In the early 1980s, the British Broadcasting Corporation started what became known as the BBC Computer Literacy Project. The project was started largely in response to an extremely influential BBC documentary The Mighty Micro, in which Dr. Christopher Evans from the UK National Physical Laboratory predicted the coming (micro)computer revolution and its impact to the economy, industry and lifestyle of the United Kingdom.
BBC wanted to base its project on a microcomputer capable of doing various things that they wanted to show in their TV series The Computer Programme (1981). The list of topics included programming, graphics, sound and music, Teletext, controlling external hardware, artificial intelligence etc. It decided to badge a micro, then drew up a fairly ambitious (for its time) specification and asked for takers.
BBC discussed the issue with Sir Clive Sinclair, who tried to peddle the unsuccessful NewBrain micro to them, but it came nowhere near the specification the BBC had drawn up, and was rejected. The BBC made appointments to see several other British computer manufacturers, including Dragon and Acorn.
The Acorn team had been working on an upgrade to their existing Atom microcomputer. Known as the Proton it included better graphics and a faster 2MHz 6502 CPU. The machine was only in prototype form at the time, but the Acorn team, which relied largely on Cambridge students (such as the legendary Roger Wilson) worked through the night to get a working Proton together to show the BBC. The Acorn Proton was not only the only machine that came up to the BBC's specification, it also exceeded it in nearly every field. It was a clear winner.
The machine was released as the BBC Microcomputer in early 1982. The machine was wildly popular in the UK; as with Sinclair's ZX Spectrum, also released around that time, demand greatly exceeded supply and for some months there were long delays before customers received the machines they had ordered. A brief attempt to market the machine in the United States failed, due largely to the dominance of the Apple II family. The success of the machine in the UK was largely due to its acceptance as an "educational" computer – the vast majority of UK schools used BBC Micros to teach computer literacy and information technology skills. Research Machines had, until this time, been one of the leaders in UK educational computer market.
The "Beeb", as it soon became known by its users, initially came in two models; the Model A at £235, and the Model B at £335. Acorn anticipated the total sales to be around 12,000 units, but eventually more than 1 million BBC Micros were sold.
The Model A had 16KB of user RAM; the Model B had 32KB of user RAM, and included a number of extra I/O interfaces: serial and parallel printer ports, an 8-bit I/O port, four analogue inputs and an expansion connector that enabled other hardware to be connected. There was also an interface called the Tube, that allowed a second processor to be added. (This was soon used in third-party add-ons, including a Zilog Z80 board and disk drive that allowed the BBC machine to run CP/M programs.)
Large numbers of games were written including the native version of the classic Elite, and a wide range of hardware add-ons and expansions were available, as the machine had provision for floppy disk drives and networking hardware to be added; there were also sockets for the addition of extra ROM chips to the system. The built-in ROM resident BBC BASIC programming language interpreter was one of the most sophisticated of its time, and wholly supported the machine's educational focus – quite advanced programs could be written without having to wade into the jungle of assembly language programming (necessary with many competing computers). Should one nevertheless want or need to do some assembly programming, BBC BASIC featured a built-in assembler.
Even today (2003), thanks to its ready expandability and I/O functions, there are still numbers of BBCs in use, and a community of dedicated users finding new things to do with the old hardware.
A cut-down version of the BBC Micro, intended more for game playing was the Acorn Electron; games were written specially for the Electron's more limited hardware, but they could also be run on the BBC.
The video display could be switched between 8 different video modes, with varying resolutions and numbers of colours available:
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