05/12/2021

055 – British kits and PCs – 1978

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The 1990s will differ from the 1970s as profoundly as the nineteenth century from the eighteenth. Clive Sinclair

Chris Curry joined Sinclair Radionics in 1966.  Ian Williamson approached him there with a design for a computer based on the National Semiconductor SC/MP.

Curry tried to convince Clive Sinclair to progress it as a product but the company instead took up an offer from National Semiconductor to complete the design.  Williamson, who had prompted this, was edged out and received no contract or involvement in the ongoing project.

Curry drew on his friend Hermann Hauser at Cambridge University for assistance throughout the project.  It became the Sinclair MK14 microcomputer kit, launched in 1978 at £39.95.  Other kits at the time cost nearer £200.  The MK14 offered little utility yet around 50,000 units were sold. 

1978 Curry moved to set up his own operation, Cambridge Processor Unit; his partner was Hauser.  CPU took on a consultancy project to develop a microprocessor-based fruit machine; this was initially based on the SC/MP but switched to the 6502.

CPU later formed the subsidiary, Acorn Computers Ltd, a name chosen to appear before Apple in any alphabetical listings.  Acorn produced a series of microprocessor products.

At £80 the Acorn System 1 was designed for engineering and laboratory use.  Based on two cards with a keypad, a cassette interface and an LED display output.  Acorn System 2 rejigged it into a rack-mount format and included BASIC.  System 3 added a floppy disk controller, System 4 had a second drive and System 5 had a faster MPU.

1979 Curry was full-time at Acorn and launched the Acorn System 75, designed specifically as an improvement over the Sinclair MK 14.

1980. The Acorn Atom was launched head-to-head against the Sinclair ZX80.  Derived from the Acorn System 3, it was sold in kit form at £120 or fully assembled at £170.

The UK government announced its MEP, microelectronics education programme, to explore how computers might be used in schools and give the UK a head-start in computing.  It also developed a ‘Computers in Schools’ project to install one computer for every thirty pupils.

The BBC planned to air ‘The Computer Programme’ which would review all aspects of hardware and software as a computer literacy project.  BBC Enterprises saw a revenue opportunity and decided to badge a PC to feature in the series.

Acorn had its Proton project underway and Curry negotiated the BBC change its specification to fit his product.  It was launched as the BBC Microcomputer towards the end of 1981 and was promoted by the TV series from 1982 onwards.  Demand far exceeded supply.

There were two BBC Microcomputers, both 6502A-based – Model A with 16K of RAM at £299 in late 1981 and Model B with 32K at £399 released in 1982.   The product was built robustly and rapidly gained acceptance as an educational computer.  Parents who wanted children to get ahead saw the BBC Microcomputer as an investment they had to make.  A broad range of software was generated and 1.5million units were sold.

Launched in July 1983, the Acorn Electron was aimed at those who could not afford the BBC Micro for Christmas that year.  However the December deadline was missed and it was a little too detuned to stand up against the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64.  This weakened Acorn which was acquired by Olivetti in 1985. 

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