(It Just) Has To Be .Net
Two long-term IT techies, with a penchant for Microsoft's .NET Framework, air views on whatever topics take their fancy.

When Computing Started To Get Personal

Back in the dim-and-distant past of 1981, I was a fourth year pupil at comprehensive school. Much of my spare time, at lunchtime and after school, was taken up writing software in BASIC and 6502 Assembler for the school's single computer; a Commodore PET 3032. Well, writing software and playing Nightmare Park, to be honest.

A few other pieces of machinery had breezed through. I spent some time playing with an esoteric machine from HP that was programmed with punched cards and had a vector graphics display. One kid had a ZX80 in kit form that I helped assemble, another later bought a ZX81. Nothing to compete with the PET on functional grounds.

Then, thanks for a unique collaboration between Acorn Computers of Cambridge and the good old BBC, that all changed. Supporting the BBC's Computer Literacy programme, Acorn produced the killer personal computer of the 80's; the BBC Micro. Forget the toys produced by arch-rivals Sinclair. This was a proper computer with a real keyboard, a great operating system, even better BASIC interpreter and a whole host of expansion capabilities through a collection of well thought-out ports.

I was asked by the Head of Mathematics for my opinion on what machines the school should invest in. Basically, the choice was between the Commodore VIC 20 and the BBC Micro. The VIC 20 had some potential advantages. It obviously had a lot in common with the existing PET and was significantly cheaper than the premium-priced BBC. But the BBC was such a well specified, intelligently conceived machine. A short time later, we took delivery of fifteen Model A BBC Micros. The Model A's were cheaper than the better specified Model B's but had only half the RAM (16KB vs. 32KB) and lacked many of the expansion ports. Within a year, we'd upgraded them all to Model B spec. with the aid of a bunch of RAM chips, some IDC connectors and a well-wielded soldering iron.

It was the BBC Micro, with it's well documented firmware and hardware, great connectivity and superb programmability that got me really excited about computers. I learned so much that by the time I left school and joined my first employers, I was considered to have the equivalent of two years commercial programming experience.

The story of how the BBC Micro came about is mind blowing when compared to the way in which the industry has 'progressed'. From it's original inception the team at Acorn designed the hardware, sourced the components, assembled a prototype, developed the operating system and BASIC interpreter and demonstrated it to the BBC in a little over a week. Or roughly the time it takes to draft a project plan, these days.

Now, according to the BBC and with the aid of some of the original development team, the Science Museum are going to be showcasing the BBC Micro and the effect it had on IT in the UK.

I still have my BBC Micro Model B, BBC Micro Master Series and Z80 Second Processor tucked away in the loft. The trouble is, I'm reluctant to turn them on, because I know I'd be gutted if they didn't work. Maybe it's worth the risk?

Posted Mar 24 2008, 10:25 PM by Steve Morgan
Steve Morgan 2008. All rights reserved.
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