What we learned from the BBC Micro

This morning’s Observer column.

The BBC Micro is 30 this year. It got its name from a BBC project to enhance the nation’s computer literacy. The broadcasters wanted a machine around which they could base a major factual series, The Computer Programme, showing how computers could be used, not just for programming but also for graphics, sound and vision, artificial intelligence and controlling peripheral devices. So a technical specification was drawn up by the BBC’s engineers and put to a number of smallish companies then operating in the embryonic market for “micro” computers.

Two of these companies were based in Cambridge. One was Sinclair Research, the eponymous vehicle of Clive Sinclair, a self-made man who worshipped his creator. The other was Acorn, a company co-founded by an ex-Sinclair employee, Chris Curry, and Hermann Hauser, an aristocratic-looking Austrian physicist. The story of the rivalry between these picturesque outfits has been memorably told in Micro Men, a TV film that combined a riveting technological tale with brilliantly comical dialogue (and which is still available on YouTube).

Acorn got the BBC contract, for reasons that baffled Sinclair but nobody else.