Easter holiday and came back with a
design she called the Hawk, which was
6502-based. Hermann looked at this
and thought he could sell it; that became the Acorn System 1. The name
Acorn was introduced originally just
as a trading name. The company was
called Cambridge Processor Unit Ltd.
If you look at those machines today,
the system 1 and the Mk14, they are
what most people would describe now
as unusable. But these things sold in a
The System 1 and the MK 14 sold
faster than people could put the kits together. I think the System 1 was mainly
sold as a kit, so you got the parts and
you had to solder it together. But there
was lots of interest. It was really the
only way the general public could get
their hands on anything that looked
like a computer at that time. Real computers cost a million pounds, lived in
clean rooms, and were only touched
by men in white coats; whereas these
things you could buy for £ 100 or £200
and play with at home.
It was just the want to own and control
one of these things. a lot of it was driv-
en by science fiction…
Of course, the real science-fiction
aspect is they got used as props in TV
shows as well. So the Acorn System
1 was featured as the computer on
“Blake’s 7.” There was quite a lot of
competition between Acorn and Sinclair at the time. Clive Sinclair had
proudly boasted that you could control
a nuclear power station with his ZX81.
Well, this was nothing compared with
controlling a 21st century interstellar
cargo ship [on the “Blake’s 7” television program] with an Acorn System 1.
you win, hands down.
That’s right! [laughs]
Going forward to the BBC Micro, obviously the BBC came to acorn with the
specification for a machine? how did
that change things at acorn? the atom
was out and it was selling well. then all
of a sudden you were shot into fame in
the computing industry.
The BBC Micro was a huge phe-
nomenon. Of course, when the BBC
came their spec was a Z80 machine
running CP/M. The BBC Micro was
neither Z80 nor CP/M, although a
little bit later you could buy a Z80 sec-
ond processor to run CP/M; we kind of
met the spec in the end. But no, they
were sufficiently convinced by what
we could do with the 6502 that they
moved the spec to the machine that
Acorn had already begun to get on the
drawing board. The Proton was always
designed as a dual processor. The fact
the BBC Micro had a second proces-
sor connection was actually because
the BBC Micro was just the front end
of something that was designed as a
dual processor from the outset.
We always had the
education market in
mind, but this was
much bigger than just
the education market
in terms of interest.
couldn’t let them in. Nobody was expecting this, either.
The machine was first sold in January of 1982, so this may have been
later in 1982.
and that was the first time you thought
this is big?
Well, this is when you first felt the
scale of public interest. People were
prepared to hire a coach from Birmingham to hear this bunch of techies, who
probably didn’t know how to speak in
public, say something about this hobbyist computer thing. Of course, we
always had the education market in
mind, but this was much bigger than
just the education market in terms of
interest. We actually went on tour with
this seminar. We gave it twice more
at the IET to soak up demand. We did
a tour of the U.K. and Ireland. Everywhere we went there was a big turnout.
There was real, real interest.
What sort of people were coming to
A wide range of people. I think it is the
same phenomenon as with the System 1
but on a bigger scale. It was a bunch of
people who recognized that computers
were about to come within their reach,
when they’d been behind closed doors
throughout past history. There were
lots of companies building machines
at the time. We’ve mentioned Sinclair,
but if you go and look at the machines
coming out, the 1980s was a real era of
diversity. Wonderful quirky machines of
all shapes and flavors, all coming out of
companies a bit like Acorn: small startups; enthusiasts the public couldn’t
perhaps fully trust. Unless you were a
hobbyist and a real enthusiast yourself,
you didn’t know who to trust.
Then the BBC put their name on
this machine from Acorn. I think that
really was the key to the success of
the BBC Micro, even though by the
standards of the competition it was
a slightly expensive machine. It was
slightly higher spec and that was partly the BBC’s requirements. The BBC
imposed—no, imposed is the wrong
word—encouraged us to go with a particular spec. The spec was all negotiated and agreed; there was no imposition. But they were tough negotiations.
The BBC had a pretty clear idea of what
they wanted. The fact that we pushed