Acorn (1978 – 2000)


Chris Curry(Left) & Herman Hauser(Right) founders of Acorn Computers

Herman Hauser and Chris Curry founded Acorn on December 1978. The company’s first production was an electronic game machine. Roger Wilson, at the time still a student in Cambridge joined Acorn with the intention to produce a computer kit that would help the company to expand into this field.

In 1979 Acorn started to produce their first computer kit but the machine was not a great success since it was to complicated to build and also to program. In the beginning of 1980 Acorn released the Atom for for the price of £120 for the kit and £170 for the built version. For that time, the computer was very sophisticated and well designed and it was the first real income of the company since the previous machine was a total flop. Although the money was not a problem since their new machine was selling well, the company needed fresh money. Hauser decided to ask one of the local banks for a loan and he got a credit of £5000, which later was revised, to £10000. In the meantime BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) was seeking for a company that produces a computer to their requirements standards, for a TV series called “The Computer Program”.

Many home Computers manufacturers including Sinclair and NewBrain showed up to this request, but they were all rejected, as the specifications weren’t what they wanted. Acorn took this opportunity and with a new prototype code named Proton, which was just ready before they set off to London. The Proton exceeded all the requirements made by the BBC TV Company and as a result of this obviously Acorn was chosen to produce this machine for its TV series. Although was launched in December 1981 due to financial problems, the BBC micro was not available until summer 1982. The style was not attractive as other machines; the only attractive part was the Owl on the right hand side of the keyboard, representing the logo of the BBC’s TV series. In that same month Acorn anticipated that 12000 units would be sold, but actually in all, they sold more than 1.5 million units. Acorn released two versions of the BBC, Model A (Proton) with 16Kbytes of Ram, and model B with 32Kbytes of Ram.

BBC Computer Model B

Model A was sold for £299 and Model B was sold at £399. Model B was mostly sold at schools with Econet port for networking. The BBC has various expansions and peripherals. One example is that the BBC can take a second CPU for CP/M. Acorn was so proud about this second CPU socket that they even trade marked the item under the name of Tube. The machine was a total success since reviews and magazines showed it up as the mother of all computers. It attracted the attention of Bill Gates since he visited the company and proposed his MS Dos OS for the machine, but acorn refused as they already designed their OS system with the Econet network facility. Due to the high price of the BBC, In 1983 Acorn released the Electron for consumers that could not afford the BBC. The Electron was very similar to the BBC, with the exception of two connector ports and Teletext Mode 7 were missing. It wasn’t a successful machine mainly because the display was rather slow, since Acorn instead of the usual 6845 CRTC they used a ULA.

Atom Advert published on Your Computer December 1984

The BBC was a hit in the market and a great competitor for the Commodore 64 mainly in games. Acorn relying mainly on BBC’s sales failed to put money into research, especially when other competitors started to release new products. This lead Acorn into financial difficulties. Acorn not to go bankrupt started to develop a new computer and after three months working they announced that a new computer (BBC B) would be available to customers. The new system was an enhanced version of the BBC micro code named BBC Master, with an additional 128K memory, improved BASIC, graphics and a built in word processor. The new machine was not enough to pull the company back on its feet, mainly because in the meantime Acorn had been putting their efforts into new technology and had come up with RISC chip, which had to be developed into a fully-fledged system.

Acorn desperately in need of finance was contacted by Olivetti and bought 80% of the stocks. Since there was a lot of competition from Amiga and Atari, Acorn designed and released a new computer in beginning of August 1987 and was called Archimedes. It was the fastest and most powerful computer on the market. It was based on the new ARM RISC processor that Acorn had spent a lot of money developing. However software was very limited until 1993, where a company started to produce software for this machine. The A3000 was the top of the range and was released on May 1989. Unlike other systems it did not have a monitor or a hard disk, instead the 32-bit ARM processor led to RiscOS shielding the user from the Acorn operating system. In the next few years the graphical operating system was improved and was also to be used in the Arc’s replacement the RISC PC.

Acorn Electron released in August 1983

This was designed to be a modular machine and fully upgradeable. One of the problems with previous machine was that it was very difficult to upgrade them. The RISC PC had the facility to upgrade easily and with less expense. Previously, Acorn machines were bought mainly for educational purposes but with the new systems coming out they were more for business, rather than educational purposes. In 1991 Acorn released A4 their first Laptop with a processor faster than a 486/50 Mhz. The main specifications of the A4 are a 2MByte, 9` monitor and a battery backup of 3 hours In 1995 Acorn released two PC, the RISCPC 600 and the RISCPC 700 these two machines were very powerful that even Windows 3.11 is able to run in a window.

The final PC that Acorn produced was in 1997 code named A7000. The A7000 was a simpler version of the RISCPC700. In autumn of 1998 Acorn announced that they were pulling out of the desktop computer market to concentrate more on Internet. It had already developed this machine in conjunction with a big industry. After discussions with various companies, all latest projects were sold to Castle Technology. Acorn subsequently decided to change its name to Element 14(has nothing to do with Raspberry PI) to reflect its new direction, and in 2000 sold to Broadcom.