On the revisionist history of British microcomputers

Small errors of history presented in this Guardian article sum up to a government directed, top-down history of diffusion, learning & innovation. In any history of the British adoption of microcomputers, Sinclair should earn top billing for popular influence over the BBC/Acorn.

John Naughton’s 28 August 2011 piece at Guardian.co.uk argues that British “ICT education” should abandon the office skills-training which has long typified computer education. Instead, he suggests that Kids today need a licence to tinker, to learn by hacking, making and building.

In any history of the British adoption of microcomputers, Sinclair should earn top billing for popular influence. Sinclair was first to market & the most widely purchased for UK home use. The Sinclair ZX-80 launched in 1980, with sales under 250,000, followed in 1981 by the ZX-81, which sold upwards of 400,000 units in the first 12 months. The second most popular micocomputer in British homes, after the ZX80, was the VIC 20 from Commodore.

The BBC/Acorn launched in 1982 and, with full power of government PR and BBC programming, sold 200,000 retail by 1984. You can probably add on another 30,000 units in sales to schools as part of the “Micros in Schools” scheme. So, yes, the Acorn had a place in government education policy, but it wasn’t the driver in the home market.

The above the line author clearly moves in very middle-class circles… I know just one programmer who had a BBC Micro as a kid, I know numerous ones who had ZX81s, Speccys, Commodore 64s.
by dothebathosphere on 28 August 2011 8:27AM

Comparatively few families purchased the the 300GBP BBC/Acorn because the Sinclair sold for 70GBP. The Sinclair was so affordable that by 1983 it was pirating market share from games consoles! (Gaming consoles entered the retail market in 1975, when Atari released ‘Pong’.)

The home market is where kids spent their time playing and modding games, cracking copyright protection schemes & learning to program. In 1983, around half of (Midlands) home computer users surveyed said they were pirating games and software on a regular basis, and much of the UK had a well developed school yard computer culture by 1984. (See ‘Consuming Technologies‘, eds. Silverstone & Hirsch, 1992. Especially contributions by Haddon, Murdoch, Hartmann, and Gray.)

On 25 March 2012, Naughton expanded his argument that The BBC Micro can still teach us a lot. It was a commercial and educational success but British policymakers regarded it as a “dead end”. Policymakers didn’t think it was what consumers wanted, Naughton explained, because the BBC Micro was an open platform when consumers wanted an information appliances of the sort the Americans made. The “open platform vs closed appliance” rubric was developed very cogently by Jonathan Zittrain, but it’s difficult to understand how exactly the TRS-80, Commodore 64 or Apple IIe were “appliances”. It’s about here that Naughton pivots in a new direction, from the success of a public policy-driven IT product to the economic wonder that is the open internet. Thirty years after the BBC Micro was developed, Naughton writes, British policy-makers are discovering that technical literacy is of national importance and that’s why, in the name of some unspecified technological nationalism, “we have to re-engineer the revolution that (the BBC Micro) triggered”. Setting aside the hurried interpretations found in the concluding paragraphs, this article too disregards the Micro’s competitors. Naughton’s history is again challenged by testimony found in the comments:

Jeez, the ZX81 was 70 quid though, and it certainly didn’t want for peripherals. Think how much further computing could have gone if had won the BBC contract than something only the middle class could afford.
by dothebathosphere on 25 March 2012 8:32AM

Acorn may have won the BBC contract, but as a schoolkid in the 80s myself, I don’t know a single peer who learned a scrap of programming on one. The Spectrum was the self-teaching machine of choice by a country mile.
by ScottishWildcat on 26 March 2012 2:03PM

The Commodore 64 had by far the largest sector of the market and since the market for games was also huge it spawned an industry which is still going strong. Yes the schools had the money to spend (sounds familiar!) but the majority of youngsters bought the 64 having probably tried the ZX81 and Spectrum. The Spectrum was also pretty big also, helped by the fact that a) the BBC was limited production b) it was expensive c) dealers had only a tiny margin. Oh and finally someone made a BBC Basic emulator for the C64……
by grimdownsouth on 26 March 2012 2:06PM

Anyway, the point is: the small errors of history presented in Naughton’s article sum up to a government-directed, top-down history of diffusion, learning & innovation. The BBC/Acorn did not pioneer home computers, was not the most widely adopted micro and did not give birth to computer gaming. Naughton is not alone in his errors; he is, in fact, in exceptionally good company. The sad irony is this: many of the innovative (or gateway-to-innovative) activities that kids engaged in with early micro-computers are now stigmatized & criminalized (see jailbreaking & software piracy), just as they were in the 1980s. If industry and government too often seem more committed to finding validation in revisionist history than promoting genuine innovation, it is opinion pieces like Naughton’s which assist the feedback loop into ultimately deleterious public policies.

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