MY EARLY DAYS WITH COMPUTERS
Robin Morom (K4R)
By the early summer of 1981 there was a great deal of talk about
the BBC computer literacy project. The idea was to make a TV series,
starting in January, 1982, to teach computing generally and
programming for a proposed BBC computer in particular. There was a
lot of speculation about the computer to be used. Many confidently
prophesied that the Sinclair ZX81 would be chosen, since it was by
far the most successful machine in terms of the number sold. Some
favoured the Commodore. There were backers for others, too. To the
surprise of most of the trade, it was announced that a contract had
been awarded to Acorn to develop a new machine. They had had quite a
success with the Atom of course but they were a fairly small company.
Well, that settled the hardware, but what language should it use?
Supporters of Comal said that it was the only answer. Algol W was
also claimed to be in the running as were BCPL and Pascal. And what
about Forth? Eventually, of course BBC Basic had many of the features
of Microsoft Basic but with Pascal-like multi-line procedures and
long names. It was attacked by some as being a poor compromise and by
others as being too innovative.
In September 1981 it was announced that production was expected
to be 5000 per month by November. This turned out to be wildly
optimistic as with the launch of many computers in the early days.
Even by April 1982, when the first copy of Beebug was published, the
main complaint was a drastic shortage of hardware. Most of the
machines which were available were the Model A and the price of these
had risen considerably. Those who were just itching to get their
hands on a machine had to decide either to wait 10 or 12 weeks for a
Model B or hope for a 6 week delivery for the Model A and upgrade it
as soon as possible. For those who don't remember the A, it was the
'cut-down' version - only 16k RAM - no printer or user ports - no
A/D, etc. In other words it was a B with bits missing - all of which
could be fairly easily added at a later date. In the long run
practically every user upgraded as soon as possible or bought the B
version. The A faded away when supplies normalised.
On the early versions the power supply got very hot, but was
soon replaced with a much cooler switched mode version. The first
operating system was in FOUR eproms because the ROMS were not ready.
These would be exchanged free as soon as possible (Acorn wanted their
eproms back). This was system 0.1 which had quite a number of bugs
and omissions. Gradually, over the spring and summer of 1982 these
problems were ironed out, and the 1.0 operating system came into
production, but at first you only got one if you ordered a disc
interface! I was tempted to buy, but the long list of problems was
not encouraging and as I was still engrossed in my UK101 I decided to
hold off a little on the BBC. By October it was announced that O.S.
1.2 was on its way and that Basic II would become available by the
end of the year.
Finally the temptation grew too great and in the spring of 1983
I gave in and bought a model B - Basic II of course and with
hopefully all major bugs ironed out. I had selfishly waited for
several friends to burn their fingers (literally in one case) on
earlier versions and had had the chance to try them out. So now I had
my BBC model B and I was delighted. It was everything I had expected
and more. Practically everything else was neglected while I
experimented with it's new joys. Mind you, the cassette loading
seemed slow even at 1200 baud compared with my UK101 and I was used
to seeing the programs loading line by line but I soon got used to
The first addition I made to the machine was Wordwise. Then I
needed a printer. There was not a very wide choice at the time and
they all seemed very expensive. Even in those days there was talk of
'Epson Compatible' printers so I decided to bank on this being the
coming standard. Luckily I seem to have done the right thing for
once. There were several firms offering discounts and I settled for
the Epson FX80 which had only just come out. In September,1983 it
cost me £358 which was a lot better than the £438 quoted by most
suppliers. I should have realised there was a slight catch! The one I
got was made for sale in Germany, although I did not twig this at
first, as the manual was in English (well,almost!). Resetting the DIP
switches to the English character set was no trouble of course, and
it was easy to change the (internal and un-labelled) mains tap from
220V to 240V. The big difference was that the form feed defaulted to
12 inches instead of 11 inches. Rather than replace the eprom for the
sake of just one byte I sent the appropriate codes at the beginning
of each document. This can be done more or less automatically with
Wordease or Interword of course and has never proved to be a problem.
I now considered what to do about upgrading to discs. Adding
DFS with the official Acorn kit seemed to be the popular option but I
was not very happy with the idea of sacrificing 2k of my precious
memory nor with the very limited 31 files per side on a disc. Some
alternatives were being offered by the end of 1983 and included two
double density systems which caught my eye; the Microware DDFS and
the Kenda Professional DMFS, also known as the Mighty Oak DMFS (a
slight knock at Acorn?) The former was more compatible with DFS and
gave up to 128 files. The Kenda system treated both sides of a double
sided disc as one surface (like the ADFS does) and had the big
advantage of having its own 2k RAM on board so that PAGE could stay
at &0E00. I was very attracted by the fact that you could have
anything from an almost unlimited amount of small files on a disc up
to one file of almost 800k and also extend existing files up to any
length which would go on the disc. The files were not compatible with
DFS but conversion programs (both ways) were provided on the supplied
utilities disc. I settled for the Kenda DMFS. It was £120 + VAT in
August, 1984. The lack of compatibility did not seem very important
at the time as I did not envisage exchanging discs with anyone else.
After all it did not seem likely that there would ever be a user
group using discs, did it? To make full use of the system I bought a
Cumana 80 track double sided drive. Later I added a second similar
drive to the setup. Incidentally, it would have been possible by then
to have obtained a 20 Mbyte hard drive. The snag was that it cost in
the region of £2000.
There were lots of utility ROMS on the market and I was a sucker
for these. That meant that I needed to add the ATPL expansion board
to hold them all. I had Exmon, Printmaster, Sleuth, the
(unfortunately named) AIDS and many more at one time and another.
A word about the VDU. I went along the route - Mono TV, Colour
TV and then colour monitor over the years. I still use the same
monitor on the Master to which I upgraded in 1987.
Since it was not until I had the Master that I had a machine
with DFS on board, I have never used this system much. Likewise I
prefer Interword or Wordwise Plus to View, but really it is just a
matter of what you get used to. I also use Hyperdriver for fancy
I hope that this series has been of some interest and if there
are any queries about the early days that I can help with I am only
too willing to try.