With delightful synchronicity, the Acorn BBC Micro has turned 30 in the year of the Raspberry Pi. Thirty years ago, Acorn Computer Ltd, a sprouting British technology company, secured a coup when it persuaded the BBC to lend its iconic badge to their Proton computer. The competition out manoevred, the Proton was renamed the BBC Micro. Today, in an equally competitive technological market place, it is the Raspberry Pi that has captured the attention of the country's population in a way that even Apple, with their iPad 3 launch, have not quite managed to match.
Last weekend, a GEEK PARTY was held at the headquarters of ARM in Cambridge, England. In attendance were most of the original Acorn team, many from the subsequent RISC OS years, and Eben & Liz Upton of Raspberry Pi. In addition, 100 Guest Passes had been issued. As a geek experience, this is as good as it gets; music, food, much talking, and a ton of retro-kit on display. On the agenda were formal presentations on the early days at Acorn, through to the current surge of interest in computer programming via the Raspberry Pi foundation.
In this article I'll guide you through the highlights of the day and give some insight into the melting pot of ideas that permeated the ether. I'll focus on a cluster of interviews and conversations I had during my nine hours at the venue. The report features carefully chosen photographs, a pick of the day's Tweets, and analysis of the keynote presentations. Many hyperlinks are included making the article of value to historians interested in the wider impact of the BBC Micro in computing history.
Enterence to ARM, 2012
Chris Searle on the BBC's The Computer Programme, 1982
Appropriately, the first task upon arrival was to sign in on a BBC Micro with name and email address. I've not used a BBC Micro for twenty years. I was immediately struck with the high quality of the keyboard. The keys had a lovely action that immediately said, "thoughtfully engineered". The modern way is to sacrifice quality to get the price right down. I wondered, "How much would such a keyboard cost to make today?"
A hidden electronic lock clicked open to allow passage through glass double doors to the main hall. This was set out cabaret style with circular tables, each with five or so chairs around, placed in front of a long, low, narrow stage. The hall was of sparkling glass and steel. Modern and fresh, the transparent ceiling made it bright enough to take photographs without flash.
Dotted around the periphery were several permanent exhibits. ARM may well have become a global phenomenon with almost as many ARM chips shipped last year as there are people on the planet, but they remain proud of their Acorn origin. Examples of early devices were displayed in glass cases such as an Acorn System 1 from 1979. However, it was a cluster of robotic machines that were busy twisting Rubik's cubes that grabbed my attention. As the robots were a news item on RISCOScode last year, I knew that these Technical Lego machines could take a randomly mixed cube, and solve it in less than 10 seconds. It is, of course, far more impressive to see this in reality than via YouTube. I had supposed that the CubeStormer II software powering the rubotiks simply mirrored the standard algorithms that most humans think along when solving the cube. David Gilday explained that this was not the case. With every second counting, his lightening fast routine took the information from the sensors and determined an optimum solution path from that particular start point to a finished cube. I started to see why achieving the World Record with this project had grabbed his interest. David Gilday is Mr Software of the endeavour while Mike Dobson is Mr Mechanic. The project is a happy marriage of mechanical and software engineering. Plans for building these sorts of machines are available in the book Lego Mindstorms NXT Thinking Robots.
A robot that solves the Rubik's Cube in a few seconds is here at #beeb30.
I'm still working on one that so far's taken me 30 years.
Rubotiks and David Gilday, author of the CubeStormer II software
A New Museum for Cambridge
The coffee flowed freely as the room filled with people. With the caffeine buzz installed, Jason Fitzpatrick took to the floor to introduce the day and promote his vision of a Computing Museum in Cambridge. It's more than a vision. It's going to happen. The more initial sponsorship that can be raised by The Centre for Computing History, the more ambitious they can be from the word go. Later I spoke with volunteer Andy Taylor. You can sense when a project is taking off from the passion of the folks attracted to it. Incredibly, Andy had managed to get Raspberry Pi N° 7 running a ZX Spectrum emulator for the day. He'd actually battled with a more appropriate BBC Micro emulation, but it had thrown up a few issues yet to be resolved. No one minded. There was a lot of respect and affection in the room for the ZX Spectrum, Acorn's great home computing rival of 30 years ago. N° 7 is one of ten Raspberry Pi auctioned off on eBay in January. Won for £989, it was immediately donated to the museum. A pleasing and well timed vote of confidence in the Museum and its plans for the future.
Dr Hermann Hauser
Clutching an iPad 3, Dr Hermann Hauser took centre stage to deliver the first keynote speech of the day. Relaxed, confident and authoritative, he has a penetrating understanding of where computing has been, and where it's going next. He communicated his thoughts effortlessly to a spellbound audience. He predicted Microsoft's demise, explained why ARM are riding a wave, and told a couple of the famous Acorn 1982 anecdotes in an insightful way that made them relevant to today.
Tom Stuart @tomstuart
Hauser giving credit to Raspberry Pi
for continuing BBC Micro's educational mission
Next on the agenda were a couple of Question Time sessions. Chris Searle expertly chaired these, moving on to a new topic when the moment was right, pacing and directing the debate to make sure it covered a wide and interesting range of ideas. The intellect on stage was formidable: The management of early Acorn, Chris Curry & Dr Hermann Hauser. The technical geniuses behind the products, Professor Stephen Furber, Professor Andrew Hopper, Nick Toop, and Chris Turner. From the BBC, David Allen and Bill Thompson. A relaxed Dr Sophie Wilson, author of (amongst much else) BBC Basic, completed the line up.
What's stuck in my mind? There was some agonizing, but no solution, to the problem of girls failing to engage with computing. There was a humorous account of Chris Curry's sharp business practice that secured Acorn the BBC contract. Amidst it all there were a few intriguing inconsistencies. Asked where home computing should go next, Chris Curry & Dr Hermann Hauser plumped for robotics. This clearly endorsed Raspberry Pi along with its Gertboard expansion card. Yet the BBC seem to think that the BBC Micro 2.0 should be a virtual computer embedded in a webpage. Will the BBC Micro 2.0, from an internet home, be able to sense and manipulate physical devices in the real world? I hope the BBC are aware of the twine and monnit web based interfacing initiatives. The coming internet of things suggests interfacing with the physical world is back on the agenda.
Dr Sophie Wilson suggested that, because we still view computers as sequential devices, programmed with languages that force us to relate to computers in a sequential way, we're living in the past. "The Raspberry Pi is another yesterday's computer", she said. Tomorrow's computer, possibly, is sitting in Professor Stephen Furber's laboratory up in Manchester. He is trying to model a piece of the human mind by getting a million ARM processors to work in parallel. Could ARM put twenty, a hundred, a thousand, or even a million processor cores in one super parallel processor chip: the Exascale dream? Sophie said progress was being made, helped by ARM now having a 32 bit processor, the Cortex M0+ that isn't any more complicated than the ARM 1 from 1985 but which is fast and ultra low power. With a wry smile at Professor Furber, she said that programming such a beast was the problem. The Prof responded that he'd spend recent years trying to figure out how his two year old daughter had been able to do mind stuff that no computer could do. He was stealing ideas from the biology of the human mind.
I would have loved to have asked Dr Wilson if she was working on the equivalent of a BBC Basic that would support a relatively simple way of programming an ARM muti-thousand-core device. Alas, the debate moved on before the thought crystalised. Lest it be said that all this talk of ARM chips is unrelated to the the star of the day, let's conclude this section by recalling that Sophie developed the ARM 1 by writing a simulaton to develop its instruction set in BBC Basic on a BBC Micro with a second 6502 processor attached. The BBC Micro is the machine in which crucial parts of the first ARM chip were designed.
Pilgrim Beart @pilgrimbeart
Steve Furber flags up BBC's Hello World. (The BBC Micro 2.0)
Hermann says 'do robotics' & namechecks SpiNNaker
Tom Stuart @tomstuart
"We need to flip the switch in society from 'consume' to 'make'." says Wilson
Pilgrim Beart @pilgrimbeart
Andy Hopper on upcoming challenges: "green computing"
Taking questions: Professor Stephen Furber, Dr Hermann Hauser,
Professor Andrew Hopper, Dr Sophie Wilson & Bill Thompson
With minds fired up from the Question Time sessions, it was appropriate to have some moments to talk amongst ourselves and eat. The lunch provided was a finger food buffet. I ate as I roamed, and engaged in Dirk Gently style Zen Navigation: Find someone who looks like they know where they are going and follow them. You will arrive at where you need to be.
The person looking purposeful was Alastair Anderson. With an Acorn Electron in his hand, he systematically cornered Micro Men to autograph it. As I commented, "great idea", a business card for Acorn (of Cambridge) Ltd was thrust into my hand. This was a double take moment. Printed on the card was the word Acorn and the famous Nut logo. This card was no computing antique, however. It was announcing a new Acorn. To explain this, recall that Acorn Computer Ltd abandoned the desktop computing market in 1998. It was a dramatic exit, as it killed the launch of a new cutting edge computer, the Phoebe. At this point Acorn already had a wonderful WIMP operating system deployed on their Risc PC computers called RISC OS. After Acorn's exit, development of this OS quietly continued. It's now a rather nice "hobby computing OS". Last October Adrian Lees announced he had RISC OS, except for USB In/Out, working natively on the Raspberry Pi.
Alastair Anderson's surprising news was that, out of the blue, he and his team were working on getting RISC OS running on a completely new Acorn badged machine. Excitedly, he informed me that he had secured the copyright to the Acorn brand. If you are a RISC OS enthusiast, you may like to follow Acorn_Cambridge on twitter, keep an eye on their website, and wish Alastair good luck with a bold venture.
Cake for Lunch
A full size replica BBC Micro birthday cake, with every key iced and lettered, was baked for #beeb30 by Elizabeth Morgan. Dr Sophie Wilson made the first cut and, a little self consciously, we sang "Happy Birthday dear Bee-eeb". Russell Davies, seeing the photographs on Twitter, tweeted to request that I grab an extra slice for him. This I did. But then. Yes. I ate it. It tasted so very, very good. Sorry, Russell.
Another lovely lunch time moment saw the Acorn team at the foot of a stairway with a BBC Micro, thus recreating a famous photograph of yesteryear.
Andrew Edney @aedney
Coolest birthday cake ever !
Happy birthday BBC Micro.
Dr Sophie Wilson, Chris Turner, Professor Stephen Furber,
Chris Searle, Dr Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry
Liz and Eben Upton flew from America to be at the BBC Micro's 30th anniversary celebration. The entire country seems to be willing the Raspberry Pi to become the worthy sucessor of the machine that, with the BBC's help, made the UK's population computer aware three decades ago. Even so, there was no sense of them upstaging the Beeb. Without any sign of jet-lag, Eben talked us through the story of the Raspberry Pi to date. He was playing to a home crowd and the crowd played back. Someone drew a parallel between the Raspberry Pi computer and Acorn's Electron which failed to be produced in sufficient numbers for Christmas 1983. Come Christmas 1984, around 200 000 units remained in the warehouse when the nations youth decided a different toy was the fashionable one that year. All in the hall understood that this is the nature of the computing business. One minute you can be flying to the moon. The next, you have a problem.
Eben did not say much that has not been reported many times elsewhere but it was still brilliant to hear it all again, from the primary source, in such great company. The only part of the tale that I didn't know was that the Raspberry Pi foundation had tried hard to get the BBC to lend its badge to the Pi. Annoyingly, the BBC declined to rerun the script from all those years ago. With 20-20 hindsight, the BBC have mismanaged an opportunity. A Decca turning down the Beatles moment. Whatever they do with the BBC Micro 2.0, they have bodged being firmly associated with the product that has the nation's youth buzzing. As a school teacher, I daily overhear conversations between my pupils saying things like;
James: "I've ordered my Raspberry Pi. Have you ordered yours yet, Ed?"
Ed: "No, because I've told my parents I want it for my Birthday".
Why has the Raspberry Pi attracted such interest? My view is that the uncased electronic circuit board, once the Pi had a critical mass of media exposure, took it forward a whole lot more. It has been underestimated how important that alone has been in making it seem different and more 'hands on' to people who are used to slim laptops, slick mobile phones and who are looking carefully at some raw electronics for the first time in their lives. Not being in a box subliminally matches Eben's message perfectly; Let's get rid of what's preventing us engaging at a deeper level with our computing devices.
Shift Run Stop @shiftrunstop
Eben : As engineers, we're paid to play with toys.
I don't understand why everyone doesn't want to be an engineer.
Pilgrim Beart @pilgrimbeart
Eben, aged 12 bought a mouse.
There were no instructions in the box.
Vendor: If you can't write your own driver you don't deserve that mouse.
Eben Upton telling the Raspberry Pi story : Nick Toop : The MK14 of 1978
The Dark Acorn : An Engineer's Tale
Early on in the day, it struck me that Nick Toop had an interesting take on life. On Chris Searle's panel he suggested that men hog computing because they can't give birth to children. Instead they create or build. Later on Nick asked if anyone in the room actually liked looking at another person's program code. His suggestion was that how you write code is a deeply, deeply personal thing. My own child is beautiful, but have you noticed how ugly all the other children are?
I was rather taken with these maverick ideas, and started to think of Nick Toop as the Dark Acorn; the one a little different to all those that are green. I spoke with Nick at the end of the day. He is an intelligent, thoughtful engineer with great knowledge and wisdom of his trade. One of the first engineers at Acorn, he had previously worked with Clive Sinclair's Science of Cambridge Ltd. In 1978 home computing revolved around buying kits of electronic components and soldering the parts onto a printed circuit board. Nick supported Chris Turner who designed one of the most successful of these kits, the MK14. It cost £39.95 and sold in thousands. With that success in place it's obvious why Acorn added Nick to their team. However, Nick did indeed turn out to be the Dark Acorn. He found life as an engineer at Acorn stressful, unrewarding, and the feeling that he didn't fit in, or get proper credit for his contributions, prompted him to move on.
He became involved with designing machines that played Chess, before teaming up with Dave Woodfield to design and bring to market the Enterprise computer. Released in 1984, it didn't sell well. This, as mentioned earlier, was the year in which the Acorn Electron was also struggling in an over supplied market place. The surplus stock of 20 000 Enterprise computers was dumped in Hungry where, at a knock down price, they were snapped up. It continues to have a cult following there to this day. Such experiences have left Nick with interesting thoughts about what he terms an engineering product's sweet spot. The trick with most electronic devices, he explained, is to develop a design that does not spend money on features a customer does not want or is unlikely to use, but which is also not so basic as to be trivial and uninteresting in the market place.
By the time the Enterprise launched, Nick was already working on his next endeavour, having set up the business with Geoff Jones now called Cortex Controllers Ltd. Three years ago he bought out his partner and is now his own boss. He had, he said, never been happier than he was now, nurturing this business along. With a smile he told me that he could only draw a modest salary. Bitter experience (and perhaps watching Acorn get it wrong) had taught him that a business can haemorrhage money at an alarming rate when times change. He has always left as much money in the business as he possibly can, as a hedge against lean times.
Control or Be Controlled ?
RISCOScode is a supporter of Alan O'Donohoe or @teknoteacher as he is known on Twitter. Two years ago, in what he described as a car crash moment, he stopped teaching kids how to use Microsoft products, and decided to show them what computing was really about. He's ruthlessly focussed on what works with kids, what grabs their attention, and what inspires. In his talk at the end of the day, he gave a hands on demonstration of lessons that work. He was brilliant. Inside ten minutes he had the audience designing a game using the Scratch programming environment. He had volunteers coming down to the front to code up ideas that the remainder of the audience shouted out. What resulted was at times hilarious, but at the end of it extraordinary progress had been made. It was bright, colourful, and at times noisy. Genuine education had taken place that had also been downright fun.
Alan commented that he sometimes feels he comes across as "a well intentioned idiot". It's tough doing what is right, rather than accepted practice. Britain's leaders in the 1990s favoured Microsoft over Acorn. We were sold an American ideology that said schools should train pupils to use in the classroom what they would later use in work. We were told that our pupils were learning computing. They weren't. Thousands, perhaps millions, of pupils have successfully been taught how to use Word and Excel. That's useful but it ain't computing. In consequence, many so called digital natives have no understanding of how computers work or how to control them. In 1998 Acorn, as Element 14 / ARM, walked away from Education because their genius was not appreciated or supported by Government. The UK took a wrong turn in the 1990s that has cost our country the lead in computing technology it once had.
Andrew Doran @adoran2
Watching @teknoteacher at the #beeb30 event.
His pupils are lucky!
Andrew Flegg @jaffa2
Did my first Scratch programming at @teknoteacher's #beeb30 talk.
How to teach Scratch computer programming to kids.
Alan O'Donohoe, @teknoteacher, gave an inspiring demonstration at #beeb30.
The Most Abused BBC Micro on Planet Earth (A Children's tale)
For a few years now, interest in Retro-Computing from the BBC Micro era has been growing. For my final tale from the day, I have a sweet account of a BBC Micro that was brought back from the dead. I'm going to tell it in the style of a childrens story, because I am working on turning this into a lavishly illustrated children's book. However, it does include practical information on how to bring ancient computing machines, that no longer work, back to life.
The tale begins with Ian who owned a BBC Micro. Oh, how he loved that BBC Micro. Especially the cheeky bleep it uttered each time he switched it on. But the BBC Micro came to be seen as old and slow. Although still loved, Ian one day decided his BBC Micro needed to go to a place of rest; his shed. He then busied himself with a sexier, racier model; an Acorn Archimedes (women tend to frown at this point, men to smirk).
Three years later the shed roof was discovered to have been leaking. The BBC Micro was under the leak. It stank and could not stay in the shed even though the leak was fixed. Although he knew it was wrong, Ian dumped his slime covered BBC Micro in the garden behind the shed where it lay for ten years. One day, looking back on his life, he wondered, Will it still work?
He flipped the switch but no bleep was to be heard.
Filled with regret over his lack of care for an old friend, Ian cleaned the BBC Micro's motherboard in warm soapy water for half an hour. He then baked it in an conventional oven, to get it properly dry. Just as we must dry between our toes, there must be no moisture under the silicon chips. Ian was kind and gentle with the oven's heat. Once cooled, he carefully looked at all components for obvious signs of electrical failure, burn marks especially. With a soldering iron, he systematically replaced ALL the capacitors.
Where possible, chips were removed, cleaned and put back. After all this, would the BBC Micro work again ? Ian flipped the switch. How his heart filled with joy as his Beeb's bleep was heard once more.
(This is the bit where we all cheer, feel happy, and like Ian very much)
Back in the land of adults, note that last year there were about one hundered BBC Micro Domesday Laser Disk players in existence. Only eleven were in working order. Using the techniques described, Ian Smallshire has since fixed two of them and is working on a third. Ian is a real life hero because what he does to get these machines working is time consuming, unglamourous and there is no guarantee of success at the end of each renovation.
Note: In spite of my attempt at humour, above, don't try this at home unless you have an understanding of the dangers of opening up electrical equipment, and are competent with the use of a soldering iron.
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