Acorn Advert - September 1981
From Computing Today
Important notice to all micro-computer purchasers: The BBC Micro-computer system
This is perhaps the advert that really started it all for Acorn, at least in terms of the Acorn Proton, a.k.a. the BBC Micro. It announced the upcoming availability of the new micro from "the end of October", although the machine didn't actually start shipping until 1st December 1981. No doubt stating "by mail order" probably covered that, what with the traditional "please allow 28 days delivery" nonsense. When it did ship, it wasn't easy to get hold of one - by Christmas 1981 Acorn was already running a backlog of 9,000 orders - and it was still not widely available even when the BBC television programme that was dependent upon it was scheduled to start broadcasting in January 1982. The broadcast date was postponed to afternoons and early Sunday mornings in February where it was clearly hoped that not too many people would watch it, with a repeat in March of that year to allow time for Acorn to sort out its production and delivery chaos and get more machines out to the public. It was however broadcast as planned to schools, with the first programme going on the 11th of January. The pre-emptive announcement did cause Acorn some problems as it put their existing model - the Atom - under pressure, leading to something of an "Osborne effect" and causing some financial hassle which Acorn did well to survive.
By May 1982, Popular Computing Weekly seemed to have more-or-less decided that the whole BBC Micro/Computer Literacy Project thing was a fiasco, suggesting that the BBC had taken too long to decide on the design and had allowed too little time for production problems to be sorted out. It also accused the Beeb of woefully underestimating demand, suggesting that its forecast of 12,000 units shipped by the start of 1982 - of which only 300 fully-working units had been produced by January - was a bit far off the 50,000 it was expected to actually sell in the first year. At least the BBC had a history of low guesstimates - when forecasting in 1965 how many new-fangled colour televisions would be sold during the first ten years of its colour service - launched in 1967 - it suggested 750,000, whilst the real figure was 8 million. Popular Computing Weekly concluded "Would that British industry, broadcasting, and Government were so unfettered by caution and timidity".
Newbury drops the ball
The Proton was picked for the Computer Literacy Project after the original choice of the Newbury NewBrain was ruled out at the end of 1980, due to ongoing delays and the decreasing likelihood of the NewBrain actually meeting the BBC's specification. This was particularly ironic as some thought that the spec was actually tailored to the NewBrain in the first place so that the Department of Industry, keen to boost British microcomputer manufacturers, could indirectly favour part of the industry without any of the obvious direct subsidies that the Thatcher Government so despised.
When the NewBrain was dropped, there was a swift revision of the specifications which a carefully-selected set of companies - Acorn, Sinclair, Tangerine, Research Machines, Transam and Nascom - were given less than a week to build a prototype against. Sinclair, which seemed to think it hadn't been given a fair chance, wasn't actually very amenable to adapting its existing ZX81 specification, which was already developed but not yet launched, or its upcoming ZX82 (Spectrum) and felt that the BBC should instead adapt its specification to suit Sinclair's existing machines instead. Meanwhile Acorn was going out of its way to be flexible, or as Chris Curry said "We were being absolute tarts about it. We were doing just what the BBC wanted us to do and Clive certainly wasn't doing that".
The Acorn team worked around the clock for three days and nights to get their prototype working, and finally had a machine running by 7am on the morning of the BBC's visit. The final blocker which was preventing the prototype from working had been an "umbilical" bell-wire clock/timing connection between the prototype and its parent development system, which Hermann Hauser suggested cutting after the team had run out of other ideas. By the time the BBC arrived for their 10am meeting, Acorn had BASIC running on the prototype, and by the afternoon it had some graphics running as well. Executive producer for the BBC, and now the man responsible for running the Computer Literacy Project, John Radcliffe, recalled that "it was an impressive demonstration, which significantly influenced the BBC's subsequent decision". Tilly Blyth concluded in her excellent anatomy of the legacy of the BBC Micro, published in 2012, that "The BBC was well aware that the Acorn team had made more progress in a week than the Newbury team had managed in two years".
The controversy begins
Paul Kriwaczek, Producer of the BBC's Computer Programme, © Popular Computing Weekly, 30th September 1982Acorn was accused of rushing its prototype and then selling the finished machine at an unrealistically low price, an accusation that Chris Curry of Acorn admitted when the company had to put up the price of the BBC Micro almost immediately in the February of 1982. Later there were also questions about why the BBC was even getting involved with selling micros in the first place, particularly after Acorn had struggled to ship its BBCs in time. Your Computer had accurately prophesied this in its review of the micro in January 1982, when it suggested that because the BBC and Acorn had done their homework, they had produced a machine better than the market demanded, but that Acorn would probably not be able to meet the demand once word got around as to how good it was.
Testing BBC Micro motherboards at Race Electronics, Mid Glamorgan, © Personal Computer News 1983It wasn't only that "the failure of Acorn to satisfy delivery schedules [did] the BBC's reputation harm" but the fact that the BBC Micro all-but missed its debut and so had "virtually no part to play in [its] television series, The Computer Programme". Even the very suggestion that the BBC needed its own hands-on cheap computer was debunked by The Computer Programme's producer Paul Kriwaczek, who said that the TV programme was "designed to be independent of any computer". Besides, the BBC Micro was certainly never cheap, rising quickly to £335 and then £400 - where it remained for several years - whilst Sinclair's 48K Spectrum - with 16K more memory than the BBC - weighed in at only £175. When the price went up, the cut-off date was set at the 1st of February, with those having ordered before paying the "cheaper" price, and those after the new higher price. Chris Curry conceded that "The original pricing structure has proved to be too optimistic, given the need for particularly rigorous tests", although he also stated that Acorn thought it had now solved its chip problem with Ferranti and the 12,000-order backlog would be clear "by March".
Meanwhile, In another attempt to justify its position, head of the BBC's Continuing Education department, Sheila Innes, suggested that the BBC "had to ensure [that] there was modular upwardly-expandable hardware on the market", despite that fact that Acorn's existing Atom was just as modular as the BBC Micro.
The Computer Programme
Chris Searle and a BBC Micro on the front cover of "The Computer Book", which accompanied the Computer Literacy Project. © BBC Publications, 1982The whole project was planned to include a 10-part television series presented by Ian "Mac" McNaught-Davis - former European head of Comshare and who had been suggested for the job by TV naturalist David Bellamy - along with Chris Searle, who was an easy choice as he had previous worked in the education department before moving on to co-present "That's Life". Also included was a 30-hour course in programming BASIC, a load of application software - another source of controversy considered by some to be way outside the BBC's charter - and a bung of 50% per machine from the Department of Industry for educational users. This subsidy of micro purchases in schools continued throughout 1982 and when the Micros in Schools scheme finished there had been a 100% take-up of the offer amongst the secondary schools which had been targetted, so there really was a "micro in every school", whether or not that was actually useful.
The Vienna-born Kriwaczek had an unusual background for a TV producer, having exhibited as a painter at the Royal Society of Watercolourists as well as possessing the peculiar distinction of being the "only practicing dentist to [have] run a nightclub in Kabul", a situation which occured after qualifying in dentistry from London Hospital medical college followed by a stint as a dentist in Afghanistan, where he happened to form a band with a friend plus a couple of Americans. Lacking a venue, they set up a nightclub at the Khyber Restaurant so they could have somewhere to play. He returned to the UK in 1968 and joined the BBC as a script writer for the overseas radio service, before ending up in the Continuing Education department, a move which ultimately led to the Computer Programme.
According to Kriwaczek, planning for the series started around 1978, which would pre-date the 1979 screening of ITV's "The Mighty Micro" - a series based upon Christopher Evans' book of the same name and which is sometimes credited as "inspiring" the BBC's computer literacy efforts. Thinking that the impact of microelectronics was going to be significant and that the BBC "really ought to be taking a major lead", the corporation produced a short series called "The Silicon Factor". This was followed by "Managing the Micro" - a how-to series aimed at, er, managers, but in between the two series the market had altered dramatically with the introduction of cheap home micros like Sinclair's ZX80. Kriwaczek was then asked to produce a new series explaining micros to the average person, so to help with research he bought a Nascom 2 in order to learn programming. It was this experience which convinced Kriwaczek that the new series had to be more than "just another television series".
Although Kriwaczek was keen to stress that the BBC Micro was completely separate to the programme, it was also true that one necessitated the other. Advisers had already suggested that "it was absolutely necessary than an organisation with the standing and public confidence of the BBC should enter the business of computer software", and that once that had been established it seemed almost impossible for the BBC not to become involved in the hardware to run it on, and so it did, culminating in the decision in 1981 to award the contract to Acorn to produce its Proton microcomputer with the BBC name on it. However, Kriwaczek recognised that Acorn's BBC Micro was not cheap - but then neither was a colour television or a stereo - but that he would have been "very reluctant for the BBC to sell something like the Sinclair because it is so limited. The Sinclair cannot be expanded; it is fundamentally a throw-away consumer product". He continued "The BBC Microcomputer is expensive, but it's still the best value for money on the market".
Kenneth Baker and the micros-in-schools scheme
There was no doubt that Acorn had been significantly helped not just by the timing of the BBC's decision to launch its computer literacy project, but also by the ongoing Micros in Schools scheme and its spin-offs - even though Your Computer reckoned that the Government had come along a little too late and whatever it did was unlikely to change the way the market was already developing. One micro per school was "irrelevant" compared to Sinclair's monthly orders, market growth was already accelerating and there were already 250,000 personal computers in the UK.
The scheme had been set up by Kenneth Baker, an MP with a fairly conventional start in politics after graduating from Oxford University but who had - unusually for anyone in Government - actually experienced computers in business, in this case during the 1960s. Baker then ended up in the Ted Heath Government where, amonst other things, he ran the Government's Computer Agency department as well as helping with a rescue of state-backed "big iron" monolith ICL in 1972. This particular job was repeated in 1982, when Baker persuaded the Government that it was still worth saving the company - to the tune of £200 million in Government loans - when it ran off the rails again, rather than selling it off to a foreign buyer - a fate that ICL managed to avoid for another couple of decades, when it was finally sold to Fujitsu of Japan.
Kenneth Baker, Minister for Information Technology, © Your Computer, January 1982In a speech he gave in 1980, Baker outlined his 10-point "National Strategy for Information Technology", which included a demand that schools should be provided with cheap micros and software from British companies but which also ended up effectively specifiying the brand-new role of Minister for Education Technology - a job that he filled in January 1981, as the first-ever such minister. He had been particularly critical of the Department for Education, which he believed hadn't been paying enough attention to "high technology", however praised it when it supported his new Microcomputers in Schools scheme, which was launched during 1981 and which had provided 2,000 secondary schools with a micro by the end of the year. This was not however some massive state investment along the lines of the £1.1 billion injected by the Japanese Government into its computer industry in order to catch up with the Americans, but was more prosaic, largely because the Thatcher Government detested direct state aid - it would pay half the cost of a single computer for each Secondary school, as long as that school did not already have any computers.
Baker also persuaded the Government to make 1982 "Information Technology Year", in a campaign which started in the summer of 1981 right in the heart of Whitehall when he managed to persuade all 27 department heads to attend a four-day training course in information management at the London Business School. Baker subsequently managed to secure funds of some £80 million over the course of the next four years, with £1 million to back the IT year and promote "the convergence of computers, telecommunications and office equipment". Some commentators swiftly criticised IT '82 as having far too broad a remit, seeing as it covered everything from personal computers to satellites. Baker rejected this, saying "There are many projects I have announced which I do not believe would have been possible to get off the ground without focussing attention on the whole of the information-technology area. Several of the projects I have announced would simply not have happened had I not done this ... I am doubtful if the Schools Scheme would have happened otherwise". Baker continued by suggesting that the UK's Government was probably the only one in the world which had actually "pulled the threads together under one administrative head" and, somewhat poetically, that "To believe that a thousand flowers will just pop up all by themselves without fertiliser, without the propagation of seeds, is a little naïve"
In May 1983, £3 million of extra funding to provide colour monitors and "control devices" like the BBC Buggy to secondary schools, as well as £5 million to provide computer-controlled machine tools to colleges was announced. Additional funding to supplement the DoI "Micros in Secondary Schools" (MISS) discount scheme was also announced by the Government. Imaginitively called the "Micros in Primaries" (MIP) scheme, it launched in the late summer of 1982 and was to be used to provide computers for an additional 27,000 primary schools. The existing Microelectronics Education Programme (MEP) was similarly extended to provide teacher-training assisance. By September of 1982, 20,000 schools had signed up and Acorn's arch-rival Sinclair had also been added to the "approved list", which also included Research Machine's 380Z. Even then, there was a bit of perceived anti-Sinclair bias as the scheme only allowed the Spectrum to be purchased as a bundle together with an expensive, and largely superfluous, monitor.
Chris Curry of Acorn, © Practical Computing, October 1982The rivalry with Sinclair was perhaps ironic, as Acorn - or at least Chris Curry - didn't actually see Sinclair as its primary threat, suggesting instead that Apple was much more its direct competitor. Curry reckoned that Acorn had "a fairly wide base compared with Sinclair's monolithic, product-based approach, so we will never make such dramatic impact", a reference to why it might have been that Acorn seemed much more "under the radar" and anonymous in terms of overall press coverage. Curry continued "Clive brings out one product and pushes that straight to whatever sector of the market is appropriate. Generally speaking for him it is the consumer market. Whereas [Acorn] is a company with diverse interests, having customers in the consumer, development, education and office sectors".
Despite Curry's dismisal of Sinclair actually being in the education market, Sinclair did offer up its own £15 million scheme to try and get more ZX Spectrums in to schools instead of the BBC although the company had quite a fight on, as 80% of those schools taking up the various MISS/MIP/MEP schemes had gone for the BBC Micro. In fact by November 1982, only three of the 422 applications made for the scheme so far had been for Sinclair's machine, with 97 for RM's 380Z and the remainder - 322 - being for Acorn's BBC. Most Local Education Authorities (LEAs) had put guidelines in place indicating which of the three micros its schools could purchase, and of course many of them were standardising on machines they already had in their secondary schools, which had all picked machines before Sinclair was even allowed as a choice. Derek Esterton of the Inner London Education Authority, which had picked RM after suggesting that "The Spectrum is just not up to the battering it will get in schools", said "We feel that standardisation is absolutely essential to enable us to provide any kind of sensible support for the schools". Meanwhile, Hampshire and Manchester had gone for the BBC, where a Manchester LEA spokesman pointed out that "what we must buy must be compatible with as many machines as possible".
Arnewood School's SCOLA (Second Consortium Of Local Authorities) building, home of Commodore PETs around 1979There were still a few exceptions which could have been open to Sinclair, such as East Sussex which had standardised on Commodore PETs way back in 1978, however other authorities like Hampshire (which also had some PETs, at least at the Arnewood School in New Milton) were fairly hostile, with a Mr. Bothwell of that county's Education Office, who was clearly a Sinclair fan who had hoped that the decision would have gone the other way, having to report "It is disappointing that several computer specialists who have recently evaluated the machine are less than enthusiastic about its performance and handling properties", along with additional scathing comments about its keyboard, picture quality, graphics system and "idiosyncratic" version of BASIC. Bothwell, who was either being diplomatic or really did want Sinclair's machine to have been more suitable, continued "it is therefore with considerable reluctance that the decision has been taken not to place orders with the DOI for this machine. Schools are strongly urged to consider cancelling unfulfilled orders for the Sinclair Spectrum which may have been placed in anticipation of a different decision".
Whatever the outcome for Sinclair, by June 1983 15,000 primaries had a computer - an impressive jump from the 25 that had one in 1980.
The Government micros-in-to-schools programme was not without its detractors, as it had been pointed out that actually providing a single micro wasn't necessarily that useful in a school of 350 pupils, and so the scheme came across like propaganda as much as anything else, plus there was then the issue of ensuring that teachers were trained enough to even able to use the things - a criticism levelled at the scheme by the National Union of Teachers, which said "there is little point in producing educational software if there aren't the teachers who know how to use it".
Lack of software was also seen as a key issue, although MEP did eventually spawn several software companies. One such was Five Ways, which targetted the standard triumvirate of Government-approved machines with a suite of educational software that was launched by publisher Heinemann in September of 1983. Known as the The Dudley Programs, after the Midlands town where the software was first written and tested, the suite was aimed at the 8-12 age range and was written in collaboration with Dudley Primary School. The whole suite weighed in at £185, or about £630 in 2021 and was launched at the Russell Hotel, where the Minister for Information Technology, Kenneth Baker - whose department had overseen the project to get computers in to schools in the first place - mentioned the world-beating success of MEP and referred to the "electronic generation being taught today".
Five Ways Software showed that there were clearly at least some teachers who were trained enough and for whom MEP was working. The company had started out with a minicomputer in the mathematics department of the King Edward's Five Ways School by "enthusiastic maths teacher" Tony Clements, before MEP funding allowed the employment of two full-time programmers. The unit quickly expanded to two Portakabins on the playground and by September 1983 was up to 40 full-time staff in its own offices in Birmingham. Five Ways was also after a piece of of its own world-beating success as it was looking to sell in to the US and Continental Europe. Clements suggested that "I think that Britain is soon going to be caught up in terms of the quality of its computer products. At the moment we're streets ahead in terms of the quality of our software , but very weak, I believe, in terms of marketing vigour".
As well as commercial ventures, several user groups had sprouted up in the educational sector, including the Microcomputer Users in Secondary Education group, or MUSE, and the Educational ZX80/81 Users' Group, EZUG, which had been formed at Highgate School in Birmingham in December 1980 by Eric Deeson. MUSE already had a library of some 100 educational programs, although these were mostly for the PET, Apple II and Research Machines' 380Z, and EZUG extended upon this by encouraging its members to write programs for the MUSE library, having received about 50 programs by the early spring of 1982. The programs were reviewed by Eric Deeson of MUSE and up to two more independent assesors, however this was apparently an issue for some teachers, who Deeson suggested were "often somewhat frightened of submitting their own programs to outside scrutiny". Sinclair was also doing its bit in trying to encourage "reluctant programmers" by setting up an award scheme for educational ZX-81 software. Deeson reckoned that this showed that Sinclair was "now aware of the education market" and that the company "is showing willing", although he also reckoned that it would be nice if Sinclair provided some money towards EZUG's printing costs. In this case, judging was provided by Deeson and MUSE's software librarian Charles Sweeten, however it was perhaps a measure of Sinclair's modest expectations for ZX software in the educational market that the prizes amounted to only six ZX Printers, worth about £300 in total.
Criticism of the MEP scheme was addressed in part by the setting up of a small primary project team in September 1983 "to assess the needs of primary schools in both teacher training and resources", even though this only trained the trainers. A spokesperson for the Department of Education and Science went on to defend MEP by saying "it's very easy to criticise the scheme, but no other country has done anything similar".
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