BBC Computer Literacy Project 1980 – 1989

(bbcrewind.co.uk)

155 points | by open-source-ux 11 days ago

20 comments

  • Wildgoose 10 days ago

    I was born in 1965 and was an early micro-hobbyist from the end of 1978 onwards. I remember wanting an Acorn System One which was basically a hex keypad attached to a Eurocard. Unbelievably primitive.

    In 1980 (aged 15) I got an Acorn Atom, (the predecessor of the BBC computer), with a great keyboard, 8K ROM and 2K RAM. Built-in BASIC and a built-in 6502 Assembler as well.

    These computers were functional but bare-bones. You really could comprehend how everything fitted together. I was really blessed to be part of that generation at the very beginning.

    The BBC computer literacy project was fantastic for replicating my experience to those immediately following me in school. The UK was an early world-leader in the number and quality of its programming talent.

    The real tragedy was this was followed by the utterly useless national "ICT" curriculum in schools which was essentially all about teaching kids how to use Microsoft Office, and probably discouraged an entire generation of kids from getting involved in software. This still makes me angry.

    • Zenst 10 days ago

      After the atom they did the bbc micro and then the electron which was supposed to be a cheaper version of the bbc micro, though interesting history on that with issues I vaugly recall.

      http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/33746/Acorn-Atom-TRAN...

      has some nice nostalgia content to compliment this.

      FOr me 1967, zx81 was first computer, school was a ICL 2902/3 via acoustic coupler and teletype connection that was painful and with bad lines, 30 minutes handshake was kinda how it felt to get connected. Then RM machine and in last year at school we got our token BBC micro that the teacher was overprotective with, almost had to let him know which key you was going to press in advance.

      >The real tragedy was this was followed by the utterly useless national "ICT" curriculum in schools which was essentially all about teaching kids how to use Microsoft Office, and probably discouraged an entire generation of kids from getting involved in software. This still makes me angry.

      Totally and completely agree and to some extent, still feeling that today.

      90's was painful - how many times did you have the convo about work and you would say you work in IT and some peon would say, aha yes I can do that - I know Word. Some painful times back then, as they proceeded to ego rub all down your sanity.

      I would also add that games in many ways did curtail people exploring computers a bit as in the early days, you had to write your own or type them in, today, none of that and in many respects - totally shut out of modifying them to learn. But some exceptions, just not the norm.

      • tonyedgecombe 9 days ago

        I owned a System One, I had to work picking Apples through the summer to save up enough to buy it. I remember picking through every detail of the system in a way that isn't really possible now. It was basic but I managed to write a few games and a simple interpreted language on it.

        I ended up giving it away to somebody on HN after they left mentioned an interest: http://forum.6502.org/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=3362

        • Toenex 9 days ago

          Similar memories for me too. Born in '69 and also felt part of a unique period in tech and the UK.

          In case you haven't seen it, I would definitely recommend watching the BBC film Micro Men (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n5b92). Enjoy.

          • rjsw 10 days ago

            Also born in 1965 and had an Acorn Atom. Went to two schools that had Research Machines 380Z systems. Didn't take any lessons in computing or ICT.

            I had decided that I was going to be a computer programmer around 1975, I remember having to talk to careers advisers and the job didn't exist as a defined thing that you could do.

            • tonyedgecombe 9 days ago

              Careers advice was a bit dire back then, I remember being told I definitely shouldn't be a programmer and instead should be an actuary. Good job I ignored that advice.

            • derekmcloughlin 10 days ago

              '65 here as well. We had the Acorn Atom at school when I was 16, but I found it underwhelming. My interest in computing didn't really start until 1983 when I started using System 7 Unix on a PDP/11 in college.

              • Wildgoose 10 days ago

                The book it came with, "Atomic Theory and Practise" was really well written and was a brilliant introduction to Computer Science.

                I remember writing to Acorn with a question and received a hand-written reply from Sophie Wilson, (of later ARM processor fame).

                I also watched Chris Curry demonstrate the forthcoming BBC computer to a packed Sheffield University lecture hall with the South Yorkshire Personal Computer Group. It blew everyone away!

              • claudiawerner 10 days ago

                >The real tragedy was this was followed by the utterly useless national "ICT" curriculum in schools which was essentially all about teaching kids how to use Microsoft Office, and probably discouraged an entire generation of kids from getting involved in software. This still makes me angry.

                My own experience of the ICT curriculum in 2011/2012 was very similar. Pre-GCSE had some stuff about building websites with Dreamweaver. The teacher showed us a banking website, and pointed out various UI elements, and our task was to make a website of our own. Unfortunately, we had to do it completely backwards. As part of some "integrated skills" approach, we had to make the website's text buttons, of size exactly 400x200 using Photoshop, and then place them onto the page. I decided that it was silly to do that, so I made the buttons with HTML and CSS. At that point, I was told I should have used Photoshop to make the buttons. I used Photoshop to make reasonably sized buttons to place on the page, and I was again told to make 400x200 buttons. I think after a while I just gave up. This was at a private school, too - which at least ostensibly placed some emphasis on nurturing "gifted and talented" students. I don't know if HTML and CSS counted for that, but I didn't feel nurtured at all.

                The GCSE portion of the ICT curriculum was based around creating a database, documentation and pre-made queries with MS Access. Some fancy VBscript dialogue boxes and LIKE queries seemed to get me good marks with it. It was still a far cry from what I wanted to do.

                At A-level, same story. We were instructed to make a site with Joomla according to the "client specification" one one hand, and do an exam on things like the meaning of SaaS on the other hand. The documentation process for the Joomla site was utterly inane, needing to include a screenshot of every way you modified it from the basic version of the site to include the "features" (features in this case was selecting and customizing Joomla addons through the web interface). I decided to write some code for a passworded portal, and play around with the HTML/CSS, which apparently didn't impress the examiners much.

                It turns out that the only thing I could do at sixth form (for readers outside of Britain this means the stage of education for 16 to 18s) that required some programming was a BTEC, and BTECs don't curry favour with the university admissions process.

                It's a miracle I wasn't turned away from computers after all that. In my first year of studying EE, I talked to some computer science students, many of whom told me that they hadn't done any programming before. Ironically, the only reason why I didn't get to do computer science was because I got a B instead of an A in my "ICT" A-level - the Joomla web customization part (the exam was fine). From what I can gather, the university admissions process implicitly works like this:

                - Can you program and demonstrate open source work? We don't care. What are your grades like?

                - Oh, you didn't include the requisite number of screenshots showing which buttons you clicked to customize a CMS-built website? Sorry, you're just not fit to do computer science. That's all about information technology, didn't you know?

                A younger relative did the "computer science" course at school, which is designed to replace or run alongside "ICT". Although better, the questions they asked were inane, and the written exam requires them to write syntactically correct Python code in a big box the size of a page, followed by some questions as to what a BSOD indicates and what "RAM" stands for.

                In my experience, non-ICT classes do just fine in teaching people how to use MS Office. You have to write essays for English, and make presentations for History. The fact that there's a class dedicated just for learning how to use MS Office and Adobe products is horrible. The whole school system seems bent on inefficiency and inertia. I've learned more Japanese vocab with Anki (spaced repetition flashcard software) and grammar with a textbook self-studying in the space of a month, for less than an hour a day, than I learned French vocab and grammar for two years in school with weekly vocab tests and three timetabled hours during school time a week. Why don't schools make Anki decks for their students to practice every day, and ask for the Anki stats report each week? Why are history lessons built around remembering which year King John died? Why don't maths classes include any work with computers?

                • Symbiote 10 days ago

                  A reasonable, modern ICT class would be infrequent, and replace the "Library" classes I had about once a year in the late 1990s. We were taught how to find a book using the library catalogue… and I've forgotten the rest.

                  > the university admissions process…

                  University admissions for computer science is mostly demonstrating a strong ability in mathematics and reasoning, and an interest in the subject.

                  The ICT or BTEC qualifications are pretty much irrelevant for showing ability, but they might show interest. An open source project (or any project) shows a strong interest.

                  > Japanese / French…

                  I'd guess you have a lot more interest in Japanese than French

                  > Why are history lessons built around remembering which year King John died?

                  They are not.

                  They want you to understand how events in the past shaped later events, society, and the progress or downfall of civilization. Reeling off some dates is worth very few marks in the exam, although knowing the sequence of significant events will help any argument that depends on them. [2]

                  > Why don't maths classes include any work with computers?

                  Because it's better to learn the fundamentals, before using tools to take shortcuts.

                  > the written exam requires them to write syntactically correct Python code

                  Seems unlikely. The example exam paper at [1] asks for pseudocode.

                  [1] https://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/computer-science-and-it/gcse...

                  [2] https://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/history/gcse/history-8145/sp...

                  • claudiawerner 10 days ago

                    >University admissions for computer science is mostly demonstrating a strong ability in mathematics and reasoning, and an interest in the subject.

                    Both were abundantly clear with my application, with a high grade in maths (the one they wanted) and a personal statement about what programming work I've done. I would have met the grade boundary had I gotten a slightly better mark in "IT". Requiring "mathematics and reasoning" is already demonstrated by the requirement of a maths A-level and a science A-level. It is in no way demonstrated by the ability to set up a Joomla website. My point still stands.

                    >I'd guess you have a lot more interest in Japanese than French

                    An alternative reading, which accords with the curriculum and common method of teaching, would be that the teaching style is not fit for purpose.

                    >Because it's better to learn the fundamentals, before using tools to take shortcuts.

                    I agree. That doesn't explain why no computer-assisted learning happens at any point during the course of the whole under-18 maths curriculum.

                    >Seems unlikely. The example exam paper at [1] asks for pseudocode.

                    Fair enough, thanks for the link. I must have misremembered. The fact that you need to write a program without access to an interpreter is similarly silly.

              • dijit 10 days ago

                Here’s something seldom talked about, and maybe it’s only my experience.

                I was born ‘89 and in the midlands of the UK, so I missed these programmes (although my mother didn’t and even as a non-techy person could write BBC basic on a C64, which is where I got my interest).

                But growing up there were quite literally no resources to learn anything about computers or programming. All courses in school were “computing” which was Microsoft excel and word courses; if you were really lucky it would be Microsoft access. They were specifically tailored for office work, not understanding computers.

                As I aged, I found courses on networking (specifically Cisco) in college, however they all closed the year before I could take them.

                I did manage to take a college course but I had to commute 4.5hrs a day for 2 years to take it, which was quite demanding. And I was in the last group who could ever take that course. (It closed the year after I started, I was literally the last group in). And there the only thing they taught me programming related was Visual Basic. (Although they did teach me to crimp Ethernet cables).

                Does anyone else have this experience in the UK? Did I just grow up in a bad area for computer science?

                (I believe shortly after I left school they did start having lessons in programming though- maybe I am part of a weirdly lost generation)

                • charlestondance 10 days ago

                  I was born in 83 and i remember the changes to the computing course being discussed by my teacher at the time. I did the last year of the 'old' course, which as I like to tell people had 6502 asm in it. He was an old school electrical engineer and wasn't' happy about the coming changes to the curriculum!

                  If I recall correctly, the government made a decision at the time get rid of all the interesting stuff and change it to IT only with word etc. and that sounds like what you had to do. My opinion would be the raspberry pi movement was in part a direct response to this. Getting back to the old ways we taught kids in this country and providing the cheap accessible technology such as spectrums that people like me could actually have in their bedrooms. Plus every school i think had a BBC micro, which i think was pretty impressive foresight for the time.

                  • motogpjimbo 10 days ago

                    I was born in 76, so I do vaguely remember the BBC computer literacy programmes - I think we were shown episodes on the big TV that the teacher would wheel into the classroom on a trolley.

                    I don't remember there being a lot of programming content in the school curriculum per se, but BASIC programming generally was absolutely massive back then. On the 8-bit micros we had at the time, it wasn't even possible to load a game without typing a BASIC command, and it was only a small step from there to writing small programs to print rude words on the screen.

                    Both I and an entire generation of UK programmers learned to program from the Usborne computing books, some of which they've now made available free in PDF form: https://usborne.com/browse-books/features/computer-and-codin...

                    • bobince 10 days ago

                      Another '76. There was nothing in the curriculum where I was.

                      There were computers dotted around the place run by enthusiastic maths, physics and design teachers, which occasionally made it into a lesson, but more commonly would be commandeered by the spoddy kids at break times, making programs to print rude words on the screen.

                      Our school brought in actual computing lessons a few years later, but they were "How To Do Word, You Peons" from day 1 (on the godawful slow PC-not-entirely-compatibles that somehow RM managed to trick schools into buying back then). I consider it a lucky escape I didn't have that to put me off the whole idea.

                      • altacc 10 days ago

                        I also experienced those "How to Do Word" lessons, although earlier my school had taught us BASIC programming on a BBC Acorn. So I found it very frustrating when they built a shiny new computer lab only to teach us how to click on UIs. There were a few of us who did the classic "sitting at the back and doing our own thing".

                        • zelos 10 days ago

                          Those RM Nimbus machines! My school had a lab full of the 186 versions, they were awful. And, again, 'computing' lessons meant MS Office.

                    • PaulRobinson 10 days ago

                      '78 here.

                      As an aside, nobody writes BBC BASIC on a C64. You write the C64 variant. BBC BASIC was specific to the BBC Computers. Many magazines and books had different listings for each machine. ;-)

                      I was awarded one of the first A* grades in the UK for GCSE Computer Science, because I was in the first year that was on the National Curriculum. My understanding is that within 2-3 years, the curriculum changed dramatically

                      In my generation, Logo programming was taught at primary school. BASIC was taught in "first year" (which is now Year 7), at secondary school. Most programming was taught though if you elected to do Computer Science in Year 10 onwards, and the GCSE required a project to be undertaken. Mine was a sort of theatre booking system.

                      I remember when about 14 talking to my deputy headteacher about the future of teaching computer science. She was convinced that it would die out before I graduated university because "computing would just be in every lesson". That was the direction the UK gov did take, and a wrong call IMHO.

                      By the time I got to A-Level, the curriculum was a mess. Most pupils had Amigas and Atari STs at home, the labs at my college were full of PCs and the programming part of the curriculum was QBasic led, but the text books were still talking about mainframes and punch cards.

                      The government seems to have tapped out and waited to see what would happen next. In a decade of doing STEM outreach, I found it infuriating that no real curriculum existed in schools other than how to use office tools. That seems to have changed now, but it's not exactly a great curriculum, still.

                    • rgblambda 10 days ago

                      The story I heard was that the UK Government, when designing a new curriculum for computing, consulted with Microsoft on what to include in the curriculum. Microsoft said office software would be really important and used the opportunity to pitch their own products. Now because everyone learned Office in school it's the thing that got used in the workplace and this self perpetuated up until a few years ago when (in England) I.C.T, which was the new name for the subject, got replaced by Computer Science which focused more on programming.

                      When I studied I.C.T, if the teacher knew how to code, she sure as hell didn't show it. What was it like with the BBC micros? Did the teacher know enough to teach the class? I know this is a problem with the current Computer Science curriculum.

                      • davidwtbuxton 10 days ago

                        I was at a private boarding school, aged 10 in 1985. They had a computer lab with ~20 BBC model B's and we were taught BASIC, how to load and run programs from tape, how to use this paint software I don't remember the name of. It was all solid stuff.

                        But the real draw was playing video games, which was only permitted on weekends. Hours and hours of Chuckie Egg, Cylon Attack, Stryker's Run, etc.

                        • Zenst 10 days ago

                          Yes things did change around then,before you had to write your own game or type them in. Then suddenly lots about and in part that IMHO played a part in removing the need-appeal to learn more for many.

                          Though for some the challenges in hacking games and redoing boot loaders did happen, it was more niche scene wise and not part of schooling.

                        • stuaxo 10 days ago

                          They seemed to know enough to load the disks as far as I remember.

                          One school I went to had "computer club" after school to use BBC Micros.

                          We were playing games on them: Thrust, Imogen and Repton.

                          • Symbiote 10 days ago

                            I was very pleased when I found that Repton 3 has been released for Android, by the original developer.

                            When I was 6, I couldn't get beyond the 4th level. Now, I have completed a few of the level sets, but I'm still stuck on others.

                            https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.superiorin...

                            • Zenst 10 days ago

                              That's cool, though if you feel nostalgic for worms, get a retro emulation version as the play store version will cause all sorts of WTF moments and utter price gorge.

                              • Symbiote 10 days ago

                                Repton, Imogen and Thrust are 9-10 years older than Worms (1995), it was a very different era for graphics.

                          • chrisseaton 10 days ago

                            > But growing up there were quite literally no resources to learn anything about computers or programming.

                            This logical jump doesn't seem to make sense to me. Almost every developed country on earth used Microsoft Office in the second half of the 90s and the 00s. Why do you think in the UK it was specifically caused by it being taught in school, when it was also successful everywhere else when it was not taught in school?

                            • coribuci 9 days ago

                              > > But growing up there were quite literally no resources to learn anything about computers or programming.

                              > This logical jump doesn't seem to make sense to me. Almost every developed country on earth used Microsoft Office in the second half of the 90s and the 00s. Why do you think in the UK it was specifically caused by it being taught in school, when it was also successful everywhere else when it was not taught in school?

                              Because the reason why every developed country used Microsoft products was corruption (you can call it lobbying if you feel good).

                              • dijit 10 days ago

                                I wasn't really a functioning adult at that time, but the impression I got was that LOTUS NOTES and things of this nature were equally competitive during the early 90's. And Microsoft getting into education began to cement their domination as the generations became old enough to enter the workforce.

                                • Wildgoose 10 days ago

                                  Because they changed from teaching the basics of programming and how computers work to how to use Microsoft Word or Powerpoint.

                                  That is a MAJOR jump, from teaching programming to teaching word processing.

                                • saw-lau 10 days ago

                                  Our teachers certainly did (comprehensive school from 1981). I guess because the subject was computer studies (think it was 'studies' rather than 'science') and the curriculum was about programming and how they worked, I guess they had to hire people who knew their onions.

                                  • TheOtherHobbes 10 days ago

                                    There was a wave of 8-bit interest from 1980 onwards, with the ZX80/81, ZX Spectrum, Electron, Dragon, and other cheap machines. The BBC eventually caught up with its own micro, but it was between and four times the price of other machines, so it was only ever bought by very rich parents and universities. And a few schools.

                                    These machines were all zero-setup hands-on BASIC environments. A lot of people used them for games, a smaller number typed in listings by hand from paper magazines, an even smaller number learned assembly programming.

                                    It was incredibly easy and cheap to set up a games company. You wrote your game (hard - but not that hard), you paid a relatively small fee to have some tapes duplicated, you put an ad in the back of one or more magazines, and when the orders came in by post you sent them out by post. Marketing? Send games in for review and maybe hire a stall at a computer fair.

                                    If the game was even slightly better than average it would sell.

                                    The result was that anyone born between around 1960 and 1970 had cheap access to good-enough hardware on which to learn simple programming and a ready-made business model they could copy, all requiring next to no start-up capital.

                                    There was a shake-out in the mid 80s. The PC arrived and business-ised the market, raising the cost of entry. Games became more challenging to develop as graphics techniques became more sophisticated. The 16-bit machines arrived, which took things up a level as dev tools started to cost real money.

                                    So by the 90s the scene was an industry. Schools were largely irrelevant to it. Some schools had "computer clubs", and the BBC had promoted BASIC for a while, but in 1991 8-bit BASIC started to be replaced by VB, which wasn't a school-level topic. Windows 3.1 programming was hugely more complex than either BASIC or assembler and the tools were insanely expensive. By now the cost of entry was far beyond the resources of most teens/students, and alternatives like Delphi (Pascal) couldn't sell directly to schools like Microsoft could. And even if they could, most parents weren't going to buy their kids a PC to play on, because PCs cost as much as a car.

                                    Schools taught Office because there was no longer a useful entry-level for developers. And anyone who'd been up through the 80s was now working as a developer and getting paid a lot more than they'd get as an ICT teacher.

                                    tl;dr the industry cut out the educational system. "Business-ising" the technology starved a generation of access to affordable computing and the high cost of entry made it very difficult for talented teens to build the next generation of businesses.

                                    • Symbiote 10 days ago

                                      > Schools taught Office because there was no longer a useful entry-level for developers. And anyone who'd been up through the 80s was now working as a developer and getting paid a lot more than they'd get as an ICT teacher.

                                      The second part is much more of an issue than the first part.

                                      My father was a teacher at a fairly expensive private school, where the pay was a fair bit higher than normal. The ICT teacher was a friend of my dad's, and helped me if he visited. He could do some programming, and taught the students using robots (Fischertechnik and later Lego) and Visual Basic. Both were options on the curriculum, but many ICT teachers chose the "easier" options, i.e. word processing, graphics, presentations.

                                      The robots lent themselves very well to introductory programming. There was a model of automatic sliding doors, a fork-lift truck (with a light sensor for line following), and a lift. All had appropriate sensors and switches to control them, and the computer had software to program graphically, or in text.

                                      • Zenst 10 days ago

                                        Aha the Dragon, I actually knew somebody who had one of those, great bit of kit, just one of many at a time and didn't tractions - shame.

                                        Though iirc there is some history about the building used and current RPi production - though that may be that they are both in Wales.

                                        But many great initiatives back then, then we just sold it all off/let it go.

                                        ICL sold to microsoft, Inmos....history footnote.

                                        Only thing that lasted was ARM and even that was sold off.

                                        RPi been amazing at capturing those early days, but never be the same as early days, that was it, today - choice saturation and that boils down to games based systems like consoles and indeed phones soaking up the attention of the masses.

                                    • stuaxo 10 days ago

                                      I was born in 78 and went to school in the south.

                                      There was a BBC Micro at primary school.

                                      We didnt have any sort of structured way of learning it (or maybe I was just too young).

                                      There was educational material, like "grannies garden", and "pod" where you could type "pod can pop" to make the poor tomato explode.

                                      Because it booted straight into BBC Basic I quickly found out how to print things with different colours to the screen.

                                      I went to 3 different secondary schools and they all had BBC Micros, Archimedes and PCs.

                                      There didnt seem to be any teaching about programming.

                                      There were books around about stuff about 6502, but it was a bit beyond me at age 12.

                                      The kids interested in computers would go and use them at the lunch breaks.

                                      By the 90s the only computing related teaching was about how to use word processors.

                                      Later I took computer studies at college where we learned coding proper, funnily we still had an "ICT" module, which was really "how to type".

                                      • sparks1970 10 days ago

                                        I was born in 1970 in the south. I guess I was lucky that my dad was an engineer and tinkerer, somehow I got introduced to electronics via a magazine "Practical Electronics"? I recall building basic circuits with a soldering iron around 1982-83.

                                        About that time these kinds of magazines (which I think my Dad brought back from work) started to discuss and show adverts for the early 8 bit machines. My interest switched from electronics to programming.

                                        There was no way my family could afford even a kit. I remember hanging around a store like Curry's that sold the early computers and typing in simple 2 and 3 line programs to print things to the screen. The shop assistants had a full time job resetting the machines to stop the endless scrolling of rude words or our names.

                                        Around 1984 my grandfather was made redundant and used some of the money to buy us a BBC Micro. It changed my life.

                                        Until reading your post I had assumed that the late 80's when I was studying computing at college and then university were a time of massive boom in computing education - that I was at the forefront of a massive wave of programmers being educated up. I realize I was very, very lucky.

                                        • saw-lau 10 days ago

                                          Born in 1970 as well - seems incredible reading the comments here about ICT and how lucky I was to born at the right time in the right place.

                                          I was also super-lucky that my dad was the caretaker of a primary school and I was able to go in while my dad was cleaning in the evenings and use their BBC Micros.

                                          Such happy days and pleasant memories!

                                        • richardjdare 10 days ago

                                          I was born in '76. We had a BBC Micro at primary school. I spent some time on it typing in basic listings from a library book, but I did that on my own initiative. It was mostly used to play JCB Digger and Killa Gorilla. I think it all depended on how much of a computer enthusiast your teacher was.

                                          At high school we had a computer room filled with RM Nimbus PCs, but nobody to teach IT. They were used mostly for word processing and simple DTP by teachers of other subjects. I found out the computer room was empty during PE lessons so I used to hide there when skiving off from football practice.

                                          All my computer knowledge back then came from computer magazines and messing around on my Amstrad CPC and then Amiga. It was actually damned hard to get decent programming information, especially if you had no money. Libraries only had books for C64, or first-wave home computers like the ZX81. I don't think I ever saw an Amstrad CPC book in the wild.

                                          I found it very frustrating to be honest. Definitely set back my programming career. It took me years to go from initial interest to professional programmer, largely because I had no access to learning materials.

                                          • fit2rule 10 days ago

                                            I was born in Australia in 1970, and learned programming as a natural progression from the electronics kits and soldering-iron based things I was doing with my favourite uncle, who was a Ham-radio enthusiast and had everything we needed in his radio shack to build ourselves a little digital computer, in 1978. I was 8 years old, and therefore perfectly timed to grow up with computing.

                                            By 1983, I had written my first commercial software (to control a laser light-show for one of my Dad's night-clubs) and moved on to 'real computers' - in my case, an Oric-1 and then an Amstrad CPC6128 which I wired up to a modem, and with which I promptly discovered Unix and C programming on a local university system, courtesy of a friends' login being provided to me for the purpose of testing my modem ...

                                            In the 90's, things took a turn for the worse in my opinion, when everything became Microsoft-oriented, and the field was renamed to "IT" instead of Computer Science. I watched with dismay as a lot of my colleagues and associates, still in school (where I'd dropped out of high school), learned "Visual Basic" and other such nonsense.

                                            It really seems like there was a period in the 90's where computer education went backwards.

                                            But nowadays, people are realising that all these old machines still work, and are still quite relevant when it comes to teaching kids how computers work. A day with a raspberry Pi is one thing - but a week with an 8-bit machine is another thing entirely, and between these two worlds, big connections can be made by the budding student of computer science.

                                            • amiga-workbench 10 days ago

                                              I had an identical experience, me being bored with screwing around with MS Office nearly caused me to fail GCSE IT, I was so bored by the time the database module came around that I submitted a mySQL backed eCommerce site as my final project.

                                              I don't know how much things have changed in the 10 years I've been out of education, but back then you had to take learning into your own hands to get a glimpse of any real computing.

                                              • GordonS 10 days ago

                                                I was born in the early 80's, but was very lucky to have a father that worked with technology at work, and so we had computers at home - they were outdated, so I think it was whatever work was throwing out! Later we had a Commodore 64 and Atari STE too, but like you, it was the C64 that really got me interested beyond gaming.

                                                In the early years while I was at primary school, there was a ZX Spectrum, which was exclusively used for young kids to play games on - at some point it must have broken though, because it disappeared and was never seen again :(

                                                Later on a BBC microcomputer appeared, but this was guarded fiercely by the head in her office (I guess she used it for typing?!). On the 1 or 2 occasions it was brought out (literally 1 or 2, I guess the school inspectors were in or something...), we played around with Logo and the Turtle - but that was it.

                                                At secondary school, there was a computing department filled with PCs, with 1 teacher to around 30 pupils. Perhaps by design because of that poor ratio, the tasks were ridiculously simple - I recall finishing 50-minute lessons in less than 5 minutes. You'd leave secondary school with no more knowledge than how to type in a 2nd-rate word processor and how to add 2 cells together in a 2nd-rate spreadsheet - as you say, the whole thing was tailored towards simple office work.

                                                I agree about the lack of resources - there was essentially nothing in schools. There weren't many technical books available through libraries either, or if there were I couldn't find them. My father bought a regular magazine, PC World (I loved it!), but until the internet came along, that was the sum total of my bank of computing knowledge.

                                                So, yeah, if I hadn't been lucky enough to be in a middle-class family with computers at home, I'm sure my entire life now would be completely different.

                                                • tambourineman88 10 days ago

                                                  I was born in '88, also in the midlands, and had a very similar experience. I can't recall even encountering a computer until high school and then as you say it was just learning basic word processing and making posters in Publisher etc.

                                                  The good news is I have a younger brother born in '98 and his experience was entirely different. They were using computers all through primary school and were taught Python at high school.

                                                  It's amazing the difference just ten years can make.

                                                  • laurieg 10 days ago

                                                    This mirrors my experience exactly. I was really interested in computers and I wanted to learn to program so I could make games.

                                                    When I was 10 I went to the library and managed to get hold of a book on C. I took it home, studied it and then typed the programs into Notepad on Windows 95. I had no compiler and no internet. It was literally years before I actually ran a program I had written.

                                                    • dijit 10 days ago

                                                      I had the same experience, but the library only had a book on COBOL and the CD with the compiler was missing, so I could write, but never run my code.

                                                      Didn't help that there was no internet at home, but that's not the fault of the curriculum.

                                                    • chrisseaton 10 days ago

                                                      > I was born ‘89 and in the midlands of the UK, so I missed these programmes

                                                      Did your school not follow the national curriculum?

                                                      Computer science content was there during the period you (and I) were at school it just wasn't made very clear that it was computer science. Maybe this is a good thing? Just teach it like a regular part of what people are already doing in their fundamental classes.

                                                      I think you will have done data structures and algorithms in the discrete part of your maths A-level, including sorting and graph algorithms, and asymptotic analysis.

                                                      You will possibly also have had the option of a computing A-level, which featured genuine CS topics like data normal forms, assembly programming, and memory allocation.

                                                      I think people are unfairly hash when they talk about previous UK CS education in schools.

                                                      I don't know of other countries routinely teaching their 16 year olds asymptotic analysis of Dijkstra's algorithm.

                                                      • Symbiote 10 days ago

                                                        At best, those were optional (to the student or to the school) classes for the final 2 years of education.

                                                        I am just 3 years older, but in Year 2 (age 6-7) at primary school we wrote programs on the computer in Logo, and then connected that to the floor turtle to trace the pattern onto paper.

                                                        A couple of years later, the only work we did on the computer was word processing.

                                                        • iso1631 10 days ago

                                                          Born in late 81, I vaguely remember some computers in primary (NW England) school - I think we had a BBC micro. We did some logo (no actual floor turtle) in about 94/95 (year 8), but aside from that it was all Windows 3.1/Netware/Microsoft Works. I think the internet sort of arrived at school in year 12+13 (so 98 onwards), but by then I was playing with Linux and Matt's script archive from home.

                                                          My introduction to computers beyond playing games was from my dad, who had brought an PC back from work around 93/94, with windows and VB3, and a modem a year or so later. The "Learn X in 24 hours/21 days" books were really good for bootstrapping -- I remember the VB and TCL/TK ones

                                                      • afandian 10 days ago

                                                        Yes with a twist - a couple of years older than you which meant my school was selling its then-old BBCs for a fiver when I was eight years old or so. I got started, programming on a BBC Master as a child. An amazing spec for its time, and just as educational as it was a decade earlier.

                                                        • pjc50 10 days ago

                                                          I'm just about old enough to remember the BBC project itself, and yes: it was basically the only effort to teach people to program, which was part of why it was so unique and impressive. Computing GCSE was largely useless.

                                                          • stevekemp 10 days ago

                                                            I think I missed the window too, there was one BBC computer available to our class and all we did was play "Granny's Garden" upon it.

                                                            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granny%27s_Garden

                                                            (There was some turn-based strategy-game too, where you had to raise taxes, and get elected. I recall almost nothing about it.)

                                                          • lowbloodsugar 10 days ago

                                                            Did my computer O level in 86. No reference to the BBC Micro at all. Punch cards tho. Punch cards were something I needed to know about. I had a BBC Micro at home and the O level seemed like something from the 1800s. Turned me off formal computer science education until Andrew Ng's machine learning course decades later.

                                                            But the literacy program convinced my mum and dad to buy the BBC Micro in the first place, and I learned to program 6502, and then ARM2 on its successor, and right now I have a job and am very thankful for it, and for my parents foresight.

                                                            • C1sc0cat 10 days ago

                                                              In 86 that's what industry was using

                                                              • lowbloodsugar 10 days ago

                                                                Sure. Past-based. By the time I was in college, microcomputers were everywhere and still not a focus of college courses. I get that there is bound to be lag, but I'm replying to parent about whether they were geographically unfortunate, and my sample of one says "no"; it sucked where I grew up too.

                                                            • timthorn 10 days ago

                                                              And that is the precise reason that the Raspberry Pi was born. Your age group was particularly unfortunate to be the first wave where the user interface of computers was being almost exclusively designed for non-technical users, so the delights of a programming prompt as the first thing you saw on power up were no more.

                                                              • C1sc0cat 10 days ago

                                                                Exactly in the mid 70's there where better courses for programming in some schools in my CSE! class we did Assembly language using CECIL and learnt about half adders etc.

                                                                For Younger and non UK people CSE where the exams for those that where mostly going to leave school at 16.

                                                              • DanBC 10 days ago

                                                                I was born in 1969 and our school had computer literacy O Levels that included BASIC programming on a Research Machines Link 480Z. (This would have been in 1985 / 1986)

                                                                A few years later I went back for an open day and they'd moved to PCs, but reduced the programming content.

                                                                • Wildgoose 10 days ago

                                                                  I did that O Level without actually doing the course.

                                                                  I paid £4.50 to sit the exam sight unseen, did the programming exercises and got a grade B.

                                                                  Just saw it as a cheap and easy qualification. :-)

                                                                  • UncleSlacky 10 days ago

                                                                    We were told not to bother with Computer Science O-levels, as nobody took any notice of them, at least for sixth-form admissions. As far as I could tell, they seemed to consist largely of binary maths anyway - far better to concentrate on getting better grades in Maths & Physics instead.

                                                                    • Wildgoose 10 days ago

                                                                      I was doing my A-Levels at the time, (Maths, Further Maths, Physics, plus the compulsory "General Studies"), prior to going to University to read "Computational Science".

                                                                      I remember not being impressed, (so you're right), but I was a working class kid who'd had it drummed into him that qualifications of any kind were a passport to a professional career.

                                                                • Z-T-T 10 days ago

                                                                  > I was born ‘89 and in the midlands of the UK, so I missed these programmes

                                                                  In the real world, outside of BBC fantasies about its own importance, no kid in the 80s (ie, an inconsequential number) became computer literate a) at school or b) on a BBC Micro or c) due to a boring TV series about a computer they didn't own, couldn't afford and couldn't use, because virtually no teacher had any idea what to do with one.

                                                                  Sir Clive Sinclair (character assassinated by the BBC in a drama about itself, Micro Men) is virtually single-handedly responsible for the computer literacy of British kids in the (certainly early/mid) 1980s, producing the affordable multi-million selling computers they actually used, typed programs into and established a gigantic British gaming industry with.

                                                                  • jacquesm 10 days ago

                                                                    > In the real world, outside of BBC fantasies about its own importance, no kid in the 80s (ie, an inconsequential number) became computer literate a) at school or b) on a BBC Micro or c) due to a boring TV series about a computer they didn't own, couldn't afford and couldn't use, because virtually no teacher had any idea what to do with one.

                                                                    Well, I lived in the real world. And not even in the UK and if it wasn't for the BBC micro I probably would have picked a different career. It had a lot more impact than you give it credit for, I know plenty of people who, like me, really grokked computers for the first time because the 'beeb' and the excellent software and documentation that came with it.

                                                                    By then I'd already consumed a lot of other 8 bitters but none of them offered the interfaces, the quality of engineering and the software that the bbc did, including a very nice version of basic, which was light years ahead of whatever else was available at that time.

                                                                    • dijit 10 days ago

                                                                      Aside from the obvious response, that as stated in my comment my mother knows programming.

                                                                      I could point to the UK demo scene and resulting rise in the gaming industry as an example of efficacy. If not directly then at least fostering a culture that made it possible.

                                                                      DMA design (later called rockstar games) was borne entirely out of this culture. I think it’s not right to underplay the BBC micro in this area.

                                                                      But I wasn’t born, I could be wrong.

                                                                      • Z-T-T 9 days ago

                                                                        The multi-million UK games industry was established in the early/mid 80s not by a "demo scene" or by the BBC, but almost entirely on the back of popular Sinclair home computers (ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum), by people programming games at home and software houses that in some cases became giants.

                                                                        DMA/Rockstar is in fact a prime example of the later echoes - see also Ocean, Ultimate, Gremlin et al - of that Sinclair-inspired industry; its origins are in a Scottish computer club in the early 80s, using and writing games for the Spectrum.

                                                                        (As an aside, GTA itself was probably influenced by a popular and pioneering Spectrum game from 1986, Turbo Esprit).

                                                                    • bluedino 10 days ago

                                                                      We had computer labs full of Apple II's in the 1980's but they were only for games and typing tutors.

                                                                      We weren't allowed to program them out of fear that we would break them.

                                                                      • s3krit 10 days ago

                                                                        Your experience very closely mirrors mine but then I was also born in 89 and lived in the Midlands.

                                                                      • contingencies 10 days ago

                                                                        A BBC Horizon (1978) episode at https://clp.bbcrewind.co.uk/9d86b9d9acd846addced1578b0a1167f quite clearly poses many of the questions currently in vogue regarding automation, its limits and its social impact. Amazing in some ways how little has changed. (Although perhaps television is far less lucid and the majority of people are no longer capable of sustained, rational debate?)

                                                                        Real time trading systems don't exist yet in American banks.

                                                                        It takes man-years of work to prepare even simple software programs. Software is now a major cost in computers, often as much as 40% of any new application.

                                                                        Some people believe that we must change from hardware to software: that we should stake our future on the chips - not by making them, but by programming them - and that we should use our software skills to develop high technology industries around them.

                                                                        What will happen then to the men in today's jobs? Can we all live on the wealth of automatic factories and the earnings of an elite band of 60,000 software engineers? It's time to think about the future... (49:50s)

                                                                        Undoubtedly, I think we're already in to a second industrial revolution. (51:30s)

                                                                        Silicon Valley, I am told, is filled with British experts. (1:06:10s)

                                                                        If, in fact, the silicon chip enables you to be more efficient, and proficient, then it equally assumes you have higher profits. (1:09:30s)

                                                                        In the long run we could build a better society [...] it depends on how wealth and income is shared. In the short run there is going to be tremendous social upheaval and I think no one would disagree with that. (1:11:10s)

                                                                        Another one broadcast exactly 40 years ago today ... https://clp.bbcrewind.co.uk/44f192e61ad3dbcbccd2311a15be4fd9

                                                                        • exogeny 10 days ago

                                                                          Interesting to learn about this and compare it to the American experience. I was born in 1982, and my educational computing history was all Apple; Apple II, then the Mac, then the Performa, and then I can't quite remember. But Apple all the way through. We had nothing close to what's being described here, which I have to give the BBC a lot of credit for.

                                                                          In the earlier ways of my education, there wasn't much more to computer classes than letting us play games like Oregon Trail and SimCity. Later in middle school (for me, 1994-1996), we were introduced to Hypercard and MacPaint and WordPerfect as entry points into the computer as a professional tool. Hypercard in particular really stands out for me as a formative moment. It wasn't until high school (1997-1999) that elective classes were available for programming and multimedia art.

                                                                          Much like some of you, I learned to "program" virtually by purchasing C and C++ books and learning things on paper, with no compiler and no way to actually run the things I was learning. But I consider myself very blessed to have been raised in the time that I was, in a school district that I consider to be fairly ahead of the curve in allowing and introducing computers to the students.

                                                                          With all of that said, 99% of the most useful (and fun!) exploration came from my simultaneous discovery of the BBS, art (ANSI/ASCII), and demoscenes. But that is a whole other comment!

                                                                          • 29athrowaway 10 days ago

                                                                            Watch the 2009 docudrama "Micro Men" from BBC Four.

                                                                          • bloopernova 10 days ago

                                                                            Such "great" memories, such amazing games.

                                                                            I remember being at school, aged around 7 or 8 (I was born mid-70s) and we had an assignment to draw stars with a certain number of points, using the BBC Micro.

                                                                            I followed the instructions, but I think I intentionally drew the last line of the star to be off-by-one degree (or maybe 5? I don't recall). From there the loop would begin again. I made some pretty Spirograph-style patterns on the screen and got a enthusiastic-yet-confused well done from my teacher.

                                                                            My teacher for 2nd year Junior school was Mrs Hurley, Elizabeth Hurley's mum. My big brush with fame was that my mother threatened me with adoption by the Hurley family. I'm not sure how much she actually discussed with them, but my memory of that period is patchy at best. Yes, my mother was not a nice person to me growing up.

                                                                            I also remember my chip and board designer father being disappointed in ~10 year old me for wanting to play games instead of learn assembly and other very difficult tasks. I think for my 11th birthday I got a "create games in machine code" or similar book, with a "go on then" pat on the back. Definitely left a lot to be desired in the motivational and emotional support departments, my parents.

                                                                            (sorry to be all personal and emotional, just this post dredged up some memories that had lain dormant for a long time)

                                                                            • midnightclubbed 10 days ago

                                                                              When were these programmes shown on regular British TV? '72 here and don't remember it at all.

                                                                              We had a classroom full of BBC Micros at school but for the most part they were used to play games. My introduction to computing was through the ZX Spectrum home computer and the electronics magazines of the time. By the time I chose my GCSEs I don't recall a single hour of computer instruction given by the school so I question how useful The BBC Micro project really was.

                                                                              Given that the GCSE Computer Science syllabus (or whatever it was called in the 80's) didn't cover anything I hadn't already self-taught myself I skipped and continued to learn on my own time. It didn't help that the GCSE was in BBC basic (even at 15 I knew this wasn't something used by 'real' computer programmers) and the math teacher who taught that class was barely computer literate.

                                                                              Turns out Electronics GCSE was largely filled with metalwork kids throwing components at each other but the teacher was enthusiastic and knowledgable.

                                                                              Side note - I had initially thought that Systems Analyst was a good career path to pursue only to be told by my secondary (high) school careers councilor that software was a dead end because 5th generation languages would make programming obsolete within 10 years. I'm still waiting.

                                                                            • leoc 10 days ago

                                                                              This wave of computer-literacy programming was actually started by a series from the BBC's commercially-funded rival ITV, Christoper Evans' The Mighty Micro.http://www.retro-now.com/the-mighty-micro-itvs-forgotten-com... https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqrLFTwrYemNYgb-hPXd3... (Evans also appears as a guest in the CLP's The Silicon Factor. https://clp.bbcrewind.co.uk/b5047fb21312089c95fdf482cda3c697)

                                                                              I wonder if anyone has chased down people who remember Dick Brodner's circa-1980 home-automation setup in his Chicago house https://clp.bbcrewind.co.uk/e0417b82d1c1a84345852bf21916073e , or found out what became of it or if anything remains of it?

                                                                              • markb139 10 days ago

                                                                                My career got started because of these programmes.

                                                                                I even spent 5 years working as an engineer at the BBC. There were plenty of BBC micros around performing ad-hoc tasks.

                                                                                • SuperGent 10 days ago

                                                                                  I recently contacted the BBC regarding this as I was involved in the curation of a temporary exhibit at The National Museum of Computing.[0] David Allen, the producer, along with a couple of others involved, were very friendly and keen to see this acknowledged for helping the home computer boom in the UK. For me personally, I don't think I would be where I am today without these programs. [0] https://www.tnmoc.org/news-releases/2020/1/21/reliving-brita...

                                                                                  • bane 10 days ago

                                                                                    This was an amazing project for its era. There are millions of people who can trace their livelihoods to this project, and billions of people who can trace something they use everyday directly to it as well.

                                                                                    I know its fashionable for Brits to kind of beat up on themselves for how the computing industry shook out, but from this project came ARM and modern mobile computing. And without the inspiration from this time, we wouldn't have the Raspberry Pi series. It's an incredible global legacy that actually worked as it should have even if precisely the effect of it wasn't what was intended.

                                                                                    • djaychela 10 days ago

                                                                                      Having seen this I was wondering just what an impact this project had on the software industry in the UK, but the comments have this pretty much covered.

                                                                                      I'm not directly involved, but I've always had an affinity for computers since my junior school had one, and I got to take home the manual for the BBC one summer holiday - came back full of ideas of what I could do with it. I was allowed by my form teacher (who was a maths teacher) to use it as much as I wanted during break and lunch times, and whenever I finished the Friday afternoon maths exercises I could go on the computer (handily I finished them early, I was good at it back then).

                                                                                      Amazingly in my secondary school (from ages 11-16), computers were 'only for the kids who were bad at maths' - the (grammar) school I went to had a really regressive policy, and looked down on them. Crazy - I had a ZX Spectrum (couldn't afford a BBC!), and did programming in my spare time. Never wrote a single line of code at school, despite wanting to.

                                                                                      Fell by the wayside, alas, and now at 48 I'm trying to make up for it, but the BBC project had such potential for all kids in my era.

                                                                                      • saw-lau 10 days ago

                                                                                        Thank you so much for posting this - can now work through all of the programmes while stuck indoors! Such wonderful nostalgia.

                                                                                        • 29athrowaway 10 days ago

                                                                                          ARM processors, such as the one in every iPhone and many other mobile devices, are descendants of the processors used in Acorn computers, the manufacturers of the BBC Micro.

                                                                                          • joedunn 9 days ago

                                                                                            I worked on the bbc machine (and its precursors). Was employee 21 at Acorn. Wish I could say I contributed significantly, but not really. I was there though! Wrote some of the Atom OS among many other things. And the “filing system” that wrote files to cassette tape. Now that was a startup (Acorn, I mean).

                                                                                            • flobosg 10 days ago

                                                                                              I remember reading about the project and the BBC Micro in a nice writeup at the Two-Bit History blog: https://twobithistory.org/2019/03/31/bbc-micro.html

                                                                                              • simon_kun 10 days ago

                                                                                                '78 reporting in. We had a BBC Micro in our school library in Derbyshire. That coupled with the Speccys and c64's floating around at the time are probably a large part of why I'm sitting here in SF working at a senior level in big tech. Thanks BBC.

                                                                                                • anentropic 10 days ago

                                                                                                  I got my first taste of programming thanks to this!

                                                                                                  Around age 8, my school had BBC Micros and they taught us to solve picture-drawing puzzles using the LOGO language.

                                                                                                  • lucidguppy 10 days ago

                                                                                                    The Spectrum Next needs to be mass produced. While the raspi is wonderful - we need an 80's machine with all the pain points removed.

                                                                                                    • ETN21 10 days ago

                                                                                                      I remember this!