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ARM rises from Acorn to lead system-chip revolution

Posted: 28 Nov 2012  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:microprocessors  CMOS  processor  Acorn System 

There were several attempts to create a separate company from the processor development unit of Acorn. One proved successful in 1990 when VLSI Technology and Apple Computer backed Advanced Risc Machines, later abbreviated to ARM, as a joint venture.

"The Acorn Atom was a repackaging of the industrial sub-systems we had developed," said Wilson. "It included a BASIC interpreter that I had written, but it also included some design faults. We needed to do a professional version of the Atom. Andy Hopper [later Professor Andy Hopper of Olivetti Research and Cambridge], wanted a workstation to run all the high-end languages while Chris Curry wanted something just a little better [than Atom] that would be commercial," recalls Wilson.

"I suggested a two-part design with an I/O processor and a language processor. Proton was the project name," said Wilson.

The Proton project led to the now infamous pitch by Acorn in 1981 to build a computer for the U.K.'s national television service, the BBC. The BBC wanted to commission an affordable home and schools computer on which they could demonstrate programming and computer science in a series of broadcasts.

Hauser phoned up Wilson one Sunday in 1981 and asked if it would be possible to turn the Proton plans into a working prototype by the following Friday for a visit by the BBC. For once Wilson told Hauser "no!"

Wilson recalls that Hauser said: "That's a pity," but seemed to accept the answer. Hauser then phoned up Furber asking the same question but adding that Wilson had indicated it might be possible. Furber's initial reaction had been the same as Wilson's but he agreed that if Wilson thought it doable there was no harm in trying.

There followed four days of long hours, frantic work, calling in favours from semiconductor suppliers to get hold of sample parts, blowing of custom uncommitted logic arrays (ULAs), and wire-wrapping boards with hundreds of posts and thousands of connections. "There was a great deal of debugging on the Thursday using an in-circuit emulator based on an Acorn System 5," recalls Wilson.

This led to the incident of the machine failing to boot and rejecting all attempts to diagnose the problem late into Thursday evening until, in desperation, Hauser suggested disconnecting the emulator. At which point the prototype sprang into life.


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