In 2014 David Allen gave a talk at TNMoC which covers the genesis of the BBC Micro proposal and the selection process.
Start at about the 15min mark if you're impatient, or the 18min mark if you are really impatient. But perhaps the 12min mark is a good place for a little context - it helps to understand the BBC's Reithian mission ("inform, educate, entertain") and how the engineering and education people worked together:
Hmm, I seem to have lightly edited quite a bit of the automatic subtitles by way of a transcript of the crucial bit - skip to "Cavendish Square" if you must:
It was relatively un-bureaucratic, we look at the pyramid there and it
was a much more shallow pyramid, only about two or three people between
the producer and the Director General unlike today.
I think strong educational departments with their own controller and
what's most important their own dedicated airtime.
BBC Education officers stalked the country. BBC Educational
Publications existed as a separate entity which published our books.
There was a thing called the Continuing Education Advisory Council
which was hundreds of people that came together at Broadcasting House
to advise the BBC on what to do. It was an advisory council only -
BBC Enterprises existed, BBC Worldwide of course, but in those days
they sold jigsaws, fluffy toys, and books that was it. The idea of a
computer, my god, you know - just think of it.
There was a very strong engineering culture in the BBC. BBC
Engineering had its own controller, there was a BBC Engineering
Designs Department that sort of solved problems. There was BBC
Research - they were then combined together. There was Broadcasting
Support Services which was an organisation set up, you know
just... you would ring up and ask for advice - you got really good
advice, and there was a big audience research department. So it's a
very different organization in many ways to today and it would be very
interesting to see...
I mean the BBC has clearly many advantages over those times with
online and so on and so forth but that was a very different period.
So we did have a great army if you like of departments that could
control - that could control - (there's a Freudian slip) that could
actually support any initiative we took.
So what did we do? Well we needed machines but all these machines were
different they all had different forms of Basic and we needed good
advice. Well we got good advice from John Coll. (Is John here? Not
arrived has he? He was supposed to be coming.)
John Coll was chairman of a thing called MUSE - Micro Users in Secondary
Education - and he was very influential in this whole project, he wrote
the user guide of the BBC machine which I for my sins edited. He drew
to our attention there was this problem: how do you teach people
Because Basic was considered the thing that people needed to learn to
Why? Well, there were virtually no applications programs
in those days. There was business software, some business software,
it was green scrolling text on black screens. That was all, virtually,
that you got. So the idea of... getting hold of applications programs
and doing things was very very different so we had to think, well,
people should learn to write programs in Basic. Actually we know the
whole thing is really about problem solving, no matter what you write
it in, but Basic was the thing. So what do we do?
Well we got all the manufacturers together into a room at Cavendish
Square and we said we'd like to implement this thing called Adopted
Basic for Computers (ABC) which was a structured Basic that John Coll
and MUSE had come up with and they persuaded us - and the engineering
people thought that this was a good structured Basic - but nothing had
So here was ABC, so we brought all the manufacturers together, said
"could you implement this on your machines?" and they said "on your
There wasn't any interest at all.
The DTI was there of course - they weren't prepared to pay so what do
So we had a real problem.
We needed our own machine and that was controversial - BBC endorsing a
commercial product on air like that.
The DTI then suggested a company called Newbury. Now Newbury was a
publicly funded company, funded by the National Research and
Development Council. It had a thing called the NewBrain - this could
have been the BBC micro. Publicly funded, respectable enough for us to
be able to put our name on it. We went to Newbury and we got them to
look at how to adopt our little spec.
The spec was modifying itself all the time. We wanted teletext and
all these things, we wanted colour and graphics, and all those things
and they beavered away and by the time it came to late in 1980
basically they weren't getting anywhere. It was a bit of a dead loss.
Now 1980, Christmas 1980 is a very crucial period, a very important
Firstly this device, which I've donated to the museum - it has my name
on it - it's a little calculator with a 1k Basic compiler in it and I
lent it to John Radcliffe who ended up as the executive producer for
the whole project and really drove it politically.
We'd been to a conference and I gave it to him saying take this home
over Christmas and he took it home and wrote - you know - 10 print
hello 20 go to 10 - all that sort of thing.
He actually sort of got slightly hooked on this and I think that was
quite important because John became very key in making the project
work and then what do we do? Newbury had not come up with
anything. So John Coll and I sat between Christmas and the New Year
1980 devising a document, a two-page, a three-page specification if you
like, a requirements document, and we sent it to all UK companies -
all UK companies which built computers - and we said what have you
got? Can we see it? Could you modify it? Could you meet our spec?
And it included obviously a good structured Basic, good keyboard,
expandability, color graphics, A to D conversion, sound, teletext...
So you see that the number of things we wanted was going up all the
time and particularly the ability to be used in a studio so that you
could get a studio output from it which was crucially important and we
sent them round.
Now the companies that were approached were these: Acorn, Tangerine,
Newbury, Sinclair, TransAm, and NASCOM. They all made bids and we
started to go round to see them and there was a critical day in
January 1981 when John Coll and I went to - I think it was Tangerine
which are in Ely - to Sinclair in Cambridge and to Acorn. At Acorn we
saw the prototype of the Proton which of course effectively ended up
as the BBC machine when it was adapted and we were very impressed with
The other companies for various reasons we weren't as impressed by,
but we obviously had to be fair to all these organisations. So
we found out from all of them - we visited all of them several times -
and we had a group of people who met including people from the DTI
people like John Gough from News, BBC Education, BBC Engineering - all
the engineering people were there - and we looked at the various
submitted responses and we considered things like compatibility, the
track record of companies, whether there was upward compatibility in
their products, what their attitude was, what their competence was, you
know all the usual due diligence you would try.
It later on got whittled down by February in '81 to Newbury, Tangerine,
and Acorn. Newbury was still in there interestingly, and the final
decision day - I forget exactly when it was end of February or
something like that - Newbury arrived, we were all having our meeting,
they say "we've done it, we've done it!" And it didn't work. So that
was the end of Newbury. But by this time there'd been a number of
meetings some of them got very confused really as to who saw what and
when, you know there was this famous occasion when somebody cut a wire
and the thing worked at Acorn and I can't remember whether I was there
or not. But other people like John Radcliffe were going around.
So the contract was won by Acorn in that period about March '81.
The spec had increased, BBC were very interested in including things
like teletext, but also telesoftware was coming in the idea of being
able to send computer programs by television.
John Radcliffe was managing the Board of Management and Board of
Governors, known as BOM and BOG, because it was a risky project - this
was quite risky you know, going in with an organisation like Acorn.
And they themselves had a lot of problems developing the machine and
of course it would have had to have been handled by BBC Enterprises
and the fluffy toys and the jigsaws had to make room for something
slightly more ambitious.
There was a lot of trouble from people who hadn't got the contract and
Clive Sinclair - I can quite understand why - was very much up in arms
about the thing. But nonetheless we had now a machine and an
organisation we could work with and Paul Kriwaczek started developing
the first series and I was the project editor, the series editor, and
I started developing things we needed like the Welcome tape, The
Computer Book, the User Guide...
Edit: fixup typos.