One of the best things about my day job is that I come upon a lot of old computer lore — things like INTERCAL. And the other day, a request came in for a resource page on BBC BASIC. I’d never heard of it, and I figured that the “BBC” must be a coincidence. But no. It indeed stands for the British Broadcasting Corporation. It was a programming language developed especially for a television series on BBC2 called, The Computer Programme.
The BBC is a public institution and so it actually believes in educating the public as well as entertaining it. And back in 1979, someone at the broadcaster decided that they really ought to inform their viewers about this brave new world of computers. But they wanted to do it in a very hands-on way. The problem at that time was that there were a zillion computers. There were things like the Sinclair ZX80, which are hard to imagine as computers at all. But regardless of that, they were all different, and what the BBC needed for The Computer Programme was consistency.
So they had a computer built, the BBC Micro — built on an 8-bit 6502 chip, which was hugely popular until the 8086 family became dominant. It was created by Acorn Computers. (Acorn was later purchased by Broadcom, which was bought just last year by Avago Technologies to form Broadcom Limited. It’s the nature of the computer business.) It sold at the time for £235 (about a thousand dollars today.) The new machine needed an interface, and as old-timers like me remember, that almost always meant some form of Basic. So they had a very young Sophie Wilson lead the project to create BBC BASIC.
The Computer Programme Begins!
This was all put together, and on 11 January 1982, the first episode of The Computer Programme appeared. And as you will see if you watch the first episode embedded below, it’s really good. It starts off with a discussion of Stonehenge as an early computer that eventually had to be abandoned because it was so difficult to reprogram to accommodate changing astronomical variables (eg, precession). And then they move onto computer punch cards and how they relate to silicon chips. And before you know it, they are playing a break-out pong game on the BBC Micro.
What I most like about this episode is a short reported segment about a woman who owns a candy store. She had earlier bought a computer and started doing all her accounting and inventory on it. She says that it saves her hours of work every day. But the main thing is that you can see she loves computers. I remember feeling the same way. I bought my first computer to do music on, but almost immediately, I was creating programs to calculate the value of pi and the number of atoms in the universe. It’s very addictive.
It turns out that the candy store woman has branched out and is now doing computer work for other businesses. The reporter asks her if she hopes that the computer business takes off, and the woman is very keen on this. She explains that because of some change in the traffic flow of the area, the shop has not been doing too well. Given that the woman seems like she’s about 50 years old, she comes off as heroic.
By 1982, personal computers weren’t that new a thing. But it was still a heady time with all kinds of different machines. It’s fascinating to look back on it all. Today it isn’t computers that are interesting but the network itself. In those days, you were on a computer. Today, virtually everything I do is online. The computer is just a portal — more like a television than computational machine.