how this educational tool appeared and what is happening with it now (spoiler – everything is fine)

how this educational tool appeared and what is happening with it now (spoiler – everything is fine)

About half a century ago, somewhere in the early 80s of the 20th century, the BBC took up the idea of ​​an educational project, the purpose of which is to improve the computer literacy of schoolchildren, students and, in general, everyone. And to make the project large-scale, to attract the maximum number of participants, a tool was needed.

It became the BBC Micro personal computer with a special version of Basic, which was called BBC Basic. By the way, the program is still active, but the focus of training has shifted a little. In the article, we will talk about the computer from the BBC, which was named BBC Micro, and about the programming language.

How it all began

After the authors of the project decided to release their own computer and start training users of the Basic language, not so much time has passed. Before the new year 1981, two models of the device were released on the market: the BBC Micro model A at a price of £235 and the BBC Micro model B at a price of £335. At the time, it was expensive for the average user, roughly like $800 and $1000 now. Agree, if it is more or less normal for a work laptop, then it is expensive for an educational tool.

But still, the project went to the masses, which may indicate its appeal to people who really wanted to get involved in IT at that time. Here Specifications of this computer:

  • Processor: MOS Technology 6502A (in Model B – 6512A) at a clock frequency of 2 MHz.

  • Memory: 32 KB ROM (48 KB in Model B), 16 KB RAM (32 KB in Model B, 64 KB in Model B+).

  • Full-size keyboard, 74 keys, ten of which are functional.

  • Dimensions – 409×358×78 mm, weight 3.7 kg.

  • Screen: 8 text and graphic modes – from 160 × 256 pixels with 8 colors to 640 × 256 pixels with two colors.

  • Sound: monophonic, three independent sound channels (this was an advantage over competitors) with a rectangular waveform plus a noise generator, 16 software-controlled volume levels; a Texas Instruments SN76489 sound generator is used.

The computer was not bad, and this also became one of the factors of the popularity of the device. For example, the 6502 chip in this PC has twice the frequency (2 MHz) of competitors such as the Apple II and Commodore 64. For example, on the Calculator Benchmark (8 queens) test on Basic, the BBC Micro outperforms PCs such as the Apple IIe , Commodore 64, MSX, ZX Spectrum by 2.5-3 or more times.

The BASIC interpreter (BBC BASIC) has the ability to work with procedures (with local variables), use logical coordinates instead of physical ones when displaying on the screen (that is, the position and size of graphic elements on the screen do not depend on the current resolution), the assignment of separate windows on the screen to display text and graphics, inclusion of assembler inserts.

On the back panel of the computer there are interfaces for connecting to the TV, composite output to the monitor (both black and white and color images could be provided), RS423 for communication with RS232 devices, a tape recorder interface for loading and saving programs and a bus 4 analog interfaces to which joysticks and laboratory equipment can be connected. Another difference of the device was its expandability – that is. it was possible to connect various expansion boards that complement the functionality.

In addition, it was possible to connect an additional Z80 coprocessor with 64 KB of memory. This made the computer compatible with the CP/M OS.

What about learning Basic?

Since the project itself is educational, a whole course on learning the Basic programming language was developed for it, and several textbooks were also created. JAP decided to choose it because it is quite easy to learn with an uncomplicated syntax.

BBC BASIC is based on the older Atom BASIC, which had the ability to work with procedures and functions, as well as IF-THEN-ELSE structures. In addition, it had extensive capabilities for working with sound and supported high-resolution graphics. Here are the versions of BBC BASIC from beginner to advanced:

  • BASIC I, the original version was written for an early version of the BBC Micro.

  • BASIC II was used in the Acorn Electron and BBC Micro after 1982, including the BBC B+.

  • BASIC III was published in Great Britain and the United States by Acron Computers under one version. Many bugs were fixed in it, and new features were added, for example, the COLOR command, which changed the color of the typed text. BASIC III is also known as HI-BASIC.

  • BASIC IV (CMOS BASIC) supported the BBC Master and BBC Master Compact computers. In this version, new commands were added, errors were fixed, support for other processors appeared.

  • HI-BASIC was available in two versions; the former was based on BASIC III and the latter on BASIC IV. The version was supported by Z80 and 6502 Second processors.

Later, other versions adapted to new hardware platforms and architectures were released.

One of the unique features of BBC BASIC was its support for assembler elements and the ability to write programs for the MOS Technology 6502 on it. pre-reserve a suitable chunk of memory) and then the binary code could be written to disk or called directly from the program. This made it possible to use expressions with language variables during compilation and even call functions, significantly increasing the functionality of the compiler.

The course was 30 hours long, distance learning. Despite the non-standard approach to training, more than 150,000 people immediately registered for the course. The audience for each issue was very large — from half a million to two million viewers.

Not the last role in stimulating interest in computer technologies was played by software, as well as games produced for the new PC. For example, one of the most famous space simulators, which is called Elite, was released specifically for the computer by the BBC, and only later it got to users of other personal systems.

This project was probably the most influential educational program of all time. Thanks to the authors of the idea, many people became interested in computers, and a whole generation of programmers grew up, who started with BBC Micro and BBC Basic.

And that’s not all, the project continues to live

In 2016, the BBC introduced the micro:bit microcomputer, which is designed specifically for educational purposes – for schoolchildren, as well as anyone who wants to get involved in electronics and programming in general.

But the target audience is still children aged 11-12 years. The largest companies participated in the development:

  • Microsoft provided the project with a development environment (Touch Develop platform);

  • Samsung created an app for Android;

  • NXP provided the USB controller, accelerometer, and magnetometer chips;

  • Nordic Semiconductor has its own microcontroller chip;

  • at Lancaster University created the core of the software part of the microcomputer.

Here are the specs of this device:

  • The dimensions of the board are 4×5 cm.

  • CPU: Nordic nRF51822, 16 MHz 32-bit ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller, 256 KB flash memory, 16 KB RAM, this microcontroller also has a built-in 2.4 GHz Bluetooth low energy module.

  • To serve the USB interface, a separate Freescale Kinetis KL26Z 48 MHz microcontroller with an ARM Cortex-M0+ core is installed on the board.

  • Freescale MMA8652 triaxial accelerometer with I²C bus.

  • Freescale MAG3110 three-axis magnetometer with I²C bus (can be used as a compass or as a metal detector).

  • 5×5 matrix of 25 LEDs.

  • Three buttons: two for the user, one locked for the reset function.

  • 23 general purpose I/O pins.

  • Connectors: MicroUSB and power.

Many different modules, extensions and cases have been developed for it. Plus the software, which makes it possible to relatively quickly understand the issue of programming and development of electronics. A little later, the second version appeared, with a wireless communication module and a microphone. Its cost is about 22 US dollars.

BBC Basic today

BBCSDL, or BBC Basic for SDL 2.0, control on iOS devices, in graphics.

Today there is a version of BASIC called BBC BASIC for SDL 2.0. This option has open source code and is absolutely free.


  • Works on Windows, MacOS, Linux (as well as Raspberry Pi OS), Android, iOS and Web.

  • Supports 2D, 3D, and antialiased graphics, as well as shader programming.

  • It has a built-in Box2D physics engine.

  • About 150 examples of programs have been added.

  • High compatibility with the original BBC Micro, including MODE 7, SOUND and ENVELOPE.

Windows, MacOS and Android editions are installed automatically. The Linux edition (64-bit version) should be extracted to an empty folder; the SDL2, SDL2_ttf and SDL2_net libraries must also be downloaded from your distribution’s repository if they are not already installed.

Here is the official one project page.

The language, of course, is not as popular as before, but it is able to interest young schoolchildren, because it is possible to develop both games and other simple software. And if the child has shown an interest in electronics and programming, then, most likely, the inclination to this will not disappear in the future.

In any case, millions of programmers owe a lot to BBC Micro and BBC Basic, and the current configuration of the IT industry was shaped by this project.

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