A Cambridge invention that revolutionized computing – and was ALPHA’s foundation stone
In the late 1970s and early 1980s it became clear that the advent of microprocessors would revolutionize many aspects of people’s lives. The earlier minicomputers were unwieldy and expensive to manufacture, just like mainframes. But once the “computer-on-a-chip” was available, manufacturing cost dropped drastically and production volumes increased. The microcomputer revolution (also called personal computer revolution) had started in earnest. Computers moved from the business environment into every home and every school – in the UK rather earlier than on the continent.
Between 1979 and 1983 the BBC developed an ambitious initiative, called the BBC Computer Literacy Project. The people behind it had a grand vision. They were on a mission to help the general public, i.e. their viewers, to understand and make use of information technology. They wanted to give youngsters the opportunity to learn about the principles of computing and programming, and to raise public awareness of this new technology. This would ensure success in the realms of science and also in industry. At the beginning of this revolution, low-cost microcomputers were a novelty, by the end they were ubiquitous.
The machine that made this dream come true was the “BBC Micro” (pictured below), designed and built by Acorn Computers in Cambridge. It was capable of performing all kinds of tasks and was exactly the machine the BBC was after (there were companies in the competition, but Acorn won). It was equipped with a simple programming language called BBC BASIC, which was easy enough even for young children to pick up quickly. It could teach people programming skills. It could create graphics and sound, it doubled as a piano and it allowed manoeuvring a robotic turtle and control industrial devices, including robots. It housed a 6502 processor and was equipped with several interfaces allowing its output to be viewed via a monitor or TV set. It did not have a disk drive at the outset, but used a cassette recorder instead. Its price tag was 235 English pounds (not cheap for the time, in today’s money some 800 pounds). Interesting to note perhaps: Acorn’s chip design methods still power the majority of mobile phones today, including smartphones.
The machine proved hugely successful with kids, teachers and with parents. It had real mass appeal and was sold in much bigger volumes than anticipated. It was the break-through that brought computers into practically every school and every home. It proved hugely inspirational in fields as diverse as programming, music, computer-aided design and games development, but also more generally for applications in science and industry. And there was a whole raft of engineers and entrepreneurs who jumped on the bandwaggon, making the UK a kind of powerhouse of IT technology. By 1983, 85% of British schools were equipped with BBC Computers. The time was ripe therefore to expand beyond the UK. The BBC and Acorn had an appetite to break into international markets. One of which was Germany.
And since it was destined for schools and homes, clearly all its software needed to be translated into German (a wordprocessor, a spreadsheet, a graphics program, some games …) as did the user guide (“Handbuch”). So they published an invitation to bid for all their translation work. I had my one-woman translation company at the time, called Albion, and to my delight I won the contract. To this day, I keep a copy of that 554 pages strong User Guide of which you see the front cover here:
This meant I had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, when computers were about to enter into everyday life and revolutionize the way we live and work. Within days I changed from my faithful IBM golf ball typewriter on which I had been typing all my translations for a few years, to the Acorn BBC and its proprietary wordprocessor (called “View”) – venturing into unknown territory. Naturally, I very quickly discovered just what a difference a wordprocessor makes to the translator’s job: You can edit, reformlate and correct your texts as often as you like. If you skipped a paragraph by mistake you simply inserted it later (no need any more to re-type 5, 6 pages …).
The introductory paragraph goes like this: “Wir beglückwünschen Sie zum Kauf Ihres BBC Microcomputers. Er wird auch Ihnen helfen, die “Zukunft spielend zu erlernen” und dabei das Unbehagen zu verlieren, welches so oft mit dem Begriff “Computer” einhergeht. Sie werden bald selbst sehen, wie viel Spaß damit verbunden ist.” And it went on to tell the new proud owners that they could simply connect their television to the machine, plus an ordinary cassette recorder for saving their work.
Some of the main challenges of this translation project were the computer jargon terms for which I quickly discovered there were no entries in my dictionaries. Among these were: cursor (I invented “Positionsanzeiger”), scroll (“rollieren”), Escape key (“Panik-Knopf”), prompt (“Bereit-Zeichen”), memory (“Computergedächtnis”), etc. Even really basic concepts like saving, loading, file, delete, restore had no “agreed” translations back in those days. It was all terribly new, and of course all the terms had been coined in the US or in the UK, while other countries like Germany were lagging behind. Some of these newly coined terms have remained unchanged, others have since been replaced. Many are now simply used in English.
It was precisely this creative aspect, this sense of doing something new and different, that I found very exciting, plus of course the feeling of being involved in playing a small part in helping non-technical people find their way in the world of computing. After the user guide I went on to translate the instruction manuals for View (the wordprocessor) and ViewSheet (the spreadsheet), Turtle Graphics, some business software as well as games, including a space trading video game called Elite, characterized by revolutionary 3D graphics which have made it a classic in gaming history. And that, really, is the story in a nutshell of how I got into translating my very first computer-related project and switched from an electric typewriter to a wordprocessor, and how Acorn and Albion paved the way for Alpha.