Britain’s forgotten first home computer pioneer: John Miller-Kirkpatrick

The electronics genius who nearly beat Clive Sinclair at his own game


A pioneer, lost

“John Miller was very nearly a genius but above all he was a damned good chap: I don’t think there was an ounce of badness in him,” wrote ETI Editor Halvor Moorshead. “I will miss him but our hobby will miss him as well.”

Had he lived, it’s entirely possible Miller-Kirkpatrick would have beaten Clive Sinclair to get the first low-cost cased computer to market. That was clearly the logical next step for the Scrumpi series: make a more capable, more compact cased machine. It would likely be based on a more powerful processor than the limited Scamp: Zilog’s Z80 perhaps or Mostek’s 6502, but more probably Motorola’s 6800. Whatever the specification, it would have been priced well below £200.

John Miller-Kirkpatrick

Happier times: John Miller-Kirkpatrick in the mid-1970s

One-time Register writer and veteran British technology journalist Martin Banks thinks so. "Today, the Scrumpi would be laughed at for masquerading as a computer," he once wrote in his PCW column, Banks’ Statement, "but with some better backing and some reasonable financial support, Miller-Kirkpatrick could have beaten Clive Sinclair at his own game."

Miller-Kirkpatrick was clearly thinking about low-cost complete computer systems in the two years before his death. “Another main application of MPUs is in the area of small, low cost computers for use in business applications and in the growing Personal Computer market,” he wrote in a 1978 business plan.

“We see one product which is able to cover both markets without restricting the possible applications because of price, the product would be based on a proven ready built main processor with such options as printers, random-access disk-based memory systems, magnetic tape systems and a programming language which allows the user to write simple programs or to make use of the various ‘package’ programs available.”

Connected future

More than three years before the BBC Micro, Miller-Kirkpatrick was planning to investigate the use of the Teletext system as a cheap way of adding colour graphics and text to “a ready built microcomputer system for home or business applications”. It would by definition be compatible with the broadcast Teletext and the Post Office’s Prestel system too.

But John’s death ensured these concepts would be for other people to re-formulate and develop. In the year after Miller-Kirkpatrick died, Nasco launched the Nascom 2, though it would take many months to get it into the hands of buyers. As it began to arrive, Tangerine began selling the Microtan 65.

Science of Cambridge would continue to offer the MK14 kit during 1979, but with Chris Curry gone - the Acorn Microcomputer debuted in January 1979 - Clive Sinclair told his long-term technical collaborator, Jim Westwood, to develop a new, cased computer.

The ZX80 débuted early the following year. Six months later, Nasco went into receivership. It would survive for some years, initially in administration, later as a Lucas subsidiary, but its place at the peak of the UK home computer business had been wrested from it by Sinclair Research, which was soon joined by Acorn after it launched the Atom home machine in May 1980.

Proton followed Atom and became the BBC Micro; Sinclair shipped first the ZX81 and then the Spectrum. In all the furore surrounding the UK home computer boom, the 1970s pioneers were largely forgotten. But without their ground-breaking start, the market might have developed very differently.

Legacy

Britain found itself at the forefront of a new industrial revolution. And if the first industrial revolution is remembered more for the industrialisation that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries rather than the 17th century breakthrough which triggered it - discovering how to cast iron - so the first board microcomputers were the trigger for the 1980s IT boom.

Bywood advertises Scrumpi 2 and 3

Expanding the range in 1978

The Scrumpi was feeble even by the standards of the machines that very quickly followed it. So was the MK14 and others of the Scrumpi’s ilk. But, crucially, Miller-Kirkpatrick’s machine gave many of the tech enthusiasts who would soon join the exploding number of home computer companies and the software firms that orbited around them, not to mention the rapidly growing world of business computing, their first taste of microprocessors and microcomputing.

“John Miller-Kirkpatrick and his Scrumpi computer have a place in the history of the personal computer business,” wrote Martin Banks in 1983. “Many of the people presently working in the industry got their early experience on such a machine.” ®

I would especially like to thank Kirsten and Ashleigh Miller-Kirkpatrick for their invaluable help with the research of this feature and for giving me access to family documents.


Other stories you might like

  • IPSE: More than a third of freelancers have quit contracting since IR35 reforms

    Exodus, movement of the people... to the Middle East or elsewhere

    More than a third (35 per cent) of contractors in the UK have become permanent employees, retired, shifted to work overseas or are "simply not working" since IR35 tax legislation was revised earlier this year.

    This is according to the Association of Independent Professionals (IPSE) which found 35 per cent fewer freelancers among those it surveyed since 6 April when the government pushed through the delayed reform.

    "This research shows the devastating impact the changes to IR35 have had on contractors, needlessly compounding the financial damage of the pandemic," said Andy Chamberlain, director of policy at IPSE. "Now, just when contractors are needed the most - amid mounting labour shortages across the UK and particularly in haulage - government decisions have drive out a third of the sector."

    Continue reading
  • New Relic guzzles down CodeStream to help devs jump straight from app error telemetry to offending code

    'I can debug production from the IDE,' said CS boss Peter Pezaris

    Observability company New Relic has acquired CodeStream, specialists in developer collaboration, with the aim being to connect observability data with code in the development environment.

    CodeStream, founded in 2017 by Peter Pezaris, adds instant developer communication to coding environments. For example, a developer puzzling over some code written by a colleague can click next to that code, type a message to the other dev, and they will receive it either in the IDE if they happen to be working on the same project, or in a messaging tool such as Slack, complete with a reference to the code in question. They reply, and a discussion begins.

    Although it may seem a small thing, given that they could just use Slack (or any number of other messaging services) directly, the context and convenience makes it a worthwhile collaboration tool. CodeStream also integrates with pull requests from GitHub, GitLab, BitBucket, and issue management from Jira, Trello and others.

    Continue reading
  • Analogue tones of a ZX Spectrum Load set to ride again via podcast project

    Remember the R Tape Loading Error?

    The glory days of audio-cassette loading are set to return in the coming weeks, with retro fans to be treated to a broadcast for them to hit Play and Record to.

    Audio cassettes were the medium of choice for software back when Sinclair and Commodore's 8-bit hardware ruled the roost. The floppy disk seemed impossibly glamorous for the average home computer user and code was instead delivered via audio.

    While the sound of those files was unintelligible for most, for some enthusiasts it was possible to discern the type of data being loaded. Right up until the all-too-common R Tape Loading Error (which usually seemed to come right at the end of a lengthy period staring at a loading screen).

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021