The lie that was the BBC Micro

Released as the BBC Microcomputer on 1 December 1981 the iconic computer will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Like many people my age I clearly remember it. I remember the clacky sound of the keys and the grinding noise of big disc drive. I can even recall the distinct smell of it.

Despite all the hype at the time, however, and lots of revisionist thinking looking back, it was never really the hugely influential computer that some make it out to be, largely because it was rarely actually used in schools and just sat there as something of a white elephant.

A brief straw poll found that this was the same in many schools across the country. It was, however, near ubiquitous. In its 13 years of commercial service the Cambridge-built Beeb sold over 1.5 million units and was present in a staggering 85 percent of UK schools.

But here’s the thing – aside from being allowed to play Granny’s Garden in Primary School as a treat if you finished your work, and a couple of times playing some text adventure in first year of secondary school, I barely touched one while on school property. Neither did anyone I knew at any of the other schools in my area.

The broadcaster’s decision to partner with Acorn Computers had angered Sir Clive Sinclair as he prepared to launch a rival machine, the ZX Spectrum. “They are marvellous at making programmes and so on, but by God they should not be making computers, any more than they should be making BBC cars or BBC toothpaste,” he told Practical Computing magazine in 1982.

I got a cheaper ZX Spectrum but would later get a BBC Micro with the parental rational that “we bought it to help you with your homework” as the song Hey Hey 16k would later immortalise. They were making home sales because of the school connection, but we never had any homework that utilised the use of a BBC computer.

Everything I could do on a BBC computer was self-taught at home and very rarely applied to anything I was doing at school. In fact, the only thing I remember using my rudimentary knowledge of BASIC for was playing that text adventure, and using the BREAK key and then O. L. to get into the code then changing parts of the text to insult teachers, before saving it permanently to disc for other students to find – “You are at a clearing, Mr King is there with his rancid coffee breath, do you talk to him or run away?”

If you got to do anything more than that then consider yourself one of the lucky ones. It also came at a huge cost to the schools for something used for little more than insulting a Geography teacher.

The BBC Micro model B – which was standard – cost £335 when they came out in 1981 and that’s £1,155 in today’s money. This was not an inconsiderable amount to spend on a piece of school equipment that was barely used in many schools. Especially as in many of the schools it was a time when textbooks were one-between-two.

By my second year of secondary school, they were near obsolete, and the new Archimedes computer had now appeared in the science lab. Although aside from being allowed to play Zarch at lunchtimes the Archimedes was equally ignored and not used once in a lesson during the five years I was there.

Times have changed and my seven-year-old son is currently learning to code at school. But back in the 1980s the BBC Micro could have kickstarted a widespread coding and programming revolution in the UK and inspired a generation of schoolchildren to learn skills that would be useful when they were older.

Not just for those kids like me who would have taken time to seek this out anyway, but all children right across the board who otherwise were not introduced properly to computers. Instead, the BBC Micros largely just sat there on a trolley in the library, plastic dust covers on, as we carried on learning about cloud formations and how to ask to directions in French to La Rochelle’s train station.

10 PRINT “Opportunity missed!”
20 GOTO 10

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