The BBC has, for once, come up with a one-off programme I actually enjoyed – Micro Men. It’s screening now (several times) on BBC4, and if you were around at the start of the micro computer era you really should watch it. It looks like it was made for us nerds.
It deals with the rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn in the UK home computer market. Okay, it takes a lot of liberties with events and totally ignores the rest of the industry – the best you can say is that it’s fiction based on history. But if you look beyond that, the background detail was completely amazing. And I’m not just talking about having the correct covers on the issues of PCW, although this was nice to see.
For a start, look at the posters on the walls – they’re spot on. Then look at the electronics they’re playing with in the lab. That’s either the guts of a real Acorn Atom or it’s a very good reproduction, even though the chips, which would have been more interesting, are hidden on the reverse. The software on the shelves at WH Smith looks like the real thing, in the real packaging.
In the closing scenes, where Chris Curry and Herman Hauser are discussing where it all went wrong, the whiteboard behind them contains the instantly recognisable design goals of the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM). Even the briefcases the men from the ministry carried – I bought one just like that in 1978 and I’ve still got it!
Someone was obviously paying a great deal of attention to such detail, and I didn’t see anyone mentioned in the credits who could have supplied it. But could it have been Roger Wilson, the genius I’ve always believed to be behind Acorn/BBC BASIC? He featured prominently in the depiction of the Acorn team, whereas Andy Hopper was nowhere to be seen; although this is perfectly reasonable from a dramatic sense
Roger Wilson has subsequently changed to Sophie Wilson, and I got a call from an old friend claiming that she appeared (unaccredited) in a cameo role as the barmaid. I never remember meeting Roger Wilson in person, so can’t tell, but it’s plausible when looking at it again.
The final scene, where Clive Sinclair drives a C5 down a runway only to be overtaken by two lorries, one from Microsoft and one from HP is obviously symbolic of the thrust of the whole film. Romantic, but wrong, of course. We’d all been using microcomputers with Microsoft software for a couple of years before either Sinclair or Acorn came on the scene with their ultra low-cost offerings. Like most people I knew, we avoided the newcomers because they were too cut-down an unsuitable for general nerd activities – particularly interfacing to things. And their manufactured PCBs used hairline copper tracks that were covered in solder-resist – difficult to rework.
Acorn and Sinclair started too late, and ended up building the machines we all wanted in 1980. By 1984 the bulk of computers were being sold not to enthusiasts, but users wanting pre-packaged software running CP/M or MS-DOS – and the Apple Macintosh was on the scene showing the way forward. The Mac booted into user-mode whereas previous machines started with the BASIC programming prompt.
What they didn’t realise was that we were never going to become a nation of computer programmers, we were going to become computer users. And the rest is history.