Electron User Index 1

By Will Watts

Originally published in EUG #11


There can be few Electron owners who have not acquired at least some knowledge of their computer from the pages of Database Publications' Electron User magazine.

In this series of occasional articles, I plan to supply an index for, and chart the course of Electron User from humble beginnings to its demise in July 1990.

The very first issue of Electron User (EU) appeared as a pull-out supplement in the October 1983 edition of The Micro User, Database's then well-established monthly magazine devoted to the BBC computer. In fact, the first four issues of EU rode piggy-back in this way and they will all be coming under the magnifying glass here. The programs that were on them were eventually bundled together on a special EU tape too.

Electron User 1. 1, October 1983
It's quite obvious that the embryonic EU was aimed at the complete novice and/or the very young, although it should be remembered that, in 1983, the whole concept of "Home Computing" was itself barely out of nappies!

The inside front cover of this premier edition carried a full page advert for Database's first 'Master Class' Electron tutorial video (and they eventually produced four in all) available at the low, low price of £19.95 (including VAT and P&P). This was surely 1983 - you had the option of ordering VHS or Betamax!
I have had the opportunity to view two of these tapes, and although they are by no means big-budget, glossy production, when it comes to enlightening the absolute beginner, they leave the User Guide standing!

Page three, although untitled, had the same look as the 'News' sections that would start to appear in later issues. Under the heading "Well and truly launched", there was an account of a semi-theatrical promotional extravanganza which took place at the Park Lane Hotel in London.

Playing to an audience of invited journalists, and in front of a backdrop depicting a life-size detatched house, television personalities Cliff Michelmore and Wendy Craig acted out the roles of 'Computer Expert' and 'Baffled Housewife' respectively, with the resultant question and answer-style conversation providing the predictable hype you would expect at any product launch.

The rest of page three was taken up with a short piece headed "Welcome to Electron User" which began with the inevitable "Month by month we will be showing you how to make the most of your Electron..." which, in all fairness, was a promise that EU managed to live up to in the following years.
Pages four and five were devoted almost entirely to couple of graphics demo listings, 3D Plot and Web-Wave. At the bottom of page five was the very first 'Micro Kid' comic strip, probably the most unengaging, unfunny cartoon character in the history of the genre!

Page six contained adverts. A light-pen, modem and digitising graphics tablet were on offer to BBC users from a company in Ipswich called 'Minor Miracles'. "Where are they now?" I wonder.

Two more shortist program listings were featured on page seven. These were 'Capital Idea' which changed the look of the Elk's upper case letter set, and 'Day Of The Week', used for calculating and naming the date of your birth - just in case you weren't there at the time!
'The Casting Agency' graced pages eight and nine. This was a collection of short VDU statements which programmed the user-defined characters to produce non-alpha numeric shapes - such as the cosy 'Teapot' or more exotic 'Man with hat'. In later issues, readers would send in their own graphic inventions.

Acorn had their own double-spread advert for (surprise!) the Electron on pages ten and eleven. Along with the usual blurb were photographs of two children who, using 'speech bubbles' precociously patronised their parents as the oldsters tried to grapple with the complexities of computing.

These were the days when almost every micro manufacturer was still trying to convince parents that their children would end up on the educational scrap heap unless a home computer was purchased immediately. There must have been thousands of kids who managed to convince Mum & Dad that buying a Speccy and a copy of Rubble Trouble was the first rung on the ladder to becoming a brain surgeon.
Page twelve was set aside for an article by Mike Cook, The Micro User's hardware guru. Mr C explained why the Elk had a 50-way connector at the back and also provided a table which showed the type of signal that each of the fifty strips carried (I'm still baffled!). There was a a hit that 'bolt-on goodies' would soon be available.
'Sounds Exciting' appeared on page thirteen. This was the audio equivalent of 'The Casting Agency' and listed the SOUND and ENVELOPE parameters needed to produce sound effects in your own programs.

On page fourteen was the listing for 'Bomber Strike', a version of the classic where you must destroy an entire city just to land a single plane! Drastic or what?

Page fifteen was entitled 'Software Surgery' and reviewed four packages from Acornsoft. And what polite reviews they were too!

   Starship Command - 'Enthralling.'
   Draughts & Reversi - 'A great little package.'
   Monsters - 'Compulsive.'
   Meteors - 'Great fun.'

After that rather detailed description of numero uno, I'll have to use the second part of this article to whizz through the remaining three supplements.

Electron User 1. 2, November 1983

That Database video ad was on the inside front cover again.

NEWS: We were assured that there was an 'Electron Boom'. Software/Hardware producers were working around the clock to deliver amazing new goodies (?!). Production lines in Malaysia and Gwent (Who can tell the difference?) were having difficulty turning out the 200,000 Electron computers that Acorn had ordered. The Micro Kid still wasn't funny.

The Casting Agency featured a 'Cup and Saucer', no doubt intended to complement the 'Teapot' in the previous issue...

Acornsoft had a double-page ad' for twelve of its titles, including the Lisp and Forth programming languages. Does anyone still use them?

Nigel Peters looked at both sides of the 'Spectrum versus Electron' debate that seemed to have been examined by most of the popular computer mags at that time, and came to the conclusion that the Speccy was good but that the Elk was better. I wonder if Nigel ever presented the same debate with the opposite outcome in Sinclair User...

Sounds Exciting offered six more roucous cacophonies, including 'Electric Spark' and 'Crash'.

Micro Power had a two pager for ten of their games, average price £7.95 each. It's interesting to note that in 1990 Software Bargains were selling the same titles for less than £1 each...

Listings in this issue consisted of three short firework simulations and 'COUNTING', an educational program for tinies.

Electron User 1. 3, December 1983

Inside front cover? Database video!

NEWS: Acorn admitted it was having problems producing enough Elks due to "Unexpected demand".

The Casting Agency had a festive theme with a snowman, holly leaves etc. Personally, I think a milk jug would have been nice, to go with the cup, saucer and teapot...

The listings were Anagrams, Meteors, French Tutor and in particular Hangman which was the first program to appear with an article explaining its structure.

Book Reviews:    Start Programming with the Electron was not very well recieved;
   The Electron Book: BASIC Sound and Graphics could do no wrong; and
   Assembly Language Programming on the Electron was a 'nice' book, so they said.

Software Surgery reviews:
   Swoop (Program Power) - 'It's a great game'.
   Tree Of Knowledge (Acornsoft) - 'Worth considering'.
   The Ghosts Of Grunley Grammar (Magic) - 'Amusing and addictive'.

Sounds Exciting, rather than simply listing SOUND and ENVELOPE parameters, this time discussed the basics of how they work.

Electron User 1. 4, January 1984

Whereas the first three issues had a mere 16 pages this one was boosted to 32. Inside front cover ? Well, well, well, Database video!

NEWS: The main story was that Electron User would be going solo next issue.

Acorn still couldn't produce enough Elks. "The Electron is almost embarrassingly successful", said a WHSmith's spokesperson, commenting on the fact that punters were actually camping outside their shops to be first in line for the next delivery.

Paul Kathro, technical advisor to the then thriving (now long-gone) hardware supplier 'Sir Computers', announced the launch of a sideways ROM board which, the Elk's lack of mode 7 not withstanding, would allow BBC ROMs to be used.

Software Surgery took a peep at:
   Cylon Attack (A & F Software) - 'Thoroughly recommened'.
   Horoscopes (Third Program) - 'Limited for home use'.
   Felix In The Factory (Micro Power) - 'A good version of an old idea'.

Book Review:
The Electron Programmer (S. M. Gee & Mike James). The verdict on this was 'well worth considering'.

Casting Agency characters were meant to have a Noah's Ark flavour, but did the fabled biblical boat-builder really take an 'Alien' and a 'Monster' on board..? Sadly, there were no further additions to the tea set.

Among the Sounds Exciting effects were two which would have been invaluable in any fast-moving, space-age shoot 'em up: 'Alarm Clock' and 'Road Works'...?!?!?!

Listings (Which took up most of the mag!):
   KALEIDOSCOPE - Simulation of the classic optical device.
   COMBINATIONS - Simple variation of the 'Mastermind' peg game.
   ORBIT - Simulation of sub-atomic particles orbiting a nucleus.
   SIMON - Simulation of the sequential recollection game/toy.
   H/P INTEREST - Interest rate calculator.
   DICE - Cheat-proof dice-rolling utility.
   QUACKERS - Animated duck demo.
   DOODLE BUG - Drawing and pattern-making utility.
   BUZZ WORD - Meaningless phrase generator (I can do that unaided!).
   SQUARES - Create designs using different sized & coloured squares.
   IRON RING - Short prog to draw a 3D representation of a solid ring.
   EUROMAP - Geographical quiz using on-screen maps.

That's it for now, next time we'll be rolling back the years to February 1984 to see how EU made out in the playground without Big Brother for protection!

Will Watts, EUG #11