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11 October, 2019 - 11:41 By Tony Quested

Even Hauser surprised by impact of Cambridge computer breakthrough

Along with Chris Curry, he was in at the dawn of computing history. But Acorn co-founder Hermann Hauser professes himself amazed at the oak the fledgling enterprise grew into.

To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the BBC’s Micro Men, starring Alexander Armstrong and Martin Freeman, The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge this week invited Curry, Hauser and Steve Furber – who are represented in the film – for a re-watch of the movie.

Before stepping back onto the metaphorical red carpet, Dr Hauser told me: “I had no idea our original efforts would become a global game changer. It is fantastic to see so many Cambridge technology companies build on our legacy and for the cluster generally to have aspired to such phenomenal global heights.”

Micro Men, the drama, is centred on two of the leading players and their respective companies in the home computer market of the late 1970s and early 1980s focusing on the race to win a grant from the BBC to become the provider of a home computer for the BBC’s programming for schools. 

Certain parts of the drama are based on historical fact while others are dramatisation and a version of events at the time.

The main characters are ZX Spectrum creator Clive Sinclair and BBC Micro creators Curry, Sophie Wilson, Furber and Hauser. 

Before Acorn existed, Hauser and Curry each invested £50 to set up a Cambridge-rooted consultancy called CPU. They hooked the first customer by chance.

Dr Hauser recalled for Business Weekly’s Cambridge Torchbearers book in conjunction with Judge Business School and Horizon Discovery, how the duo had flown by “the seat of our pants.”

Hermann had just got his PhD in physics at Cambridge and the fledgling business had no money at all. CPU developed the ACE controller based on a National Semiconductor SC/MP microprocessor and would soon switch to MOS technology 6502. It was effectively a solid and dependable new ‘engine’ for fruit machines.

Hermann lost the two-man raffle and was despatched to a fruit machine company to try to make the inaugural sale. “To be honest I didn’t really have a clue what kind of money I should be asking for. 

“From somewhere I came up with the figure of £1k up front just to get involved and then found the courage to demand another £1k to install the technology.

“We earned £3,000 in total from that first deal. So we produced a completely new design of the core electronic box for £3k and made around a £2k profit.”

CPU financed the development of an SC/MP-based microcomputer system using the initial income from the design and build consultancy and launched the system in January 1979 as the first product of Acorn Computer Ltd.

Dr Hauser said: “We had a very simple business plan for Acorn that contained one detail very precisely: It’s all going to happen in microprocessors and every house will have one.

“We call them chips nowadays, of course, and with the Arm business born within Acorn in 1990 we are proud of our prophecy.”

For the record, the BBC Micro sold well and the young Acorn went on to an historic IPO for the sector, born with a market cap of £135 million and shares at 120p, allowing Messrs Hauser and Curry to convert their original £50 ‘gambles’ to respective holdings worth £64m and £51m.

• PHOTOGRAPH: Edward Baker-Duly (left), who plays Hermann Hauser and Martin Freeman as Chris Curry in the BBC’s Micro Men. Picture courtesy – The Centre for Computing History.

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