FROM LITTLE ACORNS…   Leave a comment


acorn_electron_computer_logoThe logo of the company Acorn Computer

I’ve recently answered some more comments about old posts on this blog. These have been mentioned by TMR on his blog, but I must point them out here myself.

One of these comments/posts/replies was about the amazing Acorn Electron computer. This computer fulfilled two roles. It was a cheaper alternative to Acorn’s BBC Micro selling at £199 instead of £399, because it didn’t include lots of interfaces, while also being a follow up to and replacement for the Acorn Atom. It had BBC BASIC on ROM, but no Teletext MODE 7, so it could be used for studying most of the many tutorials around at the time which formed part of the BBC computer literacy campaign and could even run some BBC commercial software, although various BBC software not even in MODE 7 wouldn’t run and required special Electron versions to be produced because all the Electron’s chips except the 6502 CPU were different from the BBC Micro. Compared to other computers, the Electron had a reasonable number of colours (8 actual, 16 logical), and a reasonable amount of RAM (32K). It was even featured instead of the BBC Micro on the highly educational ITV series “Me and My Micro”, presented by Fred Harris, showing just how capable it was. It can be summed up as producing the look and feel of a computer in a classic BBC sci fi series, such as Doctor Who or Blake’s Seven. It was even featured in Doctor Who various times! Here’s a review of getting started on the Acorn Electron .

Unfortunately, according to the buyer’s guide “The A-Z of Personal Computers”, which I read, a major feature of computers was what kinds of sound effects or music they could make, although what type of BASIC interpreter they had built in was more or less irrelevant and hardly worth a mention. Most computers had “Basic”, so were presumably the same version of this language, while some had a BASIC different enough to be prefixed with a name, such as “BBC BASIC” or “Atari BASIC”. I quickly disqualified the Acorn Electron from my short list of computers because it had only monophonic sound, while several other computers (including the C64) had 3 channel synthesizer chips built in. Later on, I was very annoyed with “The A-Z of Personal Computers”, after finding out how crap C64 BASIC V2 was and also when I found out that it was possible to get the Electron to play 3 notes simultaneously using Machine Code software instead of BASIC. Unfortunately, the BBC BASIC sound command ENVELOPE has no effect on the Electron, though. Of course, the Electron wasn’t as expandable or as fast as the BBC Micro, but would have saved me all the stress of trying to learn programming on the Commodore 64.

I should remind you here that computers are supposed to be mainly for computing, meaning working things out, not mainly for playing games, although they do have to work things out to play games as well! When it came to computing, the Acorn Electron wiped the floor with the Commodore 64, because it came with the very advanced academic style BBC BASIC, which incorporated parts of PASCAL or COMAL, including the commands PROC, DEF PROC, and END PROC for procedures, REPEAT…UNTIL, and long meaningful variable names, while maintaining compatibility with Microsoft style BASIC. Typing BASIC programs on the Electron is much easier than on the Commodore 64, because it has a set of keys which allow single keyword entry of various commands when used with the function key, but my Commodore 64 function keys went unused for keying in BASIC, because there was no command to define them. Unlike in Sinclair Spectrum 48K BASIC, this system isn’t compulsory and the BASIC commands can be typed letter by letter instead. Of course, the Electron and BBC Micro had various high quality games available for them, but didn’t get as much support as they deserved.

atomboxAn Acorn Atom computer with packaging

A very well known game which was first programmed on Acorn computers (i.e. Acorn Atom and BBC Micro), released simultaneously in BBC Micro and Acorn Electron versions, was “Elite” by Dave Braben and Ian Bell. The Electron version is in mono, while the BBC uses a custom split screen mono/colour mode. These two programmers ported it themselves onto the Commodore 64, which was sluggish compared to the BBC version, because the C64’s CPU runs slower than the BBC Micro’s CPU, although it could hold the whole program in RAM at one time. Of course, the Electron is also slower than the BBC Micro. David Braben got an earlier computer, the Acorn Atom for Christmas 1981, which was cheaper than the newly released BBC Micro and came with only 2K, but he fitted a RAM upgrade, then started programming 3D vector graphic spaceships on it in Atom BASIC, the forerunner to BBC BASIC. The Acorn Atom was discontinued in 1983. Later on, he converted these routines to 6502 Assembly Language, which was built in to the Acorn Atom, without the need to buy a separate Assembler. Of course, he probably wouldn’t have been able to do this on the Commodore 64, because that computer had no built in commands for graphics, or a built in Assembler. After a few years of programming “Elite” on a combination of the Acorn Atom and BBC Micro, it was released by Acornsoft for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron in late 1984. The Acorn Atom was discontinued in 1983 and only had 2K RAM. It would have been impossible to write this game in BBC BASIC and compile it, because it used the whole 32K RAM, while Simons’ BASIC leaves only 30K on the C64. The following year, Dave Braben and Ian Bell ported this game to the Commodore 64, which used the 6502 compatible 6510 CPU, while another company was given the job of programming a version for the Z80 based Sinclair Spectrum. Also in 1985, a similar game called “Starion” appeared on the Z80 based ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC computers, only about 9 months after “Elite” was released. It should be obvious from this story to anyone that David Braben and Ian Bell learnt how to program the Commodore 64 by programming Acorn computers. If they’d both had the Commodore 64 as their first computer, then I seriously doubt they’d have been able to program “Elite” at all! Perhaps they may eventually have managed to create the first version on a C64, but by that time people would have wanted it to run on an Amiga, Atari ST, PC, or Mac, which used 68000 or 80×86 processors and had a lot more RAM.

In recent years, Dave Braben has helped to form the Raspberry Pi foundation, which produces the Raspberry Pi computer. This is an attempt to bring back programming to the masses after Microsoft Windows, as well as Mac OSX have been supplied without any programming language for some years now. The Raspberry Pi is based round the ARM (Acorn RISC Machine) processor originally developed by Acorn computers and used in their Archimedes range. The Raspberry Pi loads a file from an SD card, which it treats as its OS. This can transform the Raspberry Pi into a wide choice of computers, such as a Linux box with Brandy BASIC (a BBC BASIC clone), Ruby and Python, an Archimedes running RISC OS, or a Sinclair Spectrum emulator. It’s all thanks to Acorn Computers!

Finally, here’s a link to a page giving details about how the BBC Micro was used as the TARDIS console computer starting with the 5th Doctor (Peter Davision) . BTW, it also appeared as Dastari’s computer in “The Two Doctors” showing lots of text typed into BBC BASIC, ending with the error message “String too long”.

RassillonsTowerRassillon’s Tower BBC Micro graphic from “The Five Doctors”

Posted April 14, 2014 by C64hater in Uncategorized

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