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Acorn Antiques ~

Where do I begin? Many moons ago in the late 1980's Santa Claus very kindly left me an Acorn BBC Master Compact, a three-piece outfit that in many ways resembled the desktop PC's of the day, albeit in 8-bit 128K RAM fashion. I thought it was fantastic! Here was a machine that was the envy of the playground, I felt special, I felt like I could start global thermo-nuclear war in the same way David Lightman did in the movie 'Wargames'. It was my baptism into the new religion of home computing. For many years my Master Compact became less of a family machine and more my own personal plaything, whilst in the mean time earning me the respect from my peer group as I pretended to be a computer programmer. Actually I was quite amateur looking back, but it did help me to pass my school GCSE's when it functioned as a word processor, graphics tool and ultimately as a programming machine. In fact, BBC BASIC was one of its strong points - easy to learn and well structured, its a testiment to the developers that years later I can sit at a BBC-era machine and create programs with relative ease, if only modern programming languages were this friendly and straight forward.

Of course things progress, and when you're a kid at school all you really want to do is play games and I was no different (Omega Orb, Labyrinth and Spellbinder spring to mind), however back in the 1980's the price of those blue 3.5" disk games were prohibitively expensive being completely out of reach of my pocket money. Additionally, Acorn Computers really screwed up the Compact by failing to add the all important cassette support (a fatal mistake), so cheaper cassette based software was sadly unavailable, but then I guess it was designed as a fancy home-office machine. Despite the cost of software the games were thankfully pretty good, let's face it Elite is often voted the best game ever released so it was a great gaming platform in that respect, however it wasn't long before I ended up joining my classmates into the world of Sinclair computing (via a 1k ZX81, a rubber keyed Spectrum 48k and finally a 128k +2 variant). The cassette based games were far cheaper and easily obtained thanks to classmates keen to borrow or copy items, and if I dare admit it the magazines were far more entertaining to read but then I did fancy one of the editors (cheers Your Sinclair!). Acorns were more expensive than Sinclairs and this often led to the unfair stigma of being a middle class educational tool thanks to their widespread integration into schools and academic institutions, at least that was my take on things. Sinclair machines (and to a smaller extent Commordore 64's) were far more common thanks to their lower cost and cheaper software, games were literally everywhere, so it was fairly inevitable that my gaming fix would arrive via this route. However, the Compact was still very much the main machine, and I used it almost daily throughout my GCSE years for English assignments (via the wonders of VIEW) and for programming exploits. To this end, I can't thank my parents enough for investing in such a versatile machine. I'll always remember an early pre-GCSE assignment in which we had to create a 'club' or something and make a poster etc, 'The Flashing Blades' (a title ripped off a dubbed television programme at the time) served as our name and to go along with it I presented a floppy disk containing our club details. Given that my school at the time didn't even have a 3.5" drive to view the material - thank god (which was simply a VIEW file with our names on it plus a few other details), we ended up displaying the disk on the wall along with the poster - something I still find unbelievable today, that a little blue floppy disk would carry such fascination.

My Grammar school's very own Compact unwittingly became something of a games machine itself, when my copy of Crazee Rider was used to entice people to get the highest score at a fund raising event! Incidentally I secretly played and got the highscore, partly because I'd bought the main prize (some kingsize Mars bars if I recall directly) but mainly because the winner would have been a smug git from my year group. I found out he also owned a copy of the game for his Acorn Electron at home (something I hadn't anticipated) - so there was no way I was going to let him win! But the money went to a good cause, and I like to think my game competition was a far better thing to spend your 50p on compared to the other rubbish that was on offer,  such as getting your palm read by yet another idiot from my year group (although I was in love with his blonde assistant at the time). Well, it was the Adrian Mole years of my life...

The Compact was still used in the background but as I got older a 16-bit Atari (a 512k STE) took over the role of word processor and games machine. Interestingly, it was around this time that my school also began to augment their 8-bit systems (much abused BBC Model B's) but with Acorn's new Archimedes range of computers (two rooms worth if I remember correctly), and lets face it everybody liked that pretty front end Graphical User Interface (GUI) especially when we all got to play 'Lander' during wet dinner breaks. I was certainly glad Acorn included !65Host, a BBC BASIC emulator, as this enabled me to create maths coursework programs at home on the Compact and then load them easily with the emulator at school - finally those 3.5" disks came in handy!  

University beckoned and ultimately PC clones came to rule the roost, but sadly despite trying to pass it on to younger members of the family the Compact was eventually 'disposed of' to the great computer heaven in the sky. How I was ever talked in to this remains a mystery, and even today I feel terribly guilty about it - and that's pretty embarassing to admit in a nerdy way. It was during these cold university years that I was introduced to the Internet and discovered the wealth of information that lay out there on the BBC Micro and its variants. I was hooked again! It didn't take me long before I was hankering after my old computer or better still the models I really wanted to own, such as a Master 128 or even a Model B, which lets face it - the latter I'd been using ever since I started primary school. It's only now that I understand why people crave things they had in their youth such as Mechano kits or Hornby steam engines. It's a comfort thing, like having a pair of arms around your childhood again.

I now own several BBC microcomputers, and in many ways I honestly think its turned into a mini obsession, not helped by the delights of eBay tempting its treasures at me. Its quite sad to admit and I'm sure many people think its geeky - but as a self confessed anorak I don't really care, one thing's for sure - I'm not the first and I won't be the last one who sings the praises of these little micros, they helped create the computer industry we know today.


However, it has to be said that unless you have a spare room in your house or a garage/shed in which you can safely keep your collection, the realisation of what you're buying becomes alarmingly apparent. Compusively buying the odd BBC item can often lead to one of the main reasons why people got rid of them in the first place - lack of room!

Incidentally, although its very easy to be romantic about these machines, actually owning one again quickly reveals just how limited they are today; I've lost count of the amount of times people have said to me "What on earth do you want that for, what are you going to do with it?". That's not being dismissive of old computers, its being realistic, particularly when you've got three others tucked under the bed and one in the cupboard! If you've got the software and space to use them then go for it, they deserve to be used, but it wouldn't surprise me if most come out on the odd rainy day and then sit in the loft for the rest of the year :) We all do it. The other thing which I have to mention is reliability and parts, Acorn computers have a reputation for reliability and that's true in most cases - but at this stage in the game don't be surprised if some keys stick and finding replacement ROMs can be difficult. Don't even get me started on those damn Master 128 battery packs! Oh and whilst we're at it, you will inevitably break those little plastic guide tabs inside the lid of the Master 128 case....

To be honest, there's no way a BBC Micro will be anywhere near as useful as a modern day computer, that's a given and not a fair comparison, we're talking 1986 technology at the latest. However they can still be useful, particularly for hardware projects, simple programming and if you really need it a basic word processor, it got me through my GCSEs which says something :) Of course the games were great, and for many people that's all that encouragement they need to buy one again...or if you can't quite stretch to the real thing, there's several emulators out there.

My collection

I won't lie, having a working BBC system at hand is good fun, but having a small room with BBC's emerging from the undergrowth can get too much. I've had several (and I mean several) BBC's over the last few years as I'm always on the search for a well preserved machine. These days I'm glad to say that my obsession has been temporarily restrained until I relocate to a bigger house, besides which my passion for angling paraphernalia and guitar parts has curbed the spending. However as you've read this far - below is a listing of my current collection:

BBC Model B, 8721 DFS, Issue 3(?)
I bought this machine back in 1999/2000, my first introduction back into the realm of the BBC Micro, its a bit yellow and I'm not sure whether to keep this one, has rare factory fitted DFS. Open to offers...

BBC Model B, Issue 7
Minty fresh, unyellowed, unmarked - definitely a keeper, came with its polystyrene outer protectors. It doesn't have DFS but I'll probably keep it original.

BBC Model B, 8721 DFS, Issue 7
Nice and clean working BBC, great little machine.


Well, although I toy with the idea of owning a well kept BBC Master Compact again - these days I tend to find myself searching for mint/excellent BBC Model B+ machines (64k or 128k),  as I find these provide a stronger signal (and thus better screen resolution) with conventional televisions when a monitor is not available. So if you have one in good condition then send me an email...

Website contents @ Aaron Littlefield 2010