Acorn Atom Retrospective

Updated on July 28, 2020
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Martin has been a software developer for many years. This is mixed with a passion for retro machines and game,

The Acorn Atom

The Acorn Atom was the ancestor to the BBC series of computers manufactured by Acorn.

They seemed to like to name their machines with scientific names (Atom, Electron) - if they were still going today, would be have the Acorn Proton? Or Nucleus?

Anyway, like just the ZX80 and ZX81 (which were both soon to follow in the UK), it was sold in kit form or as a ready-assembled computer.

Buying it in kit form was of course, the cheaper option.

So let's have a look at another classic 8-bit home computer from a classic company that helped pioneer the early days...

Competing in the Marketplace With the Acorn Atom

The great advantage of the Atom compared to its competitors (The Tandy TRS-80 and the Commodore PET) was its high resolution display capabilities (256 x 192 was achievable), which was quite unusual way back in the era of psychedelic shirts, hanglider collars, platform shoes and Ford Cortina's.

Yep, the Atom was given to us by Acorn way back in 1979.

The price was nice too. In kit form, it would cost you £120 and a ready assembled computer would set you back £170.

The built in BASIC did have some limitations, such as only being able to use integer variables.

An optional 4K ROM could be added to the machine and gave the programmer the ability to use floating point numbers, trigonometric functions to convert degrees/radians and also to draw graphics in color. Nice.

Being able to see graphics in colour in 1979 was something rather special it must be said.

More add-ons were also available to enable autonumbering, a faster cassette interface (running at an incredible 1200 bauds), and functions such as INKEY$, MID$, READ, DATA, FILL and so on. There was even a BBC BASIC board available.

Speed, as of other machines during the era, was pretty standard at 1Mhz, courtesy of a 6502 central processing unit.

The Acorn Atom

The Acorn Atom must have laid the template for the looks of future Acorn machines
The Acorn Atom must have laid the template for the looks of future Acorn machines

Acorn Atom Utilities

A lot of applications were available on sideways ROMs that plugged into the utility ROM socket.

Applications such as the "Atom Word Pack ROM" could be used for word processing or Atom-Calc, which was a 4K ROM spreadsheet that could be used via the ROM socket.

A colour card could be connected to the BUS connector, to give the system eight colors, 4 simultaneously at the 64 x 192 resolution or 2 at 128 x 192 for example.

The sound generator was a simple beeper, similar to the beeper that would be installed inside the ZX Spectrum a couple of years down the line.

Still, any sound on a home micro at this point in time was a real nicety.

It was possible to expand the sound generated by directly accessing the sound I/O port and manipulating it at a certain frequency, real geeky stuff!

The machine itself does resemble its later offerings (such as the BBC Micro) in appearance, using a similar colour scheme and style.

None of them ever stood out to the eye when sitting on the shelf.

What was packed away on the insides really counted - and as Acorn would prove over the next decade, they were in many ways ahead of the competition.

A Brochure For The Acorn Atom

Choose the power of the mighty Acorn Atom!
Choose the power of the mighty Acorn Atom!

Classic Frogger On The Acorn Atom

Acorn Atom Peripherals

A lot of other peripherals were available for the machine including:

  • A 5.25 inch floppy disk drive which was capable of storing 100K of data. This held the DOS in a 3K ROM but actually cost about twice as much as a new Atom. Did they use an integer based program to work out the price?
  • A digital-tape recorder. Yes, you read that correctly, a DIGITAL TAPE RECORDER!
  • A printer interface.
  • A network card known as the 'EcoNet' which could enable the linking of up to 250 Atoms running at 210 K/Bauds transfer rate. A solid network without Windows!
  • RAM expansions were also available.

The machine was really quite something at that time with these sort of expansion capabilities.

Omega Mission on the Acorn Atom

Warlords on the Acorn Atom

Gaming on the Acorn Atom

Despite the Atom never being designed as a games machine, there were still some notable titles that are worthy of mention.

The following titles are definitely worth a go if you pick up one of these machines or via emulation:

  • Warlords - Think of Crossbows & Catapults set within Breakout!
  • Trap - A very basic kong type game that exudes charm.
  • Bell Hopp - Simple yet brilliant.
  • Frogger - The classic arcade game found its way onto the Atom.

Trap on the Atom (a little bit like Kong)

Let's Sum the Acorn Atom Up...

Whilst this computer was never a classic games machine, it really got the company moving.

Acorn would go on to be a household name in the UK over the next 10 years or so.

In many ways, the Atom was ahead of its time, and it did have versions of classic arcade games such as Space Invaders, Scramble, Pac Man and Frogger. The gamer was catered for by the Atom.

There were even early 3D games such as Space Battle - remember, this is back when any sort of '3D' was truly mindblowing!

This game was basic in concept but the programming behind it was pretty clever it must be said.

Those guys at Acorn were really ahead of their time in many ways and would continue to innovate with the excellent BBC Micro and Archimedes.

Space Battle - An Early 3D Shooter On The Acorn Atom

Another UK Brochure Poster For The Acorn Atom

The Acorn Atom was reasonable at £199 - taken from The Advertising Archives
The Acorn Atom was reasonable at £199 - taken from The Advertising Archives

Any fans of the Atom?

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    • profile image


      21 months ago

      For the record there is an acorn proton

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      "They seemed to like to name their machines with scientific names (Atom, Electron) - if they were still going today would be have the Acorn Proton? Or Nucleus? "

      The BBC Micro was the Acorn Proton.. And somehow Acorn is still with us - the ARM processor once powered the acorn archimedes range.


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