz and memory configurations ranged from 512KB to 16MB of RAM. The A3000 was the last of the Acorn computers to be backed by the BBC, in the image above you can still see the BBC owl logo (on the labelling on the right hand side, above the number pad), this would no longer appear on future models as the project came to an end. Storage and expansion options were not as plentiful as the BBC Micro models before it, but 3.5″ floppy disks were now a built-in option (holding up to 880KB on a single floppy disk, where MSDOS would only store 720KB) and there were various configurations of SCSI controllers and internal expansion slots which could be used for drive controllers, MIDI and coprocessor cards. A ported version of the old BBC BASIC was included, so code written on the BBC could be brought over to the new machines, and any code which couldn’t could be run on an Acorn developed BBC Micro emulator. It was now much easier to load, save and write BASIC programs too, given the GUI file management tools provided on RISC OS, including drag and drop/copy and paste support.

Above: RISC OS 3.1 desktop

Archimedes series machines have served as a base for several appliance devices such as set top boxes, including such forgotten gems as the Bush Internet TV and some lesser known media devices like the Pace DSL4000, an IPTV box. The Bush Internet TV can even be modified to boot to a full RISC OS environment rather than just the customer web browser and email client normally available, it’s simply missing a few critical files which can be added with the aid of a trusty parallel port ZIP drive. Getting back to the machines themselves, they ran RISC OS (known as Arthur OS on the earlier of the Archimedes machines) and were the first from Acorn to include a GUI as standard. The R140 being an exception in terms of the OS, running an Acorn variant of Unix named RISC-iX, based on BSD, but they’re not seen nearly as often, they’re comparatively very rare. Arthur/RISC OS itself sat in ROM and could not be modified, except for either replacing the ROM chips or storing configuration files on disk. Ideal really, as like the BBC Micro it found its home in many a school up and down the land, partially aided by such schemes as Tesco’s Computers For Schools in which purchasing certain values of groceries would earn vouchers which could be donated to schools to redeem for computers.

In case you’d like to experience RISC OS, it can now be downloaded for the Raspberry Pi, and it’s available here.

So there’s the 80s, the birth of the ARM architecture and the inspiration of thousands of British programmers, hackers and geeks. Had things gone differently, perhaps we could have ruled the computing world, but we’ll probably never know. Regardless, these machines deserve to be remembered as the foundation of British home computing, despite their eventual demise. Go check out an emulator, or pick one up on eBay, you might be pleasantly surprised.

 [*This article was written in 2012, so the dates of the anniversaries refer to that year, not the year of publishing.]


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