The BBC Micro and Raspberry Pi

We love this video featuring BBC Micro co-designer Dr Sophie Wilson CBE and our own Eben Upton, both alumni of the University of Cambridge.

Eben owned a BBC Micro as a kid, and as an adult he set about designing Raspberry Pi to do what the BBC Micro had done for him: inspire widespread interest in computer programming.

The University of Cambridge Department of Computer Science and Technology has its own YouTube channel

Today, Sophie is a research fellow at Broadcom, where she designs microprocessors. Her list of titles and achievements is pretty impressive: as well as the BBC Micro, she designed Acorn Assembler and BBC BASIC. Together with colleague Steve Furber, she designed the first ARM processor, which originally powered Acorn’s computers and is now the core of virtually every mobile phone and tablet in the world. Sophie is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Computer Society, and the Women’s Engineering Society, and is an honorary Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge. She has an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Cambridge, and a CBE.


bbc micro computer
The BBC Micro computer

Sophie describes how failing her university maths degree led to undertaking a one-year computer science course while working at what became Acorn Computers. Our favourite tidbits from Sophie’s half of the video are that the prototype for the BBC Micro was made in just one week, and although the initial order was for 12,000 machines, they went on to sell more than one and a half million.

In Eben’s half of the video, he explains that Raspberry Pi is the coming together of two strands of his life: his interest in building low-cost hardware, and his time as a Director of Studies for computer science at Cambridge University. As a Director of Studies, he noticed a decline in the number of students applying to study computer science, and had an idea: he thought that if he could get affordable hardware into the hands of young people at the right point, it could spark an interest in taking computing further. To date, we’ve shipped out about 40 million Raspberry Pis.

Give it a watch! And remember to follow the YouTube channel of the Cambridge Department of Computer Science and Technology — aka Cambridge Computer Lab — for videos of the department’s research presentations, lectures, and seminars.


Andrew Jones avatar

Those were the days!
I remember booking myself onto one of the first 4 day Acorn dealers courses in about 1983 – I was 17 (at school supposed to be doing A Levels). I was the youngest person there, at the front asking all the questions. The course was quite expensive. To their huge credit I was never invoiced for that course by Acorn. I’ll never be totally sure but I’m sure John Coll ensured I didn’t pay. I remain grateful to this day!

Old_skool avatar

!boot if I recall correctly.

Anders avatar

BBC Micro in its day was very expensive, for some it was a month’s salary and despite the million and a half figure, actually few people had them. This is why Raspberry Pi is not the modern successor. Raspberry Pi is priced to be well within reach, BBC Micro, particularly Model B, was mostly aspirational.

Frank Kooistra avatar

Computers at that time were expensive so were all parts : But the BBC B was a fifth of the price of a standard PC. So rather cheap. The Atom could do less and was cheaper too. What i remember from pricing was that and office computer was 6000 to 10.000 Guilders , and a BBC was 2300.

William H B Mawhinney avatar

I would just like to remind readers that the BBC Micro was a development of the Acorn Atom and its Acorn predecessors. The Atom is not given the credit it deserves !

Tony Abbey avatar

I always wonder about this as well. The Atom also had Basic with Assembler which is what made The BBC Micro so powerful. The Wikipedia page for the Atom says that the Proton/BBC Micro was an upgrade, and Atom Basic was written by Sophie in any case. So she didn’t just conjure up that working BBC Micro in a week out of nothing.

Andrew avatar

Two great interviews ! I had read before that Sophie Wilson’s parents were teachers. I had no idea she grew up “in a house were my parents had made virtually everything”, what a brilliant environment for young engineer to grow up in.

noor mohamed kamaludeen avatar

i have used BBC computer. BBC basic was wonderful especially graphics and sound. Then i bought acorn which had no ports. however it has an exposed bus. I had designed a serial port and plugged to the bus. The 100 millisecond callback of the BBC OS helped me to write a printer driver. I feel the nostalgia when i am using python on rasberry PI. But missing the assembler we had in the BBC micro.

Liz Upton avatar

We do ship with GNU tools, which includes an ARM assembler. If you want something a bit more BBC Basic-like, Micro Python has quite an inline-assembler feel to it, including inline assembler for PIO, which sounds like it might tick your boxes!

Rich Mellor avatar

We have been supporting BBC Micros for some years now, but it is only the past few years that the BBC + Raspberry Pi came to the fore, when the Pi allowed us to create our own virtual printer for the BBC (the Retro-Printer Module) so that we can offer a solution to those who wish to still print from their BBC or just capture data sent to the parallel port.

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