Elite: Claims about numbers of copies sold, the manual, and the origins of Elite

2017-11-6: I reorganised this page, because how I kept it as my original critical page from 2010 with dated additions and corrections is good for historical review, but makes it hard to read. Secondly I added a few things from a recent discussion on Elite in which a few things became clear such as who wrote the manual of Elite (= as I remembered Holdstock, well, mostly, with others), who supplied Spufford with information for his book (=Braben, well mostly, as I thought), and possible input by others, in particular the scanner. (you can see the pre-reorganised version of this web page on Elite here)

In 2003 an article appeared based on material by Francis Spufford which was going to be published later in a book called "Backroom boys: The secret return of the British boffin". I was quite critical of that article in my posting on the BBC micro mailing list, on 2003-10-26. The story of this page begins with my editing of the wikipedia page about Elite in 2010, where I corrected the statement about the ratio of number BBC micros vs. copies of Elite sold, which parrotted what was told in Spufford's article, that at one point there was a near 1-1 ratio of copies of Elite sold vs. BBC micros.

My Wikipedia editing in 2010 of the page on Elite

A moron identified as 'Wgungfu' undid my editing on the Elite Wikipedia with a stupid reasoning that mailing list references are not allowed. Actually, the reference is not the mailing list article, but other sources for information. My mailing list article just explains how from those sources you can calculate that the claims that were floating around then, that about the same number of copies of Elite had been sold as BBC micros some time in 1984 or 1985, were complete BS. So to take the wind out of the sails of such people who don't understand anything (i.e. autistic rule followers), I created this page.

General note: that references to mailing list postings are not allowed is silly. There are archives of that mailing list on the www and furthermore, I can put up such a posting on a webpage and then suddenly it is allowed... This shows that the rules in Wikipedia don't make full sense, but especially the person enforcing it (in this case 'Wgungfu') didn't understand that the essence of the posting was the naming of original sources, and the recipe in that posting of calculations to give estimates of BBC micros sold... Thus the mailing posting itself is not a claim of numbers sold, and it itself is thus not a reference, no, the recipe in that posting is the reference. Using the sources mentioned and the recipe/estimates given, anyone can come up with estimates of BBC micros sold, that will always show that the claim on that Wikipedia page (and elsewhere) was wrong. So this not-understanding of the posting not being a reference itself, but an intermediate naming the references and giving a way to estimate numbers of BBC micros sold, is why I was annoyed (and as you have seen not just here, if people annoy me then I will not be friendly to them).

Using material about machines produced per month as published in magazines from the 1980s and early 1990s, e.g. "Micro user", I came to some estimates, that in produced machines (not necessarily sold machines though at the time of my mailing list posting I did not make that distinction), was not that far off from the number mentioned in the TV programme Micro Live from January 1985 (I watched this programme ca. 2007), in which Ian McNaught-Davis says 500,000 BBC micro's were sold up to that point. Esp. when considering the difference between number of machines produced and sold, my estimates of numbers are quite good. In general it was a very poorly researched article as I showed in my mailing list posting, and assuming the editing of that wasn't catastrophical, it was in fact due to the poor research by Francis Spufford. But more on this further on. The worst thing is that these claims about Elite keep getting used on websites and in TV programmes...

For more information on numbers of machines and the distinction between machines produced and machines sold, and more, see this discussion: Stairway to hell forums.

In my 2003 mailing list posting I mention that all other sources I've seen (1980s and early 1990s BBC micro magazines in particular) say that 100,000 copies of Elite (for the BBC micro) were sold. Suddenly in the 2003 Guardian article, the number 150,000 appears. I did not question the validity of that number in my mailing list posting, other than mentioning that that was the only source that mentioned 150,000 whereas all older sources say 100,000. Writing this page in 2010 was a good time to examine that claim more critically and from the inaccuracies in the article, I then thought that that number was likely just made up or a wildly inaccurate claim by someone who has a poor memory. However, it turned out later that this number has basis in facts: It is close to the number of copies sold in total by Acornsoft, i.e. for the BBC micro + Acorn Electron together (see further on this page). For the BBC micro the number is in fact a bit more than 100k. But not up to end of 1984, no, that was much later, when of course many more BBC micros had been sold as well.

So, from 500,000 or more machines sold until late 1984, and perhaps 100,000 copies of Elite sold (but probably not until at least mid-1985, but I'll let that pass), suddenly in that article, it became such that 150,000 machines were sold and the same number of copies of Elite were sold, i.e. each owner of a machine had a copy of Elite. This 1-1 correspondence was clearly bullshit! I did recall that someone from Acornsoft said in an article in late 1984 that there 'would probably be' 100,000 sold by the end of 1984. Were there that many sold? If so were any sold in large numbers in 1985/1986 or did everyone who wanted this game, have it already (bought in 1984 in that case)? Well, for the debunking of the 1-1 correspondence this didn't matter, but interestingly the answer of how many were really sold came in 2014 from Chris Jordan (see further on this page).

You can see how nonsense told in 1 place keeps going further and produces more nonsense, from this example:
where they say:

Incidentally, they actually sold more than 150,000 copies for this platform, which worked out to be more copies of the game than there were BBC B computers, giving rise to the theory that technologically illiterate people were purchasing the game without actually realising a computer was required.

I can only say one thing: What a load of bollocks!
(Note in 2017: that page on that site has been removed...)
(Note 2020-9-8: Chris J. informed me that that page is back again. I had a look in 2019 IIRC and it was gone then too, but now indeed it is back... I thought it might have been removed because of the nonsensical information but perhaps it was a webserver issue. see as a backup archive.org: https://web.archive.org/web/20150120043210/http://www.gameplanet.co.nz/features/131589.20080403.Top-5-best-games-in-the-world-ever/. Perhaps it is related to the page being gone when I checked up to today, that archive.org hasn't got snapshots after 2015 of this page)

Of course, with the article, the newspaper wrote "This is an edited extract" and I know editing can really fook up the meaning of text. So I was a bit guarded in some versions of the title of this page about who is to blame for the errors/inaccuracies of the (original) text, i.e. the text in the book. I later learned that Spufford was corrected about many issues, but that he didn't have time to fix the issues before the deadline of the book. Now if I were to write such a book, I'd correct the errors and simply say to the publisher that the deadline has to be extended to rewrite some sections, but this is not what Spufford did. The research he did was apparantly not going through magazines etc., but interviewing people and/or getting them to write/tell him the facts. The corrections were also obtained this way. The problem is that not everyone has a very good memory, and some people twist facts (and sometimes even really believe those). This is why you need to do cross checking of information and original written sources (magazines or private stuff from the people you get information from) are valuable to prevent such things. Perhaps some of the details I complained about in 2003 are petty, but, they signify a problem at the base of the material: If various facts, some of which are extremely easy to check such as the startup screen of the Atom and BBC, are incorrect, how much then can you trust any of the material in the article and in fact in the entire book? And the fact that Spufford didn't care to fix the issues but instead adhere to the 'deadline' shows a lack of care for the truth which even more shows that what he writes cannot be trusted in any way...

With only information from magazines (I had not tried to contact anyone working at Acornsoft) and my experience using the BBC micro and Acorn Atom, it was clear to me that a lot that was written in that article was not correct. Now there is a second issue, as I said, it is an edited extract, yes, but of which version of the book? The final version or perhaps a draft copy? If a draft then in the mean time perhaps corrections had entered into the book? This point seems moot: Even the final version was not corrected before printing of the book... I think my original assertion that Francis Spufford poorly researched the book, is the only right thing to say. He could have checked certain things easily himself, and he should have extended his deadline when he found out some of his information was in error.

It also became clear from various correspondence with insiders, that the material Spufford wrote was largely based on the information from 1 individual, and only later did the other persons he contacted, send him corrections. Basing everything off of 1 person's account is of course a huge mistake! You need corroboration, you need to check some facts, if only to account for mistakes when remembering that are bound to happen even with people who have very good memories! If would 'only' have been a huge mistake in the sense of wasted time, if he had taken more time to get to the truth from the corrections, but he let a lot of the incorrect facts stand and so it was a huge mistake in that it resulted in printing a lot of falsehoods...

In 2014 I re-watched some documentaries to see what Ian Bell and David Braben told about especially numbers of machines sold, which I did as I remembered that Ian Bell mentioned in some TV programme that 150,000 copies of Elite had been sold, and I wanted to see in particular whether he implied that this was for the BBC micro or of all Acornsoft versions in total (so BBC micro + Acorn Electron). From watching the documentaries this did not become clear, but something else became clear: The view that I got was that it could be Braben who supplied Spufford with most of the information, because he gives the same wrong information as in the book about the startup screens (of BBC micro and Atom) and other small bits that he tells in the documentaries which are similar to what Spufford writes, also point to him...

And here we come to a problem, in that if it is Braben, well, he is litigious, and the UK has inane libel laws that can be used to suppress the truth. Even telling something that is true, you can be sued and found guilty simply because the truth you tell will harm someone's business... That is just insane!

And thus there is a problem of getting information from people who are afraid of legal action and this makes various people reticent in telling me what they think is the truth. Note that 'the truth' is a concept that is not so easy after 30 years, even after 10 or 15 years and many people don't have good memories or twist the truth, so corroboration and/or written notes from the time would be desireable. Even I, with an extremely good memory, am hazy about recollecting some details in some cases from 30 years ago...

I have heard that the origins of Elite are different than told so far. I think what is meant is more input from people at Acornsoft than is acknowledged, but I had not heard details until 2017, up to then only only hints because of possible legal action (because of the inane libel laws in the UK, that I mentioned). Note that I cannot be intimidated, and am not afraid of any legal action whatsoever, and am in any event not bound by UK libel law when putting information on my Dutch website. The only thing that matters to me, is the facts.

Then in September 2017 it was confirmed that Braben was the source for Spufford, see the discussion on http://www.stardot.org.uk/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&p=185103. Well, I have to correct that statement, to make it perfectly clear: Braben was the major source, or perhaps I should say first source, because Spufford contacted Braben first. Later there was input from others as I mentioned before (and as was told to me), but the account that Spufford went with, was that which Braben told, despite the contradictions with accounts from the other contributors, as cross checking to find the truth was not a priority for Spufford, his deadline was more important. He made a few changes as you can see in that discussion, but it's really not enough! I was told that there were 4 contributors, first of all Braben, and from Acornsoft Chris Jordan as you can deduce from this page and from that discussion on stardot.

One issue that surfaced in 2017, despite the libel laws, or perhaps because those laws were recently changed, as was mentioned in that discussion, was that of the scanner: Edward Rothman mentioned on a website (http://www.drewwagar.com/lore/elite-dangerous-history-the-original-elite/, archived at web.archive.org (2017-9-7)) that the idea of the the scanner was likely by him and/or someone else at Acornsoft during a brainstorming session. You can see Ian Bell's reply about this in the discussion http://www.stardot.org.uk/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&p=185103). A problem by now is that it is so long ago, and the reliability of memory is an issue, so what the truth is is not quite clear. As Braben is so unconcerned with the facts in what he tells in documentaries and what he told to Spufford, i.e. because of his story-telling nature, I would not dismiss the possibility of someone else haven given him that idea, in the way that Rothman mentioned, and that he used and then didn't acknowledge to Ian Bell... [ addition 2020-10-26: and if it happened that Braben took an idea and put it forward as his own to Ian Bell, that would of course explain the discrepancy between what Ian Bell wrote and what some other people claim. ]

Other sources on inaccuracies in Spufford's book

2017-11-16: Another interesting thing to do is to look up reviews for Spufford's book on amazon.co.uk. There you see people commenting about the bad research and inaccuracies in various sections of the book (it's not all about computer games), and still the reviews by such people are positive... Someone also mentioned that "Spufford's prose style is surprisingly flowery", ah yes, I commented on that too in my 2003 review of the section about Elite, on the BBC micro mailing list.

Elite badges

There is another question regarding Elite, why were there 2 versions of badges that are it seems both from Acornsoft? The 2nd badge doesn't fit with Firebird (which used a gold colour) so that leaves Acornsoft: When/why were the different badges made? The 2nd type badge is not a one-off because I saw the exact same one as I got hold of, later on ebay in 2009 in the same presentation case. Well, I asked someone from Acornsoft and he thinks it is indeed an Acornsoft badge but he is not sure why this 2nd different batch was made. More information with pictures are HERE.

I'm also curious about this: How many badges were sent out?

Numbers of sales of Elite (BBC micro and Acorn Electron)

Update 2014-2-12: I received information on the number of copies of Elite sold from Chris Jordan (Acornsoft), who wrote:

OK, from original records of the time, here are the official total all-time sales figures for Acornsoft Elite:

 BBC Microcomputer: 107,898 (1984-89)
 Acorn Electron: 35,294 (1984-86)
You can quote me on that.

And so I have :) So the total of copies for the BBC micro is a bit more than 100,000, but the total for BBC+Electron is close to 150,000. Perhaps this is why the number 150,000 crept up in some places, and it means that close to 150,000 copies of Elite by Acornsoft were sold (so not by other publishers for other machines). But counting Electron versions, you might as well add numbers of copies of the game sold for the C64, PC etc., But that doesn't make sense because they, as the Electron version, were not meant for the BBC micro, and the relationship 'number of copies of Elite (for the BBC micro)' : 'number of BBC micros' is what was in question in Wikipedia and other sources.

Micro Live said Acorn had sold 500,000 BBC micros by early 1985, so there was never a 1:1 ratio of 'copies of Elite sold (for the BBC micro obviously!)' : 'number of BBC micros sold'.

On 2014-2-13 I found http://sarevian.net/blogs/sarevian/files-2012/The%20legacy%20of%20the%20BBC_micro%20-%20Nesta%20report%20May%202012.pdf which is an interesting report on how the BBC micro influenced computing which references Spufford's book, and it says in the list of references on p.77:

100. Francis Spufford describes how Elite had sold 150,000 units by Christmas on the BBC Micro alone in Spufford, F. (2003) `Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin.' London: Howes. p.114.

That 150k copies had been sold by Christmas (must be 1984) is an even stronger claim than the claim in the article based on Spufford's book, and this is even more wrong of course. Related to that claim, Chris gave me another statistic of sales for Elite from his archives:

By end of 1986 1984 BBC Micro Elite sales were no more than 70,000.

Correction 2020-9-8: Chris originally wrote 1986 but it was a typo and should have been 1984 (which makes sense as we were talking about Christmas 1984) as he informed me recently...

Note further that the Acornsoft software was sold by/published by Superior software from some time in, I thought, late 1986. In 2017 I got the precise date from Chris Jordan: 28 July 1986. So not all BBC micro version sales are Acornsoft-made copies, and these later versions are labelled as a joint Acornsoft-Superior software package.

The manual for Elite

Long ago, I read somewhere, in an old computing magazine I suppose, must have been around the time of the release of Elite or at most a few years later, as I indicated in my BBC micro mailing list posting, that Holdstock had written not just the novella "Dark wheel", but also the manual for Elite.

Someone from Acornsoft told me this was possibly not the case. He didn't remember exactly who wrote it, but that it was most likely written by someone from Acornsoft (Addition 2020-9-10: Forgot to add this earlier, but he thought it was Piers Dugeon). Why he didn't remember who had written the manual became clear to me when Ian Bell wrote in 2017 about the origins of the manual in response to what I wrote in a message, see further on this page.

On 2016-1-15 I got some interesting information from a reader of my site (Melt):

In response to your question on (http://wouter.bbcmicro.net/bbc/elite.html) regarding the author of the Elite Manual, it seems as if it might actually have been Robert Holdstock, since one of his pseudonyms was apparently Robert Faulcon, for the "Night Hunter" series (http://robertholdstock.com/biblio/work-under-pseudonym/night-hunter-series/), from which Faulcon Manspace and Faulcon deLacy Spaceways seem to have been derived.

I then had a closer look on Holdstock's site, and interesting is for example: http://robertholdstock.com/articles/the-games-we-play/. Hmm, should have asked Holdstock about the manual when I posted on the bbc mailing list about the book by Spufford...

Then later in 2016 I visited Ian Bell's site, and I noticed that he mentions that Holdstock wrote the manual of Elite, which confirmed my recollection. I was too busy with other matters to pursue the matter and ask him about it but never mind, this year it all became clear:

2017-11-6: The past 2 weeks my recollection about reading about the manual's origins was confirmed by Ian Bell in that Robert Holdstock wrote it, well, most of it. It was a collaborative effort (Robert Holstock + Ian Bell + David Braben + Piers Dugeon). This is quite interesting because it actually explains why 'who wrote it' was unclear to many people and/or why they didn't remember 'who' wrote it: This is a psychological effect, because it was not 1 person... (see http://www.stardot.org.uk/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&p=185103).

Upon visiting Ian's pages again after that, I saw that actually he already posted on his site, in Autumn 2015, the "Elite player's guide", which was a basis for the manual for Elite, and on that page he mentioned already then (unless that was a later addition to that page), who contributed to the manual...

Note: When I was buying BBC micro stuff here in the Netherlands to try to get more original software and different versions of the BBC micro, I regularly came across loads of copied software including Elite, but usually, without manual never mind the novella. The people who played Elite this way really deprived themselves of a much better experience with the manual which I think is an invaluable part of the game which makes you feel even more that you are in a different world. I think it's more important than the novella for the feel of the game.

2003-10-26: My posting on the BBC micro mailing list about the article in the Guardian about Spufford's book "Backroom boys: The secret return of the British boffin"

All right, here is my BBC micro mailing list posting dd 2003-10-26:

From - Sun Oct 26 16:52:49 2003
Message-ID: <3F9BFB90.FF6D5DF X hccnet.nl>
Date: Sun, 26 Oct 2003 16:51:28 +0000
From: "W.Scholten" <whs X hccnet.nl>
Organization: .
X-Mailer: Mozilla 3.04 (X11; I; FreeBSD 4.7-RELEASE i386)
MIME-Version: 1.0
To: bbc-micro X cloud9.co.uk
Subject: The writer needs to do some fact checking (Re: [BBC-Micro] Elite feature in today's Grauniad)
References: <C523625F87DC174AA6D00C3D0716C2C152C74F X bbcxuen02.national.core.bbc.co.uk>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
X-Mozilla-Status: 0001
Content-Length: 5547

Tim Matthews:

> In the magazine section on today's Guardian there's quite an interesting
> articile about Bell & Braben and Elite.
> To think - we could have had 280,000,000,000,000 galaxies!!

tom X tomseddon.plus.com:

> It seems to be available on the web too!
>     http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,1064107,00.html

The writer uses "prose before facts" and the style is that of a novel...

Examples of errors and omissions:

1 & 2
When you turned on the Atom or the BBC Micro, the ROM chip booted up its
two pieces of cargo and on your television screen appeared this: 

and nothing else. The machine did nothing else, unless you made it. 

Which is *part* of what is shown when you start a BBC micro, but an Atom

Also, "The machine did nothing else, unless you made it" is of course
the case for any computer. If you want specific programs for a PC, you
have to buy them and install them, same as for a BBC. The only thing
that springs to mind is that a PC can play a audio CD usually without
installing extra programs. But still, the concept is the same: You want
to do something: You have to insert media (mp3s, CDs ...) and/or
install/LOAD programs.

The classic action game of the early 1980s - Defender, Pac Man - was set
in a perpetual present tense, a sort of arcade Eden in which there were
always enemies to zap or gobble, but nothing ever changed apart from the

Rubbish. The games get *faster* and for other games of that era, more
aliens come at you in the higher levels, therefore more difficult with
time. Also, movement patterns of the baddies usually vary per level. No
'perpetual present tense'.

 Sales of Acornsoft's Elite would finally reach a total of almost
150,000. There were only 150,000 or so BBC Micros in the world at that
point, so the ratio was almost 1:1, one copy of Elite for every computer
that could run it. 

 At that point seems to refer to when the last copy of Acornsoft Elite
was sold, which would however have to be ca. mid 1986...

Firstly: this number of 150,000 machines is wrong whichever way you
look at it. I felt this had to be wrong, made a rough estimate based on
figures of 25,000 machines a month I've seen for peak production, which
confirmed my suspicion so I looked up some more detailed figures: in
Micro user vol 9 no4 jun 1991 it says:
In january 1982, production was 1000 a week; In February it went up to
2500 and in march, 5000. But demand kept increasing and by april the
backlog exceeded 20000. By mid-1982, the pressures on Acorn were
intense. Rapid expansion was brought in and by October 1982, the backlog
had almost disappeared with more buyers opting for the 32k model B in
preference to the 16k model A.

I assume 'weekly' is an error, and that 'monthly' is meant:
So, monthly production:
 1982 jan: 1000
      feb: 2500
      jun-dec: say. 15000 (in 3 months a backlog of 20000 removed, so at
least 70000 more than 5000)
 1983: say 20000
 1984: say 25000

Lets make a crude estimate of machines sold up to the approximate launch
date of elite. I will assume this is about 1 oct 1984 (first review oct
1984 AU, Nov AU bestselling charts page has a comment about Elite not
being in it as it was hardly available in the shops. Taking account of
publication delays and partial counting (software charts probably per
month, so mid-month release would give half the per-month number), 1 oct
seems a good estimate).

 1982: 1,000+2,500+5,000*4+15,000*6 = 113,500
 1983: 20,000*12 = 240,000
 1984: 25,000*9 = 225,000
Total: 578500 up to 1 oct 1984.

This seems to fit with total amounts of beebs manuafactured (rest of
1984:  25,000*3=75,000, 1985+1986 lets say 10,000 (reduced production
after finacial problems) * 24 = 240,000, total up to and including 1986:

Now look at the following cases:
 - 1. Almost all copies of Elite ever sold, were sold in 1984
 - 2. Almost all copies of Elite ever sold, were sold in 1984 - mid-1986

(1) Machines sold until 31-12-1984: ca. 578500 + 25,000*3=653,500
(2) Machines sold until mid 1986: ca. 578500 + 25,000*3 +

Very very distant from a 1:1 ratio in either case.

Even if one considers half the BBCs went to education and striking those
(this is however inconsistent the article's 'BBC Micros in the world at
that point', but I'll give the writer a break), and then considering
model As not upgraded enough to run Elite (32k + user-VIA), a 1:1 ratio
is still nonsense.

Secondly, other sources say 100,000 copies of elite were sold. Where do
the extra 50,000 come from?

5. Where's information on Robert Holdstock's involvement? Apparantly he
wrote the manual (which is an essential element of Elite, without such a
well written and occasionaly humorous manual it would have been a much
lesser game), and I wonder why there wasn't a sequel to "the dark
wheel" (well, I couldn't find it in e.g. 'Books in print' long ago. Was
there one after all?).

There's some interesting information in the article, but how can I trust
any of it if the writer didn't do any effort to check basic facts?

@@ This is an edited extract from Backroom Boys: The Secret Return Of
@@ The British Boffin, by Francis Spufford,

I wonder what the editing did?

@@ published by Faber on November 6 at 14.99.

I'll pass.


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