Acorn is a now disfunct, innovative British system design company - and the story of an underdog who didn't but did win, kinda. See also FOLDOC

Rising Action: Atom

Acorn's first real computer product was the Atom, a computer with BASIC in ROM and with 2k RAM on a 6502 CPU, which was released in 1980.

Mounting Tension: BBC

The Acorn BBC Model A and B appeared in 1981, with a 6502 CPU and 16k or 32k RAM, respectively. The BBC Model B had more video modes and better expandability, and vastly outsold the Model A. Because they were British, schools in the UK used the BBC computers. Some schools in NewZealand followed suit.

The builtin BASIC dialect had some impressive language features; procedural programming with parameter passing and local variable scopes remained foreign to other microcomputers for a long time. The modularity of its OperatingSystem and its use of InterruptHandlers were far ahead of the curve as well. There was a MOS for all the basic functions like video graphics, buffered keyboard input, vectored interrupts, and buffered sound. 16k ROMs were available to accomodate networking routines and many different programming languages (BASIC, LOGO, Pascal, Forth, you name it.)


The Electron HomeComputer was a later, smaller brother of the BBC, built to attack the Sinclair Z80 and early Commodore microcomputers. It a 6502B CPU, 16k RAM, BASIC in ROM, and plugged into the television. You could load programs from cassette tape via a normal audio tape deck, or you could type them in. A floppy disk, even a harddrive, were available as insanely expensive expansion modules. Unfortunately, neither graphics nor sound capabilities could hold a candle to those of the very similarly specced Commodore64.

I had one of those.. sigh memories.. --AristotlePagaltzis

In both the BBC and Electron computers, the graphics and sound hardware were well accessible with powerful plot and envelope commands, respectively (though there was little to access in the Electron). The envelope command took 14 parameters that controlled a full ADSR synthesizer.

Climax: Archimedes

This success was followed by the Acorn Archimedes, a computer that built a small but very loyal community for good reason. Its heart was Acorn's own new CPU, the ARM chip later to become incredibly successful, surrounded by a system whose design was a decade ahead of most competition. The RiscOS OperatingSystem running on this machine had a slick and gorgeous GUI and well thought out design to match the hardware it was runnning on. Unlike much of the competition, the machine had plenty of cycles left after managing the GUI, which was further enforced by the fact that the API was friendly enough for writing graphical applications even in Assembler. As a result, it was a joy both to use and develop for (whether that be software or hardware). Many of the games that ran on it were nothing short of breathtaking to users of other systems. Software rendered vector 3D graphics were common at a time they were considered revolutionary in the rest of the commodity computing world.

The Archimedes superseeded the BBC model B micros in a lot of classrooms before the rise of the PC. Eventually, though, schools and the public started using the cheaper mass-produced drivel that still haunts us today.

I DTPed our Te Awamutu College school magazine on an Archimedes (A3000?) back when a GUI was seriously cool... --GreigMcGill

Falling Action: RiscPC

An attempt to counter the rising popularity of the then so-called "IBM compatibles" was called RiscPC. These too ran RiscOS and had a novel system design consisting of modules, ie a box in the same design as the computer's case that contains the desired extension and plugs into the computer's Bus with a connector. To update or expand the hardware, you didn't have to open the case, you just stacked modules, much the way you'd "update" your HiFi stereo.

While Acorn equipped their RiscPC started with the ARM610 (ARM6 core) and then the ARM710 (ARM7 core), later RiscPC clones such as those manufactured by Castle featured StrongARM processors.


In the end, Acorn Computers Ltd. was shut down (accompanied by much mourning in the connaissant geek community), as WinTel machines dominated the market and drove them out of business.

However, the CPU design had been sourced out to ARM Ltd., founded 1990 in a joint venture with AppleCorporation as an IntellectualProperty only company that holds the rights to the ARM processor architecture. Even Intel have licensed it, and a huge market share of hand held and embedded devices nowadays run on StrongARM derivatives.

So, in a way, "the king is dead - long live the king"...

Part of CategoryCompany and CategoryOldComputers

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