HARVARD HERO MOMENT #10: The BBC Micro, a true icon

David Rossiter

24 Oct 2019

I still remember the day I first used a computer. John, my friend from across the road, came over excitedly because his dad had just been out to buy him the Sinclair ZX-81. We spent hours that afternoon in his dining room entranced by a computer that had 1k of memory, delighting in the joys of programming, entering “Print 2+2” and having the answer appear on screen as if by magic.

When students met ICT suites

But my real hero moment came a year or so later when our school bought a bunch of BBC micros (A and B) and set-up one of the first computer labs in a Nottingham school. I spent hours in that classroom – breaks, lunchtimes, after school, my friends and I couldn’t get enough. I learned to program in Basic, I discovered sub-routines and ASCII codes, I typed in - line by line - the code that the first computer magazines printed (often finding that the programs wouldn’t run because I had missed something halfway through the 375 lines of code, teaching me the art of debugging) and I played games like Chuckie Egg and Elite that we loaded in from cassette tapes. Computers were exciting and they belonged to my generation. I suspect that like many people my age, my experiences using these first personal computers sparked a lifetime of interest in computer technology. For instance, my favourite film in the 1980s was Wargames. And in sixth-form, I spent a year successfully learning how to program and use CNC engineering machines which were hooked into a CAD system. (I also spent a less successful year studying computer science at A level which I failed gloriously). Eventually, I would end up in technology PR. And what became of the BBC micro? It established itself as one of the true great icons of British computing. It opened-up and popularised computing for a whole generation of school children. If you want to see one and have a go, there are several on display in the UK’s National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. And I am fairly sure that the BBC B which my brother and I had is somewhere in our parents’ attic.

Advanced RISC Machines

The legacy of the BBC Micro lives on today. In 1990, Acorn – the company that developed the BBC micro – set-up a joint venture with Apple and VLSI Technology called Advanced RISC Machines. Eight years later, that company changed its name to ARM. And today, more than 70% of the world’s population are using computing devices which include ARM technology, which powers everything from IoT sensors, to smartphones, to supercomputers. Clive Sinclair might have captured the imagination of the nation with the ZX81. But it’s definitely Herman Hauser, Chris Curry, Steve Furber, Andy Hopper and Sophie Wilson who have given me my Hero moment.