Category Archives: Acorn

BBC Micros attend first Cotswold Jam of 2016

Getting in a jam in the Cotswolds!
Getting in a jam in the Cotswolds!
January 30th 2016 saw the Cotswold Jam Raspberry Pi hobbyist computing group hold their first exhibition and showcase of the year.

As with previous shows, I was asked to attend (as Ident Computer) along with my exhibits consisting of Acorn model B BBC Micros and own build ‘Micro \ One’ computers based around the Raspberry Pi board, running the RISC OS 5 operating system.

January’s event was the first time the Jam has been over subscribed, with 100+ children and adults attending. As a result the event was held in the newly refurbished computer labs of the University of Gloucestershire’s Cheltenham Campus, in the South Midlands.

Jam sessions

The Jam started at 1pm and was mainly divided into workshops, general discussion and demonstration areas, both using classrooms and computing labs and a lounge area (were I was set up) which was for more formal talks and practical demos.

A number of Raspberry Pi computers were made available for visitors to use by the event organisers, these in addition to Pi boards bought in by the public, this being actively encouraged.

Almost all demos, talks and workshops were based around the Pi’s default operating system, that being ‘Raspbian OS’ which is a cut down version of Linux Debian, with most sessions and workshops based on how to code using Scratch, Python and the video game Minecraft. The latter naturally proved very popular with the younger visitors.

RISCy business
Tom Williamson speaks about RISC OS
Tom Williamson speaks about RISC OS

For the older generation and, increasingly, interested computing students, I gave an introductory talk about RISC OS and the BBC BASIC programming language using an ultra low-cost Raspberry Pi Zero, which is a new board released by the Pi foundation in November of last year.

What was so remarkable about this model was the fact it was released as a freebie on the front cover of a mainstream computing magazine (The MagPi)! The boards are now so cheap (Costing £4 / $5 at time of writing) they could be given away for practically nothing!

However, despite being a fully working 1GHz, ARM CPU with 512MB of RAM based computer board, very few are up and running. This is manly due to older OS ‘ROMs’ not being compatible and some distros such as RISC OS having not yet been officially patched. This meant that, come the show, I had to use my own ‘hacked’ version of RISC OS to get the Pi Zero up and running for the demos and talk.

Beeb power
BBC Micro's on parade!
BBC Micro’s on parade!

No such issues with my other exhibits! The BBC Micro’s have been extremely popular and my personal fleet of fully refurbished and modernised micros has now toured a number of events. Kids continue to be fascinated by them and adults (the kids of the 80’s and 90’s) love to reminisce, and I have always been surprised by just how well the BBC Micros continue to be received by the visiting public.

Game Pi
Nanogangs by Tom Williamson
Nanogangs by Tom Williamson

For this year I’m working on a new game called Nanogangs, which I had the idea for when I was about 12 years old. The game is being written in BBC BASIC without the use of any assembly language, so it can be easily ported to modern systems such as RISC OS Pi.

For the Cotswold Jam I had two versions running, one for the BBC Micro B the other for my ‘Micro One’ Pi-based own build computers.

Fun with Nanogangs!
Fun with Nanogangs!

The game went down very well and its nice to be able to write and showcase new software for these machines in 2016! The game will be used to demonstrate BASIC coding and also hopefully will make it to limited public release for both BBC Micro and RISC OS / Raspberry Pi later this year.

Join in the fun this April
Tom's own 'Ident' Pi-based computers on show
Tom’s own ‘Ident’ Pi-based computers on show

Free tickets for the next Cotswold Jam event happening on the 30th of April 2016 will be available from their web site:

And my fleet of BBC Micros and RISC OS machines should make a return visit for the event:

Anyone is welcome to attend, but it should be remembered this is a Raspberry Pi event, meaning all content and projects need to have some reference to or use of Raspberry Pi boards, such as in my case: Acorn, RISC OS and BBC Micros being directly related to the Raspberry Pi. The group are always looking for volunteers, helpers and showcase content, and can be contacted via the Cotswold jam website. So, maybe see you there?

Tom Williamson

Ident Computer

Our thanks to Tom for the first of hopefully many reports. We can testify personally that his exhibits and work are well worth a look!
All photos by Tom Williamson. Photos and screen shots remain copyright of the author.

They’re Alive! Can YOU help keep them working?

Sophie Wilson, co-designer of the BBC Micro, with the Beeb emulator on her smartphone (pic TNMOC)
Sophie Wilson, co-designer of the BBC Micro, with the Beeb emulator on her smartphone (pic TNMOC)

Over the past year more than 4,500 students have visited The National Museum of Computing on the museum’s Learning Programme, and many of them used an original 1980s BBC Micro computer to hack a computer games program and perhaps gain their first experience of coding in BASIC. (The others used a BBC Micro emulator on a modern laptop.)

It’s one of the most popular parts of the Learning Programme and high on the list of requested activities for returning groups.

Now, the museum, which is based at Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, is appealing for help in keeping their collection of about eighty hard-pressed ‘Beebs’ alive – and for more people to join their BBC refurb team.  It is looking for people familiar with the computer and its peripherals, including disk drives and monitors.

Two factoids demonstrate the endurance of TNMOC’s Beebs 33 years on:

  • 2,250 hours of BBC BASIC coding each year
  • 78,000 key presses per BBC computer annually

The Beeb has certainly stood the test of time. Teachers reminisce about their introduction to computing while the students get a thrill from this uncomplicated and rewarding introduction to computer programming.

Here’s a short video about the Learning Programme to give a flavour of how important these machines are in the context of learning about computer history.

The BBC Micro Cluster at TNMOC goes beyond the Learning Programme too. It’s used by the general public, visiting corporate groups and a few of the micros often escape on tour to external exhibitions and displays.  In addition, some machines form part of static displays.

The Beebs wait patiently for eager hands... (pic TNMOC)
The Beebs wait patiently for eager hands… (pic TNMOC)

The main problem that tends to occur with these otherwise robust Acorn computers is two capacitors in the power supply that dry out and, if not replaced, may explode with a very unpleasant smell. Thankfully, these are relatively easy to replace due to the design of the computer.

The TNMOC team changes the capacitors as part of standard procedures which can also include replacing sticky keys and the odd other component that may fail. They are, after all, getting on a bit, despite being tough as nails!

Keeping the BBC cluster going is down to the skills of a TNMOC volunteer team. So if you would like to apply to join that team, please email and see the Volunteering section on the TNMOC website.