BBC Basic: the people’s language

It was one of the most important breakthroughs in British computing history, the cornerstone of computing education for more than a decade and it’s 25 years old on 1 August, but BBC Basic remains in active service to this day. The computing language that was devised for a television show became more famous than anyone ever expected, being used to write anything from complex accountancy software to the graphics for TV programmes. From the classroom to the corner shop, BBC Basic has had an enormous impact on computing history, and it’s got one hell of a story to tell.

BBC Basic: the people's language

Nowadays, auditioning for a TV show means making a fool of yourself in front of Simon Cowell. Back in the early 1980s, it involved building a computer that ran on a language viewers could comprehend. “Around 1980, someone at the BBC thought it would be a good idea to teach people about computer programming. There were plenty of home computers around, but there wasn’t a great deal of compatibility between them. This was a major problem for the BBC when putting together a series of programmes,” says Richard Russell, then a technician at the BBC.

Most of those early home computers were already running versions of Basic, the most popular being Microsoft Basic. “The thinking was that we would accept Microsoft Basic,” says Russell, who was on the team detailed to pick the right computer for the Beeb. “But the BBC brought in a technical advisor, who said we needed something better. The Basics around just weren’t up to it.”

So the BBC made a truly momentous decision: instead of waiting for something better to come along via the traditional channels of product development, it would create its own computer and version of Basic specifically for the television series. With hindsight, it seems an almost ludicrous proposition, like building a car to teach people how to drive for a series of Top Gear. But with home computing in its infancy and less scrutiny of the BBC than there is today, the Corporation ploughed ahead with its radical plan. “I couldn’t see it happening now. There would be so much fuss about it being unfair to licence-fee payers and other companies,” admits Russell.

Build your own PC

The BBC didn’t have the know-how or resources to build the computer itself, so it invited a number of British companies to tender for the job. Among those who pitched were Sir Clive Sinclair – who later achieved enormous success with the ZX Spectrum, but whose bizarrely titled Grundy NewBrain computer failed to meet the BBC’s requirements – and Dragon.

One company that wasn’t originally considered by the BBC was Acorn, despite already achieving notable success with its Atom computer. However, one of Acorn’s employees heard of the BBC’s project and told the corporation of its plans to develop a successor to the Atom, codenamed the Proton. The only problem was the computer didn’t actually exist. “The crunch moment came when the BBC said ‘prove more about these plans’,” says Sophie Wilson, who was then a programmer with Acorn.

Acorn’s co-founder, Herman Hauser, phoned both Wilson and her colleague Steve Furber on Sunday evening and asked them whether it was possible to build a prototype of the Proton to show the BBC by the following Friday. Both told him it was out of the question. Hauser resorted to amateur psychology: he phoned Wilson back and told her that Furber said it was doable, and vice versa. Safe in the knowledge that the pair’s competitive streak would drive them forward, Wilson and Furber worked day and night to successfully meet the Friday deadline. “It was a tortuous time,” says Wilson. “But, in retrospect, Herman was right to get a prototype and we were able to build a very sophisticated machine.”

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