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The History of Acorn Computers

Acorn - the perfect English company. Full of ideas and innovation, with a total inability to sell and promote itself. The company also saw several major banana skins, failure to get the BBC shipped in large enough quantities, failing to get the Electron out for the Christmas market, and then failing to keep ahead of trends, before destroying it's own main market.

One of its strengths - or perhaps it's weakness was the build quality of the machines. Built to survive in the educational market, the machines were robust and long lasting. This meant schools did not need to buy expensive machines year after year, but also meant that the market was always going to be limited. As the technology advanced, so Acorn were always lagging. They did however come up with innovative machines, which could be programmed easily, and run other operating systems all within the same box.

So where did Acorn come from and where did they end up? What follows is a basic history of Acorn. There is a lot more to come when I can find the time to research the various buy-outs etc.

Acorn were formed in 1978 by Chris Currie and Herman Hauser. Based in Cambridge the small fledgling company was born at a time when micro -computers were a possibility. The first well known machine developed was the Atom, a 6502 based machine. It could be purchased either as a kit, or a fully built system. The machine could be programmed using BASIC, or machine code. BASIC was included on ROM, which for most computers was quite rare for the time.

The BBC (as in the Broadcaster) made the decision in the early 1980 late 1979, to improve computer literacy, and planned a series of programmes focusing on home computers and how to use them. It was also decided that to run along side the programs a 'BBC ' computer would be made available. It has now become folk lore about how close a run thing it was for Acorn to have a working demo model ready. At the time Acorn had been planning the successor to the Atom. The Proton was already in design, but a long way off being released. The machine was designed to allow devices to be connected, and for it to be internally expanded. The BBC Micro was borne, and in November 1981 the first machines (the model A) was released. The model A was a cut down version of the model B with less memory, and some of the external connectors missing.

The release of the model B was not without it's problems, production delays, and bugs in the Operating system caused quite a lot of out cry. Production problems were largely caused by the high demand that had been engendered by the BBC shows. Acorn survived these problems and the BBC B was released in early 1982.

As with many small companies, not everything was rosey. £500 was a lot of money, and for some too much to spend on a computer. Acorn realising this developed a cut down BBC, called the Electron. The machine was officially released in August 1983, but due to production problems and limited supply Acorn missed the all important Christmas market.

The computer industry moves on, and spurred on by the growth of expansion cards and memory devices the BBC launched the BBC B+ in 1984. This was a bodged BBC with additional sideways ram. This interim machine struggled on until 1986, when the BBC Master 128 and Master Compact was released. Using the newer 65C02 processor, running at the amazing speed to 2 MHz, the machine had much improved filing system designed to handle discs.

Acorn though realised that the 6502 series processors, were lagging behind, and the search was on to find a new processor for the next generation of machines. Unable to find one of suitable power, Acorn set about designing their own micro processor. It is here that Acorn departed from the norm, and embarked upon developing RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computers)technology. Most computer chips were designed based on CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computers), effectively a low level command for every eventuality. RISC has a very small, but flexible instruction set, with flags and commands interchangeable with each other.

In 1987 Acorns work resulted in the release of the worlds first 32 Bit Reduced Instruction Set Computer. Named the Archimedes, it had a new 8 MHz Arm2 chip, and half a megabyte of ram. The machine however was released with a very simple operating system called Arthur. It was a very simple WIMP environment, and I remember turning it off after a couple of hours!

1989 saw the release of a Unix based machine, to try and gain a foothold in the business market.

April 1989 saw a major new release of operating system for the Archimedes. RISC OS, was a major event. For the first time the computer had a WIMP environment that could actually be used for serious work, such as wordprocessing or spreadsheets.

To coincide with the new Operating system Acorn launched a new range of machines, The A3000, which again carried the BBC badge, and the A410,A420 and A440, regarded as the serious machines.

Acorn still struggling to break into other markets launched the R260 and R225 Unix workstations. I don't know much about these machines and don't think I ever saw one.

October 1990, saw the launch of it's flagship machine, titled the A540, it came with a top specification, and included a SCSI interface for it's hard drives. The machine was also unusual in that it was designed to be easily upgraded with additional ram. This was the last machine to be released with the early Archimedes designed case.

In an attempt to make Arm chips more tempting to other manufacturing industries the chip design section of Acorn was spun off, in doing so it also released cash for the company.

November 1991 saw the release of a new machine the A5000. It had a new case design - a basic box and was renowned at the time for the lethal metal formwork inside the case - I know - I received many a cut trying to upgrade the machine.

June 1992 was momentous day for Acorn. For the one and only time in its history, it launched a laptop computer, that was effectively an A5000 in a smaller case. It proved remarkably popular, although its price tag was rather high, and it only had a greyscale screen.

Late summer saw the launch of another range of computers including the last ever BBC badged computer the A3010. The A3010 was marketed as a home computer, whilst its brother machine the A3020 was aimed squarely at the education market. These two machines were also the last to be released with the keyboard built into the system box. For the serious minded the A4000 was a three box machine, which was effectively a cut down A5000. The A5000 was itself re-released with an improved specification.

April 1994 proved to be Acorns swansong, with the release of a completely new machine. The Risc PC600, was designed to be radically different. Designed with two processor slots, one of which could be used to run an alien processor. The machine was designed to allow the processor to be upgraded as and when they were released. It was the first Acorn machine to use standard memory modules, helping to reduce costs. The machine was released with a proposed upgrade path of processors. However this neat plan disappeared in a puff of smoke on release of a 200Mhz Strongarm card, in 1996.

Acorn released it's final machine a cut down Risc PC, called the A7000 in May 1997. This featured the Arm7500 computer on a chip, and was designed for the all important education market which was under threat from the Microsoft machine.

Acorn in a constant state of flux, could never decide what it wanted to be, and despite high hopes when it was contracted to design and build a network computer its future however had already been decided. Arm Ltd was now a huge player in the embedded chip market. Its assets worth far more than its parent company, and in a move to release the equity, and be tax efficient for investors, Acorn sacrificed itself. Acorn was broken up with it becoming briefly Element 14, but its days as a computer manufacturer were done, and it became a part of history. Only its operating system struggling on....



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