Robert Hampton

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10th February 2015


The first Acorn computer I ever owned (and the third computer overall, after a Commodore VIC-20 and C64) was an A3010. It was bought for me in May 1993, purchased from Rapid Computers on Childwall Fiveways. It was a reward from my parents to celebrate my passing the entrance exam for Merchant Taylors School; had I known how that was going to turn out, I would probably have stuck with my Commodore 64 for another year or so.

Acorn A3010

The A3010 was the “budget” Acorn computer, an attempt by Acorn to escape from the classrooms and science labs where their computers were usually found and get into teenagers’ bedrooms with a games machine. There was no monitor supplied, but you could plug it into a TV for glorious 640×512 resolution. Only 1 megabyte of RAM, an ARM250 processor running at a blistering 12 Mhz, and no hard disc – why would you need one when an ADFS floppy could hold 1.6 megabytes?

It was cheap’n’cheerful and, to me, it was computer heaven. For a year or so before, I had gazed longingly at the BBC A3000 in the corner of my primary school classroom, enviously looking on as my fellow pupils typed away in the Phases 2 word processor, printing off their rubbish poems on the noisy Epson FX80 printer. Now, finally, I had a RISC OS machine to call my own.

A few years later I got a big power increase when I upgraded to a RiscPC, and the A3010 was relegated to a secondary machine. But it will always hold a special place for me. It was on this machine that I bashed out my first BBC BASIC programs. It was on this machine that I stayed up until 1am doing a project for History that I’d put off until the last minute. It was here that I wasted more than a few hours playing Sim City, and Lemmings, and probably my favourite of all, Fervour:-

When we moved to our current home there was no space to have my Aladdin’s Cave of computers on display, so the A3010 got put away in a cupboard. But it gained a new lease of life for a few years, as I wrote a program to run a game of Family Fortunes. Being able to code the game directly in BBC BASIC and then plug the computer straight into the TV to run it gave it a big advantage over the newer computers which we were using by now. It got dragged out regularly at Christmas get-togethers, with me playing the role of Les Dennis.

I thought long and hard about getting rid of this machine. Sentimentality can’t always win out, though: it’s been sitting in a cupboard for nearly three years. It needed to go, so tonight a nice man came and took it off my hands. I hope he loves and appreciates it as much as I did. Or uses it for parts. Whatever.

With the advent of the Raspberry Pi, I’m still using a distant relative of the A3010 every day, so I haven’t cut ties with that world completely. Even so… the feels.

2nd February 2015


The tech world is abuzz today – Raspberry Pi is back with a new, sexier upgrade:-

A new more powerful Raspberry Pi 2 that is six times faster than the original from 2012, has been launched by the Cambridge-based startup costing £23.30.

Good luck getting one. They’ve been selling fast, and servers at some of the online retailers are buckling under the demand.

The Pi, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a £25 computer. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but easily capable of running a variety of software. The Pi is leading the charge to get people (especially kids) interested in programming. Find a spare USB keyboard and mouse, then plug the Pi straight into the TV, just like the ZX Spectrums of old (although the Pi’s HDMI output is at a slightly higher-resolution). The idea is to have a cheap computer that can be tinkered with at will, without worries about breaking it. If something goes disastrously wrong, simply reformat the SD card and start again.

Although the target audience is kids, plenty of older geeks (ahem) have bought a Pi for their own pet projects. Pi has been used to run a home security system, create a retro game console, and even to create a DIY Ceefax service.

RISC OS Pi Desktop

I got an original Model B a couple of years ago. Everyone else put a flavour of Linux on it, but I went and whacked RISC OS on mine. That’s the OS I grew up with – first on an Acorn A3010, then a RiscPC which lasted nearly eight years (towards the end of its life it was held together by bits of superglue and gaffer tape). Apart from the odd game of Fervour, I was the archetypal teenage bedroom coder, churning out semi-functional BBC BASIC files week-in, week-out. My proudest moment was getting one of my apps onto the Acorn User cover disc.

Zap displaying BBC BASIC code on RISC OS Pi

I haven’t had much time recently to play with the Pi, but I’ve tried to set aside an hour or two each week to sit and do some coding. After the stress of dealing with our barely functional LAN at work, and the slog of studying three (3!) Open University computing modules, it’s nice to have a reminder that computers can be fun.

15th March 2013

Techno techno techno techno

ComputersIt’s hard to imagine now, but when this blog was founded, I had to write the entries by creating a series of punched cards, which were then sent by first class post to a laboratory in Cambridge, where a man in a white coat would feed them one-by-one into a mainframe computer to create each blog post.

OK, that’s obviously not true. But technology has moved on in leaps and bounds in the last decade, often in new and unpredictable ways. In 2003 there were no YouTube videos to embed, no tweets to RT, and if you poked someone in public, you could expect a slap in the face in return. Google was a search engine company rather than an… everything company.

As for me, in 2003 I was still using RISC OS, the operating system designed by Acorn Computers for their ARM-based systems. Acorn had shut up shop in 1998, but the OS was still being developed by an independent company and I had fun playing with the latest versions as they were released. I was also still using it to do web design work (still haven’t found an app as good as Draw for quick pictures and diagrams). So when my machine started developing hardware faults, I was alarmed.

When computers develop hardware problems, my usual attitude is something approaching blind panic. I never did a backup (I meant to, but never get round to it), and I never paid attention when the hard drive started playing up last year (I meant to, but never got round to it). Procrastination 1, Rob 0.

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18th August 2010

I like computers so much, I changed my name to Computer Jones

Followers of my Twitter feed (those who aren’t spambots selling diet pills, anyway) will probably be aware that I have been clearing out junk from my loft. This is not due to some sudden financial crisis, nor am I desperately trying to feed an addiction (unless you count my weakness for Haribo Tangfastics). It’s simply because we’re getting a loft conversion done, and an empty loft facilitates that. Therefore selling some old crap is a good idea.

Amongst the stuff up there is a veritable museum of computer history: twenty years of accumulated electronics, including my Commodore 64 (top right), Acorn RiscPC (top left) and Acorn A3010 (bottom). Also up there but not pictured: my Super NES.


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1st January 2010

2009? More like Two Thousand and Fine!

July saw Merseyrail’s run of bad luck continue, as a train rolled out of the depot and derailed. To atone for their sins, they introduced a new day ranger ticket, but I wasn’t convinced. This was something of a train-y month for me, as I did my bit to help out the previous generation of Merseyrail trains. Trains were also on the Government’s mind, as they announced that the Liverpool to Manchester line would be electrified.

In London, the Police proved once again what a wonderful organisation they are. In Rome, a swimmer suffered an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction.

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13th October 2009

Fred, Jim and Sheila

Last week BBC Four showed Micro Men, billed as a “drama-documentary” (i.e. facts with made up bits in between to make it more interesting) about the rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn for dominance of the UK’s nascent home computer market in the early 1980s.

I came to the world of computers long after this battle had been fought (Acorn had the education market sewn up, but Sinclair’s cheaper ZX Spectrum won the majority of the home users) but for a long-standing Acorn fan such as myself it was fascinating to see the events recreated, including a marvellous scene where the Acorn techies frantically work to get the prototype BBC Micro working while boss Chris Curry is stalling the BBC executives in the corridor outside.

One aspect the programme does capture perfectly is the genuine feeling of excitement that existed as affordable home computers entered people’s homes for the first time. Whether it was the Spectrum with its rubber keys and colour clash, or the BBC Micro’s occasionally-flammable power supplies and blocky Mode 2 graphics, computing has never seemed quite so exciting since.

Micro Men is available on iPlayer. Go get it!

1st September 2009

Fruit and Nut

I’ve been pondering Macs again. The Mac Mini is available starting at £499, which is affordable enough, even when I consider the additional cost of some software (I would probably need to splash out 70 quid or so for the Mac version of MS Office, for example).

I’ve considered switching to Macs before. The first time I seriously thought about it was around the time Windows Vista was released. I was looking to replace my creaking PC and MacOS X looked preferable to Vista, which was getting a slating in the press. After careful consideration I eventually chickened out and went for a Dell PC, like a spineless corporate sheep.

So why did I reject the Mac? For the explanation, we have to go back to early 1993, when your humble webmaster was 10 years old. Having finally convinced my parents that my creaking Commodore 64 was not going to cut it, we set out to acquire a new computer. The one I settled on was the Acorn, because “that’s the one they use in schools”.

And so, I came home from the shop clutching an A3010 (the cheapest and nastiest of all Acorn’s models, fact fans), complete with 1 megabyte of RAM, floppy disc drive and a bundled copy of Zool (never got past level 2).

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21st March 2008


Hurray for the BBC Micro! Sadly I never owned one, so I had to settle for occasional goes on the one at my primary school. Then I would go home to my Commodore 64 which, while technically superior in some respects, was cursed by a primitive BASIC interpreter that couldn’t do anything remotely interesting without a long chain of POKE commands.

I salute you, BBC Model B, for encouraging a generation of geeky youngsters to use their bedrooms for programming instead of any less pure activities. May your cheery red function keys and chunky MODE 2 graphics earn you a place in the highest echelons of Silicon Heaven.

16th March 2008

That’s what the REM keyword is for

On impulse, I purchased BBC BASIC for Windows, for one reason and one reason only: to port my magnum opus, MadMaze, over to the dark side.

One problem I’ve encountered is that BB4W is based on a BBC Micro-type environment, whereas MadMaze is of course written for the 32-bit Acorn machines. So I’m going to have to change all the RISC OS system calls to BBC Micro-type calls. And where is no BBC Micro equivalent, I’m going to have to find the Windows equivalent and use that. Oh, and the sound system is different. Oh, and I wish I’d commented my atrocious code better.

But it works… after a fashion:-

MadMaze for Windows