Econet – Britain’s Early Educational Network

If you compare the early PC market for the US and the UK, you’ll notice one big difference. While many US schools had Apple computers, there were significant numbers of other computers in schools, as well. In the UK, pretty much every school that had a computer had an Acorn BBC Micro. [RetroBytes] takes us down memory lane, explaining how and why the schools went with Econet — an early network virtually unknown outside of the UK. You can see the video, which includes an interview with one of the Acorn engineers involved in Econet.

Nowadays, you don’t have to convince people of the value of a network, but back then it wasn’t a no brainer. The driver for most schools to adopt networking was to share a very expensive hard disk drive among computers. The network used RS-422, a common enough choice in Apple computers, spacecraft, and industrial control applications.

Econet had a lot of things we take for granted today. E-mail, chat, remote desktop, and more. In theory, speeds could be as much as 100 kB/second. There was even an X.25 gateway if you wanted to connect to faraway schools or a mainframe. Oddly enough, Econet required a “clock box” that provided the data clock for all stations on the network.

It is hard to remember there were so many network solutions before Ethernet. Everyone had their own horse in the race ranging from ARCnet, Token Ring, and Omninet, to name a few. There were some IBM PC Econet cards produced, but according to [RetroBytes] they were expensive and hard to find.

Like all networks, though, Econet would eventually succumb to Ethernet. It took a while, though. The Linux kernel even had support for it until fairly recently.

As common as RS-422 is in industrial settings, we haven’t seen much of it around here. Sure, there was an X-ray sensor. Then there was the thermal camera photo booth, but that might have been RS-485, which is related to RS-422 and is sort of a bidirectional version of RS-422.

21 thoughts on “Econet – Britain’s Early Educational Network

  1. RS-422 is used in some industrial equipment still. I haven’t seen a device that uses it myself but I’ve seen support for it built into protocol converters/gateways. You know the trifecta, RS-232, RS-422, and RS-485.

    1. Gah I hadn’t finished editing and double checking the article. Sorry I missed the last bit on first read through… Places like Automation Direct have devices that speak it but no sensors, only controllers, converters, and actually some servo drivers.

    1. Starnet used parallel data transmission… worked very well and was pretty quick. My first full time role in my career was as product manager for the hard-disk enabled version of Starnet.

    2. At my high school in Texas in 1982, the remedial math room had about a dozen CBM PETs (the later ones with decent keyboards) all wired with IEEE-488 cables stacked onto the back of a single CBM floppy drive.

      The room was also where they put TI minicomputer that they had recently acquired. I never got to use it, but I heard that if any of its five or so terminals went down, it locked up the system. It seems the remedial math room was also the room for remedial computing.

  2. Econet was RS485 – it had a bidirectional data pair, and a global receive-only clock pair. The clock box had adjustable frequency and mark/space to optimise for a particular cable layout. From memory I think you could get up to about 500kbits.sec on very small networks. They even made a PC econet card, which had a 6502 on it running the actual protocol, as it did on the BBC micro. There ware also bridge boxes that allowed gatewaying between multiple physical networks.

  3. RS-422 is an industry standard in broadcast. It’s the standard protocol to remotely control broadcast VTRs (think everything from 1″ C-format open-reel, via Betacam SP, all the way to HD Cam SR) as well as vision mixers, routers etc. Blackmagic still include RS-422 interfaces on a lot of their Ultrastudio and Decklink capture cards.

  4. in the late 90’s i worked at a school where we were moving from Acorn+echo net to 486’s/p1’s and 10baseT coaxial 50ohm networks, I still have a stash of 50ohms bncs and terminators for the econet and a clock box somewhere. I miss the acorns instant boot and GUI, windows never really had the same feel to me.

    1. BBC users sneered at Spectrum users like they were neanderthals for having to do the reach around to pull the power plug… let me ask you, which machine trained you better for dealing with your locked up wifi router, huh? Huh?

  5. The “and then there was ethernet” is a bit misleading as to the 80s to early 90s LAN landscape. Ethernet eventually won, and maybe lower education clung on to econet long enough that it had become the winner, but there was a long battle throughout the decade. Also it existed prior to econet.

    Wikipedia doesn’t actually seem to cover this very well at all, mentions arcnet and token ring, but there was a veritable zoo of networking hardware, network topologies and media, and on top network operating systems either tied to hardware, supporting a handful, or claiming to unite all. Education was almost bound to have backed the wrong horse anyway, so staying in their econet enclave they at least picked a tame horse, until IBM clone market dominance was established and following that some years later ethernet.

    Maybe ethernet had started to edge ahead for new installs by the time the 90s swung in, but as it became a TCP/IP world, which was straightforward to implement on ethernet, and the internet became important, other LAN implementations suffered a complete collapse in demand. Some “shops” clung on to their “investment” in other types well into the 90s though. They didn’t talk about them much on the internet though, it was too much of a pain in the butt to get access :-D

    1. to be fair I had to wait for Wikipedia to be invented before I found out what Banyan Vines was. I remember all my network cards were compatible but I’s never actually seen it.

      1. Yes there’s a real laundry list of protocols that will run over ethernet hardware, and by the early 90s we had those NE2000 clones down to $10 a pop when PC ethernet hardware in the early 80s was more like a thousand. Vines was quite a strong contender at one time, I think it got a whole chapter in the 1st Edition of Networking for Dummies, but by ’96 and the 2nd Edition, that was down to a page. I don’t think it’s had a passing mention for the last decade at least.

        There were such things as dual network cards though (switchable) beyond the Ethernet types with AUI/10baseT/10base2 coax connectors. DEC’s DECnet was very “ethernetty” without quite being the same thing until it kind of converged with it quietly in the 80s. So many of their old ISA NICs could support Decnet or ethernet. Another one I had was an 8 bit XT card by SMC that was supposedly ARCnet and ethernet switchable. This was done by moving a huge jumper block, which I presume retuned the drivers somehow, rigged a balun maybe between needing 50 ohm to the coax for ethernet or 90something for ARCnet. Weird thing was it said it did ethernet but only at 1Mbit…. I did have a machine using it on a 10base2 segment for a while, and yup it was slow. Though still a lot faster than a lot of other options.

  6. Similar thing was made here in Canada (Ontario), called the ICON, a networked (in a room) computer system. If your interested I’ll put a link below. Isn’t it amazing how bureaucrats think they can invent something better and cheaper than the free market? But the did well with the camel. (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/a_camel_is_a_horse_designed_by_a_committee)

    https://web.archive.org/web/20110709041328/http://www.100megspopup.com/redawa/BIC/BIC3.html

  7. I had a BBC EcoNET Level 3 network at home. Sadly I suspect the HDD died as the fileserver stopped booting (a Micro B with a Tube and an a massive 50MB HD). I still have the hard disk.. might have the Tube somewhere.

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