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Education United Kingdom Hardware Technology

30 Years of the BBC Micro 208

Alioth writes "The BBC has an article on the BBC Microcomputer, designed and manufactured by Acorn Computers for the BBC's Computer Literacy project. It is now 30 years since the first BBC Micro came out — a machine with a 2 MHz 6502 — remarkably fast for its day; the Commodore machines at the time only ran at 1MHz. While most U.S. readers will never have heard of the BBC Micro, the BBC's Computer Literacy project has had a huge impact worldwide since the ARM (originally meaning 'Acorn Risc Machine') was designed for the follow-on version of the BBC Micro, the Archimedes, also sold under the BBC Microcomputer label by Acorn. The original ARM CPU was specified in just over 800 lines of BBC BASIC. The ARM CPU now outsells all other CPU architectures put together. The BBC Micro has arguably been the most influential 8 bit computer the world had thanks to its success creating the seed for the ARM, even if the 'Beeb' was not well known outside of the UK."
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30 Years of the BBC Micro

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  • jaded (Score:5, Insightful)

    by masternerdguy ( 2468142 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @09:53AM (#38225350)
    People used to get excited when a CPU clock was measured in MEGAHERTZ! Now we're jaded...
    • Re:jaded (Score:5, Insightful)

      by syousef ( 465911 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:05AM (#38225448) Journal

      People used to get excited when a CPU clock was measured in MEGAHERTZ! Now we're jaded...

      The fucking things did not run a GUI that emulated transparent glass. They could process video or images that we use today etc. People use to get excited about ASCII art and how clever that was. Today you can see pictures Hubble has taken in intricate detail, and instead of playing ASCII strip poker people are viewing HD porn instantly.

      When home computers were new anything they could do was a marvel. Now we've seen what more processing power can do. We have a lot of bloat. We also have a lot of functionality that is taken for granted. You have to remember that international direct dialing was considered a wonder when the BBC microcomputer was introduced. ("What, you mean no operator connects you!?")

      • Speaking of apple (Score:2, Insightful)

        by goombah99 ( 560566 )

        In the late 1980s Apple Computer and VLSI Technology started working with Acorn on the second generation of the ARM core. So once again Apple is there. It's getting like the black obelisk on 2001. Pick anything and apple may not have invented it but they did shape what it became.

      • I really think that's the issue when people talk about computers of yore, its not that we now have 3.8Gh quad-core chips with megabytes of RAM as cache that appear to perform the tasks we set them with less user responsiveness than the old computers, I think its because in the old days, you got the chance to be clever to make it work. Today's computers are built up with layer after layer of bloat that is designed to make it easier to code, but really makes the overall experience for the end user less than o

      • Ones the eye candy novelty factor has worn off which takes, ooh , 3 minutes , no one cares one way or the other. All it does is waste energy by forcing the GPU to do pointless calculations. You couldn't have picked a worse example to explain why computers are better today.

        • That depends. If I'm in a first person shooter, I most certainly do want a good emulation of glass in the windows. If I'm using a loope in an application, then I certainly do want a good emulation of a glass magnifer. And in a GUI, if you want to indicate that a button is clickable, it's best to give it some kind of 3D effect so it looks like a physical button. And a glass effect can be part of that.

          But I assume you're talking about glass borders around windows on the Windows OS. In which case I agree. But

    • Re:jaded (Score:5, Interesting)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:09AM (#38225476) Journal
      Not to worry! Thanks to the power of javascript and web2.0, you can again await the day when we'll be able to push a 6502 into the realm of the megahertz! []

      (Please note, above linked project is actually pretty fucking cool: "In the summer of 2009, working from a single 6502, we exposed the silicon die, photographed its surface at high resolution and also photographed its substrate. Using these two highly detailed aligned photographs, we created vector polygon models of each of the chip's physical components - about 20,000 of them in total for the 6502. These components form circuits in a few simple ways according to how they contact each other, so by intersecting our polygons, we were able to create a complete digital model and transistor-level simulation of the chip.

      This model is very accurate and can run classic 6502 programs, including Atari games. By rendering our polygons with colors corresponding to their 'high' or 'low' logic state, we can show, visually, exactly how the chip operates: how it reads data and instructions from memory, how its registers and internal busses operate, and how toggling a single input pin (the 'clock') on and off drives the entire chip to step through a program and get things done."

      It is, however, the case that this might not be the fastest way to execute 6502 instructions...)
      • Shut. Your. Ass. I'd read about proper, component-level emulation, but I had no idea people had actually done it on anything more sophisticated then a calculator. Incredible.

      • by pz ( 113803 )

        Thanks to the power of javascript and web2.0, you can again await the day when we'll be able to push a 6502 into the realm of the megahertz! []

        That is one of the coolest projects I have ever seen! I wish we had had something like that when I was taking intro to digital design.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      For the biggest geekfest ever, get the BBC series which accompanied the launch of the BBC micro. Truly brilliant! []

      • The BBC also did a nice dramatisation of the early days os home computers called Micro Men [] (apologies - no torrent link but I'm sure someone else will find one).
        • I loved Micro Men. The Beeb show absolutely no interest in releasing it on DVD, but it's on YouTube. I'm getting really fucking tired of waiting for banner ads to load on YouTube, but if you want to see it, start here [].

          Some of the original people have cameos, like Sophie Wilson as the exasperated barmaid toward the end.


      • by xaxa ( 988988 )

        For the biggest geekfest ever, get the BBC series which accompanied the launch of the BBC micro. Truly brilliant! []

        Does that link work for you? I get a 404 when I click "Download this torrent", I'm wondering if my ISP has done something awful since I last tried using TPB...

  • 6502 assembly (Score:5, Informative)

    by leastsquares ( 39359 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @09:57AM (#38225374) Homepage

    Programming with 6502 assembly... all of us cool kids were doing that back in those days.

    • Sez you...the cool kids in my neighborhood were programming their Sinclair ZX81 [] (which apparently was sold in the U.S. as the Timex Sinclair 1000) in Z80 assembly. B registers, C registers, (and pairing them as BC) D, E, F (paired with A as AF if I remember correctly?) H, L, IX, IY, etc.

      Then we got the Commodore 64 and I had only three registers to play with (can't remember what their names were). I felt like I'd taken several steps backwards.

      • Re:6502 assembly (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Thursday December 01, 2011 @01:28PM (#38227798) Journal

        What the 6502 in the C64 (and the BBC Micro, under discussion) had which most people who started asm on the Z80 missed was the zero page. Effectively, using the zero page you had 256 registers. Zero page operations on the 6502 were as fast as register operations on the Z80. While I'm much more proficient at Z80 asm than 6502, I really appreciate the very straightforward and uncomplicated - but powerful - design of the 6502.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:00AM (#38225404)

    The most remarkable thing about the BBC is that they're still going running production code.

    I had the good fortune of working with (or rather, near) one of these systems a few years ago. When I asked why they hadn't upgraded the machine in nearly 3 decades the head of the system simply responded; "It still works."

    • by ledow ( 319597 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:34AM (#38225682) Homepage

      Ah, someone with brains. If it still works, why would you change it (concerns about suitable replacement being timely aside as that's a separate issue).

      BBC's were great for all sorts of things. Working in school IT departments I often find them, and sometimes I find "old" staff there who tell me how they used them for EEPROM reading/programming, and other interfacing that today's school machines hardly do any more with specialist adaptors.

      They even ran the Teletext service in the UK (they actually have a "Teletext" video mode on them) and all sorts. It was a programmable, extendable computer that did what was necessary and no more.

      Oh for those days again. Here's hoping that Raspberry Pi thing takes off.

      • by makomk ( 752139 )

        Of course, Teletext is pretty much dead in the UK now, replaced by shiny MHEG-based digital text services. The BBC ended up having to add Teletext-style page numbers to their replacement for it though - there was just such an incredible amount of demand from people that preferred that method of navigation.

      • by jimicus ( 737525 )

        With a system that old you can get away with taking that approach - with today's fascination with having everything somehow connected over the Internet, you simply don't have the luxury of being able to say "It works. Why change it?"

    • by DaveGod ( 703167 )

      Probably still 20 sitting in my old highschool with pupils having to code in COMAL.

  • by aclarke ( 307017 ) <> on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:01AM (#38225416) Homepage
    The first computer I ever used was a BBC Micro. It was around 1986 in a small private boarding school in the middle of the bush in Zambia. We were over an hour's drive from the nearest telephone. The school got one or two of these computers just before I left, and somehow they got me hooked on computers.

    The only command I still remember was that you had to type "CHAIN" to run something. I've been curiours about that command ever since, but a quick Google search leads me to believe that it "chained" the LOAD and RUN commands together.
    • the micro was my introduction to basic: my first "hello world" soon followed by my first hack [on a zx spectrum]: manic miner: unlimited lives :) yay!
    • It was also the first computer I ever used. It was 1991, I was 5 years old and was absolutely amazed by Podd []. Podd can pop was my favourite.
    • There was a shortcut (control shift escape? Something like that - a few keys all on the left side of the keyboard) that would launch the first program on the disk or tape (depending on which was connected). You only needed to use chain for disks containing multiple programs.
    • by adri ( 173121 )

      "CHAIN" in BASIC dialects tended to be a "merge in the code into the running state." Ie, it wouldn't delete the current variable set.

      It's how you got around RAM limitations - you broke your code up into separate source files, and just "swapped" in bits of BASIC code as you needed them.

      Then there's "CHAIN MERGE" (at least on the Amstrad CPC), which merges in code into running state -and- code. So you could say reserve lines 10000-65500 for "chained" code, and just do this:

      100 CHAIN MERGE "sub.bas", 10000, DE

  • Back in 1998 when I was in the 5th standard my school provided us some very old bbc micros to learn basic. It was small (no separate cpu cabinet ) and was efficient for all that it could do.
  • I still have fond memories of spending my school days playing Granny's Garden on the BBC Micro; that game was bloody hard when you were 8.

    • by pbhj ( 607776 )

      Did you have "An L Adventure" too?

      Do you remember using Yeknod to knock a wall down ...

      • by jregel ( 39009 )

        "L" was the game that first got me hooked with computers. I played that game through to completion on one of our school's BBC micros, even though it involved doing so during break times, lunch and after school. I was very fortunate to have a maths teacher that was really into the BBC and knew what could be done with computers. We had an Econet network, fileserver and a computer room that we could spend our breaks in.

        The OS and built in BASIC in the BBC are extremely elegant: functions, procedures, a VDU dri

    • The BBC easily had the best versions of early 80's arcade games - Defender, Asteroids, Scramble, Pacman. Nothing on any other machine could touch them.

  • Aged 7, my school had three BBC Model Bs and one BBC Master. The head teacher gave us one half-hour lesson each week on whatever he felt like teaching at the time. Sometimes it was classics, for a few weeks it was programming. He taught us BASIC and Logo on a BBC B connected to a big TV. In break times and after school, we could reserve one of the machines to use, if we were the first to request it. I spent a lot of time ages 7 to 11 writing little programs on them. At home I got an 8086 PC and learne
  • by Ivecowarrior ( 1082429 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:18AM (#38225548)
    Changing the screen mode 3/4 of the way down each screen refresh. Programming while counting every clock cycle - fantastic. I still wonder where all the resources are wasted in current software. I still say FRAK! when the need arises. Nobody knows what I'm talking about :(
    • by alanw ( 1822 )

      I still say FRAK! when the need arises. Nobody knows what I'm talking about :(

      I know. I can even hum the tune. No yo-yo, though.

    • by jimicus ( 737525 )

      I still wonder where all the resources are wasted in current software.

      I occasionally wonder what sort of performance we'd see out of modern PCs if anybody was loopy enough to go into the sort of detail as Braben & Bell.

    • by sqldr ( 838964 )

      You don't need to count clock cycles. You just bind some code to the horizontal blank interrupt. Doesn't waste any cpu at all :-)

  • by Gumbercules!! ( 1158841 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:18AM (#38225550)
    We used to have a room full of them at school and we soon discovered if you rubbed your feet on the carpet and then pushed your locker key in between the keys to the exposed circuit board... they stopped working.

    The irony is I later in life wound up maintaining student labs for a university and had to put up with "dickheads" like I forgot I used to be...
    • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

      Hey , don't feel bad , we all did something similar :)

      I remember in electronics classes being told the TTL chips could only handle 5 volts. And they gave us power supplies which went up to 25V. I mean seriously, what did they EXPECT a bunch of teenagers would do?? "Hey, nice bang, cool smoke effects! Lets try a some capacitors now!"

    • by tibit ( 1762298 )

      Karma is a bitch ;) Alas, I think many of us can relate :)

  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:21AM (#38225580)

    Elite [], developed for the BBC Micro and published by the same company that made the Micro, did get a lot of attention here in the U.S. (it was ported to all the major platforms). It was one of the first big universe sandbox games, and modern games like EvE Online are still influenced by it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by tudsworth ( 1919278 )
      And there's now an Open Source remake/re-imagining, OOlite. I'd post a link, but I'm at work and I'm sure you can all use your search engine or package manager of choice to obtain it.
  • Can anyone familiar with the BBC Micro give a comparison to the contemporary 6502 computers from the States?

    Was the Beeb available before the Apple ][ ? Was it more or less expensive in the UK?

    I get the feeling that the BBC Micro enjoyed a kind of tax protected status, the way American made pickup trucks do in the US.

    • A slightly more informative article [].
    • by benbean ( 8595 )

      It was roughly contemporary to the Commodore 64 and Atari 800/800XL micros. More expensive than both of those, but cheaper than an Apple II, which were very expensive in the UK. The Apple II predated it by about 4 years if I recall. My impression at the time was that the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Timex Sinclair in the US) was far more popular in the UK, along with the C64. The BBC was common in schools, but less common at home, mostly due to a dearth of games and pricing. A cheaper version, Electron, was releas

      • Cool - I remember something about Atari Jaguar being much more widespread in the UK than the US, but, then, today I can't even put my finger on what exactly the Jaguar was - I had an 800, plus a couple of 400s when they dropped to clearance price ($99 or less..), and then one of the Atari 16 bit machines that finally died when its internal floppy drive belt stretched out (OS was always loaded from floppy, so....)

    • by itsdapead ( 734413 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @11:59AM (#38226588)

      Was the Beeb available before the Apple ][ ? Was it more or less expensive in the UK?

      I get the feeling that the BBC Micro enjoyed a kind of tax protected status, the way American made pickup trucks do in the US.

      The BBC came quite a while after the Apple II - if you've been following the 30th Birthday announcements, its actually younger than the IBM PC (...of course, the IBM was eye-wateringly expensive for a few years, until the Clone Wars began).

      I've programmed both and, generally, the BBC was considerably more powerful than the Apple.

      It had a (much) better BASIC with 'structured programming' facilities (Repeat/Until loops, multiline if/then/else named procedures), a built-in 6502 assembler (so you could use BASIC as a macro language) and neat indirection facilities for working with bytes/words/strings in memory. Unusually for "home" computers of the time it had a 'proper' operating system, quite separate from BASIC - the BASIC ROM lived in a paged memory space alongside applications such as wordprocessors and other utility ROMs such as the disc filing system (popular BBC expansions included extra ROM sockets for applications or 'sideways RAM' for use as a RAMdisk or to let you develop your own ROMs).

      The graphics were much better (but with a caveat) than the competition - 160x256 in 8 colours, 320x256 in 4 colours or a TV-tousing 640x256 in monochrome. Also, those colour modes were fully bit-mapped c.f. the attribute-based solutions on other systems (where you could e.g. only have 2 colours in each 8x8 cell, or on the Apple where you could only plot white by plotting a magenta pixel next to a green pixel). There was a proper palette system (so you could do fast animation by palette switching - only TTL though so its always the same 8 colours) and 'hardware' scrolling by tweaking the memory mapping (which could also pull tricks like changing display mode half-way down the screen, as used in Elite). The caveat was that the RAM was shared between data and video - so the higher modes used 20K out of your 32K. Although aftermarket upgrades appeared that added a 20K page to replace the video RAM (which worked seamlessly provided that the application used the correct OS calls rather than poking things directly) Acorn took their own sweet time before building that feature into later models.

      It also had a shedload of internal hardware: a Teletext-compatible character generator chip for low-memory, high-quality TV friendly 40 col text & block graphics (without eating your RAM); a 'proper' sound generator chip; analogue inputs (not audio frequency, but great for proper joysticks and school science experiments) and a 'user port' which made about half of a 6522 VIA chip available for digital I/O, a serial port, parallel port, proprietary expansion port & vacant sockets on-board for a floppy controller and 'econet' LAN... Plus a really decent keyboard (the kind with discrete key-switches for each key). Then there was Acorn's 'Tube' interface, which allowed you to hang off a 'second processor': i.e. a headless 6502, Z80 or (later) 32016-based computer that used the BBC as an I/O processor. (Of course, the really interesting one was the ARM second processor, but AFAIK that was never publicly available).

      The Apple's advantages were (a) software base (but the BBC accumulated quite a big software base in the UK) and (b) internal expansion (the BBC had lots of expansion potential but it was either via external interfaces or slightly kludey piggyback boards). I think there were more options for upgrading an Apple 2 to '64K clean' RAM configuration.

      However, If you got the BBC 6502 second processor (a 4MHz 6502 with 64k RAM, with the original BBC handling all the I/O) then anything else with 8 bits (and quite a few things with 16) could eat your dust... unfortunately the price of that hampered adoption and, hence, software support (although you could play the definitive version of Elite).

      The BBC B cost ~£400 - but

  • I remember we had three of these on trollies in my primary school - two had colour monitors, and one had a black and white monitor. Somehow I managed to network/schmooze/brown nose my way into becoming a "computer mover" when I was in the 5th year with two of my friends. We were tasked with moving the computers first thing on a Monday morning into a new classroom, who would then have it for a week. We'd plug it in, turn it on and load up the correct disk that the teacher wanted to use. I think that's wher
  • by Rik Sweeney ( 471717 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @10:48AM (#38225808) Homepage

    What Braben and Bell did to get this running on the BBC makes for pretty interesting reading. []

  • Citadel (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Tapewolf ( 1639955 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @11:06AM (#38225988)

    Aside from Elite, one of the classic games for the BBC was Citadel. I'm still amazed how it managed to fit about 100 screens worth of platform adventure game into 12k of memory without touching the disk after it had loaded. IIRC it ran in mode 2 - which took 20k out of the available 32k memory. I think they only used part of the screen and used the rest for storage with some weird trick to make it invisible. The Electron version (see link) couldn't do the hiding trick somehow.

    The BBC version also spoke to you when the menu program loaded up, and to this day I think of it as "Seeta-toddle", which gives you some idea of the audio quality.

    For those who are curious, there is a wikipedia entry here: Citadel (video game) [].

  • by Oswald McWeany ( 2428506 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @11:45AM (#38226432)

    I grew up programming advanced Java routines on a difference engine. Your BBC Micro and your ZX81 have nout on me.

  • What a trip down memory lane... I still remember that I wanted an Archimedes back then, but couldn't afford it. For its time, it was an incredible machine... *sigh*

  • The current ARM has little to do with the BBC micro. Apple purchased a stake in Acorn with the goal of getting them to FAB a low powered CPU to power the Newton. While the Newton was never a success as a device, the technology and patents that resulted from the project set ARM on it's current trajectory. In a round-about way the Newton did save Apple. At it's darkest hour the sale of Apple's holding in Arm netted $800m in hard cold cash when Apple needed it most. Without the Newton Apple wouldn't be wh

    • by Alioth ( 221270 )

      And if it weren't for Acorn, the ARM would never have existed for Apple to put in $800M in hard cold cash. The ARM project started in 1983, years before Apple or anyone else for that matter even knew of the project. The BBC Micro was the seed, the ARM's original purpose was to put in the next BBC Micro (the Acorn Archimedes).

      Apple saved the ARM, and the ARM saved Apple, it went both ways :-)

    • by itsdapead ( 734413 ) on Thursday December 01, 2011 @01:55PM (#38228400)

      The current ARM has little to do with the BBC micro. Apple purchased a stake in Acorn with the goal of getting them to FAB a low powered CPU to power the Newton.

      ...except that if the 6502 BBC micro hadn't happened, Acorn wouldn't have developed the ARM2/3 to use in the next gen BBC Micro and there wouldn't have been anything for Apple to buy in to. It may have evolved since then, but Apple sure as hell didn't invent the ARM.

      The first ARM-based machines were the ARM2-powered Acorn Archimedes range, released in 1987, the entry level model of which was still branded as "BBC Micro". At the time, they kicked sand in the face of 80286-based machines. The Newton didn't appear until much later.

      Cheekily, in 1994, Apple touted their new PowerPC-based Macs as the first RISC-based personal computers.

      • by Kagato ( 116051 )

        I think you're missing the point. ARM clearly lost to x86 in terms of the PC and I think it's fair to contend that they would have become a footnote in computing if not for the capabilities they developed while working with Apple. Specifically the reason arm continues it success today is because the Newton needed ultra-low (for it's time) power consumption. Apple spent almost 5 years working with ARM on that processor before releasing the Newton with the ARM6. I think it's fair to say there are bits of

  • At least I think they were BBCs. I remember they had this special hard plastic yellow thing that went in the floppy drive (a 3.5" IIRC) to keep it from being damaged when the machine was moved or something.

    • by jimicus ( 737525 )

      You didn't have BBCs if they had a 3.5" floppy drive - they almost invariably had 5.25" floppy drives.

  • Great memories with this computer. And it was so far ahead of all competitors : even the predecessor of the Acorn BBC B (the Electron) already had 2Mhz and 32KB RAM and was networkable using a thing called Econet.
    The BBC B+ could be expanded up to 128KByte and had a second processor (we're talking 1986 !!!!), teletext-reader, lightpen that allowed you to draw by using a pen on your screen (think tablet !) and so on.
    And then Archimedes with its 32-bit RISC CPU came in 1987 (!), doing 4 MIPS and offering a Wi

    • by s7uar7 ( 746699 )
      You've got that the wrong way round - the Electron came after the BBC Model B (and Master) but didn't really catch on.

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