Acorn Computers was founded in Cambridge, England, in March 1979 by Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser. Curry was a former employee of Sinclair Radionics, a company founded by Clive Sinclair in 1961. However, in August of 1976, the National Enterprise Board (NEB) provided 650,000 pounds in return for a 43 per cent stake in the company as it had sustained considerable losses. Frustrated with the NEB's influence, Sinclair encouraged Curry to leave Radionics and get Science of Cambridge (SoC) up and running, a company he had set up 3 years earlier, with a view to later rejoin Curry should Radionics finally fail. In June 1978, SoC launched a microcomputer kit that Curry wanted to develop further, but Sinclair could not be persuaded. During the development, Hermann Hauser, a friend of Curry's, had been visiting SoC's offices and had grown interested in the project. Curry and Hauser decided to pursue their joint interest in microcomputers and on 5 December 1978, along with Andy Hopper, they set up Cambridge Processor Unit Ltd (CPU). CPU financed the development of a 6502 based microcomputer system using the income from its design and build consultancy. This system, the Acorn System 1, was launched in January 1979 as the first product of Acorn Computer Ltd, a trading name used by CPU to keep the risks of the two different lines of business separate. It was designed by then Cambridge undergraduate, Roger Wilson and was superceeded in the following years by the Acorn Systems 2, 3, 4 and 5. The name Acorn was chosen because the microcomputer system was to be expandable and growth oriented.
The company produced a number of computers which were especially popular in the UK. Firstly, the Acorn Atom. Then the Proton, which was eventually developed into the BBC, the Electron and the Achimedes. Foremost in my memory are the Acorn Electron and the BBC Micro. The BBC Micro was standard in schools when I was a child, and the knowledge I gained was furthered by programming an Electron that I had at home. The skills that I learnt on these machines formed a base that I have built upon throughout my computing life.
Early in 1980, Chris Curry found out that the BBC was looking for a partner to produce and market a home computer. This was to be featured in an important television series aimed at increasing awareness and understanding of computers; the Computer Literacy Project. Richard Russell at the BBC had produced a detailed specification for the required machine, and the Corporation had been following the development of Newbury Laboratories' NewBrain. Ironically, the NewBrain project was started by Sinclair Radionics in 1978. The BBC had virtually agreed to base the series around the machine but development delays were worrying the BBC. Seeing the opportunity, Chris Curry along with other friends in the home computer industry tried to persuade them to look at alternatives to the Newbrain, or at least allow them to tender for the project. Eventually the BBC agreed, and Acorn had to come up with a working prototype matching the demanding specifications in only four days. The Acorn project which matched the BBC's requirements closest was the Proton, which Steve Furber had been working on. Although nobody at Acorn had even thought of adding things like teletext compatibility, it could already handle colour graphics and networking which were prime BBC requirements. Acorn were leaders in networking micros, having already shown the Econet system working on the Atom at a Personal Computer World show. In fact the potential of the Proton design was more than a match for the BBC specification. However, there was as yet no working model which Hauser and Curry could demonstrate to the BBC. Hauser asked Steve if he could build a working Proton in four days, and received a short and definite reply. No. So he turned to Steve's collaborator, friend and rival, Roger Wilson. In putting the same question to him, he teased Roger by saying Steve had already said it was possible. Of course, whatever Steve thought he could do, Roger had to be able to match! The ploy eventually drew a reluctant yes from both designers and they and a few others, including Andy Hopper, were persuaded to spend the weekend building a working model. The Proton required fast 4MHz Dram memory chips, which had just been announced but had not yet been delivered; eventually a 'very nice man from Hitachi' delivered some of the first in the country, just enough for the prototype machine. The Proton circuit board was 'wirewrapped' by Ram Banarjee, nick named the fastest gun in the West and the operating system was ported across from the existing Atom.
Acorn's BBC Micro computer dominated the UK educational computer market during the 1980s and early 1990s. Anyone who was at school during the 80's, may remember Granny's Garden.
The Electron was developed during 1983 as a cheap sibling to the BBC Micro, with the intention of capturing the low cost Christmas sales market for that year, and marketed with the pitch that it used the same programming language that was already taught in most schools. Although Acorn were able to shrink substantially the same functionality as the BBC into just one chip, the ULA, manufacturing problems meant that very few machines were available for the Christmas period. Consequently, Acorn lost out on many sales to rival companies. The following year, Acorn, determined not to make the same mistake, stockpiled thousands of Electrons and components and spent a huge amount on advertising. However, by this time the market had begun to dwindle and many of the Electrons were left unsold. At its peak, the Electron was the third best selling micro in the United Kingdom, and total lifetime game sales for the Electron exceeded those of the BBC Micro.
Though the company was broken up into several independent operations in 1998, its legacy includes the development of RISC personal computers. Some of Acorn's former subsidiaries live on today, notably ARM Holdings, which is globally dominant in the mobile phone and PDA microprocessor market. Due to its innovative designs and the future success of many of its former employees, Acorn is sometimes known as "the British Apple". As of January 2011, Microsoft has announced that it's Windows 8 operating system will be available for ARM processors.