Jul 16, 2019
With the recent release of the Raspberry Pi 4, I thought it would be a good time to go back and look at the system that inspired it: the BBC Micro. First released in 1981, the Micro was part of a largest push from the BBC to educate the public about computing. But, this initiative didn't happen in a vacuum. During the 70s it became clear that cheaply available computer chips would fundamentally change the world economy. The invention of the first microprocessors in '71 paved the way for cheap automation, since a full could be built for a few dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. This quickly lead to large scale unemployment, since many humans could be replaced with a single computerized system.
In the wake of this the BBC started the Computer Literacy Project. The goal of this program was to help the UK shift into the new computerized job market by training the public, both in and out of the classroom. This initiative was composed of educational materials(books, courses, TV and radio series) focused around a central computer. However, as the BBC was planning the project they ran into the issue of choosing a computer. Short on time(from initial proposal to first launch for the Computer Literacy Project was about 2 years) the BBC needed outside help.
Through a harrowing bid process Acorn Computers became the manufacturer of choice. Part of this process was creating a working prototype of what would become the BBC Micro. Due to timing constraints Acorn's dev team would end up having only four days to go from rough sketches to a functioning demo-able computer. And amazingly, the accomplished just that. On short order, Acorn had a contract for 12,000 units that would eventually grow to over 1.5 Million shipped BBC Micros.
An interesting side note is that one of the other companies involved in the BBC's bid was Sinclair. Obviously, they didn't get the contract. The computer Sinclair developed during the BBC bid process would go on to become the Sinclair Spectrum and be a wildly successful and iconic computer in it's own right.
The Computer Literacy Project hit the public airwaves in 1982 with The Computer Programme. This 10 part series would serve as a jumping off point for a much larger endeavour. Over the next 9 years the BBC and its collaborators were able to help shape the curriculum both primary and secondary schools as well as colleges around the country. Via this push and the BBC Micro a whole new generation of programmers were minted.
To hear more about the BBC Micro and Computer Literacy Project, check out my episode on the topic. Special thanks to Neil from Retro Man Cave for sharing a personal perspective on the matter with me.
Initial Computer Literacy Project proposal.
Alburt, Robert, & Allen, D. (1979) Microelectronics
Original rough specification form BBC Micro.
Coll, J. A. (n.d.). Outline specification for the BBC MICROCOMPUTER system. Retrieved from http://www.bbcbasic.co.uk/bbcbasic/beebspec.html
Interviews with BBC Micro development team.
News.bbc.co.uk. (2019). BBC NEWS | Technology | BBC Micro ignites memories of revolution. [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7307636.stm
Retrospective and analysis of the Computer Literacy Program and BBC Micro.
Blyth, Tilly (2012) The Legacy of the BBC Micro. Nesta