June 23, 2016

#ThrowBackThursday – The BBC Micro

Ironically, last Thursday someone apologised for not knowing what “Tee Bee Tee” stood for. Wikipedia says: Throwback Thursday is a trend among social media sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook wherein users post or repost older photographs (often from their childhood) with the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday or #TBT.
So here’s my blast-from-the-past. The BBC Micro. The days when the Beeb had cash to invest in useful things, rather than paying over the odds for permission to broadcast minority sporting events; is darts still on TV? The BBC also distributed these to UK schools at cost – virtually inventing computer science in the national curriculum.

The BBC Micro Computer – to give it its full name – is on display at the London Science Museum, on the 2nd floor in the ‘Information Age’ section. It’s behind bullet proof glass. The one on show is the BBC Micro B and is the size of a slim briefcase. The B had 32k RAM (Random Access Memory) twice as much as model A, with a measly 16k, (k for 1000 bytes). That’s about equivalent to a final year dissertation if we assume that 1 word = 1byte. Approximately 16,000 words. Compare that with the credit-card sized Raspberry Pi model B – which could potentially hold all the contents of your University Library including pictures, sound and HD video. I had the BBC model B.
So what could it do with only 32k? Well then, it felt like everything, knowing I had the same computing power as NASA when they took 3 astronauts across 356,000km of space from the Earth to the Moon and returning safely. With all that power, I had the responsibility to create my very own giant leap for mankind, armed with my newly acquired coding skills. I think we pioneered urban digital graffiti, spending Saturday afternoons with friends hacking demo computers on the high-street.
10 MODE 5
40 REPEAT 20

These 4 lines of code produced a continuous and rolling pattern of ‘I AM COOL ’ with a pallet of 16 colours.*Note you need the space after the ‘L’ otherwise the leading ‘I’ would merge with the last repeat. Amateur.

Our simple syntax, would play onscreen for all the shoppers to see until the manager figured out how to stop it – ‘I AM COOL’ was one example, dropping an F-bomb and slowly walking away was another. After a few weeks we noticed other tags on screen. Hmm… another crew on our patch. We removed their code and replaced with ours, by the end of the summer, Dixons had installed keyboard locks, so the mini turf war was over.

So what’s my Jerry Springer ending thought? That #TBT is not just a sentimental trip down memory lane? That it’s about finding inspiration from the past? Is it about creative blocks, when we feel overloaded with the burden of having to include everything? What if those things weren’t there and you had to make do, stripped back, raw, the naivety of not knowing, less is more, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and all that?

Picasso sums it up – “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a life time to paint like a child”
I’d like to say one of us went on and coded the first music download site, sold it for millions and invested it all in renewable energy – or became the street artist Banksy – but that wouldn’t be true. Or, in the case of the latter, is it?