The Bold and the Braben

10 REM.

I can remember my first sickie. Just six years old at the time, even now I can recall overhearing a phone conversation between my mum and dad, with mum explaining my unexpected return home from school. Referencing the listings magazine that had fast become a minor obsession of mine, she wearily offered her grim diagnosis: "Electron User-itis".

So wonderfully crafted was this unintentional subterfuge that I had actually convinced myself that I was too ill to stay at school. But back at home in front of the Acorn Electron, diligently copying code across from the magazine into my primitive computer, I all of a sudden felt much better indeed. It was miraculous.

More than a quarter of a century later I had the good fortune to meet up with David Braben, co-creator of the Elite games, at this year's Develop Conference. In between sessions on full-body motion-tracking and the recreation of Disneyland's vast acreage, we took a few moments to reminisce on those early days of home computing and David's own programming inspirations.

"I suppose I had a fascination with them even before I had a computer," he says, "I read listings and things like that and thought 'Wow!' It just filled me with wonder and the simplicity of it all. I got an Acorn Atom when I was 16 or 17 and it was fantastic. It had everything I needed and that was the beauty."

"You didn't need expensive compilers, you didn't need fancy tools, you didn't need machines that cost several thousand quid."

David Braben, co-creator, Elite

This sense of excitement is something that David wants to engender in the next generation of school-children through the Raspberry Pi project. A micro-computer in the truest sense of the word, it will offer a low-cost entry to the world of computer programming via a device the size of a credit card.

"It had - and this is what we're trying to recreate with Raspberry Pi - that feeling of wonder, that you can't get anything wrong, you can't destroy it. The worst-case scenario was that the thing would crash and you had to press the reset button. Two seconds later you were back with a prompt."

"It had an assembler built in so you had all the tools you needed. You didn't need expensive compilers, you didn't need fancy tools, you didn't need machines that cost several thousand quid. Also, if you didn't know what you were doing, you couldn't break it."


"I'm not crying, I've been chopping onions!"

There was certainly a beguiling simplicity and intrigue about the communication and control of the machine. While complex game programmes were beyond my own abilities at the time, simply breathing life into the simplest of graphics generators or tweaking the creations of others was an exhilarating experience. It was a feeling of joyful discovery that David shared.

"I had a sense of wonder when I first got a computer," he explains,"One of the first things I wrote in BASIC was an expanding star-field because I thought you should be able to do that. There was no persistence and that was one of the incentives for me to learn assembly."

"I also wrote, would you believe, a database programme which initially started off as something I just typed in. But it was amazing how you could get so much perceived complexity from something that was only about 6 lines of code. I learnt so much from it but it also sparked my imagination to think you could create other things with that, worlds"

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