Birth of The Beeb

The BBC Micro, affectionately known as ‘The Beeb’, got its start in life thanks in no small part to the sketchings of another microcomputer known as the Proton.

The Proton was designed by Steve Furber and his team at Cambridge’s Acorn Computers. The year was 1980.

Like the Sinclair Spectrum range, Acorn kicked off the 1980s with a microcomputer known as the Atom. As an incredibly capable and compact computer - even by today’s standards - the Atom would provide the foundation on which the Proton, and then the BBC Micro would be built. Some Atom computers were even linked with Acorn’s own proprietary network called Econet.  

“The front end of the Proton is the thing which, through a little bit of work, became the BBC Micro.” - Professor Steve Furber, Principal designer of the BBC Micro

At the beginning of the 1980s, the BBC announced its Computer Literacy Project, inviting bids from companies to provide the computer which would go on to introduce millions of children to computing. Plenty tried, but after a not-inconsiderable challenge from the BBC to see a working prototype in just a couple of days, the Acorn team set to work in a movie montage-worthy whirlwind of last-minute designing and engineering, to build a working version of the Proton which would quickly be developed into the Micro.

More computers in schools

The BBC Computer Literacy Project was inspired by an ITV documentary called ‘The Mighty Micro’ which catalysed the start of a revolution in microcomputing, and its effects on the economy, industry, lifestyle, and crucially, education.

The Computer Literacy Project would see the BBC introduce a series of TV shows and pieces of literature to schools across the country. The BBC Micro would form the most substantial pillar in that project, and it would be born in the heart of Cambridge.

Devices like Cambridge’s Raspberry Pi mini computer, are helping to ensure that children don’t lose the fundamental programming skills necessary to create in a digital world. The BBC Micro introduced those fundamentals and sparked a relationship between children and the language of computers.

Addressing concerns

The Micro was met with a little consternation by some parents and teachers; justifiably so, given the decades-old tried and tested ways of passing on the most valuable information, but what the BBC Micro did was not to demolish tradition, but to add another tool to the kit, a way for children and teachers to stretch their legs, in the exploration of new ways to communicate and to build.  

The BBC Micro allowed children and teachers to realistically think about ideas which had never been thought about before, and to have conversations which had never been had before. The Micro helped to open the door to a world where using computers was normal, and where everyone, regardless of background, could exercise completely new and exciting skills.

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