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Sunday, 17 May 2020

Acornsoft

Another bit of the memoir

BBC Microcomputers

For every multi-megabucks idea, there must be thousands that come to nothing at all. I thought I’d got one once, but it didn’t happen. Within a few months, I was down at the Labour Exchange signing on for unemployment benefit. 

It was educational software. The government had decided every school should have a computer. Generous funding was provided, advice centres were set up, projects started and teachers trained. Most schools bought “The BBC Microcomputer”, a machine commissioned to accompany a television series and computer literacy project. The manufacturer, Acorn, did very well, eventually selling over half a million machines into schools and homes. A subsidiary company, Acornsoft, was also raking it in by supplying games and educational software to go with the BBC machine.

Acornsoft Word Sequencing written by Ann and Russel Wills
Acornsoft Word Sequencing
written by Ann and Russel Wills
Much of this early educational software was unexciting, and some was terrible, but there was so little available it was all in terrific demand. For instance, there was a literacy program called Word Sequencing which simply asked children to rearrange jumbled sentences into the correct order. The example on the cover was “Cobras deadly are snakes”. Another (in correct order) was “Brush your teeth twice a day”. The full set consisted of just eighty-eight fairly random sentences. I suppose it had its benefits, but I would not have been too happy with a maths or language textbook that offered only eighty-eight test questions. I would also expect them to be in some kind of logical progression. Yet, because teachers and parents were naïve and feared missing out on the microcomputer revolution, it sold a lot of copies. They were priced at £9.95 each.

To be fair, educationalists had yet to understand what kinds of computer-based activities were best. Word Sequencing would have been referred to as “drill and practice” because it repetitively “drilled” learners through a sequence of practice questions. It follows the ideas of behavioural psychologists such as B. F. Skinner and their theories of conditioning. Developmental and educational psychologists, however, were sceptical of this approach, and argued that computer-based learning could be more effective by promoting playful exploration or collaboration with others.

More by luck than judgment, I found myself well-placed to work in this area having recently completed a degree in psychology and an M.Sc. in computing. My M.Sc. project had been with programs that handled language, similar to early chatbots. I got a job with a university team researching how computers might help children whose understanding of language had been held back by conditions such as deafness or learning difficulties. These children needed a lot of one-to-one support, and it was thought that computers might be able to help with the workload of psychologists, speech therapists and teachers. The team had collected thousands of carefully structured sentences from established remedial schemes, and I was taken on to write the computer programs that used these materials.

We were not using BBC computers which would not have been up to the task (they had a thousandth the speed and a quarter of a millionth the memory of a modern laptop), but in my own time  I started to think about what might be done with a BBC. One idea came from an early artificial intelligence program called SHRDLU from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was capable of holding written conversations about objects of various shape, size and colour. You could ask it questions and instruct it to move things around.



I came up with around twenty much-simplified versions of the idea, each of which just squeezed into a BBC and made use of its (rather limited) colour graphics. Some posed problems that had to be solved by asking questions and giving instructions.

A sequence of screen shots
A sequence from one of the programs

My supervisor started talking about the programs at academic conferences, which caught the attention of Acornsoft. The managing director came to see us: a tall, young-faced man, precisely how you might imagine a successful computing entrepreneur to be, who uncurled himself languidly from the driving seat of his sporty Jaguar, took one look at the software and said: “I’ll buy it”.

They would pay 25% royalties and, going by Word Sequencing, would expect to ship at least twenty-five thousand during the first year. F-ing hell! Do the maths. Twenty-five per cent of twenty-five thousand at £9.95 a time. How long before I too would be languidly uncurling myself from the driving seat of a sporty Jaguar?

Then the university management heard about it. I was hauled before one of the deputy vice chancellors and firmly told that anything I invented was the intellectual property of the university: it had been developed on university equipment and despite doing it in my own time my contract specified I had no own time.

Acornsoft already had the programs anyway, and we had also proposed a new project under which they would fund my university salary to dream up educational software to create collaborative learning activities over computer networks. We had only vague notions of what these activities might be, but four brand new BBC Microcomputers with as yet unreleased Econet nodes rapidly arrived free from Acornsoft – over two thousand pounds-worth of kit.

Then we waited for the programs to be published. And we waited for the new project agreement to arrive. And we waited longer. And my fixed-term employment expired but Acorn assured us the new agreement would soon be with us, so I worked for almost a month unpaid. And then Acorn ran into financial difficulties due to problems with the new Acorn Electron and Acorn Business Computer and heavy research and development costs, and was broken up and sold off. My programs were never published and the new project never started, and I had to sign on the dole. That was my brave new world of 1984.

For a short time, I really believed I’d made it. It would never have turned me into a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but when the average U.K. house price was still under £30,000, it could have set me up very comfortably.

Acornsoft Elite Space Trading Game
There was just one minor benefit. I still had one of the new BBC computers and used it for games and word processing for six or seven years. I even won my Elite badge. Then my nephew borrowed it for three or four years more. Acorn did ask for all four machines back during the winding-up process (I have no idea what happened to the other three), but I ignored it and never heard anything more. It finally conked out around 2005.

18 comments:

  1. That's a great story. An exciting new industry to be a part of at that time I would imagine.
    Although nothing to compare with your rather impressive achievements, my last job before retirement was to design and publish online learning courses and materials for our organisation. I did obtain a minor qualification in the discipline and quite enjoyed it.

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    1. I suppose it could sound like high powered stuff but it was simply writing computer programs, which I'd learned to do on the M.Sc. course. But yes, it did feel new and exciting, and also satisfyingly creative, as you must have felt with your learning materials.

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  2. Living through the era of computers, great story. Now each day I can do an online jigsaw of any size on my computer, we move forward but leave real time in our wake.
    My son was born in the 1980s, and watching him come to terms with the computer was an eye-opener. The virus that slowly ate up the words on the screen, the fire in the back! Above all, the enormous doorstep manuals that were published and were completely useless, just like encyclopedias are now.

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    1. I came across some very clever computer scientists at the time, and even they could never have imagined developments in laptops and smartphones over the following 40 years. One common prediction was that computers would become part of our TV sets.

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  3. This really interested me Tasker as I was Head of a Unit or pupils entering Comprehensive Education but still having Learning Difficulties and also Children with English as a Second Language (large influx of children from the Punjab) - we had one computer per class - and it was the carrot to encourage children to learn - a reward for good work was half an hour on the computer!

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    1. I remember the computer as carrot approach, which wasn't how it was intended but at the time some politicians laughably seemed to think one computer per school would be enough and couldn't see what would happen and what was really needed.

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    1. Sometimes think I should have kept it to myself until my fixed term contract ran out, but in the long run a few quick bucks wouldn't have amounted to as much as a career so I have no regrets.

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  5. So near but yet so far. Sometimes the course of one's life can balance on a pinhead. As Head of English the bane of my life in the early nineties was "Successmaker" by Research Machines. This computerised learning package was kind of foisted on me when the school became a "technology college". Managing it was far more problematic than the marketing bumph suggested it would be. Later it all died away as innovations frequently do and I was left contemplating all the energy I had been required to expend on the thing - in tandem with The Head of Maths. What is new is not always what is good.

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    1. Yes, all the changes that are brought in and then reversed several years later, over and over again, and the main beneficiaries are the staff with managerial aspirations who further their own careers by "managing change", thereby finding ways to avoid doing the job they are supposed to be doing and messing everyone else around so they cannot do their. The big thing at the time I'm talking about was Logo and its turtlegraphics, which was brilliant for kids who were interested in it, but it couldn't easily be incorporated into a universal standard curriculum.

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    2. Oh 'Logo' I remember that. I loved it, my children less so. It must have been exciting being in at the beginning of things

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    3. Logo also came out of MIT (an offshoot of) and is in essence a powerful programming language. In the UK it took off when a group of London educationalists wrested the initiative from Edinburgh AI scientists and create a cut-down version with classroom activities built around it. I witnessed some acrimonious arguments between them.

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  6. You deserve congratulations for a job well done even though it did not work out as you had hoped. When I was reading about what you developed I knew what was coming since you were employed by the university. I have unfortunately seen similar situations with others. It does not seem right and certainly is not fair.

    It is amazing to see the changes in the computer world. My husband's career was in computers and operations and both my sons are programmers/developers. The advancements have gotten to the point that hardly anything even surprises me anymore. I enjoyed hearing about some of your experiences in the early years of computers.

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    1. I wrote in a previous post about struggling to write the first draft of an academic paper on a project I'd worked on, and when it was published the professor had changed very little but only his name was down as sole author. But as things worked out, I did have a good career in the human aspects of computers that interested me. But yes, things have changed and I was lucky to be able to retire when it started to be hard to keep up with things.

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  7. Having never come in contact with any of these computers and/or their software, I found this a rather interesting read. What a difference to computers and software of today!

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    1. The BBC was one of the first mass-market PCs. There had been earlier ones, but they were more for geeks - ZX80/81, Acorn Atom, Tandy TRS-80. On the M.Sc. course I learnt programming in Pascal on teletype terminals. It was very noisy in a room with 20 of them. Even so, you could still play games, like Star Trek, which printed out the new positions of spacecraft and stars after every move.

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  8. I reckon entrepreneurs are a breed apart, and narcissism is an essential part of the process. It would seem that's not your way! For the better, ultimately, I'd guess. Not that anyone would say no to a big success and the bit of life-changing cash that might go with it

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    1. That's probably true of those who reach the heights in most areas, often at the expense of those more able. Just look at politicians for a start. I've never been one to push myself forward in front of others and have often shared credit, even perhaps when I shouldn't have.

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