Acorn Computers

BBC Micro
BBC Micro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Started in 1978, Acorn was a British computer company best known for its model the BBC Micro but manufactured a number of other popular types which made gaming on the computer popular in Europe.  Described as the “British Apple”, Acorn’s computers lead the educational market in Britain in the 1980s and early 90s and was used widely by tech professionals as their components were considered to use superior technology than their  US counterparts.

Prior to manufacturing under the Acorn Computer Ltd label,  Acorn’s history started with Sinclair Radionics founded by Clive Sinclair in the early 1960s. Sinclair was into small electronics but fell behind due to changes in manufacturing in calculators and was eventually taken over by the NEC (National Enterprise Board). At this point Clive Sinclair encouraged employee Chris Curry to leave the company and found SoC (Science of Cambridge) with him.

SoC dealt in microcomputer kits and it was over these that Curry and Sinclair fell out in 1978. Curry left the company and set up CPU (Cambridge Processor Unit Ltd) with friend Hermann Hauser who had visited SoC and also taken interest in developing the kits. In 1979 they launched an SC/MP based computer system under the name Acorn Computer Ltd to separate it from other contracts CPU had been receiving.

Fun fact about the Acorn name: one of the deciding factors in choosing it was the fact that ‘acorn’ comes before ‘apple’ in the phone directory. Today with the ability to Google exactly what you want this doesn’t seem like a big deal but in the 80s when you had to flip through several thousand entries in a phone book to find what you wanted, it ensured someone would run across the startup before big competitor Apple.

That first microcomputer kit was called Acorn System 75 but was later changed to Acorn System 1, followed by Systems 2, 3, 4 and 5, all with cutting edge upgrades at the time such as floppy disk drives, 2nd drives, external keyboard and cassette operating system with BASIC.

1979 saw the Sinclair ZX80 come out from SoC and during that time Acorn’s Atom computer was on its way to the consumer market. There were divisions within Acorn at the time over going to market rather than continuing to provide tools for research strictly but in the end the Atom was released for home use and the Prophet for business use with focus in design on keeping cost down to introduce Acorn to the public. A feature of the Atom that should be pointed out was its access to a LAN (local access network) with  which in 1980 it could network with other Atoms and share files as well as remotely view others’ desktops.

The BBC Computer Literacy Project Owl appeared...
The BBC Computer Literacy Project Owl appeared on the bottom left of the keyboard on both standard and Master Compact cases. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next model which proved to be immensely popular was the BBC Micro, built by the employees who naysayed the Atom in an attempt to do the model over.  The Micro, originally named the Proton, enjoyed backing by the British government which immediately gave it a pitch forward into the educational system which was convinced computers were the path to the country’s bright future in technology. Micro’s competitor from Newbury (which had started out with Sinclair Radionics) was the NewBrain Computer and at the critical marketing moment just wasn’t ready to go public,  so in 1981 the BBC visited Acorn looking for a company to award their computer literacy contract to which would supply school computers. Acorn demonstrated the Proton for the BBC’s visit and won the contract, renaming their model as BBC Micro.

Over at Sinclair the ZX Spectrum came out in 1982 and Acorn answered with the Electron, a watered down version of BBC Micro. Electron had parts shortage issues and missed the 1983 Christmas rush. It made a comeback in 1984 but the ever popular BBC Micro became Acorn’s best-known product.

1984 nearly broke the bank for Acorn. During that year the home computer market collapsed. Giants Apple and Atari were nearly out of business and people were buying Commodore 64s and ZX Spectrums rather than wait for the delayed Electron ending in 250,000 unsold units. Acorn was also putting a lot of money in developing new BBC Micros- a modified Micro that bombed on the market but did make an appearance in the film Supergirl- as well as the BBC Master.

In 1985, to ease some of its financial woes, Acorn divided its shares and began development on the Communicator; afterwards announcing in 1986 that it would no longer sell in the US. Remaining BBC Micros were sold off to Basic, a Texas company under Datum, who produced a Spanish BBC Micro for Mexico and South America.

Otherwise, 1986 was a good year in the UK for Acorn with BBC Micro and later versions soaring up into 1989.  1987 saw release of Acorn Archimedes, considered more powerful than computers of the time on the market and very popular also in Australasia and Ireland. The Archimedes was used mainly in schools, as home users were snapping up Atari Sts and Commodore Amigas. With PC flooding the market in the next decade, Archimedes was updated up through 1994 for the educational system.

But 80s kids will certainly recall Acorn for its many computer games of pretty good quality which we have included a rudimentary list here:

20 Definitive Games of BBC Micro/ Electron courtesy applemctom

Acorn Electron List of Games  (most popular)
Around the World in 40 Screens
Balloon Buster
Beach Head
Bug Eyes
Bumble Bee
Chuckie Egg
Crack up
Cyborg Warriors
Drania Mania
Felix in the Factory
Impossible Mission
Jet Set Willy, Jet Set Willy 2
Kissin Kousins
Omega Orb
Palace of Magic
Plan B
Rubble Trouble
Sim City
The Last Ninja/ Last Ninja 2

BBC Micro Games courtesy jesusarnold

Acorn BBC Micro List of Games (by year)
1981 GORF
1982 The Hobbit
1982 Football Manager
1982 Donkey Kong Jr
1982 Robotron
1983 Lords of Time
1983 Jetpac
1983 Lunar Jetman
1983 Atic Atac
1983 Hunchback
1983 Star Wars
1983 Tapper
1983 Colossal Adventure
1983 Snowball ( Silicon Dreams Trilogy)
1983 Spy Hunter
1984 Return to Eden ( Silicon Dreams Trilogy
1984 Bruce Lee
1984 Knight Lore
1984 Sabre Wulf
1984 Paperboy
1984 Impossible Mission
1984 Elite
1984 Spy vs Spy
1984 Chuckie Egg-
1984 Boulder Dash
1684 Raid Over Moscow
1984 Revs  1985 Match Day
1985 Nightshade
1985 Tie Ar Kung Fu
1985 Worm in Paradise ( Silicon Dreams Trilogy)
1985 Terrormolinos
1985 Repton , Repton 2
1985 Commando Arcade
1985 Green Beret
1985 The Way of the Exploding Fist
1985 Alien 8
1986 The Sentinel / The Sentry
1986 Thrust
1986 Lord of the Rings / The Fellowship of the Rings
1987 Barbarian
1988 – Exile
1989 Pipe Mania

Zarch courtesy Phoenix Risen

Acorn Archimedes List of Games
Battle Chess
Magic Pockets
Manchester United
James Pond
The Guild of Thieves
The Last Ninja, Last Ninja 2
MiG-29 Fulcrum
Lemmings, Lemmings 2: The Tribes
Oh No! More Lemmings
The Pawn
Pipe Mania
Top Banana
Xenon 2 Magablast
Zarch/ Virus

Acorn Electron World
Computing History UKBBC Micro, Acorn Electron 
Classic 80s Home Video Games Identification & Value Guide – Robert P. Wicker, Jason W. Brassard
The Ultimate History of Video Games – Steven L. Kent

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