Exclusive: the Raspberry Pi was turned down for funding by the UK government

The £25 mini-PC has since become the best-selling computer in UK history

This article is adapted from the latest issue of Stuff magazine, which features 35 brilliant, accessible projects to try with the BBC micro:bit and the Raspberry Pi Zero. It also features some really nice power tools. Click here to try it for £1!

In its Technology Manifesto of March 2010, the UK government claimed it would focus on technology and engineering in schools, with the aim of making the UK "the leading high-tech exporter in Europe". But at the same time it was turning down Eben Upton – then a Director of Studies in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge – for funding assistance on his Raspberry Pi project, which aimed to make a powerful computer, built in the UK, that was open-source, programmable, and as cheap as a textbook.

"We applied for some government funding," Upton told Stuff, "through a development agency, back in 2010. We weren’t actually applying for money but for a loan guarantee. The proposal went out to an expert reviewer whom the development agency employed, and the reply came back: ‘no, reject’. They said there was no market for a product like that. Basically they were saying, these products don’t exist, and the fact that they don’t exist is proof that there’s no market for them."

mmm, success pi

"It has left me very sceptical about any government attempt to do industrial support," Upton continued, "because it is always going to have gatekeepers. And the gatekeepers are always going to have a bias towards things that already exist."

Despite a lack of pre-existing demand for the Pi, a market for it appeared quickly: "We sold 4.5 million Pi 1s in three years, and 3 million Pi 2s in one year." The tiny, cheap computers have been an enormous hit with hobbyists and educators around the world and even off-world; two armour-clad Pi PCs are currently assisting Tim Peake in his experiments in space. 

That the government failed to see the Pi's potential has not stopped it claiming credit for its prodigious success. By 2014, David Cameron was extolling the virtues of the Welsh-made Raspberry Pi at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Last year, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson visited the Raspberry Pi plant in Bridgend and stated that "this is the kind of expertise we are supporting to safeguard the future success of our economy," which is Politician Code for "I don't really know what this thing is but I hear it's important, so well done to everyone, including me."

the why of pi

The Pi is now on track to become the UK's best-selling PC ever: the launch of the new Pi 3 will see it break the 8-million-unit record set by the Amstrad PCW in the 1980s and 1990s, and it shows no sign of slowing down, with demand for the £4 Pi Zero outstripping supply.

"We’re now selling everything we can make," says Upton.

Unlike Alan Sugar's pinstriped Amstrad operation, however, Upton's charity has never sought giant profits.

"We were trying to save computer science at Cambridge," he explains. "Cambridge is one of the best places in the world to study computer science, it was where the first computer to provide a service was operated, in the 1950s, it has deep heritage. But in 2008 we had barely two people applying for each place on the course. Usually at Cambridge you have fight your way past tens of other people to get a place. And if we were having that sort of trouble, imagine the sort of trouble other people were having. We had a little over 200 applicants in 2008, and now we’re back up to almost 700. We now have more people applying to study computer science at Cambridge than we did at the height of the dotcom boom."

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