Saturday, December 24, 2022


[click to enlarge]

The Acorn Electron, the computer slingshot that launched me into the world of home computing, was infamously not ready for its original release date in Christmas 1982, and not enough of them could be made in time for Christmas 1983. With demand drying up ahead of Christmas 1984, the deteriorating finances of Acorn Computers Ltd, who introduced computing to millions of school children with the iconic BBC Micro [link], led to their being sold to Olivetti in 1985.

I didn’t know any of this when our family bought two Acorn Electrons and a bundle of software cassettes in the late 1980s. Games, programs, joysticks and other peripherals continued to be developed into the 1990s, supporting the near quarter million units that entered people’s homes, mostly at a reduced price to clear stock. 

The Electron was exactly what we wanted. We were taught the BBC BASIC programming language at school, and that confidence came home with us. When it came to loading games from cassette, we knew to enter “CHAIN” rather than just “LOAD”, and I knew my way around creating short musical tunes using the “SOUND” and “ENVELOPE” commands, separating out the notes and sound types, rather than the less intuitive “POKE” command and codes I later found for the SID chip in the Commodore 64 [link]. Meanwhile, Electron games we enjoyed were the wire-framed 3D spaceships of “Elite”, the maze quest game “Repton” and “Snapper”, the obligatory “Pac-Man” knock-off. 

At half the size and, initially at £199, half the price, the Acorn Electron was essentially a cut-down BBC Micro designed to meet the challenge of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. This cutting down was the computer’s downfall, as removing some of the display modes and sound channels available to the BBC Micro gave developers the expense, if they chose to spend it, of rewriting programs to be compatible - the Electron-compatible version of “Elite” is a minor triumph as a result. However, the largest problem was condensing the scores of logic chips on the BBC Micro’s motherboard into a single custom chip, a far bigger task than Sinclair had doing the same for the simpler ZX Spectrum, and one that drove back the release date of the Electron, and continued causing manufacturing problems afterwards. At least the Electron, unlike the original ZX Spectrum, had a keyboard with proper keys.

Again, we didn’t know anything about this – we were upgrading from the computing dead-end of the Commodore Plus/4, a productivity-minded machine incompatible with the more capable Commodore 64, only receiving more support decades later. The ability to use the same type of computer as at school put our family at a tremendous advantage, and in a decade where technology at home and work exponentially increased, we welcomed it. 

Acorn stopped supporting the Electron after 1986, by which time it had unveiled the Archimedes, the first computer powered by an ARM processor (“ARM” initially standing for “Acorn RISC Machine” before it was spun off into its own company). Once that made its way into school, it became the first computer I used with a graphical interface, and the later RISC PC hosted my first use of the internet. It took Acorn’s demise in 1998 to eventually come across the IBM-compatible PC that dominates people’s idea of a computer today, something that never felt as special as a result – no wonder I own a Mac now.

At the time of writing, thirty years have now passed since our Electrons were replaced by a Commodore Amiga 500 in Christmas 1992, the era of 8-bit computers having finally been overtaken. Once again, there was little to learn – we were ready to fly.

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