Tag Archives: history

BBC Computer Literacy Project available on iPlayer

Original article by Rob Thubron on https://www.techspot.com/news/75281-bbc-makes-computer-literacy-project-archives-available-public.html

In context: For many people in the 1980s, everything they thought they knew about I.T. came from War Games. In the UK, the BBC tried to change this with the ‘Computer Literacy Project,’ which included a series of TV programs that “inspired a generation of coders,” and led to the commissioning of its own computer, the Micro. Now, it is opening up the project’s archives to the public.
The project ran from 1980 to 1989, with the TV shows introducing much of the UK to the world of computers. Some famous guests included Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak, and there was plenty of coverage of machines such as the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.

But the most significant element of the Computer Literacy Project was its introduction of the 8-bit BBC Micro. Part of the UK government’s plans to place microcomputers in schools, Cambridge-based Acorn created the BBC-branded machine, which was released in 1981 and sold until 1994. It featured a 2MHz CPU and 16 – 32 KB of memory. Demand for the Micro was so great that the accompanying 10-part TV series was delayed for a month.

Steve Furber, who led the design of the BBC Micro and the first Arm chip, said: “The BBC Micro not only gave folk access to a computer, but it also gave them easy access to its inner workings, something that has been lost with most of today’s very sophisticated technology.”

The BBC Micro ended up in an estimated 60 percent of UK primary schools and 85 percent of secondary schools and was still being used up until the early 1990s.

Those interested in a piece of tech history can check out any of the 267 shows, the BBC Micro’s 166 pieces of original software, and over 2,509 clips for free right here. It will be available for the next three months, after which time the BBC will decide whether to turn it into a permanent feature.

Computers I’ve owned – Amiga 500

I actually owned 2, 1 broke down & was used for parts when i obtained another one which i kept u until the late 1990s.  The Commodore’s Amiga 500 was the low-end version of the Amiga range of the time.  It was a fairly easy machine to fix & maintain as many (if not all) of the ICs (system chips) were mounted on sockets so repairs often meant removing the cover & prise out the old broken chip & replace or test with a new one.  Like the 8 bit days where the ZX Spectrum & Commodore 64 were rival machines, the main rival of the Amiga was the Atari’s 520/1040 ST range. The A500 was superior in almost every area, apart from its MIDI capabilities and the disk drive, which was not only slow but very noisy as well and a bitter feud quickly developed between owners of these rival machines.

16 bit technology overtook 8 bit tech which in the late 80’s was still very popular, but meant users had to learn a new set of skills which were closer to IBM PC use of the era as the machine used a disc loaded rather than ROM based OS which was called  Commodore’s “AmigaOS” & was essentially Kickstart firmware and the software called Workbench provided on disk. The Spectrum / CPC464 & C64 8 bit machines were still very popular as budget gaming machines with re-released or games still obtainable from many outlets for £1.99 or £2.99, some of which were ported from Arcade or 16 bit versions but of a lot lower resolution or sound & colour pallette. The A500 spec is close to the Amiga 1000, the main internal change is  in memory  256 KB to 512 KB and an additional of I/O chip that controls the disk drive and also performs some of the address decoding. This chip also featured in the A2000 which was the top of the range machine in the range from the post 8 bit era.

The A500 was an easy machine to upgrade than both the ST and oter Amigas – no more having to send the machine away for upgrades or buying newer models – as it had an expansion port located in the bottom of the case. Owners could simply insert a memory card which contained any extra RAM or add on. The popularity of this upgrade meant that more 1 MB software (both 1 MB versions of 512 KB software and 1 MB only software) was released for the Amiga than the ST, which had to be taken apart to expand the memory.  I actually discovered as well that taking the machine apart there were some additional empty IC bays to add additional memory, in fact i removed the IC’s from the add-on memory card I had & slotted them into the main motherboard, this freeing up the expansion slot. The machine also featured the Motorola 68000 processor running at just over 7MHZ on the European / UK based PAL system which is actually a 32 bit capable processor but only used 16bit addressing in the Amiga.

The A500 in my experience was ery similar to the older VIC20 i owned, whereby you could connect a dedicated monitor (which were still very expensive at the time} or connect an RF modulator to plug into the family TV or the portable in the bedroom – remember these were the days most people culd only afford to have 1 colour TV & smaller portables used in the bedroom were mostly black & white.

Although the machine was discontinued in 1991, at the time i was still using some 8 bit machines for games & such simply due to the huge catalogue & the cost of the games, although game piracy on the Amiga & Atari ST was rife with copied games being the norm for many Amiga users.. a practice almost thwarted by use of password protection such as magazine or  game manual word identity e.g “on page 12 of the manual, what is the 4th word on the 7th line”.. which was great if you owned the original but proved tricky with emulation in recent times or where you didn’t have the manual or magzine because it got lost or ruined, or even thrown away when your parents decided to tidy up.
To me the Amiga was very much a more business machine than games machine, which i used the Amiga more to do graphic creating or even basic letter writing or the like – although i didn’t have a printer so had to go with handful of disks to a mate or down the library to get stuff printed, as again, printers were an expensive add on.

The computer itself will go down as a classic & more standardised components & connections were being used. 9 pin Serial ports, parallel port, RCA audio etc in common with the IBM PC of the time.  Despite the Amiga range featuring many more desktop computers & even a games console (the CD32) including the final desktop machine, the Amiga 4000 which was probably as good as any high spec IBM PC of the mid 1990s, the A500 was probably the most popular & sadly In 1994, Commodore filed for bankruptcy and its assets were purchased by a German PC manufacturer called ESCOM, who created the subsidiary company Amiga Technologies. They in turn went bankrupt in 1997. The Amiga will have a great legacy & has been used for many things from TV graphics, creating music videos & even used by NASA during their lifetime in the computer market.

Computers I’ve Owned – Amstrad PCW

The Amstrad PCW. I know what you are saying “they are not computers but basic word processors” to which you have a point, however the PCW series machines i owned (as detailed here) were able to be loaded into DOS or CP/M type modes, allowing the use of bespoke software to be loaded so basic programs could be loaded.

I had 2 of these machines, let’s start with the 1st.

Amstrad PCW-9512 The 1st machine i owned was the PCW 9512.  I acquired the machine in the early 90’s, given to me by someone who had no use for it as they had bought a PC from work & I kept the machine until it gave up the ghost a 6 or 7 years later.  I got the machine given to me so didn’t really have a lot with it, so no box, no manual etc but i had the software that came bundled with the machine on disks but that was about it, other than the monitor which housed the electronics (motherboard, CRT, floppy, power supply) & the bespoke keyboard that plugged into the front.  I didn’t have the original Amstrad PCW daisy-wheel printer that originally came packaged with the machine (shown in the image), but had to use an old Citizen 120e swift dot matrix printer, which i bought cheap from a local second hand shop & actually worked well with the machine & hooked quite easily to the parallel port on the back of the machine, so much so i had to replace the ribbon twice as i did so much on this machine!

The PCW 9512, was 1st introduced in 1987 & the bigger brother of the 8512 & the 9256, this model unlike earlier models which used green-screen discplays had a white-on-black screen instead of green-on-black,  The software supplied with the machine was the more advanced version 2 of the Amstrad Locoscript word processor program which included spellchecker and mail merge facilities & was on similar lines to Wordstar & copied elements from Word Perfect which at the time of the later half of the 1980’s were the “Microsoft office” products of the day.  The original machine had the Amstrad 3 inch drive as used in the CPC664 / 6128. ZX Spectrum +3 & the older Amstrad word processors which did cause a few problems.  As i already had used word processing programmes such as Word Perfect & Wordstar & used CP/M, along with a couple of hours use of the PCW 8256 at a technical college i used to study at, I picked up the basic of operating the machine quite easily & it almost seemed 2nd nature, so the lack of a manual or having to trek to the library (no broadband internet in those days) to study a manual & photocopy critical pages from wasn’t an issue.  I taught myself much of the other features of the software as well as what the disk had, Also included with the machine on the floppy disks was a simple version of BASIC as a loadable program, so days of reliving with simple programming such as 10 PRINT “HELLO “; 20 GOTO 10 was a nice touch of retro computing, but making up games or making the computer play a tune were not to be.Amstrad-floppy

As the Amstrad disks got rare & damaged i heard about a mod for the machine to convert the system to 3½-inch standard floppy drive either, by using the 2nd bay (which was blanked off) or by replacement of the entire drive which i attempted both methods, however i think the drive i used wasn’t compatible & it was a failed project, which was a shame as i would of like to of saved some of my files & still been able to use some of the templates on later machines.  the later released PCW 9512+, was equipped with a single 3½-inch disk drive that could access 720 KB. The 9512+ was basically the same machine with just the use of the drive changed & the ability to use inkjet printers.

My machine was used on a regular basis for all sort of things like applying for jobs, writing CV’s etc & even some college projects which i had to do at home as the college computers were PC systems, although my 1st experience with PCW machines came earlier as i was at a training centre where in the other class rooms they used to teach office skills on the 8256 machines to students & i used them a few times & on occasion had to do basic repairs on them.  All the PCW systems used the Zilog Z80 processor & the memory was basically given away in the name, 512 or 256k options depending on the machine you owned.  The PCW never really had an impact on the computer market as it was after all not a computer in the conventional sense.. the IBM PC was very much the machine of the day for computing & the 16 bit market was in it’s infancy so at the time the days for the old 8-bit games machines or home computers (such as the Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad CPC etc were already numbered but with costs of up to £1000 for an IBM PC system of the time back in the late 1980’s an affordable under £500 PCW seemed a good option if you just wanted a system for home word processing & not much else.

Eventually my machine died a death when the CPU gave up the ghost, for some strange reason though the CPU in my machine was board mounted & not mounted in an IC cradle & the processor slotting into that to allow for easy replacement like most CPU’s in those days, so although i tried to replace my processor, doing so would of damaged the PCB so eventually the machine had to be scrapped.

After the demise of the earlier PCW machine i tried to get a replacement machine,  if only to keep using my old files so i wouldn’t have to replace them or start again.  Sadly i couldn’t find another machine so took the chance on an upgrade to the newest PCW machine, the Amstrad PcW16

Amstrad PCW16I spotted this PCW for sale in Dixons for about £140 at the tail end of 1996 & thought i would take the plunge, obviously this was a lot lower price than 1st advertised of £290 when the machine was in there 12 months previously & i’m guessing Dixons had a load in stock they wanted rid of, so i took the plunge.  The machine impressed a few of my friends who liked the idea of a computer for £140, but the story isn’t quite so straight forward.  yes for the £140 i got the CRT monitor which like it’s predecessor was a black/white mono display which also housed the electronics for the machine, which the keyboard plugged into. the Keyboard was included & as was a mouse, but this time unlike previous models this was an IBM type PC keyboard & it had a serial mouse.   As with previous models software was included, but this time stored onto a flash drive within the machine so you didn’t have to load up the software to boot the machine before you could use it. Sounds good.. the 1st problem then came as i had the dot matrix from the older machine i assumed it still would work in this machine, so plugged the printer in & it did nothing only spat paper out for 20 minutes before i realised something wasn’t right.  Upon reading the manual (yes i am a bloke i don’t read manuals 1st like they suggest) i discovered this machine was compatible with only a few printers.. mostly expensive bubble jet machines, so £140 for the machine & the printer they recommend if you go to the one at the top of the list was a £600 high-end office printer, not so cheap this “cheap” computer that impressed my friends so far. Upon further inspection i discovered the Canon Bubble-jet series printers were on the list & the cheapest the BJC250 which also had the advantage of as the PCW was a mono / text printer, no need for expensive colour cartridges & a simple black only one was available, so off i went to PC world to get one along with another £150 kick in the wallet to get a BJC250.  However there is a funny story attached to when i went to buy the printer & the salesman offered me a Lexmark printer for £100 & insisted it would work with my machine, to which i said “can i bring it back & have the canon if this won’t work on my machine for the same money” & even got the manager to sign it in writing , so confident was the salesman this printer would work.. it didn’t so i returned it & got the £150 printer for £100.. less the cost of the call to Lexmark tech support on their premium tech support number to get them to confirm that this printer only worked with Windows systems & not the Rosanne GUI system included on the PCW of course, i was up about £45 on the deal, plus my Canon had both colour & mono carts in the box.. result.  However this lead to a sub-problem of slow printing which is probably why they were keen to say the machine liked the more expensive office printers rather than the good old fashioned low cost home variety.
Problem 2 was the drive, of course the older machine used Amsoft 3 inch compact drives where the PCW 16 which would read & import “some” older PCW files now (as the machines software systems were not fully compatible) it had a standard floppy drive installed. An upgrade pack for the machine so you could buy an Amsoft drive & connect it to the PCW was available.. at a cost of £120, which considering i was paying £5 a time for PC floppy drives at the time was a kick in the wallet, so i decided to abandon the idea of transferring my files from the 9512.
The PCW 16 is an upgrade to the PCW 10 model, which was an update of the previous 9512 system & labelled it as “PcW” instead of “PCW”,  it had its own bespoke GUI operating system, known as “Roseanne”. (hence why it wasn’t able to recognise Lexmark printers) which was an almost Windows 95 like system compared to the more CP/M system on the older models which i can best describe as a cross between Amiga Workbench & Windows 3.1 & ran one application at a time so no multi-tasking as you could with a Windows system.  The software included an updated Locosoft word processor package similar to their PC package, but also had spreadsheet software, address book for your contacts, an events diary, a basic calculator and even a Windows 3.1 type file manager.  There was also an easter egg on the included floppy drive (which was a back-up copy of the installed software) which if you typed in a word or a string of letters it would process the word & use the spell checker to find words in what you had typed.. very handy if you worked on Channel 4’s “Countdown” in dictionary corner, although it took more than 30 seconds for it to find a 3 letter word most times.

The display was a fairly  standard VGA 640×480 display but the words were clear on the screen & this time white-on-black.  As i said the  PcW16 used a flash memory (as opposed to a HDD) to store the GUI operating system & some files could be saved on it in the space that was left, but it was always handy to keep a floppy in the drive to save files on rather than using the internal memory other than for temp files, & the files were so small you could fit hundreds on the floppy & i never came close to filling just 1 disk with almost everything i ever did on the machine, so it must of used some really clever compression or stored the files in a small format.  the PcW16 used the 8-bit Zilog Z-80 CPU, but that seemed about it as the machine was completely different to it’s previous models on hardware, on everything else, although the spec list was similar to the 9512, although the machine could connect to the internet (again using very expensive hardware to do it, so cheaper to buy a Windows PC), plus you were limited to text only websites.
I had some concerns about the machine so wrote to Amstrad using the address in the manual.  I explained i know this machine is NOT a PC or intended as a PC system in any way, but if the hardware packed up, would i be able to use standard PC hardware (considering i had issues trying to install a standard floppy in the 9512 as a 2nd drive) among a few other technical issues. After about a month  i got a reply back from Viglen who had obviously acquired the Amstrad computing brand by that time, to say the keyboard was a fairly standard PC compatible keyboard, the mouse was able to use a standard serial mouse, but if not a simple wiring change was required – which i remember from using mouse ports on some older 8 bit machines, so all good so far. I was also told the machine was slow at printing because what the print function did was basically emulate the text into a graphic format & print the document as a graphic, so if you can imagine creating a document in MS word, then taking an A4 bitmap image of your document & then printing out the bitmap.  That explains why they liked expensive printers in the manual & the list of machines, why printing was slow & why the dot matrix printer wouldn’t work.  On the plus side, the files could be exported to PC as files could be saved / converted to .txt files. so formatting was an issue, but at least it meant an upgrade was possible without losing my older precious files all over again or having to start making templates as a few clicks of the mouse & you could get the formatting back to where you were before.

Even so this machine served me well for the couple of years i owned it, the machine sadly is no longer with us & is currently listed as “missing”. i bought a newer PC after owning the machine for a couple of years, so Windows 98 & MS Office 97 was around by then so the PCW series became a little surplus to requirements. I put the PcW machine to one side & i think my dad ended up giving it to someone else (most likely one of my friends who was impressed with my £140 computer) or probably just skipping the machine assuming it didn’t work, but at least i managed to keep the printer back for my PC & that colour cartridge i never needed to use eventually came in handy.  Even so, i think as a system it had promise, i often think i could of used this machine to teach the kids word processing & of course not have to worry about them installing viruses & malware on the PC from software borrowed from their mates or playing games while doing their homework, so if i had the machine today i would let the kids use it to do their homework & learn the basics of spreadsheets & working on word documents, before graduating them onto a PC with office software installed.  Even before the days i had laptops etc, this machine (as was it’s 1st incarnation) was easy enough to package up & take with you to a friends house or even a hotel if you wanted to catch up on your letter writing or continue working as it just needed a keyboard plugging in to the monitor case & plugging into the mains, so in some ways a very portable system.

Computers i’ve owned – CPC464

I owned a few 8 bit machines, this was the very first model of computer i owned that was manufactured by Amstrad.  I obtained it as a load of parts that someone had tried to fix the keyboard & couldn’t, it also had an azimuth problem (which i later fixed with a special program) so loading games meant you had to drop some weight onto the tape deck lid.

290px-Amstrad_CPC464I fixed the machine & learned a few things about it on the way.  It was powered by a Zilog Z80 processor clocked at 4MHz, with 64K RAM built in, It also had 32K ROM containing the operating language and BASIC, and with a built-in cassette drive unlike it’s bigger brother the 6128 which had the 3″ Amstrad locosoft disc drive as did the rare 664 machine.  It also had a stereo audio output which was via a small jack in the back, sadly you needed an amplifier of some description, or some modern day PC speakers to get any sound out of it as headphones were useless.

Upon bolting the machine back together i noticed on the main board there were some solder pads which were left open, later research lead me to believe this was how the machine was changed identity.. for example by soldering a wire bridge across the pads you could change the word “Amstrad” on the welcome screen to say “Schneider” or “Orion” depending on which 2 pads to bridge.

This was the 1st machine to be sold as a complete package, in the box it came with a colour or mono monitor – the “mono” monitor was green which for some reason 70’s & 80’s business machines always seemed to use green text on black backgrounds.  I have to say i was not keen on the idea of a bespoke system when it 1st came along complete because if for example 1 part broke such as the tape deck this rendered much of the system useless, i much prefered seperate systems, although this was the 1st machine i had that didn’t mean i had to plug into the family colour TV or the old black & white portable in my bedroom to use as it had it’s own monitor although an add-on was an RF modulator.

The machine spec was very similar to the 48k Spectrum i found, with the graphics being more or less the same although the sprites were coloured improving from rather blocky cartoon like sprites with coloured halo’s  & the machine had much better sound, although at the time i still owned & a spectrum & found myself sometimes buying 2 copies of the same game or buying the game for the spectrum & leaving the CPC for more business like purposes such as programming my own programs or games in BASIC.


Computers I’ve owned – VIC20

The First computer I owned was the Commodore VIC-20. This was an 8-bit home computer which was sold by Commodore Business Machines, or CBM in the early part of 1980’s.

commodore_vic20At the time i got the machine the Commodore 64 had just been released, however i favoured the VIC20 as i’d played around on the machines some schoolfriends had & although the VIC20 was a far less superior machine, i felt the C64 was for games & although i liked computer games i really wanted to get into programming. The VIC 20 was first announced around three years after the first personal computer from CBM, the Commodore PET. So, let’s take a look at a machine that was very popular (becoming known as ‘The Friendly Computer’) and the predecessor to not very popular Commodore 16 and the uber 8-bit seller, the Commodore 64. In fact, if the VIC had been blessed with more RAM as standard (instead of only 5 Kilobytes), it may well have been a far more popular machine…

Why was it called ‘The Vic’? Many people did not even know why the machine was named ‘The VIC’ (me included) – it actually stood for Video Interface Chip. The Machine i had though had “VC20 on the keyboard bezel, probably due to the fact the machine was made for the European market & “VIC” meant something rather more obscene in the German language where the machine could of been sold. These sort of names really did sound quite cool back in the early 1980’s. The ’20’ part was conjured up as it was a ‘friendly’ sounding number. The VIC did become known as ‘The Friendly Computer’. I suppose Vic sounds like a nice guy.  Blessed with only 5KB of RAM and a 6502A Central Processor running at approximately 1MHZ, the machine had around an average specification when compared to its competitors.  The RAM was expandable (phew!), meaning the machine could be upgraded to give an ample (at the time) 32KB to play with. Let’s be honest, 5KB as standard really was not enough.  It also had a co-processor on board (The VIC-I 6560) to spread the load when processing sound and graphics – which obviously helped with the computer game market.

The sound chip, (Commodore machines were always blessed with good sound capabilities) was a decent one and was capable of producing three voices spread over three octaves. This was pretty good for a home computer in 1981 and was a nice feature in games on the VIC – especially when you consider the completely silent ZX80 and ZX81.  The machine could also generate very plain graphics and simple animations, but let’s be honest here – if you wanted detailed images and varying colours on your screen, you did not buy yourself a VIC 20. Still, eight colours were available to use as character colours. The background and border area of the screen (many computers of the era used this method of display), could be varied with up to 16 colours – sort of similar to the ZX Spectrum.  Looks wise the VIC-20 had that ‘Commodore look’ to it, the off-white casing around the darker brown keyboard, which became synonymous with Commodore 8-bit machines throughout the 1980’s. Not a bad looker by any means. With it being a popular machine, a good range of peripherals and software was available for it, including joysticks and those all important computer games. How in the name of memory management did they squeeze games with colour and sound into 5KB or RAM? A remarkable feat for sure.

Some good games were developed for the VIC 20. As a games machine it soon fell away to the competition from the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. But, some notable releases (a lot of arcade conversions too) made their way onto the machine. Obviously the 5K built in RAM was a limiter leaving developers with very little memory to play with – and not everyone went for a RAM pack add-on. Really by this point 48K of memory was commonplace and the VIC would have done far better with something akin to this rather than only 5K…

So the VIC-20, despite having only 5K of RAM, went on to sell over 1 million units. It was actually the first micro-computer to do so.  It was quite well marketed which must have helped sales along – with the likes of HollyTrek and toupee legend Bill Shatner advertising the machine and describing it as the wonder machine of the 1980’s.

The VIC-20 fell away (in the UK at least) once people got their teeth into the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum (and had a quick nibble on the Acorn Electron, Oric 1 and Oric Atmos). Still, the VIC is a notable 8-bit machine that holds fond memories for lots of us.

Games are still being created for this classic machine today. Look at titles such as the excellent Frogger ’07 – a brilliant modern version of the classic arcade game Frogger. It plays supberbly and really captures the heart of the original classic. Chronosoft are a well known supporter of many retro machines, and the Commodore VIC 20 is one of them. Chronosoft titles are always worth a look (and Blue Star for the VIC is a fine example of modern ‘retro’ gaming) – check out their site if you fancy a ‘modern’ experience on your VIC.

My Machine sadly expired after 4 or 5 years & i later progressed onto the ZX Spectrum, but even so i can remember buying magazines from newsagents & programming in pages upon pages of BASIC code just to play some BASIC coded version of Pacman or whatever was populat at the time. Something which todays youth will sadly miss out on as part of the fun was editing the code so your “pacman” would eat his own maze or the ghosts would have 3 eyes.