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Cambridge Invents ... BBC Micro

Collusion's interview with Sophie Wilson, designer of the BBC Micro

Do you know that the BBC Microcomputer was built by Acorn Computers in Cambridge and that there was a BBC Micro in 80% of schools in the UK during the 1980s?

In the early 1980’s the BBC decided they wanted to develop a television series about computer literacy but found that all the current computers on the market operated in very different ways, making it difficult to find any uniformity on which to base a programme. So they developed a specification for the kind of computer that could do all of the things they wanted it to and set about talking to UK computer companies.

In Cambridge, the rivalry between computer companies Acorn and Sinclair was growing, with both companies keen to bid for the BBC contract and no other companies left in the running.  At Acorn, they had a week to produce their prototype before a BBC visit to both companies that would decide which design to go with. Despite the extreme time constraints, developers Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber and designer Alan Boothroyd came up with the goods, producing a computer - the Proton - that exceeded the BBC’s needs in nearly every way. 

Acorn won the contract and featured in the BBC TV programme, The Computer Programme in 1982.  The BBC had expected to sell around 12,000 BBC Micros but they’d vastly under-estimated it’s impact and, after it’s launch in December 1981, it went on to sell more than 1.5 million!

The BBC Micro’s introduction into schools provided unprecedented access to all, resulting in a significant impact on the growth of the UK’s technology expertise. For many people who are now in their late 30s and 40s, using a BBC Micro at school was their first experience of the freedom of computer programming, inspiring them to discover more. Indeed, many of the current generation of technology leaders in Cambridge and across the country cite the BBC Micro as key to their interest in computers. It’s amazing to know that this Cambridge invention has had such a significant impact on the progress of technology.  

Press play above to hear more from Sophie about the BBC Micro.

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