ACORN COMPUTERS LTD. was a British computer company established in
Cambridge , England, in 1978. The company produced a number of
computers which were especially popular in the UK , including the
Acorn Electron and the
Acorn Archimedes . Acorn's
BBC Micro computer
dominated the UK educational computer market during the 1980s. It is
more known for its
BBC Micro model B computer than for its other
Though the company was broken up into several independent operations
in 1998, its legacy includes the development of reduced instruction
set computing (RISC) personal computers. One of its operating systems
RISC OS , continues to be developed by
RISC OS Open . Some of
Acorn's former subsidiaries lived on:
ARM Holdings technology is
dominant in the mobile phone and personal digital assistant (PDA)
Acorn is sometimes referred to as the "British Apple " and has been
Fairchild Semiconductor for being a catalyst for
start-ups. In 2010, the company was listed by David Meyer in ZDNet
as number nine in a feature of top ten fallen "Dead IT giants". Many
British IT professionals gained their early experiences on Acorns,
which were often more technically advanced than commercially
successful US hardware.
* 1 History
* 1.1 Early history
* 1.1.1 CPU Ltd. (1978–83)
* 1.1.2 The microcomputer systems
* 1.1.3 The Atom
BBC Micro and the Electron
* 1.2 1983–1985: Acorn Computer Group
* 1.2.1 New RISC architecture
* 1.2.2 Financial problems
* 1.3 1985–1998:
BBC Master and Archimedes
* 1.3.3 Acorn Pocket Book
* 1.3.4 Set-top boxes
* 1.3.5 NewsPad
* 1.3.6 Xemplar Education
* 1.3.7 Network Computers
* 1.4 1998–2000: Element 14
* 1.5 Legacy
* 1.6 Revival of the Acorn trademark
* 2 Popular culture
* 2.1 TV Series
* 2.2 Magazines
* 3 See also
* 4 Notes
* 5 References
* 6 External links
On 25 July 1961,
Clive Sinclair founded
Sinclair Radionics to develop
and sell electronic devices such as calculators . The failure of the
Black Watch wristwatch and the calculator market's move from LEDs to
LCDs led to financial problems, and Sinclair approached government
National Enterprise Board (NEB) for help. After losing
control of the company to the NEB, Sinclair encouraged
Chris Curry to
leave Radionics and get Science of
Cambridge (SoC—an early name for
Sinclair Research ) up and running. In June 1978, SoC launched a
microcomputer kit, the Mk 14, that Curry wanted to develop further,
but Sinclair could not be persuaded so Curry resigned. During the
development of the Mk 14,
Hermann Hauser , a friend of Curry's, had
been visiting SoC's offices and had grown interested in the product.
CPU Ltd. (1978–83)
Hermann Hauser and
Chris Curry in
Curry and Hauser decided to pursue their joint interest in
microcomputers and, on 5 December 1978, they set up CAMBRIDGE
PROCESSOR UNIT LTD. (CPU) as the vehicle with which to do this. CPU
soon obtained a consultancy contract to develop a microprocessor-based
controller for a fruit machine for Ace Coin Equipment (ACE) of
The ACE project was started at office space obtained at 4a Market Hill
in Cambridge. Initially, the ACE controller was based on a National
Semiconductor SC/MP microprocessor, but soon the switch to a MOS
Technology 6502 was made.
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CPU had financed the development of a SC/MP based microcomputer
system using the income from its design-and-build consultancy. This
system was launched in January 1979 as the first product of ACORN
COMPUTER LTD., a trading name used by CPU to keep the risks of the two
different lines of business separate. The microcomputer kit was named
as Acorn System 75. Acorn was chosen because the microcomputer system
was to be expandable and growth-oriented. It also had the attraction
of appearing before "
Apple Computer " in a telephone directory.
March 1979 price list
Around this time, CPU and
Andy Hopper set up Orbis Ltd. to
Cambridge Ring networking system Hopper had worked
on for his PhD , but it was soon decided to bring him into CPU as a
director because he could promote CPU's interests at the University of
Cambridge Computer Laboratory . CPU purchased Orbis, and Hopper's
Orbis shares were exchanged for shares in CPU Ltd. CPU's role
gradually changed as its Acorn brand grew, and soon CPU was simply the
holding company and Acorn was responsible for development work. At
some point, Curry had a disagreement with Sinclair and formally left
Science of Cambridge, but did not join the other Acorn employees at
Market Hill until a little while later. The
Acorn System 1 ,
upper board; this one was shipped on 9 April 1979.
The Acorn Microcomputer, later renamed the
Acorn System 1 , was
Sophie Wilson (then Roger Wilson). It was a
semi-professional system aimed at engineering and laboratory users,
but its price was low enough, at around GB£80, to appeal to the more
serious enthusiast as well. It was a very small machine built on two
cards, one with an LED display, keypad, and cassette interface (the
circuitry to the left of the keypad), and the other with the rest of
the computer (including the CPU ). Almost all CPU signals were
accessible via a Eurocard connector.
The System 2 made it easier to expand the system by putting the CPU
card from the System 1 in a 19-inch (480 mm) Eurocard rack that
allowed a number of optional additions. The System 2 typically
shipped with keyboard controller, external keyboard, a text display
interface, and a cassette operating system with built-in BASIC
The System 3 moved on by adding floppy disk support, and the System
4 by including a larger case with a second drive. The System 5 was
largely similar to the System 4, but included a newer 2 MHz version of
the 6502 .
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Development of the
Sinclair ZX80 started at Science of
May 1979. Learning of this probably prompted Curry to conceive the
Atom project to target the consumer market. Curry and another
designer, Nick Toop, worked from Curry's home in the Fens on the
development of this machine. It was at this time that Acorn Computers
Ltd. was incorporated and Curry moved to Acorn full-time.
It was Curry who wanted to target the consumer market—other
factions within Acorn, including the engineers, were happy to be out
of that market, considering a home computer to be a rather frivolous
product for a company operating in the laboratory equipment market. To
keep costs down and not give the doubters reason to object to the
Atom, Curry asked industrial designer
Allen Boothroyd to design a case
that could also function as an external keyboard for the microcomputer
systems. The internals of the System 3 were placed inside the
keyboard, creating a quite typical set-up for an inexpensive home
computer of the early 1980s—the relatively successful
Acorn Atom . A
Business model called the 'Prophet' was produced at this time.
To facilitate software development, a proprietary local area network
had been installed at Market Hill. It was decided to include this, the
Econet , in the Atom, and at its launch at a computer show in March
1980, eight networked Atoms were demonstrated with functions that
allowed files to be shared, screens to be remotely viewed and
keyboards to be remotely slaved.
BBC Micro And The Electron
BBC Micro and
Acorn Electron The
released by Acorn in 1981
After the Atom had been released into the market, Acorn contemplated
16-bit processors to replace the Atom. After a great
deal of discussion, Hauser suggested a compromise—an improved
6502-based machine with far greater expansion capabilities: the
Proton. Acorn's technical staff had not wanted to do the Atom and they
now saw the Proton as their opportunity to "do it right".
One of the developments proposed for the Proton was the Tube, a
proprietary interface allowing a second processor to be added. This
compromise would make for an affordable 6502 machine for the mass
market which could be expanded with more sophisticated and expensive
processors. The Tube enabled processing to be farmed out to the second
processor leaving the 6502 to perform data input/output (I/O). The
Tube would later be instrumental in the development of Acorn's
In early 1980, the
BBC Further Education department conceived the
idea of a computer literacy programme, mostly as a follow-up to an ITV
documentary , The Mighty Micro, in which
Dr Christopher Evans from the
UK National Physical Laboratory predicted the coming microcomputer
revolution . It was a very influential documentary—so much so that
questions were asked in parliament . As a result of these questions,
Department of Industry
Department of Industry (DoI) became interested in the programme,
BBC Enterprises , which saw an opportunity to sell a machine to
go with the series.
BBC Engineering was instructed to draw up an
objective specification for a computer to accompany the series.
Eventually, under some pressure from the DoI to choose a British
BBC chose the NewBrain from Newbury Laboratories . This
selection revealed the extent of the pressure brought to bear on the
supposedly independent BBC's computer literacy project—Newbury was
owned by the
National Enterprise Board , a government agency operating
in close collaboration with the DoI. The choice was also somewhat
ironic given that the NewBrain started life as a Sinclair Radionics
project, and it was Sinclair's preference for developing it over
Science of Cambridge's MK14 that led to Curry leaving SoC to found CPU
with Hauser. The NEB moved the NewBrain to Newbury after Sinclair left
Radionics and went to SoC.
In 1980–82, the British Department of Education and Science (DES)
had begun the
Microelectronics Education Programme to introduce
microprocessing concepts and educational materials. In 1981 through to
1986, the DoI allocated funding to assist UK local education
authorities to supply their schools with a range of computers, the BBC
Micro being one of the most popular. Schools were offered 50 per cent
of the cost of computers, providing they chose one of three models:
ZX Spectrum or
Research Machines 380Z . In parallel, the
DES continued to fund more materials for the computers, such as
software and applied computing projects, plus teacher training.
The Electron , Acorn's sub-£200 competitor to the
Although the NewBrain was under heavy development by Newbury, it soon
became clear that they were not going to be able to produce
it—certainly not in time for the literacy programme nor to the BBC's
specification. The BBC's programmes, initially scheduled for autumn
1981, were moved back to spring 1982. After Curry and Sinclair found
out about the BBC's plans, the
BBC allowed other manufacturers to
submit their proposals. The
BBC visited Acorn and were given a
demonstration of the Proton. Shortly afterwards, the literacy
programme computer contract was awarded to Acorn, and the Proton was
launched in December 1981 as the
BBC Micro . In April 1984, Acorn won
the Queen\'s Award for Technology for the
BBC Micro. The award paid
special tribute to the
BBC Micro's advanced design, and it commended
Acorn "for the development of a microcomputer system with many
innovative features". Principal creators of the
BBC micro in
2008, some 26 years after its release
In April 1982, Sinclair launched the
ZX Spectrum . Curry conceived of
the Electron as Acorn's sub-£200 competitor. In many ways, a cut-down
BBC Micro, it used one Acorn-designed uncommitted logic array (ULA) to
reproduce most of the functionality. But problems in producing the
ULAs led to short supply, and the Electron, although launched in
August 1983, was not on the market in sufficient numbers to capitalise
on the 1983 Christmas sales period. Acorn resolved to avoid this
problem in 1984 and negotiated new production contracts. Acorn became
more known for its
BBC Micro model B than for its other products.
In 2008, the
Computer Conservation Society organised an event at
London's Science Museum to mark the legacy of the
BBC Micro. A number
BBC Micro's principal creators were present, and Sophie Wilson
recounted to the
Hermann Hauser tricked her and Steve Furber
to agree to create the physical prototype in less than five days.
Also in 2008 a number of former staff organised a reunion event to
mark the 30th anniversary of the company's formation.
1983–1985: ACORN COMPUTER GROUP
BBC Micro sold well—so much so that Acorn's profits rose from
£3000 in 1979 to £8.6m in July 1983. In September 1983, CPU shares
were liquidated and Acorn was floated on the Unlisted Securities
Market as Acorn Computer Group plc, with
Acorn Computers Ltd. as the
microcomputer division. With a minimum tender price of 120p, the group
came into existence with a market capitalisation of about £135
million. CPU founders
Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry's stakes in the
new company were worth £64m and £51m, respectively.
New RISC Architecture
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Even from the time of the Atom, Acorn were considering how to move on
from the 6502 processor: the
Acorn Communicator developed in
1985, using the 65816 being a key example.
IBM PC was launched on 12 August 1981. Although a version of
that machine was aimed at the enthusiast market much like the BBC
Micro, its real area of success was business. The successor to the PC,
the XT (eXtended Technology) was introduced in early 1983. The success
of these machines and the variety of Z80 -based
CP/M machines in the
business sector demonstrated that it was a viable market, especially
given that sector's ability to cope with premium prices. The
development of a business machine looked like a good idea to Acorn. A
development programme was started to create a business computer using
Acorn's existing technology—the
BBC Micro mainboard, the Tube and
second processors to give
Acorn Business Computer (ABC) plan required a number of second
processors to be made to work with the
BBC Micro platform. In
developing these, Acorn had to implement the Tube protocols on each
processor chosen, in the process finding out, during 1983, that there
were no obvious candidates to replace the 6502. Because of many-cycle
uninterruptible instructions, for example, the interrupt response
times of the
Motorola 68000 were too slow to handle the communication
protocol that the host 6502-based
BBC Micro coped with easily. The
National Semiconductor 32016-based model of the ABC range, was
developed and later sold in 1985 as the
Cambridge Workstation (using
the Panos operating system). Advertising for this machine in 1986
included an illustration of an office worker using the workstation.
The advert claimed mainframe power at a price of £3,480 (excluding
VAT). The main text of the advertisement referred to available
mainframe languages, communication capabilities and the alternative
option of upgrading a
BBC Micro using a coprocessor . The machine had
Sophie Wilson and
Steve Furber the value of memory bandwidth. It
also showed that an 8 MHz 32016 was completely trounced in performance
terms by a 4 MHz 6502. Furthermore, the
Apple Lisa had shown the Acorn
engineers that they needed to develop a windowing system—and this
was not going to be easy with a 2–4 MHz 6502-based system doing the
graphics. Acorn would need a new architecture. Cambridge
Workstation advert in
New Scientist , 24 April 1986 issue
Acorn had investigated all of the readily available processors and
found them wanting or unavailable to them. After testing all of the
available processors and finding them lacking, Acorn decided that it
needed a new architecture. Inspired by white papers on the Berkeley
RISC project, Acorn seriously considered designing its own processor.
A visit to the
Western Design Center in Phoenix, where the 6502 was
being updated by what was effectively a single-person company, showed
Steve Furber and
Sophie Wilson they did not need
massive resources and state-of-the-art research and development
Sophie Wilson set about developing the instruction set, writing a
simulation of the processor in
BBC Basic that ran on a
BBC Micro with
a 6502 second processor. It convinced the Acorn engineers that they
were on the right track. Before they could go any further, however,
they would need more resources. It was time for Wilson to approach
Hauser and explain what was afoot. Once the go-ahead had been given, a
small team was put together to implement Wilson's model in hardware.
New Scientist , 31 July 1986 issue
The official Acorn RISC Machine project started in October 1983, with
Acorn spending £5 million on it by 1987.
VLSI Technology, Inc were
chosen as silicon partner, since they already supplied Acorn with ROMs
and some custom chips. VLSI produced the first ARM silicon on 26 April
1985 —it worked first time and came to be known as ARM1. Its first
practical application was as a second processor to the
where it was used to develop the simulation software to finish work on
the support chips (VIDC, IOC, MEMC) and to speed up the operation of
the CAD software used in developing ARM2. The ARM evaluation system
was promoted as a means for developers to try the system for
themselves. This system was used with a
BBC Micro and a PC compatible
version was also planned. Advertising was aimed at those with
technical expertise, rather than consumers and the education market,
with a number of technical specifications listed in the main text of
the adverts. Wilson subsequently coded
BBC Basic in ARM assembly
language, and the in-depth knowledge obtained from designing the
instruction set allowed the code to be very dense, making ARM BBC
Basic an extremely good test for any ARM emulator.
Such was the secrecy surrounding the ARM CPU project that when
Olivetti were negotiating to take a controlling share of Acorn in
1985, they were not told about the development team until after the
negotiations had been finalised. In 1992, Acorn once more won the
Queen's Award for Technology for the ARM . Acorn's development of
RISC OS operating system required around 200 OS development
staff at its peak.
Acorn C/C++ was released commercially by Acorn,
for developers to use to compile their own applications.
Acorn's watershed year was 1984—it had gone public just as demand
for its home computer products collapsed. It was the year when Atari
was sold, Apple nearly went bankrupt, and Acorn had solved ongoing
issue of production volumes.
The Electron had been launched in 1983, but problems with the supply
of its ULAs meant that Acorn was not able to capitalise on the 1983
Christmas selling period —a successful advertising campaign,
including TV advertisements, had led to 300,000 orders, but the
Malaysian suppliers were only able to supply 30,000 machines. The
apparently strong demand for Electrons proved to be ephemeral: rather
than wait, parents bought Commodore 64s or ZX Spectrums for their
Ferranti solved the production problem and in
1984, production reached its anticipated volumes, but the contracts
Acorn had negotiated with its suppliers were not flexible enough to
allow volumes to be reduced quickly in this unanticipated
situation—supplies of the Electron built up. Acorn was in real
trouble: by the end of the year, it had 250,000 unsold Electrons on
its hands, which had all been paid for and needed to be stored—at
Acorn was also spending a large portion of its reserves on
BBC Master was being developed; the ARM project was
Acorn Business Computer entailed a lot of development
work but ultimately proved to be something of a flop, with only the
32016-based version ever being sold (as the
and obtaining Federal approval for the
BBC Micro in order to expand
into the United States proved to be a drawn-out and expensive process
that proved futile—all of the expansion devices that were intended
to be sold with the
BBC Micro had to be tested and radiation emissions
had to be reduced. Around $20m was sunk into the U.S. operation, but
BBC Micros sold barely at all. They did, however,
make an appearance in the school of Supergirl in the 1984 film
Supergirl: The Movie.
1985–1998: OLIVETTI SUBSIDIARY
The dire financial situation was brought to a head in February 1985,
when one of Acorn's creditors issued a winding-up petition. After a
short period of negotiations, Curry and Hauser signed an agreement
Olivetti on 20 February. The Italian computer company took a
49.3% stake in Acorn for £12 million, which went some way to covering
Acorn's £11 million losses in the previous six months. This
valuation fell some £165m below Acorn's peak valuation of £190m. In
Olivetti took a controlling share of Acorn with 79% of
shares. In July 1996,
Olivetti announced that it had sold 14.7% of the
Lehman Brothers reducing its stake at that time to 31.2%.
Lehman said it planned to resell the shares to investors. It was at
this time (Dec 1985) that
Acorn User magazine 'News' section (Page
#11) displayed a photo of a new OEM-focused computer named the
\'Communicator\'. This was Acorn's answer to ICL's 'One Per Desk'
initiative. This Acorn machine was based around a
16-bit 65SC816 CPU,
128 KB RAM, expandable to 512 KB, plus additional battery-backed RAM.
It had a new Multi-tasking OS, had 4x internal ROM sockets, and
shipped with 'View' based software. It also had an attached telephone,
communications software and auto-answer/auto-dial modem.
In February 1986, Acorn announced that it was ceasing US sales
operations, and sold its remaining US
BBC Microcomputers for $1.25M to
a Texas company, 'Basic', which was a subsidiary of Datum, the Mexican
manufacturer of the Spanish version of the
modified Spanish keyboards for the South American market). The Woburn,
Mass. sales office was closed at this time.
BBC Master And Archimedes
Reader reply card in
New Scientist , 9 September 1989 issue
BBC Master was launched in February 1986 and met with great
success. From 1986 to 1989, about 200,000 systems were sold, each
costing £499, mainly to UK schools and universities. A number of
enhanced versions were launched—for example, the Master 512, which
had 512 KB of RAM and an internal 80186 processor for MS-DOS
compatibility, and the Master Turbo, which had a 65C102 second
The first commercial use of the
ARM architecture was in the ARM
Development System, a Tube-linked second processor for the
which allowed one to write programs for the new system. It sold for
£4,500 and included the ARM processor, 4 MB of RAM and a set of
development tools with an enhanced version of
BBC BASIC. This system
did not include the three support chips—VIDC, MEMC, and IOC—which
were later to form part of the Archimedes system. They made their
first appearance in the A500 second processor, which was used
internally within Acorn as a development platform, and had a similar
form-factor to the ARM development system.
The second ARM-based product was the Acorn Archimedes
desktop-computer, released in mid-1987, some 18 months after IBM
launched their RISC-based
PC/RT . The first RISC-based home computer,
the Archimedes was popular in the
United Kingdom ,
Ireland , and was considerably more powerful and advanced than most
offerings of the day. The Archimedes was advertised in both printed
and broadcast media. One example of such advertising is a mock-up of
RISC OS 2 desktop, showing some software application directories ,
with the advert text added within windows. However, the vast majority
of home users opted for an
Atari ST or
Commodore Amiga when looking to
8-bit micros. As with the BBC, the Archimedes instead
flourished in schools and other educational settings but just a few
years later in the early 1990s this market began stratifying into the
PC -dominated world. Acorn continued to produce updated models of the
Archimedes including a laptop (the A4) and in 1994 launched the Risc
PC , whose top specification would later include a 200 MHz+ StrongARM
processor. These were sold mainly into education, specialist and
Acorn's silicon partner, VLSI , had been tasked with finding new
applications for the ARM CPU and support chips. Hauser's Active Book
company had been developing a handheld device and for this the ARM CPU
developers had created a static version of their processor, the
Members of Apple 's Advanced Technology Group (ATG) had made initial
contact with Acorn over use of the ARM in an experimental Apple II (2)
style prototype called Möbius. Experiments done in the Möbius
project proved that the ARM RISC architecture could be highly
attractive for certain types of future products. The Möbius project
was briefly considered as the basis for a new line of Apple computers
but was killed for fear it would compete with the Macintosh and
confuse the market. However, the Möbius project evolved awareness of
the ARM processor within Apple. The Möbius Team made minor changes to
the ARM registers, and used their working prototype to demonstrate a
variety of impressive performance benchmarks.
Later Apple was developing an entirely new computing platform for its
Newton . Various requirements had been set for the processor in terms
of power consumption, cost and performance, and there was also a need
for fully static operation in which the clock could be stopped at any
time. Only the Acorn RISC Machine came close to meeting all these
demands, but there were still deficiencies. The ARM did not, for
example, have an integral memory management unit, as this function was
being provided by the MEMC support chip and Acorn did not have the
resources to develop one.
Apple and Acorn began to collaborate on developing the ARM, and it
was decided that this would be best achieved by a separate company.
The bulk of the Advanced Research and Development section of Acorn
that had developed the ARM CPU formed the basis of
ARM Ltd. when that
company was spun off in November 1990. Acorn Group and Apple Computer
Inc each had a 43% shareholding in ARM (in 1996), while VLSI was an
investor and first ARM licensee.
Acorn Pocket Book
Acorn Pocket Book
In 1993, Acorn decided to offer an Acorn branded
Psion Series 3 PDA,
badged as an ACORN POCKET BOOK , with a later variant branded the
ACORN POCKET BOOK II. Essentially a rebadged OEM version of the Series
3 with slightly different on-board software, the device was marketed
as an inexpensive computer for schoolchildren, rather than as an
executive tool. The hardware was the same as the Series 3, but the
integrated applications were different; for instance, the Pocket Book
omitted the Agenda diary and Spell dictionary applications, which
became an optional application, supplied on ROM SSD which could be
inserted into either of the ROM bays underneath the device. Other
programs were renamed: 'System' became 'Desktop', 'Word' became
'Write', 'Sheet' became 'Abacus' and 'Data' became 'Cards'.
In 1994, a subsidiary of Acorn, Online Media, was founded. Online
Media aimed to exploit the projected video-on-demand (VOD) boom, an
interactive television system which would allow users to select and
watch video content over a network. In September 1994 the Cambridge
Digital Interactive Television Trial of video-on-demand services was
set up by Online Media,
Anglia Television ,
Cambridge Cable (now part
Virgin Media ) and
Advanced Telecommunication Modules Ltd (ATML)
—the trial involved creating a wide area ATM network linking
TV-company to subscribers' homes and delivering services such as home
shopping, online education, software downloaded on-demand and the
World Wide Web . The wide area network used a combination of fibre and
coaxial cable, and the switches were housed in the roadside cabinets
Cambridge Cable's existing network.
Olivetti Research Laboratory
developed the technology used by the trial. An ICL video server
provided the service via ATM switches manufactured by ATML, another
company set up by Hauser and Hopper. The trial commenced at a speed of
2 Mbit/s to the home, subsequently increased to 25 Mbit/s.
Subscribers used Acorn Online Media set-top boxes . For the first six
months the trial involved 10 VOD terminals; the second phase was
expanded to cover 100 homes and eight schools with a further 150
terminals in test labs. A number of other organisations gradually
joined in, including the
National Westminster Bank , the
BBC , the
Post Office ,
Tesco and the local education authority .
BBC Education tested delivery of radio-on-demand programmes to
primary schools, and a new educational service, Education Online, was
established to deliver material such as
Open University television
programmes and educational software.
Netherhall School was provided
with an inexpensive video server and operated as a provider of trial
services, with Anglia Polytechnic University taking up a similar role
some time later. It was hoped that Online Media could be floated as a
separate company, and a share issue raising additional capital for the
division was announced in 1995, but the predicted video-on-demand
boom never really materialised.
Risc User: NewsPad – Covered in the October 1996 edition
In 1994, the EU initiated the NewsPad program, with the aim of
developing a common mechanism to author and deliver news
electronically to consumer devices. The program's name and format were
inspired by the devices described and depicted in Arthur C. Clarke and
Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film: 2001: A Space Odyssey . Acorn won a
contract to develop a consumer device / receiver, and duly supplied a
RISC OS based touch-screen tablet computer for the pilot. The
device measured 8.5 × 11 inches (220 × 280 mm) and was being
trialled in 1996 in Spain by
Ediciones Primera Plana . The
Barcelona-based pilot ended in 1997, but the tablet format and ARM
architecture may have influenced Intel's 1999 WebPad / Web Tablet
In 1996, Acorn entered into a joint venture with
Apple Computer UK
called Xemplar to provide computers and services to the UK education
market. A survey in 1998 found that Apple and Acorn systems at that
time accounted for 47 per cent and one third of computers in UK
primary and secondary schools respectively. Acorn sold its remaining
share in Xemplar to Apple in 1999 for £3 million, and the company
renamed itself to Apple Xemplar Education. Apple Xemplar was wound up
in 2014. Acorn Education and later Xemplar Education were heavily
Tesco 's "Computers for Schools " programme in the UK,
providing hardware and software in exchange for vouchers collected
The Welsh Office Multimedia/Portables Initiative (WOMPI), launched in
1996, prescribed that Welsh schools choosing the multimedia option
received multimedia PCs exclusively supplied by RM . This upset other
suppliers and members of the National Association of Advisers for
Computers in Education (NAACE).
Wired UK , September 1996 issue, 'Five Go Nuts in Cambridge:
Acorn's mad rush to build the world's first Network Computer' See
Acorn Network Computer
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When BBC2 's
The Money Programme screened an interview with Larry
Ellison in October 1995, Acorn Online Media Managing Director Malcolm
Bird realised that Ellison's network computer was, basically, an Acorn
set-top box. After initial discussions between
Oracle Corporation and
Olivetti, Hauser and Acorn a few weeks later, Bird was dispatched to
San Francisco with Acorn's latest Set Top Box. Oracle had already
talked seriously with computer manufacturers including Sun and Apple
about the contract for putting together the NC blueprint machine;
there were also rumours in the industry that said Oracle itself was
working on the reference design. After Bird's visit to Oracle, Ellison
visited Acorn and a deal was reached: Acorn would define the NC
Ellison was expecting to announce the NC in February 1996. Sophie
Wilson was put in charge of the NC project, and by mid-November a
draft NC specification was ready. By January 1996 the formal details
of the contract between Acorn and Oracle had been worked out, and the
PCB was designed and ready to be put into production. In February
1996 Acorn Network Computing was founded. In August 1996 it launched
Acorn Network Computer . An Acorn NetStation NC
It was hoped that the Network Computer would create a significant new
sector in which Acorn Network Computing would be a major player,
either selling its own products or earning money from licence fees
paid by other manufacturers for the right to produce their own NCs. To
that end, two of Acorn's major projects were the creation of a new
'consumer device' operating system, Galileo and, in conjunction with
Digital Semiconductor and ARM, a new
StrongARM chipset consisting of
the SA-1500 and SA-1501. Galileo's main feature was a guarantee of a
certain quality of service to each process in which the resources
(CPU, memory, etc.) required to ensure reliable operation would be
kept available regardless of the behaviour of other processes. The
SA-1500 sported higher clock rates than existing
StrongARM CPUs and,
more importantly, a media-focussed coprocessor (the Attached Media
Processor or AMP). The SA-1500 was to be the first release target for
After having incorporated its STB and NC business areas as separate
companies, Acorn created a new wholly owned subsidiary, Acorn RISC
Technologies (ART). ART focused on the development of other software
and hardware technologies built on top of ARM processors.
1998–2000: ELEMENT 14
Element 14 (company) The distinctive
yellow case of the
During the first half of 1998 Acorn's management were heavily
involved in the initial public offering of
ARM Holdings plc which
raised £18 million for Acorn throughout 1998. In June 1998, Stan
Boland took over as
Acorn Computers from David Lee who started
a review of Acorn's core business.
The company had losses of £9 million in the first nine months of the
year and in September 1998 the results of the review led to a
significant restructuring of the company. The Workstation division
was to close, a forty percent reduction in staff and the
Risc PC 2
code-named Phoebe that was nearing completion was cancelled. These
actions allowed the company to reduce in on-going losses and focus on
other activities. Acorn concentrated on development of digital TV
set-top boxes and high performance media centric DSP (silicon and
software). It also produced a reference design for a
Windows NT thin
client using a
Cirrus Logic system on a chip .
To concentrate on these two activities Acorn hired a group of former
STMicroelectronics silicon-design engineers and they formed the basis
of a £2 million silicon-design centre that Acorn set up in
They also started to dispose of some of their interests in the former
workstation market. It was reported that
Stephen Streater of Eidos may
have made a £0.5M bid for the rights to the PC range. In October
they granted distribution rights to the existing designs of machines
Castle Technology to supply the former Workstation market's dealer
network, sold their 50% interest in Xemplar Education to Apple
Computer in Jan 1999, and in March 1999,
RISCOS Ltd acquired a
licence to develop and release
RISC OS . he future of this company
lies as a leading player in the digital TV system components “ ”
Chief Executive, Stan Boland, in September 1998
By January 1999,
Acorn Computers Ltd. had renamed to ELEMENT 14
LIMITED (though still owned by Acorn Group plc), this change was to
reflect the changed nature of the business and to distance itself from
the education market that
Acorn Computers was most known for. Other
names had been considered by the company, but the website e-14.com had
been registered before the official announcement.
During this time the
ARM Holdings share value had increased to a
point where the capital value of Acorn Group was worth less than the
value of its 24% holding in ARM. This situation led shareholders to
press Acorn to sell its stake in
ARM Holdings to provide a return on
In May 1999, a deal was offered to Acorn Group plc shareholders by
MSDW INVESTMENT HOLDINGS LIMITED, a newly incorporated subsidiary of
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Group , which would give them two ARM
Holdings shares for every five Acorn Group shares that they owned.
The shareholders accepted and on 1 June 1999 Acorn Group plc was
purchased by MSDW for £270 million. The transaction involved the
delisting from the stock market of Acorn Group plc, as a result of
which its shareholding in ARM was distributed to Acorn's shareholders.
As part of the deal with MSDW, the STB division (including around 30
staff) was to be sold to
Pace Micro Technology for £209,000, and
Stan Boland was given the option to lead a management buy out of the
DSP business and on 26 July 1999, MSDW sold it for the net asset
value of £1.5 million to them.
The newly independent Element 14 set about raising venture capital
and subsequently secured £8.25 million in first-round funding from
Bessemer Venture Partners , Atlas Ventures and Herman Hauser's
Amadeus Capital Partners.
Broadcom Corporation 's offices at
Cambridge Science Park in 2011
In February 2000, Element 14 successfully head-hunted Alcatel 's top
digital subscriber line (DSL) engineers, including designers of
analogue front-end and digital ICs, xDSL modem software and
specialists in asymmetric DSL (ADSL) and very high rate DSL (VDSL)
systems, and thereby acquired an engineering centre in
Belgium . This reflected a shift towards the companies targeting of
the DSP technology away from Media and towards DSL markets.
Element 14 developed
IPTV over standard phone lines and worked with
telcos such as Canada's
NBTel . It continued to develop its DSP
products until it was purchased by
Broadcom Corporation in November
2000 for £366 million and Element 14 became Broadcom's DSL business
THIS SECTION NEEDS EXPANSION. You can help by adding to it .
The legacy of the company's work is evidenced in spin-off
technologies, with the company being described in 2013 as "the most
influential business in the innovation cluster's history".
REVIVAL OF THE ACORN TRADEMARK
Acorn Computers (2006)
In early 2006, the dormant Acorn trademark was licensed from the
French company, Aristide & Co Antiquaire De Marques , by a new company
Nottingham . This company was dissolved in late 2009.
In 2009, BBC4 screened
Micro Men , a drama based on the rivalry
Acorn Computers and Sinclair's competing machines.
Acorn products featured prominently in a number of Educational
television series, including:
The Computer Programme
Making the Most of the Micro
* Computers in Control
Acorn products spawned a series of dedicated publications, including:
The Micro User /
BEEBUG / Risc User
* Archimedes World
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286 core and adapt it, Acorn decided to design its own.
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differences over the technology roadmap Finding nothing readily
available on the market including from the leading US chip
manufacturers RISC processor called ARM which basically had the
design ethos of the simple 6502 but in a 32 bit RISC environment
making it that much simpler to fabricate and test.
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birthday, drobe.co.uk has learned.
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home computing revolution, Acorn, are to gather next month to
celebrate the 30th anniversary of the firm's foundation.
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8-bit boom for its 6502-based
microcomputers such as the Electron, Atom and
BBC Micro. Some 400
previous employees and guests are expected at a celebratory party,
which will be held in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge,
close to the company's old HQ.
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close to the company’s old headquarters building.
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Group P.L.C. to
Lehman Brothers Inc. on Friday. Lehman did not
disclose how much it paid, but at current market prices, the sale
would have brought about L33.5 million ($52 million) to Olivetti,
which has been posting losses. The purchase, representing 13.25
million of the British computer company's shares, reduced Olivetti's
stake in Acorn to about 31.2 percent from 78.5 percent two years ago.
Lehman said it intended to resell the shares to investors.
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were 98,000 and 45,000 respectively. So Apple and Acorn account for 47
per cent of computers in primary schools and a third of those in
secondary - a very large proportion.
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joint owner, Apple, now takes full charge of the educational supplier.
The deal valued Xemplar at £6 million, with Acorn bagging £3 million
for its share.
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Wales the schools that chose the
multimedia option (93 per cent of some 1,700 schools) will all receive
Research Machines Pentium Multimedia PCs has upset not only other
suppliers, but also teachers and the professionals in charge of
promoting IT in schools. A conference of the National Association of
Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE) has demanded a radical
overhaul of the way decisions about Government IT schemes are made
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technologies for Internet solutions and interactive TV has also lead
us to markets in the US, Japan and Korea, whereas before, we were
primarily involved in dealing with UK schools and colleges.
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