The abc: an early Arduino?

This is the abc programmable controller. Designed and built nearly 30 years ago, it might be seen as an early Arduino.

The abc controller was created in 1986 and built for use in Birmingham schools. Children could use it to control objects, sense their environment and log data.

The abc was a way for schools to overcome limited computer availability in classrooms and enable children to learn computing and programming skills:

A single BBC etc with numerous abc controllers can now give all your students hands on experience of computer control

Here’s the technical spec. The abc is compatible with the BBC Micro, Apple, IBM and the Research Machines 380Z (be still my beating heart).

I discovered the controller – along with prototype circuit boards, sensors, and a how-to manual – packed away in a wooden box in my parents’ garage. (Incidentally, the wooden storage box was also made by my dad, a true maker-of-things.)

Most importantly for me, the box holds a story about some of the electronics work dad has done though his career in tech and education.

The early prototypes for the board were created by dad – his initials are built into the early prototype boards – along with a colleague, and built by E&L Instruments Ltd in Wrexham. The company still exists – though it’s now known as E&L Products Ltd.

The manual was written by dad and his colleague, and  includes an overview of the board:

and sample programs, written in Z8 BASIC:

My favourite, a program to drive a BBC buggy:

I’d love to find a compatible computer from the mid-80s and try out the abc controller. Anyone got access to a compatible machine and want to play?

Update 14/10/2013: Dad emailed me the following note about programming using the abc: ‘You can set up a pc or laptop as a console (con) and match the baud rate to 19200 (abc default I think) and program directly in Z80 Basic. No saving, editing really available though, that’s the limitation of programming directly in Z80 Basic on the abc.’

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