5th December 1978: Acorn Computers Ltd Formed in Cambridge, UK

(computinghistory.org.uk)

77 points | by rbanffy 8 days ago

7 comments

  • sambeau 7 days ago

    I highly recommend watching "Micro Men" which focuses on the rivalry between Sir Clive Sinclair, who developed the ZX Spectrum, and Chris Curry of Acorn.

    The original script was called "Syntax Era" which is still a much funnier name :)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXBxV6-zamM

    • timthorn 7 days ago

      In which the proprietor of The Centre for Computing History (hosting this thread's target webpage) had a cameo.

      • louthy 7 days ago

        As did Sophie Wilson (barmaid at the end)

    • jacquesm 7 days ago

      In many ways Acorn was more important to computing than Apple. The hardware was super elegant and each successive machine improved on the previous generation tremendously and the software was absolutely world class. Just studying the firmware of the BBC Micro made me a far better programmer.

      • setquk 7 days ago

        I completely agree.

        I remember, despite being a BBC user mostly, Back in '87 I got told off by my parents for swearing in disbelief at this thing that turned up at the Beebug shop.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrj-EEnsacQ

        At the time it was faster than a lot of the minicomputers out there.

        • gpvos 7 days ago

          I still think a middle mouse button (actual button, not a wheel) that brings up a context-sensitive menu wherever you are in the window, as used in RISC OS, is much better than the other currently popular ways to implement menus.

          • andrepd 7 days ago

            Isn't that what the right mouse button does?

            • gpvos 7 days ago

              Compared to other OSes? Partially. If my memory serves me right, on RISC OS, the middle button menu is the only menu; there is no menu at the top of a window or screen, so it also includes the File, Edit, Help, etc., submenus. So as a concept it is much cleaner. And the right button extends a selection (so you don't have to drag to select, saves your wrist and is more precise), and often has an alternate meaning when clicking on an item, but never gives a menu.

              Also good to note that RISC OS had these context-sensitive menus before the Mac or Windows did.

              • twic 7 days ago

                The buttons were Select, Menu, and Adjust! Adjust did different things in different contexts, and i never had a good mental model of why it did what it did.

                The other nice thing about the RISC OS menus was that the 'Save As' option (whatever it was called) would pop out a submenu which had an icon of the file in it - you would then drag that icon to wherever you wanted to save it. That struck me as a lovely implementation of the "spatial file manager" idea, and immediately raised the possibility of having other kinds of terminal menus that would do special things.

                • Symbiote 7 days ago

                  This screenshot shows both features. The middle button can be pressed on every icon (!Alarm, :0 being the floppy disc drive, the pen and ink, clock etc) plus the editor window.

                  The icon above "TextFile" would be dragged to a file window. The only file window shows the ROM applications, so it's actually read-only and there's nowhere useful to drag this icon.

                  Clicking !Alarm etc with the left mouse button selects one at a time, right clicking extends the selection. There are few other things to usefully right click on. The scroll arrows / bar scroll in the opposite direction with a right click. Selecting a menu option from the pop-up menu with a right click keeps the menu open.

                  The other really nice thing was the anti-aliasing, which was wonderful.

                  http://www.linuxvoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Risc_OS...

          • webwielder2 7 days ago

            You've described why Acorn may have had better technology than Apple but not why they are more important.

            • louthy 7 days ago

              I guess Acorn inventing the ARM chip might give some credence to the GPs point. Acorn were definitely more important in the UK because of the impact of the BBC's Computer Literacy Project - I sit here as a CTO of a software company because of that project. I suspect a large number of the UK's software companies can trace their routes back to that. For the rest of the world I guess the question is open

              • jacquesm 7 days ago

                Because they upped the standard of what a home computer could be. In fact, in many ways that standard has yet to be surpassed.

            • whywhywhywhy 7 days ago

              If you own a Raspberry Pi you can actually boot up RISC OS. Definitely recommend you try it out.[1]

              But one thing to keep in mind, the fast boot up, super responsiveness and anti-aliased fonts are not because you're running a 90s operating system on 201X tech, it actually ran that nicely back in the day too.

              I often wonder what computing today would look like if different operating systems had gained dominance.

              [1] https://www.riscosopen.org/content/downloads/raspberry-pi

              • codeulike 7 days ago

                The people that designed and built the first ARM processor (in 1985), for those that dont know. Among other things.

                ARM originally meant Acorn RISC Machine.

                • rbanffy 7 days ago

                  The Acorn Atom, its successor, the BBC micro family, then the Archimedes, the first 32-bit RISC personal computer (for which the ARM was designed)...

                  Their impact cannot be overstated.

                  • tr352 7 days ago

                    And the low budget Acorn Electron, a kind of stripped down and partially compatible BBC.

                    As I understand it, the Electron was a bit of a commercial failure. However this caused remaining stock to be dumped (at least in the Netherlands) at rock bottom prices. My primary school teacher was a big fan of them, and installed a couple of them at our primary school. I got to borrow one for a summer break (1990?). My first forays into Basic programming, as well as trying to understand German, since that was the language in which the accompanying Basic manual was written.

                    • codeulike 7 days ago

                      I had an Archimedes! It was amazing.

                      Weird to think how many billions of ARM chips there are now. Another 40 million made every day apparently.

                      • rbanffy 7 days ago

                        IIRC, at launch time, its floating point performance was close to a Despro 386 with a 387 coprocessor.

                        • codeulike 7 days ago

                          Is that good or bad?

                          • setquk 7 days ago

                            That was pretty good as it didn't have a floating point coprocessor at launch and was entirely software implemented. You could buy a card with an AT&T WE32206 copro for it which made it pretty damn fast. I think they had dedicated copro socket later on. I didn't buy one because all of them were stupid expensive.

                            • SmellyGeekBoy 7 days ago

                              The Archimedes absolutely blew the popular 16-bit 68000 machines (Ataris and Amigas) out of the water, that's for sure. Although to be fair it was more expensive.

                              • codeulike 7 days ago

                                I had BASIC games I'd written for the BBC Model B and when I ran them on the Archimedes everything moved around the screen too fast to see. It was amazing.

                        • tinktank 7 days ago

                          But wasn't the Atom a copy of the MIPS? I was under the impression MIPS did it first but ARM did it better?

                          • SmellyGeekBoy 7 days ago

                            Nope. ARM and MIPS used concepts from RISC but that's where the similarity ends.

                            • codeulike 7 days ago

                              You mean ARM not Atom? I dont think the ARM was a copy of anything, but ARM and MIPS both use a RISC approach.

                              • rbanffy 7 days ago

                                If anything, I remember hearing a presentation where they claimed the ARM was influenced by the 6502 they used in the Atom an the BBC. The 6502 is an absolutely delightful machine to program for.

                                The jump delay slots, I think, are something they share with MIPS, but I'm not aware of anything else.

                                • vidarh 7 days ago

                                  It influenced their decision to do their own, first and foremost. Basically Bill Mensch at Western Design Centre provided them evidence by example that a tiny team could build their own CPU.

                                  • rbanffy 7 days ago

                                    > a tiny team could build their own CPU

                                    I almost did that in college. It was a beauty - a stack based CPU that could run an almost decent FORTH on metal. I wonder if it would have worked if actually built.

                                    Of course, ARM is a much more complex thing than my toy.

                                  • tom_ 7 days ago

                                    There's some stuff about it in this Sophie Wilson interview, which I found an interesting read: http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102746190

                                  • twic 7 days ago
                            • timthorn 7 days ago

                              A good excuse to break out the link to the BBC's Computer Literacy Project, including the back catalogue of "Micro Live": https://computer-literacy-project.pilots.bbcconnectedstudio....

                              • danellis 7 days ago

                                And a generation of British childhood programmers was born.

                                • teh_klev 7 days ago

                                  My folks bought me one for passing my O grades in high school in the summer of 1983. I'd already been hacking away on the school Apple ][ since xmas 1979, then the school BBC's, and it was such a joy to finally own my own computer, and a BBC Model B as well! I learned everything I could about that machine, especially the OS ROM internals. I loved the fact you could just inline 6502 assembler in your BBC Basic programs.

                                  By the time my beeb reached its end of life it had a Torch Z80 co-processor running a clone/lookalike of CP/M-80 (I picked up some dBase II/dBase III work along the way), a pair of high density floppies and loads of other stuff installed. It outgrew even the aftermarket cases and ended up living in a 19" half height Data General mini computer rack (I was very fortunate to work spare hours with a local Data General broker - I even ended up with a full Eclipse S/130 based mini living in my parents house :) ).

                                  For many young people of that time it was a hugely influential machine.

                                  • jacquesm 7 days ago

                                    European. The BBC Micro was a smash hit all over Europe.

                                    • chx 7 days ago

                                      Western Europe, at most. Behind the Iron Curtain, it didn't exist. Among the Western machines, Commodore got a foothold, C16, C64, Plus 4, ZX Spectrum and somewhat the Atari ST and by the end, there were some Amiga 500s.

                                  • fredley 7 days ago

                                    One of the first computers I ever used was an Acorn, the only thing I can really remember about it was its odd mouse - it had three buttons (no scroll wheel) and both the middle and right buttons provided different context menus!

                                    • Symbiote 7 days ago

                                      Middle button provided a context menu, and right button an alternative form of a left click. The kind of thing a shift-click would get now, like adding to a selection of icons in a file dialogue.

                                      RISC OS can run on any Raspberry Pi very easily, or emulators like Arcem.

                                      • setquk 7 days ago

                                        Select Menu Adjust. I will never forget :)

                                        • SmellyGeekBoy 7 days ago

                                          It was great for Cannon Fodder ;)