UK Micros of the 1980s
Written by Historian   
Thursday, 14 December 2017
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UK Micros of the 1980s
BBC Micro and the Home Computer Frenzy

BBC Micro



Both Acorn and Sinclair had held off launching their new machines in the hope of being adopted by the BBC but eventually Sinclair lost the battle and Acorn’s "Proton", the successor to the Atom,was named as the new "BBC Micro".

It turned out to be February 1982 before the BBC Micro actually fell into the hands of users. It took longer to produce than anyone thought and it cost more. The price went up to £299 for the basic model - after pre-production orders were shipped, presumably at a loss.

There were also production problems of the sort that resulted in long waits for customers. It was an expensive machine when compared to the ZX81 but it had a specification well beyond machines of comparable cost. It easily out performed the Apple II which cost three times as much.

So why were people who didn't fancy risking £300 or more on other machines willing to pay for the BBC Micro?

The answer should be obvious - it was endorsed by the BBC. Before the BBC Micro schools mostly used the RML 380Z (a big S100 bus machine) or the Commodore Pet but the BBC Micro rapidly became the standard school machine, partly because of its BBC connection and partly because of the subsidies that the UK government offered.

This was a gross distortion in the marketplace and its effects were far reaching. While it was forbidden for the BBC to put its logo on say a TV it seemed to be ok for it to do the same on a computer.

At first it looked as if the effects were nothing but good in that the public was "turned on" to computing and had the confidence to actually buy a high performance machine. The bad effects  only  showed up later when  the  UK  educational establishment found itself tied to the BBC Micro when the rest of the world moved on to the IBM PC.

Enter the Spectrum


Photo Bill Bertram


In June of 1982 the world moved on again with the ZX81 being replaced by the Spectrum.

This was another innovative machine but now in full color with an improved case and keyboard. The Spectrum sold for £125 and was capable of running games software of a quality that made it worth buying just for fun.

Acorn announced its challenge to the Spectrum, the Electron, a cut down version of the BBC Micro. However Acorn was months behind Sinclair and the Electron never had the impact of its big brother machine.


By now the personal computing world had seen the machine that would eventually cause the real revolution - the IBM PC. However the UK market carried on almost unaffected by it.

The Jupiter Ace Goes Forth


Photo:Dutra de Lacerda


While Sinclair and Acorn were battling it out there were gaps in the market filled by other smaller companies. First off the blocks at the end of 1982 was Jupiter Cantab with their Jupiter Ace. This strange little machine looked like a ZX81 but had the unique feature of running Forth as its native language.

The Ace cost £89.95 and was designed by two of the chief designers of the Sinclair Spectrum.  There are still programmers who look back on the Ace as being the most innovative home computer in that it introduced lots of people to Forth. Things might have been very different it Forth had triumphed over less "recursive" languages such as C.

The Dragon 32/64


Photo: Miguel Durán


A slightly more general purpose machine than the Ace was the Dragon 32 which was produced at more or less the same time.

The Dragon was a copy of the Tandy Color computer but "copy" is perhaps too strong a word as they were both based on a design first published by Motorola.

The Dragon used a 6809 processor and this was a great attraction to all of the early SWTP/6800 users. A bigger draw was the fact that there was a lot of ready-made software and it was a good games machine for just under £200. This is another machine that could have changed the future. Instead of the strange architecture of the Intel x86 family we might have had the clean logical simplicity of the Motorola 68x family.

Home Computer Frenzy

With so many low cost machines to choose from the home computer frenzy was beginning to build.

At the end of 1982 even the newspapers and TV programs were starting to take notice of the craze - helped no doubt by the release of the Disney movie "TRON". The name of the movie came from the Microsoft Basic command TRON standing for TRace ON, and yes there was a TROFF command although it didn't feature in the film nor the recent sequel.

The movie was all about the hero's efforts to destroy the MCP - Master Control Program - within an imaginary landscape that was supposed to be the inside of a machine. Great fun and the backgrounds were computer generated. The Movie raised public awareness even more and just as everyone wanted a Dalmatian after "101 Dalmatians" or a clown fish after "Saving Nemo" came out everyone wanted a computer.



The Oric


The boom fuelled a flood of machines. Soon after the Dragon 32 came the Lynx and the Oric - both at the start of 1983. The Lynx was another Z80 machine but it did have high resolution graphics and only cost £225.

The Oric had a slight TV connection in that it's name sounded like the super computer Orac - the real star of “Blake’s 7” a sci-fi series that only achieved cult status after it was cancelled. The Oric, designed by Tangerine Computer Systems, was packaged to look a little like a Spectrum and it was a direct competitor at £99. Its only real advantage was that it had in-built Teletext graphics, a feature that the BBC Micro had but not the Spectrum.

There were lots of others. Some never even made it to the mass market. The Oric was followed by the almost identical Atmos, and then there was the Memotech MTX. You have to remember that each one of these machines used a slightly different Basic and Operating Software. Trying to produce programs for them was a nightmare.

Soon commercial programmers were begging for no more cheap computers to hit the market!

At this time the US imports were beginning to come down in price - the old Atari 400 could be bought for £199 and the new  Commodore 64 was £200 - and the Japanese entered the fray with the MSX family. On the whole, though, the UK market had enough choice without imports.

The end of 1983 was a strange time because all the generations of micros were still on the market.

You could buy an S100 modular machine, a big board, a packaged home computer, or an IBM PC.

You might think that the choice was obvious - buy the IBM PC - but at £2000 plus it was a brave choice. The market was so crowded that slowly but surely the UK-designed and produced machines vanished for lack of marketing money.

Now all these machines and the companies that made them are just a memory because in the end it's software that counts and the huge US market slowly but surely ensured that the IBM PC worked its way to the top of the heap.

Soon the mass media had forgotten about the computer craze because the skateboard had arrived. The UK’s early independent ways had further effects in that we built home grown machines such as the Amstrad CPC, PCW, 1512 and 1640 long after every other country surrendered to the regular PC.





Now you would hardly know it all happened - but it was a wild time…

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 14 December 2017 )