Raspberry Pi: how push for child programming skills inspired a coding generation

Raspberry Pi, whose popular minicomputers are sold around the world, has come a long way since its co-founder Jack Lang had to store some of the first batch of single-board devices in his garage more than a decade ago.

What started out as a project to reverse the decline in computer science applications at Cambridge University went on to inspire a generation of child programmers by offering them an affordable $35 (£28) minicomputer. Now the company is preparing to list on the London Stock Exchange.

Designed by Cambridge engineers and computer scientists, the Pi was conceived as a durable, ultra-low-cost piece of hardware that would withstand being tossed into a backpack hundreds of times.

Since its launch in 2012, aabout 60m of the credit card-sized devices, which run the Linux operating system, have been sold and they are now used in commercial applications across a variety of industries, including for electric vehicle charging.

Behind the British tech firm is an eponymous educational charity that was established in 2008 with the goal of getting children interested in computer science. It created Scratch as the first programming language for kids, and its coding clubs, programmes and competitions have reached people from more than 100 countries.

One of the six founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation is Eben Upton, who is now the chief executive of Raspberry Pi. Upton, who studied physics, engineering and computer science at Cambridge before working for the US tech companies Broadcom, Intel and IBM, started developing the first single-board computer prototypes in the evenings and at weekends while working at Broadcom, inspired by the BBC Micro he had used to do his schoolwork.

Broadcom provided the chip for the Pi, and some of its employees were among the volunteers working on the project in the evenings, along with some students from the computer laboratory at Cambridge University.

Lang, a serial entrepreneur and business angel in Cambridge, who chaired the foundation, died last month aged 76. Upton described him as “a central part of the Cambridge tech entrepreneurship scene”.

Lang had designed software for the BBC Micro, a computer released in 1981 by Acorn Computers in Cambridge with a simple programming language which young children could follow. It started a computing revolution, and later influenced the Raspberry Pi.

Peter Lomas, another foundation founder, did the hardware design for the final version of the Raspberry Pi. He is now the engineering director at Norcott Technologies and chairs the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The other founders were Alan Mycroft and Robert Mullins, both computer science professors at Cambridge University, and David Braben, who co-created the Elite series of space trading video games and went on to set up the video games company Frontier Developments.

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Upton has said the foundation chose to name itself after a fruit in homage to other computer manufacturers such as Apple, while Pi is a reference to the fact that the founders were originally going to produce a computer that could only run the Python programming language.

The foundation is part of a group that runs the National Centre for Computing Education in England, a government-funded initiative providing support for schools and colleges in England to offer a computing education, from key stage 1 through to A-level.

At first, the Pi was manufactured in China but production moved to a Sony factory in south Wales in 2012. Almost all of the manufacturing is automated, with the 300 people who work in the factory mostly monitoring and maintaining the machines.

“Given how far we’ve come, it’s sort of funny to remember how parochial our ambitions were at the start,” Upton has said.

“There was a massive decline in the number of people applying to study computer science, which was sort of heartbreaking in a place like Cambridge, with its incredibly rich computing heritage. There was a feeling that if we could get a program or a piece of hardware into the hands of young people at the right point in their lives, we might be able to do something to reverse that decline.”

The Guardian

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