Hard to believe that another one of the computers that had such an impact on my life is now thirty years old, I don’t feel old enough for anything I remember so well to be 30 years ago. After the Sinclair ZX81 and the Spectrum that followed it our next family computer was the BBC Micro Model B, it was an amazing computer for its time and remained in use for many years, I still have the same one today (that’s it on the right).
Made by Acorn Computers for the BBC as part of the BBC Computer Literacy Project it won out over the competition, including Sinclair, to build a computer for the BBC to use as part of its series to educate people about computers. The story behind the battle to win the contract was dramatised in the very enjoyable Micro Men programme that was shown as part of the Electric Revolution season on BBC Four in 2009. If you didn’t see it at the time it is well worth a watch.
Affectionately known as the Beeb, the BBC Micro was a 6502 based 8-bit micro with 16k or 32k RAM depending on the model, it ran at a relatively fast (for the time) 2MHz and it had a proper, robust keyboard, a plethora of connectivity options and a key factor in its success was the comparitively sophisticated BBC BASIC. Unlike most computers that followed it the Beeb also came with a proper manual, a thick ring bound affair that was actually a proper guide to BASIC programming. The Advanced User Guide available separately covered things in more detail including 6502 machine code and even contained a full circuit diagram.
Along with the accompanying television programmes and thanks to most schools choosing the BBC Micro it went on to become the corner stone of computing education throughout the 80s, together with the time then given to computing in the school curriculum it gave kids of my generation a grounding in computers that hasn’t really been seen since.
I spent many happy hours with the Beeb and learnt a lot both in and out of school. These were the days when you were taught how to program a computer at school rather than just operate one as sadly seems to be the case in these days of ICT classes that just teach kids how to use programs such as Word and Powerpoint.
The BBC Micro also gave me my first experience of networked computers, something that would become so important in later life. After one summer holiday we were excited to return to school to find we now had a dedicated computer room full of BBC Micros all networked with econet, much fun ensued and a little good natured mischief (netmess anyone?). A year or so later myself and several friends ran a teletext type information system (using the little known Mikefax software) that was used at open nights and sports days and eventually had a dedicated screen in the school entrance hall. My first experience of publishing information electronically.
The BBC Micro also brought my first exposure to computer communications, first using a 1200/75 baud modem and later a Watford LeModem to connect to local bulletin board systems and services such as Micronet800, Telecom Gold and Prestel (often using dodgy logins aquired from a BBS) and look where that ended up.
As with many of my generation I owe a lot to the BBC Micro and what it taught me and as many others have commented recently, this sort of thing is missing from the lives of most kids these days. Projects such as Coding For Kids, Raspberry Pi and the recently launched Goto Foundation can hopefully do something to help turn this around.