Before I even knew what a BBC micro was, I had been using computers as a youngster for at least 5 or 6 years. This was back in the mid-1980s and the first computer I ever recall using was an Apricot F1, which was on loan from my mother's work and lived in the back bedroom. I didn't do any programming or even play any games on it, I think the only thing it could do was to run a very early DOS version of Word Perfect.
At around the same time, whenever I had to go into my mother's work, like you used to have to do sometimes as a kid during the school holidays, I remember using a Telex machine. This wasn't one of the early mechanical typewriter-style affairs, it was a proper computer VDU terminal with screen and keyboard and a printer on a shelf underneath. I didn't actually send any Telexes (not wittingly anyway, which is probably a good thing because apparently a Telex transmission (unlike a Fax transmission) forms a legally binding contract, even if sent in error!) I just used to type a few lines of text (which if I remember rightly didn't wrap around) into the terminal screen and then print it off. I don't remember the make or model, and I have never been able to find a picture online of anything looking like the one I would use.
The only other machine I remember from this era was some sort of early portable IBM PC, although portable might have been stretching the imagination a bit. This machine used to come home at weekends occasionally for my mother to do work on, and it had some really good games on it. One of them was a sort of mediaeval scenario where you had to fire arrows at the enemy outside a castle. I wish I could remember more about it.
The computer itself was a pretty huge, heavy base unit with a keyboard clipped to the front, which folded down to reveal a small built-in monitor screen which had orange text. It did graphics and sound, and may even have had a hard disc inside it.
The first computer I ever owned was a Spectrum +2, the fancy grey one with a proper keyboard, 128K of RAM and a built-in cassette deck. I got this in the summer of 1988 as a reward for passing my 11-plus. It was bought from Dixons and we had to have 5 units before we got one that worked properly!
Primary School Trolley
In common with many hundreds of thousands of 1980s primary schoolkids, my first encounter with a BBC Micro was in primary school when the School Computer was wheeled into the classroom on a trolley. I was only reminded of this in 2016 when talking to someone about first experiences of computers, it seemed to have faded from my consciousness completely! I do now recall pretty well the Beeb at primary school. The first instances would have been in Junior 2, so it was 1985, and the setup was the teacher operating the Beeb at the front of the class with all the kids gathered round. We didn't get to touch it at all! It was a game, if you'd call it that, where you had to build a medieval castle by allocating all your workers to different tasks. I'm pretty sure that the picture of the castle was done in Mode 7, but I also have a recollection that it was brown, which can't be right as the Beeb doesn't do brown!
By Junior 4, around about 1987, the BBC micro was a permanent exhibit on a table at the back of the classroom and small groups were allowed to actually touch it during lessons occasionally so you had to be quiet. I remember playing Granny's Garden, which has the loudest theme tune of any BBC micro sofware release, so we had a duster or sponge to hold over the speaker to keep the noise down.
Senior School Computer Room
It wasn't until September 1990 that I came across the Beeb again whilst doing a year of I.T. at School using the School's BBC Econet. Most of the machines were Master ETs, some were Master 128s and there was one BBC Model B lurking in the corner for the "unlucky" pupil who arrived last.
I don't remember a lot of the detail of the computer room setup, although I'm almost certain it was a Master Turbo running the Level 3 file server. I think I remember the real time clock dongle. There were two hard drives - one each for the Boys' and Girls' schools, with only one connected at once so occasionally we would start a lesson and not be able to log on because the wrong hard drive was plugged in. There was a separate printer server Master 128 station with a dot matrix printer on a shelf underneath.
The network infrastructure was all by SJ Research.
The first BBC I owned was an American BBC Model B with a single Viglen floppy drive. I bought it from a schoolteacher after answering a classified ad in the Oldham Chronicle, probably in Autumn 1990 or possibly early 1991. Initially I had no idea that it was the American variety and I had a lot of fun with my first Beeb. However, its days were numbered as far as I was concerned when it became clear that I could not upgrade it to ADFS due to the unusual layout of the American issue PCB.
I upgraded the BBC B to a Master 128 in 1992. In those days you only had one Beeb at once so the Model B was given to a young relative and never seen again. I can't remember where the Master came from, but I think I bought it second hand from a dealer advertising in Acorn User or suchlike. Combined with a daisy wheel printer, this setup saw me through my GCSE coursework and A-level essays. I think I killed the Master 128 in about 1995 by adding some sort of BBC Model B expansion board to it with disastrous results. I was Beebless for far too long.
Back into Beebs
By 1999, my interest had returned and after finishing university, I got into the BBC emulator scene. What drew me into this was that the emulators were running original BBC programmes, not files translated to run on a PC. There is only so much nostalgia that an emulator can satisfy, so before long I wanted the real thing.
The first BBC I got the second time round was a friend's old BBC Model B which had been in his shed for about ten years. It was a tape only machine and appeared to be 16K only. I added a disc upgrade and bought a floppy drive it took me until December 2015 and some RAM replacement to get the thing to become a 32K machine! At the time I had no software and no way of transferring files from PC to BBC. In order to format a disc, I disassembled the FORMAT programme from one of the utility discs using PC-BBC and poked every individual byte into my BBC Model B manually. This took about three weeks but at last I was able to format a disc and save the format code to floppy.
Again ADFS cried out to me so at Easter 2001 I bought a Master 128 with floppy drive. I wired the new drive to my existing drive to create the double drive I used on Station 1 until 2005.
After a year of tinkering about, I began to look into Econet. By this time I had a fully working BBC Model B which happened to have the Econet upgrade fitted. I had enjoyed my time in the School computer room with the likes of *I AM, *NOTIFY and *PRIV and thought I should have a go at building my own network. By mid-2002 I had collected a network clock, an Econet module for my Master 128, a Master Turbo to use as a fileserver and a set of 3 T-pieces. I had no Econet leads at the time so I cut the cable off a Microsoft mouse, soldered one-inch lengths of paper clip onto the end of each wire and used a couple of these as leads by pushing the soldered ends into the Econet sockets. Miraculously, my temporary Econet worked and I have never looked back!
Since then, I have installed a permanent Econet which consists of a Master 128, Master Turbo, Master 512 and BBC Model B with a FileStore as the main server. I am always adding extra bits to the machines on my network. It is my aim to have the largest working Econet still in use. I think 5 stations does not break the world record but I would be interested to hear from people with their own networks - if yours is bigger then let me know!
My four main Econet workstations each have second processors: Station 1 has an internal ARM7 co-processor, Station 128 has an external 6502 second processor, Station 200 has an internal 65C102 co-processor and Station 201 has an internal 80186 co-processor. That's quite a lot of processing power when you think about it! Well, it was in the 1980s!
Just before Easter 2005, I dismantled all the network cabling for my Econet with the intention of expanding the network with a 32-bit machine. It was also my intention to have the socket boxes mounted on the wall rather than trailing on the floor. Various attempts to re-wire the network have proved unsuccessful with all kinds of errors occurring so I think I need some new socket boxes. For the moment, my Econet is held together with T-pieces and Econet leads, until Summer 2009 worked rather erratically!
I could never understand why the Clock signal didn't always seem to reach Stations 200 & 201 and why net errors kept occurring. Eventually, I undertook a full test in the summer of 2009 using my Econet FLAT box and pinpointed the problems to a faulty T-piece, which I replaced immediately, and my network has been running very smoothly ever since.
Summer 2009 saw a major change, initially envisaged as a temporary measure, but now likely to be a long-term feature. I have moved principal File Server to Station 200, the Master Turbo, which is running a Retroclinic Compact Flash Hard Drive. The reasoning behind this originally was for use as storage space for Teletext page capture which I began in the summer prior to the analogue signal switch-off in the Granada region in November and December 2009.
I have also relocated the clock to between Stations 200 and 201 for ease of access, although (hopefully) it is now unlikely that much access will be needed since the replacement of the dodgy T-piece.
I used to have a second Econet, which I affectionately call my "weekend" Econet because I can only usually put it together on a weekend, when I take over the dining room at BeebMaster Towers. My Weekend Econet differs in configuration depending on what I need to use but it always involves my MDFS, and sometimes my second MDFS as well, and normally a Master 128 and occasionally a 32-bit Acorn like one of my A4000s or A420/1 if I want to do a lot of file copying.
During 2010, I moved my main MDFS from the very back of the dining room to the hallway just outside, to try to keep it warm as I was finding that in the winters, some of the hard disc units were becoming a bit troublesome and not always spinning up at power-on. With the MDFS in this position, and due to all the other things I've been involved in, my weekend Econet has vary rarely been in use since the move.
One wet Tuesday night after work in December 2011, I decided to finally have a go at connecting the MDFS to my main Econet. Instead of moving it upstairs in place of the FileStores, I decided to keep it where it is and run some extra cabling. With a bit of effort and a radical slowing down of the clock speed, it worked a treat, without the need for bridges or any other fancy stuff, so my MDFS could be part of my main Econet.
I continued the expansion in January 2012, and again in January 2017, as by this point my RISC PC 700, with Econet and Ethernet interfaces, had become a permanent part of the downstairs leg of my Econet.
It has been something of a toil to put together and maintain even the small Econet I am running. With this in mind, I want BeebMaster to be a worthwhile point of reference for anyone starting or running an Econet.
If Econet is my first great interest in the Acorn world, then hard discs must be the second. Econet brings the possibility of mass storage available to network stations, in many cases using Winchester discs connected up to Beebs. Most of the time these hard disc drives can be used by the BBC computer independently, and it is the dream of many a Beeb fan to own a BBC hard disc.
It is my ambition to have a hard disc connected to each of my main Econet stations. The addition of the Compact Flash Hard Drive to Station 200 brings me a step closer, but I'm still a good way off!
In this regard, I am luckier than most and I have spent a great deal of time collecting and testing as much Winchester disc hardware as I can since 2003. The BBC micro can support hard discs but it was designed at a time when discs using the ST506 interface were current. This interface does not have a built-in disc controller so a separate Winchester controller board is required. I have built up a reasonable collection of ST506 drives and in 2009 I bought a job lot of 8 Adaptec ACB4070 controller boards. Some early SCSI drives can be used with the Beeb, but the ADFS filing system and host adapter board are pretty fussy about what they will and won't accept.
I finally solved the problem after 9 years of toiling in the summer of 2011, which required the help of a SCSI interface on an A5000, but I now have a small supply of modern(ish) Seagate SCSI drives which are formatted and working as ADFS hard discs.
I'm still working on a reliable and Beeb-only method of being able to back up a Winchester disc by imaging it directly to a memory card.
My third main area of interest is the Domesday Project. My interest began late on in 2003 when I got hold of some bits which I thought could be used to build my own Domesday System. In November 2003, I put together my first "Domesday Machine" and by February the following year, I had what could be classed as a working Domesday System. The BeebMaster Domesday Machine has taken various forms over the years as more and more original parts have been added, and I was able to put together my most complete Domesday System in time for the twentieth anniversary in November 2006. In 2010 and 2011 I put together new incarnations of the same hardware in time for the 25th anniversary. I was also able to repair a broken VP415 Domesday LV-ROM player using spares from a VP410. This was very handy in 2010 as my good VP415 broke down and didn't get repaired until 2011.
The Domesday Project is without doubt one of the most potent reminders of how rapidly technology goes out of fashion and just how diligent we need to be in preserving machines like the Beeb. I think that the BBC micro deserves more than just to be a fondly remembered computer of the 1980s and 1990s. I, like many other devoted individuals running their own sites, believe that the best way to preserve the memory of the greatest of all 8-bit computers is by keeping these machines in use forever.
I currently have 3 VP415 Domesday LV-ROM players, all working at the time I last tested them. I hope one day to have a second complete Domesday System cobbled together from original parts, as with the first.
The demise of Teletext as the analogue television switch-off sweeps throughout the country has made Teletext a fourth area of interest. I haven't had as much time as I hoped to capture Teletext pages, and my attempts to record Teletext onto videotape haven't been as successful as I might have liked, but I've done a reasonable job in capturing and saving as many Teletext pages as I could from May to December 2009. Stations 1 and 200 on my Econet, as Teletext receiver and file server, really demonstrated a tour-de-force during this period, sometimes running continuously without a break for four or five days at a time. I've now got over 100,000 pages of Teletext saved on my Econet, captured from all 5 of the old analogue terrestrial channels.
As time goes by, it is becoming harder to get hold of spares or some of the more exciting bits of hardware like second processors or Winchester drives. Most of the larger microchips inside the 8-bit Acorn machines like the 8271 floppy disc controller or the 6502 processor are long obsolete. EPROMs suitable for the BBC are beginning to fade away. A lot of the logic chips are now obsolete as DIP through-hole varieties.
I have been lucky enough to build up a stock of some of the logic chips before they went obsolete and to get hold of some brand new 8271s and 68B54s so that I was able to provide disc and Econet upgrade kits for many years.
In late 2003, I embarked upon what must be the first Acorn 8-bit related manufacturing effort of the 21st century and in January 2004, the BeebMaster Econet Module was born. This was something of an experiment to see if long-obsolete bits of hardware such as the Master Econet Module could be resurrected. I am delighted to say that I was able to persuade a company to make up some Econet Modules and the BeebMaster Econet Module is now available for anybody searching for the Econet upgrade for the Master and Archimedes machines.
In October 2006, I commissioned a production run of 100 new Econet Clocks and in November 2006, the prototype arrived and worked a treat! The BeebMaster Econet Clock still has an archive page.
During this time I expanded the BeebShop range to include dual 3½" floppy disc drives, TV aerial leads, ribbon cables and floppy power leads, EPROMs and Sideways RAM chips.
By mid-2016 it was becoming clear that I would not be able to re-stock many of the items when the current batch ran out, and so the BeebShop officially closed at the end of 2016. I still have Econet Clocks and Econet Modules and list them on E-Bay now and again.
Even in 2018 I still get enquiries for the BeebMaster BBC Model B Econet Upgrade Kit, even though the last ones went in 2014. I said that batch was the very last one, and I'd said that about the previous batch! Maybe I'll have to try to get yet-another-very-very-last set together.
I hope I am able to provide as much help and assistance to anybody who needs it, whether it be about Econet, hard drives, Domesday, Teletext or anything else BBC or Acorn related. If you need anything more then all you need to do is e-mail me.
I hope you enjoy my website; by all means let me know what you think.
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