The popular-in-the-UK, unknown-in-the-States microcomputer that gave us the original space-trading sim Elite is 30 years old tomorrow.
If you’re a longtime gamer, you may fondly remember the home computers of the ’80s and ’90s. In the States, you may well have been using a machine by Commodore, Apple or Atari, while Europe was dominated by the runaway success of Sinclair’s Spectrum series.
In 1981 in the UK, though, there was an interesting development in home computer technology that came in the form of the BBC Micro. Released by the Cambridge-based (and now-defunct) Acorn Computers, the computer was designed for the state-sponsored British Broadcasting Corporation’s Computer Literacy Project, itself a response to a documentary series from rival broadcaster ITV known as The Mighty Micro. Computing was still in its infancy at this time, and The Mighty Micro accurately predicted the upcoming revolution that computer technology would have on the economy, industry and lifestyle of not just the UK, but the whole world — something we take very much for granted today.
As part of its computer literacy project, the BBC wanted a computer to demonstrate a variety of concepts and common tasks, including programming, graphics, sound, music, controlling external devices, artificial intelligence and TV signal-based “proto-Internet” Teletext. The corporation put together an ambitious specification, which only Acorn was able to meet with its prototype Proton computer.
The Proton eventually became the BBC Microcomputer (affectionately known in the vernacular as the “Beeb”) and was released to the UK public on December 1, 1981 alongside the BBC’s The Computer Programme TV show. Launching in two models costing £235 ($367 at today’s exchange rate) and £335 ($523 today), the cost of production caused the price to quickly rise to £299 ($466) and £399 ($622). Compared to the £99 ($155) Sinclair ZX81 and £125-175 ($195-273) Sinclair ZX Spectrum series around at a similar time, this was very expensive, pricing it out of the range of many computer enthusiasts — though this didn’t stop the initial shipment of 12,000 computers selling out quickly.
The Beeb did find a spiritual home in the educational market, however, with the vast majority of UK schools adopting the system for early computer literacy and information technology lessons. That and games, of course; a standard reward for finishing all your work in an ’80s school classroom was to get the opportunity to play kid-friendly text adventures Dragon World or Granny’s Garden rather than sitting around twiddling your thumbs. Since many kids didn’t have computers of their own at home at the time, this was a real treat.
The BBC Micro took a brief foray into the United States around 1983, but didn’t catch on thanks to the already widespread adoption of machines like the Commodore 64. It did see some success in other Commonwealth countries like India, however, though not until the late ’80s.
The BBC had one major impact on gaming at large: Elite by David Braben and Ian Bell. This game, originally published in 1984 for the BBC Micro and its budget-priced successor the Acorn Electron, set the template for many of the open-world sandbox games we play today — particularly space trading sims. Unlike many other games at the time, there were no levels, no linear progression, just a vast virtual universe through which players could fly, fight, explore and trade. It was also notable as being one of the first games ever to use polygonal 3D graphics, albeit without textures or even flat-color shading. Braben later went on to produce LostWinds, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 and Kinectimals, and is the brains behind the $25 USB stick “Raspberry Pi” PC.
The BBC Micro series was discontinued in 1994 to make way for its more powerful younger brother, the Acorn Archimedes. By this time, though, popular home computing was moving towards the more well-established Atari ST and Commodore Amiga brands, which in turn eventually gave way to the non-standardized, customizable PC formats, descendants of which we’re still using today.
Curious? Try out a virtual BBC Micro for yourself here.
Elite Collection Retro iOS Compilation