Cambridge, the University town in Eastern England, has always had two claims to fame. One is that it was where DNA was discovered. The other is as the spiritual home of computing in the United Kingdom, thanks to being the location for Acorn, ARM and Sir Clive Sinclair's businesses. It was fitting therefore, that the impressive ARM building in Cambridge was the location for the birthday party of the year, to toast thirty years of the BBC Micro.
Beeb@30, Cambridge: Thirty Years of the BBC Micro Computer
In 2012, the big names in computing celebrated some big anniversaries. It was thirty years since the BBC Micro was unveiled, for a start.
Cambridge, the Home of the BBC Micro
The BBC Micro was the first computer for many programmers. The gamers desired a Spectrum or similar. The geeks went for the more expensive and far more serious ‘Beeb’.
Cambridge, the renowned British University city, was the centre of the computer revolution in the heady days of the early 1980s. Acorn were at one end of this, Sir Clive Sinclair at the other. The situation brought about a head-to-head where Acorn and Sinclair were in direct competition for a computer to be launched by the BBC television company. According to hearsay, the Acorn team were the ones the BBC scouts chose to go for drinks with after an intense evaluation of all the bids. The result was the BBC Micro, memorable for the red F-keys and black keyboard in a pale housing.
Thirty years later, ARM, the company which evolved from Acorn, threw open the plate glass doors to its high-tech offices to welcome a selection of movers and shakers in the computing world. Most of the original BBC Micro development team were there, along with a number of programmers, coders, geeks and fans. The old and the new were both represented, as alongside Christopher Curry, Professor Stephen Furber, Dr Hermann Hauser, Professor Andrew Hopper, Nick Toop, Chris Turner and Dr Sophie Wilson were Dr Eben Upton of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Neil Davidson from Cambridge firm Redgate Software and Alan O’Donohoe, founder of Hack to the Future, providers of innovative ideas to make youngsters become interested in coding. Also in attendance were Jason Fitzpatrick from the Centre for Computing History and Richard Gellman representing the Retro Computer Museum, both of whom give their spare time to the restoration and display of early 80s computing machinery.
The event was organised by Chimera Events Ltd, and staffed by many of the volunteers who were also involved with the Centre for Computing History and the Retro Computer Museum.
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Bleeps and Geeks – Retro Machines and Anecdotes
Around the room were a number of examples of working Acorn and BBC machines, as well as ARM employee David Gilday exhibiting his CubeStormer II project. Props from the TV series Micro Men were also on display and both the Centre for Computing History and the Retro Computer Museum had contributed to the variety of machines on show.
The day began with an introduction from Jason Fitzpatrick outlining the progress on the project to bring the Centre for Computing History to a new permanent base in Cambridge. A fascinating keynote speech from Dr Hermann Hauser followed in which he recounted anecdotes from the development phase of the 'Beeb'. The special guests then formed a panel with Chris Serle (presenter of the TV show The Computer Programme) as moderator and discussed such topics as the future of computing and how to get more females involved in programming. Journalist Bill Thompson made a guest appearance to talk about media involvement in promoting computing.
Cutting the Official BBC Cake – and Enjoying a Slice of Raspberry Pi
During lunch, the historic photograph of the Acorn team with a BBC Micro was recreated, with Stephen Furber standing in for David Johnson-Davies, and the official cake was cut. This was a faithful rendition of a ‘Beeb’ with every key iced and lettered correctly. It tasted as amazing as it looked and many pieces were demolished as the guests toasted the machine’s 30th birthday.
After lunch, following a brief introduction by Neil Davidson of Redgate Software, Eben Upton spoke about the Raspberry Pi. Widely touted as the spiritual successor to the 'Beeb', this stripped-down, uncased, electronic circuit board has been gathering large amounts of coverage lately. It is seen as a way to bring more interested youngsters into computer science. On 7 April 2012 it was announced that the CE mark tests had been successfully passed. Much excitement and anticipation ensued among those who had placed an order or were planning on registering their interest when the waiting time dropped. It was quickly accepted that the lack of casing allowed geeks and coders to look at what they were working with in depth for possibly the first time, marking a unique selling point for a generation used to seeing closed devices.
Emulators and Coding, CubeStormer II and Raspberry Pi-Flavoured Twitter
Meanwhile, in the lecture theatre, two presentations were given to a select audience of forty. Firstly Richard Gellman spoke about his BBC Micro emulator (a talk I would have attended if I'd not been taking tickets on the door) and then Alan O’Donohoe gave an engaging presentation and interactive session using the Scratch programming environment. Some people report having had their first experience in Scratch programming at this event, which was appropriate, seeing as it was mentioned as an engagement tool for programming novices in the panel discussion in the morning.
In the late afternoon the event started to wind down, with the organising team beginning the tear down process. This was the chance for various members of the team to go and investigate the CubeStormer II display that David Gilday was in charge of, which had caught many people’s eyes on entering the party. The various Lego Technical kits on display were capable, when under the control of a Samsung Galaxy cellphone, of solving a Rubiks Cube in under 6 seconds. These remarkable machines were designed, built and programmed by Mike Dobson and David Gilday and hold the world record for solving a Rubiks Cube faster than a human being.
Also in the same area were several BBC Micros running assorted games, a Raspberry Pi streaming Twitter through Midori and numerous other machines of various vintages, irresistibly winking and bleeping to the assembled event team.
Many new friendships were forged, burning questions answered and networks strengthened as a result of the heady mix of intellect, coding and gaming to make the day an unforgettable event for all the attendees. A once-in-a-lifetime party and a fitting celebration for a unique machine.
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David Gilday's Cube Stormer II - the official video
Blink and you'll miss it solving the Rubiks Cube
This article originally appeared on Suite101.com in March 2012. It was removed at the writer's request in February 2013, and appears here with slight revision and additional photographs.