Contents Series Foreword vii Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 I Hardware and Software Literacies 1 The Beeb Is Born 1 9 2 Input/Output 45 II Making and Playing Games 3 Granny’s Garden 71 4 Acornsoft and Elite 91 5 Superior Software and Repton 1 07 III Extending the Platform 6 Telesoftware and the Teletext Adapter 1 23 7 The Domesday Project 1 45 8 The Legacy of the BBC Micro 1 63 Notes 1 79 Index 2 01 .
Series Foreword How can someone create a breakthrough game for a mobile phone or a compelling work of art for an immersive 3D environment without under- standing that the mobile phone and the 3D environment are different sorts of computing platforms? The best artists, writers, programmers, and designers are well aware of how certain platforms facilitate certain types of computational expression and innovation. Likewise, computer science and engineering have long considered how underlying computing systems can be analyzed and improved. As important as scientific and engineering approaches are, and as significant as work by creative artists has been, there is also much to be learned from the sustained, intensive, humanistic study of digital media. We believe it is time for humanists to seriously consider the lowest level of computing systems and their relationship to culture and creativity. The Platform Studies series has been established to promote the investigation of underlying computing systems and of how they enable, constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them. The series investigates the foundations of digital media—the computing systems, both hardware and software, that developers and users depend upon for artistic, literary, and gaming development. Books in the series will certainly vary in their approaches, but they will all share certain features: .
Acknowledgments The BBC Micro was my first computer. It is a machine I will always remem- ber taking pride of place in our living room as I sat with my dad playing the games he would program. He would later show me how to program my own simple games and animations, as I typed in line after line of code from listings found in books, or we would spend afternoons working our way through countless plays of G ranny’s Garden and Repton . That original machine now takes pride of place in my own living room, and the archive of those games, books, and manuals remain in my loft. So first and fore- most I would like to thank my parents for buying the family Micro, and for many of the memories that found their way into this book. Those memories were sparked once again in 2012 during my first visit to The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) in Bletchley. It was there that I met Owen Grover, who replaced the burned-out capacitor in my Micro, and Chris Monk, who runs the educational program at the museum and encourages visiting school groups to spend an hour programming the Micros using BASIC. Chris provided many valuable insights into the BBC Micro, and went out of his way to find some of the many manuals that I worked my way through while researching this book. I am thankful to the museum for providing access to its archive as I read through racks of magazines, and to the visitors who provided their own recollections of the machine on the Sundays that I would help out in the BBC Micro classroom. I will never forget the Sunday, not long before Christmas, when Chris, Dave Sussman, Steve Clark, and I sat programming a Christmas-tree graphic in BASIC to show to visitors in the classroom, and how it took four .
Introduction [This is] not some distant future, which we and our descendants can blissfully ignore, but one which is imminent and whose progress can be plotted with some degree of precision. It is a future which will in- volve a transformation of a world society at all kinds of levels, and while taking place slowly at ﬁ rst, will gather pace with sudden force. It’s a future which is largely moulded by a single, startling develop- ment in technology whose impact is just beginning to be felt. The piece of technology I’m talking about is, of course, the computer. Christopher Evans, T he Mighty Micro (Gollancz, 1979), 1 The political, social, and economic climates of Britain in the 1970s were bleak. It is a decade remembered for power cuts, a lack of waste disposal, miners strikes, union opposition, and changing governments. As the end of the decade neared, broadcasters and journalists began to create a wave of panic about Britain’s place in the global economy. While other countries were already positioning themselves within the electronics and micro- electronics market, Britain was seen to be falling behind. Disheartened by a lack of government response to the issue, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and other media outlets began to expose some of the issues and fears related to this perceived lack of technological advance- ment, including the 1978 episode of the BBC’s television series H orizon titled “Now the Chips Are Down” and Independent Television’s 1979 series The Mighty Micro . .
The Beeb Is Born 1 On December 1, 1981, the BBC Microcomputer was launched. It was unlike other computers released before and since. Now often fondly referred to as “the Beeb,” the BBC Micro is a symbol of computer literacy and com- puter education in schools in 1980s Britain. Although its inception was due in large part to the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project, the production, manufacture, and design of parts of the machine were possible only because of Acorn Computers, the company responsible for the BBC Micro’s creation. The media storm of the late 1970s that evoked panic about the growth of microcomputing and the related economic and social impacts allowed the BBC to begin positioning itself as one of the companies that could think about resolutions to this problem. Beyond the known links with the Computer Literacy Project, the BBC Micro was a highly advanced machine upon its release and an even more advanced one after some development. Much of this was attributable to its underlying hardware and to the expertise of the Acorn team. Therefore, in this chapter the BBC Micro is discussed not only in relation to the initial set-up prompted by the BBC, but also in relation to Acorn Computers and that company’s earlier microcomputers. Similarly, beyond the role of educating the public about microcomputing, the BBC Micro came with a Welcome Pack that enabled various types of exploration into the possibili- ties of this particular machine. It is through an investigation into the hard- ware and initial set-up of the Micro that this chapter will act as a starting point for further discussions later on in this book, including the multiple literacies that the machine enabled. .
Input/Output 2 The hobbyist phenomenon in microcomputing was nothing new. Hobby- ists had already adopted many machines, notably the Altair and the TRS-80 in the United States and various machines in Britain, Australia, and Czechoslovakia.1 However, the BBC Micro played a unique role in the continuation of some aspects of the hobbyist ethos. Although the BBC Micro was not a kit computer but a ready-made machine that could be used right out of the box, the hobbyist roots of some members of the Acorn team appeared to be evident in some of the internal and external properties of the machine.2 For that reason, the initial uses of the machine as perceived by the BBC in developing the Computer Literacy Project and the uses to which some owners put the machine were markedly different.3 This chapter highlights how the Micro was expanded through user need as well as designed experiences intended for users. In doing so, it explores further connections to the hardware inside and outside of the Micro’s case through the modularity allowed by the system. The modular nature of learning how to use the platform continued into how the hard- ware was manufactured.4 The upgrade possibilities of the Micro were unlike those of other micros on the market at the time, as were the input and output functions that the machine offered. Thomas Lean recognizes this modularity through his own tracing of the histories of Acorn Computer’s developments: “Although manufacturers made allowance for expansion of their micros, this seems to have contributed to a pro- nounced modular or systemic approach in Acorn’s home computers.”5 .
Granny’s Garden 3 I would hate to see computers just used for playing games. It’s degrading. The Computer Programme (BBC television series), episode 1, January 11, 1982 As much as the words of Ian McNaught-Davis in the first episode of T he Computer Programme attempt to downplay the use of the BBC Micro purely for game playing, that was a major use of the platform for many people. Digital game culture was a key part of microcomputing developments in Britain during the 1980s, on the BBC Micro as well as on other systems such as the ZX Spectrum. However, in part because of its associations with the Computer Literacy Project and education more generally, and in part because of its price, the BBC Micro was not always seen to be a major contender in the computer game market. One scene in M icro Men , a television drama aired in 2009, depicts the development of the BBC Micro in parallel to Clive Sinclair’s efforts with his competing machine.1 The actor playing the role of Chris Curry walks into a WHSmith store that carries a variety of computer games.2 One of the store’s assistants is explaining to a potential customer how to use a ZX Spectrum. She asks if there are games for it, and the store assistant replies that there are indeed many games for it. At this point Chris Curry asks “Do you have any games for the BBC Micro?” The assistant replies, with an air of distance, “Er … yeah … somewhere we do.” The camera then pans .
Acornsoft and E lite 4 Many histories of the computer games of the 1980s are written from American and Japanese perspectives and use “pre-crash” and “post- crash” developments in the United States to contextualize the global gaming scene.1 (Here “crash” refers to the crash of the North American video-game industry in 1983.) Similarly, collective nostalgia for particular games mean that they are often discussed in contexts beyond their original platforms and inceptions. These initial developments often get lost as the last iteration of a game’s platform, publisher, or developer is remembered and are discussed more frequently than the original products. However, from a UK perspective the market for games “held up in 1982–5 because … the home computer was already, before the US crash, the preferred platform for playing games.”2 Despite this recognition, dominant histories of the British game- development scene are often placed in the context of the games played and developed on the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, with the BBC Micro often left unmentioned because it is so often thought about as being a machine for educational purposes and not for playing computer games.3 Yet, as these histories reveal, the platform emerged at a time of innovation within the British home computing scene. This innovation spread beyond engineering the platforms on offer, and could also be seen in a range of software, including computer games, being developed by various people for the growing range of microcomputers on the market. Although the BBC Micro was not always seen as a home computer for playing computer games on, many people did write games for the platform, and many of the .