Not all computers are made by Apple

Difference Engine

If, like me, you grew up in the 1980s then you will most likely remember the BBC Microcomputer.  Possibly you were lucky enough to have one at home, but in all certainty there were no doubt a few available at your school.  These computers gave countless Britons their first experience of computing and sold over 1.5 million units.

Curiously this, now iconic piece of computing technology, came about largely by accident.  The BBC decided they should be at the forefront of this new technology and needed a computer to go with a new tv show they were making about computing.  Having toured the country, largely unsuccessfully, they eventually ended up in Cambridge.  Hidden in a small industrial estate on the edge of town they found Acorn Computers.   This British computer company was set-up in 1978 by Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser

Having rejected the NewBrain computer and turned down proposals from Sinclair, the BBC were rapidly running out of options.  So they rang up Acorn to make an appointment and view their computer.  There was just one small problem. Acorn didn’t have a computer to show the BBC but nevertheless agreed to meet them a week later.

This turned into a classic case of British optimism and ‘men in sheds’ getting things done.  On Monday someone had an idea and by Wednesday stuff was being screwed together.  The BBC were due on Friday.  On the morning of the appointment, the Acorn engineers decided to come in to work a bit earlier than usual.  Obviously it was an important meeting and they wanted to be prepared.  More importantly they hadn’t yet made their computer work.  According to the chief designer at Acorn everyone breathed a sigh of relief when, after much squirrelling around and probably quite a lot of luck, the prototype of the first BBC Micro sprung into life approximately 3 hours before the BBC were due to arrive.

The BBC Micro was launched in 1981 at a cost of £299 which was quite a lot in those days. In fact if you wanted the slightly better model B, by 1983 the price had gone up to £399 which was almost double the cost of its closest rival the Commodore 64.  Nevertheless, Acorn’s BBC Micro dominated school classrooms for the next decade.

Today, just about every aspect of modern living has been touched by the hand that is the silicon processor.  Computers can deliver our shopping, keep us warm and take us on holiday.  Essentially they do all the things we used to do for ourselves but just better and faster.   On the other hand computers are also slow, annoying and seem to spend most of their time behaving as if they suffer from PMT.  Without warning they will stop communicating with you and shut down.

It all started with the demise of the British Empire.  The world map gradually lost its pink tinge and the Victorians decided that men with pencils simply weren’t a reliable solution to practical problems of the day.  The trouble was they made mistakes.  And so enter on stage the mathematician, Charles Babbage.   Born just 21 days after Mozart died, Babbage is often credited as being the ‘Father of the computer’.  He was the son of a wealthy banker, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a respected economist.  He also had a pencil and knew everyone who mattered in Victorian London.   But when he died he had no friends at all and no one went to his funeral.

Babbage’s ‘computer’ was called the difference engine and Babbage was given £17,000 by the government of the day to develop his idea.   Unfortunately however, he made a bit of a mess of it. He fell out with the only person in the country who could engineer his difference engine and ran out of money before the project was ever completed.  The Prime Minister, Robert Peel, suggested that if the machine were ever built it should be set to calculate its own usefulness.  Nevertheless in the early 1990s just as the BBC Micro was nearing the end of its life, Babbage’s difference engine was finally completed and made its first calculation at the British Science museum.

Increasingly we tend to worry that computers will take over all the jobs and yet without computers the world would most likely descend into anarchy by lunchtime.  Like it or not computers are here to stay.   Whilst we may not yet be cruising around on hover boards a surprising number of predictions in Back to the Future II have become reality.  Curiously the one thing they missed was the advent of the iPhone!


Jules Addison is a Choirmaster and Sound Engineer who spends far too long interacting with computers in order to make recordings of choirs all over the UK.