Tag Archives: BBC Model B

Gadget Man Episode 144 – Retro Gadget of the Week – Part 9 – 80s Home Computers

In our penultimate episode of Retro Gadget of the Week, we take a look at one the most revolutionary moments in computer history,  where an explosion of homegrown talent changed the very face of the personal computer marketplace and faced up directly the power of Silicon Valley with low-cost home computers designed in the UK

Commodore VIC20 Personal Computer
Commodore VIC20 Personal Computer, my first computer in all it’s 3.5k glory and 22 columns display

I was very lucky to receive a Commodore VIC20 personal computer for one of my birthdays in the 80s and proceeded to embrace coding head-on! Unlike other home computers, the VIC20 only supported it’s own tape drive, so instead of using our portable cassette play like my mates with Sinclair ZX Spectrums, I had to wait until I save enough money to buy my own Commodore Datasette.  This meant that every single program I wrote on the Vic was lost when the power was switched off, I either needed to write down my code or memorise it!

Alongside the American VIC20, a slew of other devices was released by UK based companies. The most famous was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and ZX81. However, other notable UK made systems included the BBC Model B (built by Acorn), Dragon 32Amstrad CPC464, Apricot F1, Camputers Lynx, Gundy Newbrain, Jupiter Ace, Memotech MTX, Tangerine Oric 1 and many others.

Dragon 32
The Dragon 32 used the Motorola 6809 CPU

Almost all home computers of the era were based on the Zilog Z80 or MOS 6502 microprocessors with a small number going with the Motorola 6809 (which was more advanced that the Zilog and MOS processors).

The computers were generally self-contained devices, combining keyboards and computers as one with connectivity with colour or black and white TV’s which the user was generally expected to supply. Other peripherals were available such as tape drives, floppy disk drives, printers, joysticks and light-pens. Some models also supported plug-in cartridges which generally allowed the owner to play pre-programmed games.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum 16K 48K
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K was the darling of the 80s market due to it’s price and range of games

The first to the market came with minute amounts of programmable RAM in the region of 1K to 5K, later entrants from the UK market settings with 16K or 32K with some stretching even further.  If I compare this to my Sony Xperia 1 mobile that I use today, this comes with 6 Gigabytes of RAM which is roughly 1,700,000 times more than my Commodore VIC!

Commodore 64 Personal Computer
The higher-end Commodore 64 Personal Computer with its sprite graphics, outstanding sound and award-winning games had a longer stay than most in the market
BASIC Code - Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code
An example of Commodore BASIC Code – Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code

Almost every computer came preloaded the BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language which allowed a new breed of programmers to begin crafting their own code. Although the basics of each version of BASIC remained similar, that’s where it ended, different hardware and firmware made each machine incompatible with the other. Having a market saturated with different devices which didn’t speak the same dialect was the architect of their demise.

BBC Micro Model B
The BBC Micro Model B, built by Acorn as a joint venture with BBC. It found it’s way into schools as the staple computer for education.

After 3 to 4 years, the majority of these computers had become obsolete and fell out of use leaving the BBC Model B surviving through use in UK schools, colleges and universities and the Commodore 64 which had become a glorified games console rather than a way for young people to gain computer experience.

The IBM_PC_AT and it’s lower cost clones swooped in and stole the market

Along came affordable IBM PC clones from Dell, Compaq, AST and Gateway which WERE compatible with each other. Users began migrating across to these PC compatibles and the market was replaced at home and office. It was the end of an era.

Without the likes of Commodore or Acorn, my life would have been very different, so I have to tip my hat to the 80s Home Computer!.

Listen in to the podcast above to find out more and don’t forget to LIKE, SUBSCRIBE, SHARE and COMMENT!!!

See you next time

The Gadget Man
(Former Programmer of CBM Basic, BBC Basic, DataGeneral Basic, Testpoint Basix and Visual Basic)

Image Credits: Wikipedia



Now kids can get back to BASIC with Fuze

FuzeKitShadBack in the 1980’s the UK was a melting pot of computer development, back then you couldn’t visit a friends’ house without seeing a them huddled behind a television slowly tapping out computer programs from magazines on their newly purchased home computers. While the USA basked in the glory of the Apple II and IBM PC, in the UK we had our feet firmly placed on the ground and our wallets closed tight. In the States people were paying $2,500 for their computers, far too much for us in the UK, being much more cautious with our hard earned money! Instead we made our own computers, the amazingly popular Sinclair ZX Spectrum, BBC Model B, Acorn Electron and Dragon 32. All of these were home grown products which took the country by storm for a few short years, much cheaper than the US counterparts at £140 and much more fun, well until the IBM PC was licensed to the likes of Dell, HP and AST and the prices started to tumble to more affordable prices.

BBC Model B
BBC Model B from the 1980’s

During this era of the ‘Home Computer’, a new industries sprung up with them. After weeks and months of typing program listings from magazines, the kids started to understand what was behind the code, how it worked and in most cases, how to improve it. Small ‘Software Houses’ appeared and began selling their games in the back pages of the computer magazines.

The BBC Model B was adopted by schools and immediately the national curriculum included ‘Computer Studies O’Level’. It was now possible to study computer programming, the UK was becoming a hotbed for coding and technology. Following school, students could continue their studies through college and university, it was exciting times for the UK computer industry.

Then suddenly without notice, the curriculum began to change again. The PC had become established in peoples’ homes and work, it seemed like everyone was running Windows and suddenly everything was easier. Instead of learning the basics of coding and programming, pupils were taught how to use Word Processors and Spreadsheets, how to put together school magazines using pre-made layouts and horrific 3d text effects. We had lost our way, we had forgotten how to encourage creativity and instead software was now just tools to build similar looking newsletters and faxes using ‘Wizards’ and animated paperclips.

Raspberry Pi computer with HDMI, Audio, USB and Network connectors

30 years on and quietly ‘Coding’ is back in the curriculum, the country has woken up to it’s lost opportunities and reintroduced the tools to help our children learn to create again. The Raspberry Pi computer was launched in 2012 and brought affordable computers to everyone. At a little under £20, you could buy a fully functioning credit card sized computer that could connect to your HD TV and could be programmed using any available language. It was a good start, but there was something missing.

T2_Hub_CloseThis is where Fuze comes in, by packaging the Raspberry Pi in a useable case (strangely evocative of the BBC Micro from the 80’s) with integrated keyboard and circuit prototyping board, the Fuze is being launched into schools as the ideal platform for Coding in the curriculum. The circuit board that sits on top of the Fuze allows for electronic design and testing that can be directly controlled from the included Fuze Basic programming language.

A nod to the past is apparent with the Special Edition Fuze case

Included in the package is also a variety of transistors, LED’s and resistors packaged with a Programmers Reference Guide and Quick Start Projects book. Out of the box, it’s everything a budding programmer needs to get themselves on the path to Coding in the 21st Century. Further purchases can buy you a Robot Arm and other interesting projects and of course the system is based on the Raspberry Pi which has a mountain of components already available and the option to try out modern programming languages such as Perl, C++ and PHP.

The Fuze I/O board makes simple prototyping electronics projects simple and safe

The Fuze is housed in a sheet aluminium case which is both durable and safe for young people to use and Fuze have improved upon the Raspberry Pi IO connecters by integrating the FUZE I/O board which greatly simplifies the Raspberry Pi by separating, and clearly labelling, the most common functions (Voltage, Ground, Digital IO and PWM) but goes further with the addition of four analogue in ports and one Out port (as the Raspberry Pi lacks analogue). It all may sound complicated, but in reality it has been designed to be accessible and easy to learn.

The Fuze starts at £69 and is available from a most computer stockists. For more information, visit www.fuze.co.uk.