Charting the rise of edtech from the humble BBC Microcomputer

As the BBC Microcomputer turns 40 this December, Cris Warren asks whether it was the most important education technology ever?

The ancient inventors of the abacus might have something to say about it, but if you were asked to date the Year Zero of Education Technology, then 1981 is a pretty good shout.

1 December 1981 to be accurate.

That was the day, 40 years ago, the BBC Microcomputer was launched.

Almost entirely targeted for use in schools, by pupils using specially adapted code, the BBC Micro was a joint venture between the state broadcaster and Cambridgeshire-based computer manufacturers Acorn.

In an era when, for most school kids, access to education technology depended on a caretaker pushing a television on a trolley between classrooms, this was a big deal.

By the end of the decade, school children who had tapped their first programme into a BBC Micro were spearheading gaming software and chip design companies that would become world leaders.

A pretty remarkable turnaround from the grim prophesies of Britain becoming a technological wasteland by 1980.

Chips with everything

To a casual observer it might well have looked as if Britain was successfully ploughing the computer furrow in 1980 – especially with the soaraway success of Clive Sinclair’s ZX80 and 81 sub-£100 home computers.

But the fact not everyone was bashing spongy buttons on tiny keyboards to navigate a Monster Maze or any number of games that brought the arcade to the bedroom. Likewise, many people never saw the sense of making databases of family recipes when they had a perfectly good exercise book stuffed with them on the kitchen shelf.

A huge swathe of the population still didn’t really ‘get’ computers, let alone had regular access to one.

They weren’t deaf to the technological revolution hammering at the door. But, as a nation, we were woefully unprepared for it. In 1978, as the ZX80 was being developed, the BBC’s Horizon programme, ‘Now The Chips Are Down’ warned  of computer-aided mass unemployment and economic depression.

Nearly every occupation, from the factory floor to the typing pool, was at risk of being fried by microprocessing chips.

Against that backdrop, the BBC launched the Computer Literacy Project. The flagship of this was to be The Computer Programme, a prime-time series that aimed to lead nascent computer users by the hand into the new dawn. The show – presented by the familiar figure of man mountain Chris Searle of the That’s Life team – wouldn’t just introduce us to computers; they would inspire us to use them and even programme them for our devices.

And the younger they could get people hands on with computers, went the BBC’s reasoning, the better.

In agreement was the UK government who, simultaneously, launched the Microelectronics Education Programme with a £10 million budget that gave schools and colleges major discounts on buying computers.

A local computer for local people

Radical as it seemed, the BBC put out a tender to the UK’s burgeoning micro-computer manufacturing industry, for what was effectively a nationalised computer.

Since their TV Computer Programme and supporting multimedia  would be covering topics such as programming (coding), sound and graphics, peripherals and teletext, the winning hardware bid needed to manage these, and be able to easily accommodate new innovations as they emerged, too.

Importantly, the BASIC (beginners all-purpose symbolic instruction code) programming language in use, with various modifications, across a range of already established brands, would need to be unified and simplified into a new code called BBC BASIC.

In a nutshell, the gig went to Acorn, a microcomputer manufacturer in Cambridge whose founders had broken away from Sinclair Research – also based in Cambridge.

Many predicted the commission would be a shoe in for Sinclair Research. Its cut-price ZX range was cleaning up on the domestic market and sales were about to double with the launch of their ZX81, and double again after that with the Spectrum.

But Clive Sinclair was unwilling to make the changes to the ZX81 required by the BBC (a full-sized keyboard was one), and he didn’t see the sense in making BASIC even more, well, basic.

Acorn, on the other hand, had already developed a micro-computer called the Atom, and, as far as Acorn was concerned, it was happy to modify it to the BBC’s hearts’ content.

Clive Sinclair – in spite of all but talking himself out of the competition – was furious about his former minions at Acorn getting the gig. There’s a brilliantly funny, and factually spot on, account of that in a BBC film called Micro-Men (with Alexander Armstrong, complete with ginger beard and tonsure as Sinclair, and Martin Freeman as his Acorn nemesis Chris Curry. (You might find it on iPlayer or, shhh, YouTube.)

But Sinclair had an ace up his sleeve that must have sweetened things. His 16k ZX81 upgrade (reinvention) the Spectrum, launched in 1982. It offered colour graphics, options for peripherals, of course (including a modem), and a huge range of games, in addition to all the freedom to programme your own. In effect, it was a sleek, sexy-looking home-learning equivalent to the BBC Micro and it sold nearly twice as many.

Tomorrow’s World (just a slight delay…)

Rewinding back a few months… a production snag meant that only a few models of the newly-dubbed BBC Microcomputer were available for sale on the official launch date of December 1st 1981 – forcing the broadcaster to reschedule the launch of the Computer Literacy Project to January 1982.

“Don’t expect the computer revolution to happen tomorrow,” Chris Searle warmly announced when, a month overdue, episode one of The Computer Programme was finally broadcast, “It’s happening now.”

The late arrival didn’t harm interest, or sales, though. There was tangible optimism and excitement about the whole project – a feeling that Britain had a common cause to work together to achieve, less we end up mere client state for other nation’s tech.

It didn’t quite pan out as expected – but, this is coming out of the almost relentlessly grim last half of the 1970s – you could afford the country something to look forward to.

It’s not a toy, Jenkins!

Housed in a beige-brown block of plastic  and stamped with a cartoon owl, the BBC micro came in two versions, Model A and Model B, depending on the amount of on-board RAM. Most popular in schools was Model B, which packed 32 kilobytes and sold for £399 ( circa £1,500 today).

Acorn had anticipated they’d sell 12,000 machines – within five years they’d sold 1.5 million.

It wasn’t long before the BBC Micro became part of the culture at school. After school computer clubs soon became particularly popular, thanks to word about the Micro’s gaming capabilities and growing range of games available to upload – slowly – from a cassette.

They were even turning up in the background of scenes in Grange Hill, as if to say: ‘Look, even a fictional local education authority is investing in the tech to redirect dole queue bound Tuckers, Bennies and Alans. Think what it could do for your pupils.’ Or, to some, this might have just been shameless product placement.

By 1984, Acorn’s over 25,000 BBC micro-computers – now affectionately known as ‘beebs’ or ‘the beeb’ – had been planted in Britain’s schools and colleges.

That’s 74% of the UK’s learning establishments. And, most importantly, they were achieving what they had been created for.

A BBC Micro in the classroom normalised access to computers for children and, outside of more formal curriculum computer learning, students were (depending on how many the school had invested in) given free rein to programme them, encouraging innovation and improvisation.

It’s no coincidence that the creators and instigators of Britain’s globally successful games software industry – from Lemmings to Elite to Lara Croft to Grand Theft Auto and beyond –are all the creations of BBC Micro (and, to be fair, at home in their bedrooms, the ZX range) alumni.

Other edtech game changers…

Not convinced the BBC Micro revolutionised education technology? Here’s a selection of rival contenders (IMHO – feel free to write to us with your own) from the 20th Century.

Calculating little sods

By 1973, pocket calculators (thanks to Clive Sinclair  – him again! – making them smaller, slimmer, sexier and cheaper than the standard issue chunky Casios and Texas Instruments) had become fairly common.

In spite of (unfounded) concerns they would ruin the mental calculation abilities of children, by 1978, calculator use was even permitted in certain modules of the UK maths curriculum and exams.

Kids learnt to hack (kind of) calculators almost as soon as they got their mucky paws on them. Three might have been the magic number for Pythagoras (and De La Soul) but if you were a 10-year-old boy in the 1970s it was more likely:

“55378008”

The figure is arrived at by performing on the calculator a formulaic narrative involving his/your’s sister/mother/aunt’s frustrated attempts to purchase a bra.

But a final flourish – a flick of the wrist – is required. Now the calculator is doing exactly the opposite of what it was created to for: words. Rude words (if you’re 10. And it’s the ‘70s.)

Hilarity ensues. One kid laughs so hard, the free school milk he’s been sucking through a hole in the foil top of the bottle, comes out of his nose.

School radio broadcasts instrument of torture

At the hands of a talented player, the recorder is a musical instrument of great melodic and emotional range. In the hands of anyone else, it’s the sound of hell in a hollow stick.

So how did it become the first musical instrument most school children are allowed to get their mitts on? Public service broadcasting and plastic injection moulding technology is how.

Big in the Renaissance (where it should have stayed), the recorder was repurposed in the 1950s as a cheap educational instrument. Composer Carl Orff – who wrote the high drama of Carmina Burana – was an advocate of recorder-playing in schools in Germany and the UK. His Musik für Kinder features arrangements that are simple for young players with little hands to pick up.

Early BBC schools’ radio (often overlooked on the edtech timeline) spread the word (hate, would also work here) with play-a-long lessons.

The recorder’s widespread use is as much about economics, though. First mass-produced in Bakelite, and then cheaper still in plastic, recorders could be bought for a song in bulk by education authorities.

The ‘apparent’ ease of teaching it meant that between the 1950s and 1990s most households with kids of primary age were at some stage held hostage by screeching renditions of London’s Burning.

Cheaply produced harmonicas and ukuleles are now more popular as school bulk buys. They don’t sound much better – unless it’s your little prodigy playing them, of course.

Eggs is not necessarily eggs

Tamagotchi’s – digital ‘pets’ housed in an egg shaped key-ring (roughly translated from Japanese, Tamagotchi means ‘cute egg’) dominated toys sales charts circa 1996/97.

Whether they were cats, dogs, dinosaurs or penguins, Tamagotchi pets incessantly demanded their owners, ‘feed’, ‘water’ and ‘exercise’ them throughout their lives.

They didn’t have much educational value, but kids insisted on taking them into school – lest, of course, they die of neglect. Teachers hated the disruption they caused and the following story from 1997 – harsh as it sounds – was by no means unusual.

Constant bleeping on the key-ring games became a regular distraction at Queen’s Park High School, Blackburn, until head Sue Hyland sent the toys to the doghouse.

Mrs Hyland said: “We’ve told our pupils not to bring them into school and to get themselves Tamagotchi babysitters during school hours. We’ve warned children who continue to bring them in, we will confiscate them. We pointed out that if we took them away, we would not feed or water them and they would die! It seemed to do the trick.”

As their popularity waned in the late ‘90s, Bandai the manufacturers were rumoured – genuinely – to have been developing a version in which – paired up by a cable – two Tamogotchi could ‘mate’ and produce a chick. One can only imagine what Mrs Hyland would have to say about that.

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