The Life of Pi
18th November 2020
When the Raspberry Pi foundation launched the first version of its eponymous product in 2012, they cannot have
imagined the reception their tiny, single-board computer would receive. Eight years later and now in its fourth
generation, the Raspberry Pi has become one of the world’s best selling computers, quickly realising its
intention of reversing the downward trend in university computer science applications and fuelling a new
generation of enthusiasts to explore programming through play. But how did a device as small as a credit card
and with very few commercial expectations, wind up selling more than thirty-six million units and transforming
the way we think about ‘the computer’?
A Seed is Planted
In the early years of the twenty-first century, computer scientists at the University of Cambridge began to
notice a decline in the number of applications for undergraduate study. This was mirrored at universities across
the country and coincided with an apparent gap in knowledge of those who did apply; whilst all candidates were
proficient computer users, few demonstrated a deep understanding of the subject’s more technical aspects. Putting
this down to failings in GSCE and A level syllabuses, the team set out to develop a small, accessible device that
could serve both as a teaching tool in schools and a cheap, portable unit for enthusiasts young and old to
experiment with. And so the Raspberry Pi project was born...
Inspiring Kids to Code
Inspiring the next generation of programmers through reigniting a curiosity for how computers work was the
founding principal of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The Cambridge team - Eben Upton, Rob Mullins, Jack Lang
and Alan Mycroft - were joined in 2008 by David Braben - CEO of Frontier Developments and co-author of the
celebrated ‘Elite’ games, and Pete Lomas - managing director of Norcott Technologies. Together they set out
to make their collective vision a reality; to produce a simple, almost disposable product that induced in its
users the same excitement that the developers had felt as youngsters growing up in the eighties, when they
learned to write code on easily programmable computers.
A Brief History of Computers in the Classroom
When computers first began to appear in British classrooms during the early 1980s, their relative primitivism
- compared with modern devices, inadvertently helped spawn a generation of programmers. Fuelled by a government
funding initiative that promised to put up half the cost of each unit, computers like the BBC Micro (made by
Acorn and favoured by most educational authorities) and the RM 380Z were installed in schools across the country,
and despite hostility from some teachers who didn’t know what to do with the new machines, they proved very
popular with technology-curious students.
For those of you too young to remember these early machines, the difference between these devices and those that
emerged in the ensuing decades was stark. There were no windows or icons, no mouse; the start up screen - a
command line interface with a flashing underscore - gave the user only two options: enter a recognisable command
to launch a program, or program the computer yourself using the inbuilt BASIC language.
For many students, exploring programming in this way, sparked a deep interest in computing and its potentially
wide-ranging applications. Through what was essentially ‘playing’ - fixing bugs, experimenting with commands and
copying source code from magazines, youngsters gained a complete education in computer science that later
generations were subsequently denied.
Computer literacy soon became a mandatory educational target and by the close of the century most secondary
students were required to study what became known as ICT - Information and Communications Technology - in one
form or another. However, whilst theoretically a universal approach to embedding computers in the curriculum
might have seemed like a good thing, in reality the content of the courses on offer and the lack of training for
teaching staff, combined with the ever increasing sophistication of the hardware and software available to schools,
led to a crop of apparently tech-savvy kids with little - if any - understanding of programming.
The Proof is in the Pi
Recognising that programming was a fundamental skill increasingly absent in the secondary curriculum was one of
the key drivers behind developing the Raspberry Pi. The shortfall in coding capability, together with the
realisation that rapid advances in technology had actually played a big hand in creating this problem, helped
mould the foundation’s mission of getting back to the simple machines that were around in the eighties, and in
doing so they hoped to buck the trend of using computers for consumption rather than creation.
It has been said many times that the original hand assembled Raspberry Pi prototype that Eben Upton created in
2006, bore little resemblance to the model that launched commercially six years later. But whilst the unit itself
lacked power and the design was somewhat unrefined and most definitely not user-friendly, the concept of a bare
board model through which users could learn about individual components, excited Upton and the rest of the team.
The first generation Raspberry Pi was released in February 2012 at a price point of £25 ($35). Its ARM-based
Broadcom BCM2835 system-on-a-chip with 700MHz single-core processor and capable graphics core ensured a level of
performance that was, for many, unimaginable in a device of this size. With 512MB of RAM, two USB 2.0 ports,
100Mbps Ethernet, HDMI and twenty-six exposed GPIO pins, the 45g model almost immediately transcended the
cautious commercial ambitions of the foundation. Selling 100,000 units on launch and appealing to hobbyists and
computing enthusiasts far beyond the target youth market, the Raspberry Pi’s stripped-back simplicity, portability
and price, rendered it an instant phenomenon.
But the project’s popularity and the huge community that grew around it came as something of a surprise to the
Raspberry Pi team. Realising that demand for the product was far greater than their capacity to supply, the team
licensed the design to RS Components and Premier Farnell, and thus enabled production on a grand scale.
The Fruits of their Labour
Eight years on from the release of the first model, the Raspberry Pi’s momentum shows no sign of abating. With
university computer science applications up across the country and applicants demonstrating a more comprehensive
understanding of the subject, the foundation has achieved its principal aim: making computer engineering accessible
for all, irrespective of age or income, and reigniting an enthusiasm for code as creative practice.
But that’s not all. Across the globe, versions of this tiny computer have been used in a seemingly endless range
of personal and industrial projects ranging from games development and design to home automation and DIY. There
are even two models - so-called ‘Astro Pis’ - aboard the International Space Station, running code written by
children and teenagers here on Earth!
The latest releases - the fourth generation bare board model and the Raspberry Pi 400 (marketed as a ‘complete
personal computer built into a compact keyboard’), have genuine claims as viable desktop PCs. As with each
iteration, the latest model(s) offer an upgrade in speed and performance and boast up to 8GB of RAM, Gigabit
Ethernet, wireless and Bluetooth connectivity, enhanced USB capacity and the ability to run two monitors in
A world apart from the original in terms of performance, the 2020 models showcase why the Raspberry Pi continues
to take the technological world by storm. Although various competitors have emerged in the market - some of which
have been able to match the Pi on performance / price - none demonstrate the constant evolution and huge global
community that give the Raspberry Pi its enduring appeal.