Acorn Electron Feature

By Retrovideogames

Originally published in EUG #56

The Acorn Electron

If you love your old 8-bits then having a boxed, clean and fully working model of the Acorn Electron computer tends to be very desirable. Not only does it support the BBC BASIC language and the 6502 processor, but it sports a small, neat, beige keyboard, real keys and almost infinite possibilities for its upgrade.

Released in 1983, the Acorn Electron retailed at £200. A 32K machine with its own official (and identically coloured) datacorder, it connects to any television/monitor and boasted on its box it can run numerous 'legally written' BBC games. Its debut appearance in shop windows put it beside the Spectrum 48K, Amstrad, BBC A 16K, BBC B 32K and MSX machines. Nevertheless demand for it was surprisingly high and this took its manufacturers, Acorn Computers, rather by surprise.

High Street Trickery

Debateably, why it sold so well was down to high street trickery. Its price tag made it one of the cheapest machines on the market and its claims regarding BBC software gave salesmen a lot of scope for exaggeration. BBC machines were, at that time, held in very high regard by parents of school children, as well as the pupils themselves. In schools up and down the UK, brats were encouraged to play high-resolution disk software (such as Magic Garden) with a sound educational base. The BBC machine itself also frequently appeared on BBC TV programs (Where else?) connected to various gadgets on "Tomorrow's World". Parents, nagged for it by their offspring and considering it a good investment due to these endorsements, found themselves in Dixons looking between its £400 price tag and the £200 one of the Elk. The salesman, doubtless on occasion claiming full compatibilty of software between the two, easily persuaded them to take the Electron instead.

Elk Shortcomings

This is not to say that the shortcomings of the Elk are not obvious. That it has no joystick or printer port, no network connector and no disk extension socket (all of which are almost standard on the BBC) can be gleaned by a cursory inspection. Less obviously, Acorn sacrificed a screen display method on the Electron, the infamous "teletext" mode (which used internal hardware to display text and 'block' graphics like "teletext" televisions) and cut the sound capabilities down to one channel. There are also other major internal modifications, and speed of program execution is reduced by them.

The result was that BBC programs did have to be re-coded to work on an Electron. Those raved-about educational programs, with very few exceptions, all required the "teletext" mode and refused to run. Also, the "teletext" mode on the BBC required only 1k of memory; the nearest compatible mode on the Electron required 8k. Add to this that most professional BBC titles were 'illegally' coded and compatibility becomes very dubious indeed.

Custom Software Instead

Despite these setbacks, a "nice" range of software began to appear for the Elk user. Acornsoft, Acorn's software subsiduary, converted all of its classic titles (Arcadians, Boxer, Hopper, Snapper, etc) and sold them all in impressive huge boxes (at quite huge prices!). It went on to develop tape-based extension languages too. Forth, Lisp, Logo, S-Pascal and Turtle Graphics arrived the following year and showed just what amazing things could be achieved on the Elk with just a few lines of code.

Third Parties

Third party companies also got to work, either by making sure their future releases were Electron-compatible, re-coding the earlier version (if possible) or releasing a new separate Elk version. Some companies also began manufacturing hardware extensions while three magazines, Acorn Programs, Elbug and Electron User, appeared and offer a vast array of 'cheapy' "type them in yourself and spend ages ironing out the bugs" programs in exchange for just £1.00 per month.

Missed Opportunity

However, despite the high demand, fewer people got an Electron than wanted one that first year. (These third party hardware extensions and early magazine issues are almost impossible to find now!) And almost immediately afterwards, the press backlash against the UK computing industry began. Poor Acorn got themselves in a real jam by pandering to the early demand and producing warehouses full of Elks for the next year. They also set to work on their own 'official' extensions to it and produced the Acorn Plus 1 expansion (a joystick port, printer port and two ROM cartridge extensions), the Acorn Plus 3 (an ADFS drive system) and a small number of companion disks and ROM cartridges.

Plus 1

The Plus 1, a box the same width as the Electron, was an instant hit. As Acornsoft had included joystick routines in all of its conversions in contemplation of its release, all their games could now be played from the armchair. But it didn't appear completely without incident: two third parties had already produced their own joystick interfaces and some popular games (such as the Felix series and Gunsmoke) needed a First-Byte interface, not an Acorn one. As only one could be fitted at a time, this meant swapping interfaces around and effectively, the third parties were forced out of business. Also, loading games from tape in a particular screen display mode was impossible when it was connected!

Plus 3

The Plus 3, a huge L-shaped box with a built-in 'ahead of its time' 3.5" disk drive, is regarded now as one of the rarest and most treasured items to get hold of. Its arrival then was heralded with some enthusiasm but it is seriously flawed in that it takes a whopping 13k from the Elk's memory for its operation. Its "advanced" disk filing system (ADFS) took it further out of compatibility with the disk filing system of the BBC (DFS - completely different), it took different sized disks (the BBC took 5.25" ones!) and, considering Elk + Plus 1 + Plus 3 now cost more than a BBC B, few people bought one.

Too Many Interfaces!

By now, all Electron owners had some compatibility problems to moan about. There was even a lack of compatibility between third party disk drives (such as Cumana's variant and Solidisk's variant) and the Acorn one! The only standardised format was and is tape.

Just three years after it had been breaking Acorn's records, they announced they were dropping support for it to work on enchanced BBCs and the Archimedes. (Both were dismal failures.) At Christmas 1986, they flogged out a multitude of machines and interfaces at bargain prices!

Enter The DFS

Considering the mess they had made of their market, it was the best move for buyers they ever made. Where Acorn left off, the new company ACP/Pres took over. Within a few months they had managed to re-design the Plus 3 into the Advanced Plus 3. Gone forever was the huge L-shaped monstrosity; in its place a ROM cartridge variant which could be connected to a disk drive of any size. Then they created the wonderful Plus 4 ROM chip: a ROM that could be inserted into the Advanced Plus 3 to give compatibility with the BBC's disk filing system (the DFS) with no loss of memory.

Finally compatibility with the BBC was assured. Of course, there was still the "teletext" mode exclusion and the weird succession of blips the Elk produced when attempting to play music intended for the BBC, but games could be written for disk and would work on the Electron. The finest commercial results of this hard labour are the Topologika and Heyley disk adventures.

The 64K Electron

The market perked up again when third party Slogger produced a 64K Electron; exactly the same as the 32K one apart from a button on its left which, when pressed, would double the memory size and "turbo" the execution speed. So the problems of slow BBC games plus those that had simply been too long to load into 32K were solved. When Jafa Systems and Project Expansions made the package complete with a "teletext" extension board and a four-channel sound ROM cartridge, it was almost possible to see that small unexpanded beige machine transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing, ultra-fast executing, memory-doubled and disk-compatible piece of kit capable of almost anything!

Today's Electron World

Most of these companies, of course, no longer survive. That said, the Elk has not yet completely had its day. Although the market began to drop off in the early 1990s (when the Amiga started making its presence felt), the Public Domain scene simultaneously went from strength to strength. The standard of software produced by commercial companies, particularly games by Superior Software (who, although they no longer create new releases, continue to trade in them today) is of a very high standard; their still-available tape game Exile is unanimously acknowledged to be a masterpiece of modern programming whilst their disk releases such as Crazee Rider and Elixir, although no longer supplied, showed that they could even cleverly code their programs to fit any disk system it was put onto.

Acorn Programs and Elbug didn't stay the distance for long but Electron User confidently cleared a path through all the years of software and hardware developments and was cherished by Elk owners. When it finally called it a day, it tried to ease its readers into two sister publications, Let's Compute and The Micro User but although "For the Electron" appeared on the covers of each, neither showed the dedication of Electron User and both were discontinued after only a year or so.

Games Galore!

The Electron, as the Superior, Audiogenic, 4th Dimension and Micro Power labels proved, is a games machine. Several hundred games made it to professional release and games such as the Repton series still get ex-owners choked up with nostalgia. Adventures were also increasingly popular, and made more demanding by their writers, with Electron User devoting at least three pages to solving the latest one in each issue and the last release for the Electron being an adventure (Spy Snatcher by Topologika).

Public Domain Games

Just as the sun seemed to be setting on at least the Electron's magazine era, the EUG (Electron User Group) fanzine appeared; and PD companies such as JJF, Headfirst, Moss and Electron PD began advertising their collections of disks. A company called ProAction also took over Superior's licence to keep producing Electron games (although they only managed one more - in 1997!). By now, all were catering to a market where the Electron was no longer the owner's primary machine but the support was there all the same.

As the internet took its hold, the familiar (to Elk users) names of Stairway to Hell, 8 Bit Software, Retro BBC and The BBC Lives established themselves, taking hundreds of hits a day. Several coders began work on an Electron emulator for the PC; some faltered but one thrived and version Beta5 is currently available free of charge from its creator, Thomas Harte. All the old favourites, including all of the copyrighted Superior titles (which doesn't please them) are also offered in emulated form from companion sites.

Electron User Group

The EUG fanzine, a disk-based magazine which receives, reviews and publishes new games, demos, articles and news, maintains a database of over a hundred members and is one of the few 8 bit groups that continue with alarming professionalism to this day. Their website at offers a variety of the real McCoy Electron hardware at very low prices and, currently on issue 56, they will also send out free issues and PD disks for review. Considering all ex-Electron User disks have now become PD, not to mention the thousands of fresh disks submitted by those unsung geniuses behind epic PD arcade games such as Shipwrecked and SUNDAY, the Scott Adams' adventures and some disturbing slideshows from a group calling itself The Horny Elk, the full collection adds up to many hundreds of demos and utilities on disk alone. Venturning into its readers' world of tape and disk collections reveals the surprising vastness of the PD scene, while the magazine itself offers all a "forum for debate and exchange of ideas".

In Conclusion

It's possible to sense a fondness associated with the Electron because it was a machine that, from its release, really had its work cut out for it to measure up to its Big Brother Beeb. The reality is that it didn't, and the way in which Acorn Comptuers handled its promotion, meant that all its potential qualities were sidelined by the heaping onto it of expensive and bug-ridden addon failures. But its strength now is that the original machine is very collectable, most of the games produced for it are very good and it's actively supported via emulation (which happily, didn't see fit to emulate the loss of 13K for disk drive compatibility). For ease of use, its keys, which produce reserved words if tapped in conjunction with the FUNC key was never beaten. It boasts, if you can find them, a way of learning about many early 'different' computer languages. And, the sales figures from Superior say it all - more games were sold for the Electron than the BBC itself!

The Electron didn't ever measure up...but the fact it's still around testifies to the fact it succeeded on its own. Buy one!

EUG #56