TECHNOLOGIES TIME FORGOT: THE ACORN ELECTRON
Following last week's look at the Sinclair ZX Spectrum ( www.silicon.com/a50364 ), this week we consider one of its rivals in the UK home computing market almost 20 years ago, the Acorn Electron. Will Sturgeon takes a trip down memory lane...
1983. The New Romantics were topping the charts and 'old romantics' Roger Moore and Sean Connery were both playing 007. Roland Rat was everywhere you looked and Shergar was nowhere to be seen. But for this writer 1983 was the year my first computer was launched - the Acorn Electron.
The Electron was the brainchild of Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser - co-founders of Acorn in 1978.
By the early eighties Acorn was enjoying great success with the BBC B - the computer of choice for schools up and down the country - but Curry was a friend of Clive Sinclair, having worked for Sinclair research, and by 1983 he was eager to get his hands on his own slice of the home computing pie and emulate the burgeoning success of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
The Electron was designed to take the fundamentals of the BBC B and go head to head with the Spectrum in the 'under £200' market. As a result many thought of it as 'the poor man's BBC' but in terms of design it outstripped its big brother - its smart and compact unit could not have been any smaller and still have kept its full size keyboard. Also in terms of power it matched the BBC B blow for blow (until a revamp of the BBC in 1984) - and all this for half the price. The Acorn Electron launched at £199 - the BBC Micro was still nearer £400.
As such the Electron was well received upon its launch but Acorn was not ready to meet the demand that ensued and a captive audience soon began looking elsewhere for their home computers. Curry's and Hauser's lack of management nous had been exposed.
A year later, Acorn decided to get its act together and went all out to recapture the initial interest in the Electron.
A relatively large marketing budget of £4m was spent reminding consumers of the Electron's many virtues and thousands of machines were assembled and stockpiled ready for the rush. In addition, boxes of components and cases lay in wait, ready to restock the shelves as fast as they were being emptied. Acorn was not about to mess this up.
But the rush never came and Acorn was left with a backlog of stock and the parts to make thousands of machines that nobody wanted.
The outcome of this to the home user was by and large negligible. While the Electron was clearly not going to dominate the market, its sales were only a disappointment in terms of the haughty expectations set for the unit.
It still sold in suitable quantities to ensure a steady stream of games were being produced, and with 1.79Mhz of poke under the beige plastic cover and a whole 32Kb of RAM to play with it was a brave new world of possibilities - Hopper was about to eat Pong for breakfast (so to speak).
Simple programming in BBC basic could be achieved through a cursory reading of the ring bound manual and within hours of starting to mess about with the language you could be writing your own mini-programs - though these were no more complex than flashing words, changing screens of colour or simple drawing commands to create shapes and patterns.
But for more ambitious programmers the scope was certainly there. Programming your own games was not beyond the home user - though there was always the soft option of buying a magazine with page long programs already written - you just had to perform the painstaking operation of typing them out.
Alternatively, you could just go to the shops and buy a game - or send off by mail order as was more common.
As with other platforms the games came on a cassette tape and although the choice of connections meant loading games from virtually any tape player should have been effortless, this never quite proved the case. The inexact science of loading Electron games involved careful manipulation, on a trial and error basis, of the volume controls and frequent rewinding.
Yet the 10 minute wait for a game to load was often more than justified. My own favourites were Repton and Citadel from Superior Software which took over Acornsoft - the platform's dedicated software firm - in the late eighties. As the Electron slowly took off - or rather got slightly less unpopular - most games developers added it to their lists of catered-for platforms and the list of quality games available became pretty extensive towards the end of the Electron's stay in mainstream semi-popularity.
At a corporate level, there was probably a great deal of satisfaction gained by Curry and Hauser. The pair ran Acorn with no management experience and when the Electron was confined to the dusty confines of attics around the UK by the widespread uptake of infinitely more powerful home PCs and games consoles, Curry and Hauser were able to move on.
Acorn subsequently diversified. In 1990 its Acorn RISC Machines division, which had been making microprocessors, was spun off to help form ARM, now a FTSE 100 company, and in April 1999 Acorn was finally broken up, in a deal worth £270m.
Hermann Hauser was awarded a CBE in the last round of New Year's Honours - a belated gong, which I'd like to think was awarded for giving the world the Acorn Electron as much as his subsequent venture capital achievements. However, the fact that Clive Sinclair was knighted in a previous Honours List gives a pretty clear indication as to who won the home computing battle of the 1980s.
Next time: The BBC Micro.
Follow-up by Tom Hohenberg:
Fascinated to read your piece on the Acorn Electron this morning. I was the Marketing Manager at Acorn in those days and spent the £3 million on television advertising before Christmas 1984. The brilliant TV ad we made cost £150,000 - a fortune in those days. It was so successful that we had orders for 300,000 machines for delivery before Christmas.
Unfortunately, Ferranti had a problem producing the ULA that was the machine`s heart and only one in ten worked. This meant that the production line that had been set up in Malaysia only produced 30,000 machines instead of the 300,000 we needed. People were fighting each other in Boots and WH Smith for the few Electrons that did make it to the shops.
After Christmas Ferranti finally figured how to make the ULAs and the machines started to flood in. However, the market had evaporated by then. Everyone had bought their kids Spectrums or Commodore 64s for Christmas instead. The Electron was a great computer - almost as good as the BBC B and half the price - and deserved to be a success. Missing the boat that Christmas deprived it of the critical mass it needed to get the best software written for it.
Whereas the trucks had been lined up at either end of the Wellingborough warehouse delivering and collecting machines before Christmas, after Christmas they were just delivering and the company ended up with £43 million of unsaleable stock. Acorn almost went out of business, finally being rescued by Olivetti.
Follow-up by Silicon.com:
Yet again a journey down memory lane has produced a torrent of reader feedback, this week on the subject of the Acorn Electron. We've saved its big brother (and forerunner) the BBC Micro for today, but what's perhaps most amazing is the wide-ranging impact the Electron had.
Let's begin with that old chestnut - where it can still be found. As was the case with other 'home' computers of the 1980s, these machines were also used in all types of business.
One reader, Keith Bentley, told us about 2,700 Electrons being deployed alongside M2105 Messenger Terminals from BT in 1984 in Interflora branches across the UK. It seems the florist chain wanted a way of simply networking its retail outlets.
But that isn't the big story. The Electrons and the network proved so popular that not only did they win Interflora awards in 1989 and 1990 but our reader estimates 1,000 of the units were still being employed by content shop managers as late as 1999. And he should know - he was the Head of IT at Interflora in the 1980s.
Christopher Wall, an ex-Acorn employee, also pointed out that networked Acorn machines were used for all kinds of bus and train information screens. At least one screen - in Drummer Street Bus Station, Cambridge - still does, though we've yet to check that out.
Obviously the Electron could have been Big. A Tom Hohenberg wrote to us about his days as the marketing manager at Acorn responsible for the machine. The company spent £3m in TV advertising in the run up to Christmas 1984. He said: "The brilliant TV ad we made cost £150,000 - a fortune in those days."
Three hundred thousand orders flooded in but alas Acorn couldn't capitalise. The history books will show a production line problem in Malaysia meant a small fraction of orders could be fulfilled, consumers further embraced Sinclair and Commodore offerings that Christmas, and so crucially not enough software houses embraced the Electron.
Hohenberg added, perhaps still with the marketer's hat on, that: "People were fighting each other in Boots and WH Smith for the few Electrons that did make it to the shops."
But Acorn, post-Christmas, found itself with £43m of hard-to-shift inventory and floundered.
One person who did make it to an Electron-stocked shop that year is reader KK Richer. Her story is inspiring.
"I queued outside WH Smith at a ridiculous time to fall through the doors after they had a delivery. I then signed up for a BBC BASIC night school course at my local college, which gave me programming knowledge I still use as a sys admin."
She added: "I have the good old Electron to thank for sending me (at the age of 40!) down a completely new and still fascinating career path."
And she's not the only one who owes something to the elegant cream machine. Many a UK software house has roots in this period. Simon Mallett wrote: "We shouldn't forget the huge number of brand new industries created - most from kids' bedrooms, many still going! My brother created Vine Micros... now a major employer in Thanet and the premier supplier of Genlock hardware. What's more it's still all made in England, though no longer on the family's front room table."
Others understandably point to what they learnt from the BBC Micro and also the Electron's predecessors. There was the Acorn Atom and even the Proton. Of the Atom, Andrew Taylor said: "I learnt a lot from writing my own programs including a straight line 2D CAD program with object rotation, which was not bad for a 13 year old." Not bad indeed.
Then there was the 'It's-for-my-homework-honest' brigade. Unlikely as it may sound, Tim Mustill was that rare breed of user who did think of his education. He told us: "The main reason I was bought an Acorn Electron was to help with my Computing GCSE where writing a BBC BASIC program was worth half the final grade. My program simulated a general election with the final outcome based on a series of policy choices and other 'humorous' options. In a slight rebellion against my private schooling the odds were stacked towards Labour. Got a B anyway. Everyone else got As."
And while we've heard from manual writers and others who helped the rest of us get by, we've had a number of Reader Comments from people tempted by the mischief potential of any computer in a school. One story relates what happened with a manual, albeit for an RM machine.
"The section said something along the lines of: 'Don't use this sequence of instructions as they will cause a rapid and infinite loop that will over-heat the chip and cause it to melt', and then listed a three line bit of code. We were very tempted."
But the I-coulda-been-a-contender Electron did at least have something on the BBC, the computer of the Establishment, of schools. One anonymous reader said: "I always suffered at the hands of the few friends who had Electrons. My BBC was obviously not quite fashionable enough. The Electron was much more appealing."
This article appeared on Silicon.com on Friday 18th January 2002.