From little Acorns.

The above article appeared in the press recently, about how valued early personal computers had become as collectible items. Top of the list was The BBC Micro, a personal computer which for many in the UK was the first home computer that they had used and owned. The article reminded me of the small part that I played in its success story.

In 1979, I returned to Blighty from the USA, where I had spent most of 5 years working for a student travel company, producing materials to be delivered by the US Postal Services to High School teachers. In the UK, this made me the proverbial one-eyed expert on Direct Marketing in the ‘Land of The Blind’; a sightedness that led to my being picked up by a division of CDP (Collett Dickinson & Pearce), then the largest UK-owned advertising agency, as their Head of Direct Marketing. What I was ‘Head’ of became an internal agency joke, as my department consisted of just myself; leading the agency wit to refer to me as ‘Head of Eric’. Needless to say, the name stuck! When in September 1981, a certain Christopher Curry walked into the main agency wanting to sell computers ‘off the page’ he was greeted with little interest and Curry was redirected to CDP/Aspect, where there was a chap there who “knew about such things”. In so doing CDP was passing on an account which 2 years later was to become one of the largest UK television advertisers and an account which helped enable CDP/Aspect to buy its independence. And that meeting with Curry also changed my status within the agency, and my career. 

The BBC Micro

Christopher Curry, who had been working with Clive Sinclair (later ‘Sir Clive’) at Sinclair Radionics, and Hermann Hauser co-founded Acorn Computers in 1978, its first product was the Atom, which principally was sold in kit form to enthusiasts for £120. The Atom, which had a keyboard but no storage, operated via BASIC, a simplified programming variant of MOS (Microsoft Operating System).

In June 1981, Kenneth Baker Secretary of State for Industry in the Thatcher government announced the Micros in Schools project, whereby the government would contribute to the purchase of computers in order to enable UK schoolchildren to learn computer programming. On the back of this, the BBC embarked on what would become known as the BBC Computer Literacy Project. They spoke with a number of companies about producing a dedicated machine to be the workhorse of the series. Acorn, who had been working on the Proton as successor to The Atom, imposed themselves at the 11th hour onto the BBC’s shortlist of companies. With a week to spare to meet the BBC’s deadline, they produced the winning prototype based on the template of the Proton. The first working model of BBC Microcomputer appeared in June 1981 and the first version was released onto the market in December. In January 1982 the BBC launched The Computer Programme, with the BBC Micro at its centre. The programme was a huge success and ran for 5 years; latterly as Making the Most of the Micro and then Micro Live. Although the BBC had only specified that 12,000 BBC Micros should be made, (so viewers of its new Computer Programme would be able to share the experience of the new microcomputing revolution), uptake was so rapid that double that were sold in its first year. Also, schools were soon ordering them by the thousand. By 1990 a million had been sold. As a result, mention of the BBC Micro still evokes strong memories for almost every UK school child of the 1980s.

At that first meeting in 1981, Curry briefed us on the Acorn story to date and informed us that the company was going to produce its next product, the Electron, in 1982. As a result, Curry was briefing a number of agencies for their ideas for direct marketing the Electron and other Acorn products via off-the-page advertising and direct mail. The ‘pitch’ was to take place in 2 weeks. By very good fortune, just at that time, the Personal Computer World exhibition was taking place at Olympia and I decided to jog along there to get to know a little bit more about the subject. What greeted me at Olympia was a phenomenon the likes of which I had never seen before, or since. It was a feeding frenzy which spoke loudly-and-clearly to me that home computers would not be marginal products, solely available via direct purchase, for much longer; they were going to be high volume consumer item to be found for sale on the High Street. With this conviction, I persuaded my agency colleagues to produce a response to Acorn’s brief that challenged their wish for a Direct Marketing campaign and which instead proposed activities directed at retail take-up and sales. I suspect we were the only agency that took that tack and as a result we won Acorn’s business. The agency’s horizons, and my own, had changed for ever.

Press advertisement for The Electron created by Aspect

The next 2 years were among the most exciting and enjoyable years of my career. Acorn Computers, as I had anticipated, found itself at the centre of the dawn of the personal computing mania that remains with us to this day. The demand and interest in the company and its products were phenomenal. By mid-1982, its activities were absorbing every minute of my working day. These were exhilarating times and Acorn was a company for such an epoch. It was brave, most of its employees were young – very young for that time – and at its head it had a remarkable duo: a computing genius in Hermann Hauser and a fearless marketeer in Christopher Curry. Based in Cambridge, it attracted the best of the university talent to its ever-growing headquarters in Cherry Hinton, to which I travelled several times a week. We produced excellent work: wide-ranging display advertising, retail support and promotions and expansive printed materials. And in 1984 we produced some memorable TV commercials, filmed at Park Village and Shepperton, featuring the wonderfully multi-talented Stanley Baxter for both the Electron (here) and the BBC Micro, (here). That year, 1984, Acorn spent over £4 million via the agency making it one of the most valuable UK advertising accounts.

R-L: Stanley Baxter, Christopher Curry & Myself

As it turned out, the full-blown launch of the Electron did not occur till late 1984. By then Acorn had floated on the Unlisted Securities Market and my agency, Aspect, had bought itself away from our parent agency. During 1983 & 1984 we trod water on Acorn’s behalf promoting the BBC Micro and its software division Acornsoft, as the arrival of the Electron was put back and put back. When it finally appeared in mid-1984 The Electron was without doubt the best home computer on the market. Unfortunately, it was too late, over-specified and at £199 had overshot the key £100 price point by a country mile. Moreover, its most persuasive selling point – that it ran on BBC Basic, the same as The BBC Micro – was no longer the key trigger, as UK schoolchildren had become much more interested in playing games on their home computers than in programming them. Moreover the Sinclair Spectrum at £99 and The Commodore 64, at a little bit more, were capable game-playing machines at a significantly less cost. In truth the Electron sold extremely well during that Christmas of 1984, but there was no way that Acorn could recover for its late arrival. Had it appeared in 1983 it would have swept all before it but, in missing that deadline, it had missed its market. More significantly, Acorn the company had dug a hole for itself that it could not recover from and in 1985 the company had to accept a rescue deal from the Italian conglomerate, Olivetti.

The Acorn brand disappeared in 1985 but its technology lives on to this day, to be found principally within mobile technologies. Most of its employees carried on pursuing successful careers in the industry.  One of them John Caswell, a highly talented designer, became my partner in 1988 in our own communications agency. Hermann Hauser continued be a force in both technology and sector investment. In fact, Hermann, always a man ahead of his time, in 1989 commissioned our agency to produce a brochure for his Active Book Company. The Active Book was to be a mobile telephone, incorporating a screen and keyboard, which ran applications and had the capacity for document storage; in other words, it was to all extensive purposes an iPhone! Christopher Curry among other things went on to set up a publishing company and purchase a Cambridgeshire village. Chris & I kept in touch. I undertook a couple of consultancy projects for him and enjoyed hospitality at some stellar events at his pile; memorably on the occasions of his birthday, when there were terrific fireworks and dancing in the ballroom to Lonnie Donegan & His Band.

In the ‘sliding doors’ of life, winning and then working on Acorn Computers account turned out to be one of the key moments in mine.

POSTCRIPT:

In 2009 the BBC made a feature film, Micro Men, about the 1980’s home computer phenomenon, starring Martin Freeman as Christopher Curry and Alexander Armstrong as Clive Sinclair. The denouement of the film was an infamous brawl that took place in a Cambridge watering hole, shortly before Christmas 1984. The cause for the altercation, was a press advertisement produced by the agency, headlined ‘For Some Computers Christmas Is A Time For Giving Back’, which took a swipe at the Sinclair Spectrum’s rubber keys that had the unfortunate habit of falling off. This so infuriated the future Sir Clive that, armed with our advert in hand, he tracked Curry down to The Baron Of Beef pub in Cambridge. In the ensuing confrontation both men ended up on the floor grappling with each other. The story of this made the front pages, the next day. As it is said, ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’!

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10 Responses to From little Acorns.

  1. Hans Wernhart says:

    Wow – a most interesting read!
    I had no idea….

  2. J B Temple says:

    Wonderful! So evocative of London [& advertising] in the 70s & 80s. Loved it

  3. Ericle says:

    [From: David]
    Thanks for the article. I didn’t realise these devices had any value! But it did take me back…I pre-ordered my BBC Micro (model A) before they were generally available and so got one of the earliest. I think I must have received it in 1981. I can’t remember much about how I used it personally but it was used in a university experiment – I was working on the Edinburgh Wave Power Project at the time, and we were running an experiment in our narrow tank. We were trying to evolve a better control algorithm for our power extraction device, the Duck. We had a “random” wave sequence, simulating a typical N Atlantic wave climate, which we could run repeatedly as we “tweaked” the control algorithm to see if the energy output increased. If a tweak gave a benefit, it was accepted, otherwise it was rejected. The whole process was automated and we happily left it running overnight. As I recall, it used at least three different computers, each running its language of choice. The wavemaker was driven by a Commodore Pet, the Duck was controlled by the BBC Micro and data collection was handled by a Sirius 1, or Victor 9000 as it was known in the US. In fact the Sirius 1 was an early attempt to use the Intel 8088 processor, but when the IBM PC came along (using the same processor) it totally took over the market. The Sirius died. I took my personal BBC Micro with me to the US in 1983 and used it for many things – it was my word processor and, more importantly, a wonderful tool for running experiments, as it had analog input ports. We were making a couple of manned subs for Canal +, the French TV Company, for which we needed banks of 12V batteries. Battery capacity, or Amp-Hours, is published for every battery but difficult to check. We found some manufacturers’ Amp-Hour claims to be ridiculous! So I made a test setup for calibrating battery capacity, using the BBC Micro to measure the battery current and voltage as it cycled between charging and discharging. Again this was an operation we could leave running overnight. It allowed us to select the best battery for the job. (I think the subs are still in operation – last I heard they had been bought by James Cameron, the film maker.) The final twist in the Acorn story is its last machine. It wanted something better than the BBC Micro, considered going to 16 bits (a la PC) bur finally made the jump to 32 bits in the Archimedes. In fact this little UK company tried to produce their own windowing software and their own 32 bit processor – in effect doing Wintel in house. What ambition! But the 32 bit processor they developed, originally the “ARM”, Acorn Risc Machine, has now become the de facto processor used in every smart phone in the world. A UK success story. From little acorns indeed!

  4. Ericle says:

    [From: John]
    Great piece. All news to me except I recall seeing the Micro Men programme.

  5. Ericle says:

    [From: Anna]
    Great story! I enjoyed the Sliding Doors aspects, also reflecting on the same effects that ALSG/ACIS had for me. I well remember your Marketing role at Airport Drive.

  6. Ericle says:

    [From David L.]
    Happy memories!

  7. Ericle says:

    [From: Pia]
    We were all so touched in our jobs and life by the arrival of computers! I introduced them in my High School in 1983… and with the opposition of many teachers…

  8. Ericle says:

    [From: Victor]
    I won’t be cluttering up my house with them, but what an interesting and exciting career you had.

  9. Ericle says:

    [From: Pat]
    Just  spotted your Acorn article Eric, and a very interesting, entertaining and extensive composition it is of behind-the – scenes anecdotes from the budding world of early home – computing hardware, and the associated marketing triumphs of the Eric’s of this world! I remember the early brands which I must say I distanced myself from until I eventually got myself  a Toshiba… I don’t think I ever managed to get beyond some feeble effort at computer programming… God what was I thinking of! I do recall a very entertaining TV drama on the race between Sinclair and his rivals… and coming away with the thought that  “hell has no fury like an inventor scorned”. Clive Sinclair seemed  a very interesting and intense person, to put it mildly,though perhaps understandably so.

  10. Simon says:

    Rather belated comment but here goes. A bit later than it needed to be ‘cos I had to wait around 5 minutes for my PC to be usable after I turned it on. I think the BBC was a superb machine and in many ways computing has gone downhill since then. It was instantly on and any software one installed started instantly – just terrific.

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