Sunday 26 April 2020

Acorn Atom (1980)

Acorn Atom
Introduced 1980

The late 1970s saw the introduction of the first microcomputers that you could just take out of the box and use and home or at work, and eventually this would lead to an explosion in the numbers of home computers available in the first half of the 1980s.

Somewhere in between these two points was the Acorn Atom – not one of the original micros that changes the world, and not one of the later ones that sold (for a while) like hot cakes. However – like almost all Acorn computers – the Atom is part of a vitally important heritage that had profound effects on the way we interact with technology today.

Acorn’s first successful commercial product had been the Acorn System 1 launched the previous year. Little more than a board computer with a keypad and some interfaces, the System 1 was incredibly basic but had potential.

The System 1 developed into the Systems 2 to 5, rack-mounted systems that were not dissimilar to the pioneering RM 380Z which had achieved some success in education and scientific markets. These Eurocard systems had evolved quickly into capable systems, but despite this the rackmount form factor was never going to work in the home.

Back: Atom, BBC Master Compact, Electron, BBC Micro
Front: BBC Master
Acorn took most of the key components of the Acorn System 3 and stuffed them into an all-in-one unit that was based on the Acorn System keyboard. Featuring a 1MHz 6502 processor, 2Kb of RAM (upgradable to 12Kb), a fast built-in BASIC plus a variety of colour graphics modes and sound the Atom was certainly competitive with other systems on the market.

The standard storage was a cassette drive, but you could add floppy disks, printers or other peripherals. Unfortunately a fully-loaded Atom would tend to overheat, a challenge that could often be fixed by the not-at-all-dangerous act of rewiring the mains power supply.

You could buy the Atom for £170 assembled or for £120 as a kit, more expensive than the rival Sinclair ZX80 but much more sophisticated. It was a relative success, selling in tens of thousands of units and setting Acorn up well enough financially to make several follow-ups.

So why is it so important? Well, the Acorn Atom developed into the very successful BBC Micro which was followed up by the Acorn Archimedes and that gave us the ARM processor which is probably what powers your smartphone. It took just 8 years for Acorn to evolve from single board computers to an architecture that would change the world.

Probably partly because they didn’t sell in huge numbers and those that did would mostly be in the UK, the Atom is an uncommon find today. Be prepared to pay several hundred pounds if you want one in a good condition, or even more if it has accessories. Or alternatively you could just tinker with an emulator for free...

Image credits: Simon Inns via Flickr [1] [2] - CC BY 2.0

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