25 Aug 2023

Last weekend, we visited the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge with my brother and nephew. As we walked into the main room, children running ahead, one of the exhibits caught my eye. It was unfamiliar, but there was something about it that rang a bell. It turned out to be an Acorn Business Computer, a machine I’d read about but can’t recall seeing in person before. After a moment, I realised what I’d recognised. The keys were the same colour and font as those of another machine, one that’s apparently so deeply embedded in my psyche that I latch on to minor details of it from across the room.

Acorn Electron close-up

The Acorn Electron was launched 40 years ago today. We got one a year or so later, when I was six, and it’s fair to say that it had an outsized influence on my life, starting an interest that turned into a hobby and then a career, and providing a springboard for learning and playing. It was, of course, replaced by a succession of more and more powerful machines, but it was the first. Given that history, there’s no way I can possibly be objective about it. So I won’t.

I’ve previously described the Electron as being for kids not rich enough to have a BBC Micro but not cool enough to have a Spectrum, and I think that stands up. The Electron was intended to provide the essence of what made the Beeb the Beeb at a price closer to that of the Spectrum. While it had to drop some features (notably Teletext mode and multichannel sound) and ran slower than its fuller-featured sibling, it did a pretty good job of retaining that essence. In particular, high resolution graphics1 and the superlative BBC BASIC (with built-in assembler!) were present and correct. Somewhat counterintuitively, this might have been the reason behind its lacklustre reception compared to its rivals.

Both the BBC Micro and Spectrum trace their origins to the BBC Computer Literacy Project2. The national broadcaster, in conjunction with the government, saw the need to inform, educate and entertain people about the new “computer” things that were going to be so important in the 1980s, and wanted a reference model to provide a solid basis for this programme. Several companies bid for the contract, but the field quickly narrowed down to two Cambridge companies: the already successful Sinclair, and the fledgling Acorn3.

Sinclair had a solid track record of introducing sophisticated technology — pocket calculators, digital watches, miniature TVs — to the consumers. In particular, the ZX80 and ZX81 brought microcomputers to the mass market at an unprecedentedly low price (£99 for the pre-built ZX80, down to £49 for the kit form of its successor). In all cases, the genius was in figuring out a coherent set of functionality that would provide value to regular users, and could also be implemented within the constraints of technology and cost.

In contrast, Acorn seem to have been more focussed on making a “real” computer, and then scaling it down to fit the consumer market4. With the Proton (renamed the BBC Micro when they won the CLP contract), they succeeded spectacularly. While it was expensive compared to other home computers, its capabilities were both broader and deeper. Not only did they have a long life in UK schools, they found some surprisingly serious applications. When I was an undergraduate in the late 90s, I’d still see them occasional, running scientific equipment or the information screens dotted around the Computer Lab.

However, in the Electron, Acorn arguably pushed the idea too far. The compromises to get the Electron down to a more Spectrum-like price point meant that it could do much of what its elder sibling could do, but it did it slower (often much slower). This compounded a weakness of the Beeb that was much more critical for the home market; games.

Like the Beeb, the Electron supported full colour, high resolution graphics — any pixel on the screen could be set to any colour in the palette. In contrast, the Spectrum split the screen into 8x8 blocks, each of which could only show two colours (foreground and background). This is clearly a less flexible approach, and leads to the much-maligned colour clash, but it has the distinct advantage: there’s far less data to shuffle around. While this doesn’t matter much for static pictures in an educational or scientific application, it’s critical for animation. The Electron’s slow RAM access makes fast, colourful graphics a challenge. The Spectrum’s design may be less general, less like a serious computer, but it’s well targeted at a key thing that home users want to do. The issue wasn’t insurmountable — there were plenty of fun games to be had, from Snapper to Repton to The Last Ninja — but the additional challenge, combined with the smaller market, meant there was never the creative explosion that happened for the Spectrum.

In an odd kind of way, this limitation plays into an an area where the Electron really did do well; learning about computers themselves. If the games are thin on the ground, you may as well investigate how the machine itself actually works. Here is where the Electron shines. Its design is logical and elegant. BBC BASIC provides a lot more structure and capability than the dialects on other home micros, and the built in assembler provides an easy on ramp to program the 6502 directly. It may not be as much of a “real” computer as the BBC Micro, but it’s enough of one to provide a solid jumping off point. It did so for me, and thousands of others.

The Electron was not a commercial success, both for the reasons suggested above and external factors having nothing to do with the machine itself5. It was one player amongst several, and before the decade was out all had been eclipsed by US behemoths like IBM, Commodore and Atari. Acorn faded, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that its influence was long gone.

Forgiven, but wrong. The MacBook Air on which I’m typing this is, in a distant but direct way, a descendant of the Electron we got that Christmas. But that’s another story.

Various users of the Acorn Electron, taken from the box art.

Acorn Electron box The above image is taken from the box art of the Electron’s packaging, shown here. This was the version that we got for Christmas 1984, but this particular one is one I picked up on eBay a few years ago.

I’ll finish with another nod to the Centre for Computing History. They not only provided the setting for the opening anecdote, but also a fantastic resource for more information about the various vintage computers scattered throughout this post. They do some great preservation and education work, and their museum in Cambridge is well worth a visit.

  1. Relatively speaking. [back]

  2. For an in depth look at the Computer Literacy Project itself, Now the Chips Are Down, by Alison Gazzard is fascinating. [back]

  3. The story of Sinclair and Acorn’s battle for the CLP contract was retold in the brilliant BBC4 drama Micro Men. For reasons that aren’t clear, it never seems to be repeated or turn up on iPlayer, but the Centre for Computing History held a watch-along with some of the actual participants that’s available on YouTube. [back]

  4. A big caveat; this is my impression, formed from reading accounts and histories, and my very subjective view from the outside. Remember, I was six at the time. [back]

  5. If you’re interested in the rise and fall of the vibrant UK home computer sector in the 80s, I highly recommend The Computers That Made Britain. [back]

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