BBC Basic Introduction and Resources

Most people have probably heard of the quintessential Basic programming language, but there are some less know flavors of Basic.

BBC Basic is a version of the Basic programming language developed for the Acorn BBC Micro personal computer, based on the MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor.

BBC Basic was used extensively in many schools and colleges in the UK during the 1980s to teach basic computer and programming skills, making UK one of the most computer-literate nations in the eighties.

What Is BBC Basic?

BBC Basic is a programming language created primarily for educational purposes by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for use in their Computer Literacy Project in UK. It was largely influenced by Microsoft’s Basic and introduced a number of additional features.

This is a rare case where a TV broadcaster created a programming language and a dedicated computer, only to market them along with an educational TV series.

At first, BBC Basic was developed solely for use on Acorn BBC Micro personal computers. Later, with the success of the BBC Micro and the Computer Literacy TV series, other personal computer manufacturers became interested in making BBC Basic available on their computers, so many ports of BBC Basic for different computers and platforms appeared.

Brief History

Development of the BBC Basic programming language was started in 1979, when the BBC first started work on a project designed to educate the general public in the use of computers and programming.

Since many different home computers were available at the time, with a variety of different incompatible operating systems and programming languages, the BBC decided that it would be simpler to offer a standard platform — a dedicated home computer with the BBC Basic programming language that would be covered in the TV series.

The programming language also had to be similar to those already in use, like Microsoft Basic, so BBC Basic was developed by Sophie Wilson from Cambridge University and her colleagues.

The BBC itself did not have the resources to design and manufacture a home computer, so Acorn Computers from Cambridge was chosen among a number of British companies and awarded the manufacturing contract.

In the beginning of 1982, the first Model A BBC Microcomputer hit the shelves, as the first series of The Computer Programme started broadcasting on BBC, on January 11, 1982.

Programs written in Microsoft Basic required almost no changes to run in BBC Basic, while programs written specifically for the BBC Basic could use some of its more sophisticated features.

Over time, many ports of BBC Basic appeared. They were designed for more than 30 different platforms.

Features

Compared to Microsoft Basic, BBC Basic introduced a number of new features useful in encouraging best practices, like the ability to use long variable names and the possibility of writing well-structured code with easy program flow control.

BBC Basic also extended the traditional Basic with the use of named procedures and functions, repeat until loops and if then else structures. BBC Basic’s interpreter also supported powerful statements for control of the sound and display output.

Another unique feature of BBC Basic is the presence of an inline assembler that allowed users to write assembly language programs as well.

Who Uses BBC Basic Today?

In its day, BBC Basic was a great tool for learning the basics of computer programming. There are many programs written in BBC Basic available and ready to use.

However, many modern educational tools available today provide for easier learning with visual tools, so BBC Basic was left aside, relegated to a small enthusiast community.

Today, BBC Basic is significant as an example of a mass tech education program, and thus holds an important place in the history of computing.

Your Development Environment

If you would still like to try BBC Basic and see it in action, you can do it very easily, and luckily, you do not have to find and buy a home computer from the wild eighties to do so.

BBC Basic is available for Microsoft Windows, so you can download it and try it out. Or you can try the BBC Micro emulator BeebEm for Windows, Mac and Unix/Linux operating systems.

Resources

The choice of online resources for BBC Basic is limited due to its age, but we did manage to single out some interesting tutorials and resources for you.

BBC Basic Courses and Tutorials

These tutorials and courses provide a good starting point to learning the basic syntax of the BBC programming language:

  • An Introduction to Programming BBC Basic for Windows is the official, detailed tutorial for programming in BBC Basic for Windows.

  • BBC Basic programming is a website by Richard Weston PhD. It is a bit disorganized and difficult to navigate, but it contains 42 tutorials covering a wide range of programming topics including graphics and sound. The web site has not been updated since 2005, however.

Programming Reference and Documentation

As we pointed out, there aren’t that many BBC Basic resources and references out there. We managed to find a few online, and if you happen to live in Britain, you might be better off looking for proper books.

Books

Some books about BBC Basic programming can still be found and purchased online, although most of them were published back in the 1980s. We singled out only two of them, so if you like the crinkle of paper, you can try these:

  • Illustrating BBC Basic by Donald G. Alcock can be used as a self-contained manual for BBC Basic. A quick reference to all functions and operators and the syntax of every statement and command of BBC Basic is also provided.

  • Programs in BBC Basic for Young Mathematicians by Sydney G. Brewer is designed as a self-contained teaching aid for people interested in implementing mathematics in BBC Basic.

Summary

Although BBC Basic is now more of a historical curiosity, it's still quite interesting to see how it fits into the history of computers. It's amazing to think that today, most people around the world walk around powerful computers in their pockets.

But back just a few decades, they were a very new thing, and people will still marveling about the change from computer punch cards to silicon chips.