On a mundane day at some point in late 1987, though I didn’t grasp exactly what it would become at the time, I sat in front of the future. My school had a lab full of BBC Micros which I’d spent the previous few years getting to know, but on that day there was a new machine in one corner. It was a brand-new Acorn Archimedes, probably an A300, and it was the first time I had used an operating system with a desktop GUI. The computer was the first consumer application of the ARM processor architecture which has since gone on to conquer the world, and the operating system was called Arthur, which hasn’t. That’s not to say that Arthur is forgotten though, because it was soon renamed as RiscOS, managed to outlive both Acorn and the Archimedes, and still survives as a maintained though admittedly niche operating system to this day. So my Daily Driver this month is the current generation of RiscOS, version 5.28, and the machine I’m running it on is a Raspberry Pi 4. For a computer with an ARM core that’s designed and sold by a company based in Cambridge just like the original Acorn, it’s the most appropriate pairing I can think of.
Probably the Smallest OS In This Series
At one point the Raspberry Pi folks even featured the Pi version of RiscOS on their website, but for those missing it there it’s freely downloadable as a disk image from the RiscOS Open site. Having spent most of its life as a closed-source product it’s been opened up over the last decade, and you can grab the source if you’re interested. When it’s normal for an OS download to run into the many gigabytes, it’s a bit of a shock to grab one that’s a shade under 140 megabytes and can be written to a 2 gigabyte SD card. This makes it probably one of the quickest operating system installs I have ever done, with all steps completed in a very short time. Sticking the SD card into the Pi it boots to a desktop in about 32 seconds which is only 5 seconds less than the latest Raspberry Pi OS image, so sadly that compactness doesn’t net you any extra speed. Continue reading “Jenny’s Daily Drivers: RiscOS 5.28”→
The first order of business was to open the machine up and inspect the internals. Visible corrosion gets cleaned up with oxalic acid, old electrolytic capacitors are replaced as a matter of course, and any corroded traces get careful repair. Removing corrosion from sockets requires desoldering the part for cleaning then re-soldering, so this whole process can be a lot of work. Fortunately, vintage hardware was often designed with hand-assembly in mind, so parts tend to be accessible for servicing with decent visibility in the process. The keyboard was entirely disassembled and de-yellowed, yielding an eye-poppingly attractive result.
Once the computer itself was working properly, it was time for a few modern upgrades. One was to give the machine an adapter to use a CF card in place of an internal IDE hard drive, and [drygol] did a great job of using a 3D-printed piece to make the CF2IDE adapter look like a factory offering. The internal floppy drive was also replaced with a GOTEK floppy emulator (also with a 3D-printed adapter) for another modern upgrade.
The fully refurbished and upgraded machine looks slick, so watch the Acorn Archimedes A3020 show off what it can do in the video (embedded below), and maybe feel a bit of nostalgia.
The trouble with being an incidental witness to the start of something that later becomes world-changing is that at the time you are rarely aware of what you are seeing. Take the Acorn Archimedes, the home computer for which the first ARM processor was developed, and which has just turned 30. If you were a British school pupil in 1987 who found a pair of the new machines alongside the row of BBC Micros in the school computer lab, for sure it was an exciting event, after all these were the machines everyone was talking about. But the possibility that their unique and innovative processor would go on to spawn a line of successors that would eventually power so much of the world three decades later was something that probably never occurred to spotty ’80s teens.
[Computerphile] takes a look at some of the first Archimedes machines in the video below the break. We get a little of the history and a description of the OS, plus a look at an early model still in its box and one of the last of the Archimedes line. Familiar to owners of this era of hardware is the moment when a pile of floppies is leafed through to find one that still works, then we’re shown the defining game of the platform, [David Braben]’s Lander, which became the commercial Zarch, and provided the template for his Virus and Virus 2000 games.
We see the RiscOS operating system booting lightning-fast from ROM and still giving a good account of itself 20 years later even on a vintage Philips composite monitor. If you were that kid in 1987, you were in for a shock when you reached university and sat down in front of the early Windows versions, it would be quite a few years before mainstream computers matched your first GUI.
The Archimedes line and its successors continued to be available into the mid 1990s, but faded away along with Acorn through the decade. Even one being used to power the famous Trojan Room Coffee Cam couldn’t save it from extinction. We’re told they can still be found in the broadcast industry, and until fairly recently they powered much of the electronic signage on British railways, but other than that the original source of machines has gone. All is not lost though, because of course we all know about their ARM joint venture which continues to this day. If you would like to experience something close to an Archimedes you can do so with another computer from Cambridge, because RiscOS is available for the Raspberry Pi.
Sit back and enjoy the video, and if you were one of those kids in 1987, be proud that you sampled a little piece of the future before everyone else did.