The Acorn Electron

My first computer – some 34 years ago – was an Acorn Electron. Youngsters today will be staggered by its cost, limitations, mass storage methods – but also by what we enthusiasts could do with it.

Let’s have some details. Back in 1982 I paid £200 for the computer. In the most basic conversion, using retail price indices, that would cost around £620 today. But if we base change on incomes, then it would be the equivalent of spending £1100 today.

It was expensive, but ideally I’d have bought the Electron’s big brother, the BBC model B which cost twice as much at £400. I couldn’t afford that.

What you got for your money seems laughable today. The computer had a grand total of 64 kilobytes of memory. Half of that was used to run the computer. It was unchangeable fixed memory (known as ROM or read only memory). The other 32 kilobytes were available for the user to do what he or she wanted to do – but somewhere between 8 and 20 of those kilobytes was needed by the visual display so in fact a user had no more than 24 kilobytes of memory at his or her disposal.

And what was the visual display? It was your TV! A portable black and white TV could be purchased for about £50. Or you could splash out and fork out another $200 for a dedicated colour monitor which gave a decent sharp image rather than a somewhat blurred one.

The mass storage was on tape. Your storage system consisted of a portable tape recorder – probably another £30 if you had to buy one – and cassette tapes.

I remember my Acorn Electron with enormous affection despite its clear and obvious limitations. That was because I was able to be in charge and I could tell it what to do.

For sure, I bought games on cassette tape. The first game was called Felix in the Factory and was great fun for all the family. But it was relatively easy to program the thing yourself. I found I was able to invent games and, even better, get them published to earn a bit of money. I can still play some of my old games thanks to an emulator on my present PC.

The reason for these memories is that one of my Christmas presents (thanks S and N) was a drinking mug with a picture of an Acorn Electron on it.

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‘Good grief’, I hear you say. ‘It’s only a keyboard’. It may look like that but that had all the works within, so maybe more like a laptop keyboard.

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No! It had no number pad on the right hand end.

It is staggering how the world of computing has changed in about one generation. I am on my 5th computer in that time – but I make them last. I’m currently writing this on my Windows 7 laptop and I won’t upgrade to Windows 10. This computer does what I need and reasonably efficiently. But I don’t love it like I did the old Electron which, by the end of its life, had gained the dedicated monitor, two external floppy disk drives, a printer and a decent word processor and spreadsheet program.

It’s lovely to have these memories brought back.

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2 Responses to “The Acorn Electron”

  1. Thom Hickey Says:

    Thanks. Fascinating. You should write the history of your experiences with computers. Regards Thom.

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