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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: Electron

One of their first products was the Electron computer. It plugged into the television, had 16 KB of memory, and ran BASIC in ROM. 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. The CPU was a 6502B, just slightly different from what powered the hugely successful Commodore64 home computer. Unfortunately, neither graphics nor sound capabilities could hold a candle to those of the Commodore64.

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

According to - Acorn's first real computer product was the Acorn Atom, the Electron was considerably later - after the BBC Model B in fact....

Mounting Tension: BBC

The next model was the Acorn BBC. Because they were British, schools in the UK used the BBC computers. Some schools in NewZealand followed suit. The BBC Model B also had a 6502 processor. This was probably mid-to-late 80's to early 90's.

The BBC's graphics and sound hardware were well accessible under BBC BASIC with the powerful plot and envelope 1? command, respectively. They were both far ahead of anything any other computer in this class had to offer. What really set the BBC apart was the modularity of its operating system and its use of interrupts. There was a MOS for all the basic functions like video graphics, buffered keyboard input, vectored interrupts, buffered sound. 16k ROMs were available to accomodate networking routines and many different programming languages (BASIC, LOGO, Pascal, Forth, you name it).

The BBC Model B actually appeared in 1981. Most impressive feature of BBC BASIC is procedural programming with parameter passing and local variable scopes, rather than its graphics and audio capability.

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 and ran the StrongARM series CPUs. These too ran RiscOS and had a novel system design consisting of modules. To update the hardware, you didn't have to open the case, you just added a new module just as you do to "update" your stereo system.

RiscPC started with the ARM610 then the ARM710 based on ARM's ARM6 and ARM7 core. These processors are not in the StrongARM series. Later RiscPC clones (such as those manufactured by Castle) feature StrongARM processors. I'm not sure than any Acorn branded machine used one....

Modules were a feature of the OS on all of Acorn's ARM based machines not just the RiscPC. Modules are software components and their performance is obviously limited by the hardware itself. No machine yet invented allows you to update (change??) the hardware without opening the lid!


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 was sourced out to the newly funded ARM Ltd., an IntellectualProperty only company that holds the rights to the StrongARM 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"...

The CPU design was actually "sourced out" to ARM in 1990 (way before Acorn's demise) in a joint venture with Apple.

Part of CategoryCompany and CategoryOldComputers

1? Actually, the electron had the envelope command as well (it also ran BBC BASIC). The envelope command took 14 parameters, and I must have spent many hundreds of hours playing with the parameters to see what effect it had on the resulting sound, without ever figuring out what each parameter did :) Obviously it wasn't just a single pitch; one command could rise and fall multiple times with varying loudness...

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