A story on how the “appliance computer” came to be.
YOUTUBE LINK: Domesticating the computer
( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTHV-qRf-0c )
DOWNLOAD LINK: https://www.dropbox.com/s/3v9b05ha1y53i95/DomesticatingTheComputerTAKE18_FINAL_24fps_for_YT.mp4?dl=0
NOTE: Credit is appreciated, but this is licensed under Creative Commons to encourage re-use (partial or in-full)
voidstar (script and audio/video editing)
Carrion Crow (background art and composition)
Amigo Aaron (narration)
The purpose of this media is to be a brief overview that highlights some of the systems involved during the “microcomputer revolution” of the 1970s. The focus is on how the computer became a household consumer product, initially referred to as the “appliance computer.” That is, an appliance like a stereo, radio, blender, toaster, hair dryer: something you just turn on and it works.
For greater details about specific systems in the video, please refer to EXTENDED FOOTNOTES.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- SCENE EXPLANATIONS (kind of a “director’s cut” narration)
- DETAILED BACKGROUND (of what this is about and why it was created)
- HONORABLE MENTIONS (systems we would have liked to include if this were a 60+ min documentary)
- BLOOPERS AND MISTAKES
TITLE: One early proposed title was “On the Origin of Home Computers” as a play on Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species.” I felt such a title was more worthy to belong to an actual documentary. So it occurred to me that the evolution of computers has been a bit like dinosaurs: hulking giants, medium sized beast, to then the small chicken-sized critters. Eventually, humans domesticated some of those beast, bringing them into our homes. And so, “Domesticating the Computer” is a play on that theme.
00:05 No home computers before 1970? I’m going to stand behind this. Yes, there was the LINC (1961) and a number of home-made personal computers starting in 1966. A bunch of computing hardware in a house is one literal view of the phrase. But a “home computer” is really a device specifically intended, aesthetically, to be used by anyone in the home. No obscure startup sequence, a proper manual, and a build that can be repeated (i.e. is affordable) so that your neighbor can get one too. Anything else is still more of a “project computer.”
00:08 The Datamation magazine cover chosen was from May 1964. This was chosen because, of that era, this was one of the more “colorful” and “eye-catching” covers (at a time when color printing was quite expensive). But another reason is because it mentions “operating systems” and so this is a statement to show that in the mainframe/minicomputing world, the idea of operating systems (for process and file management) was already on peoples’ mind. This is a subtle reminder that the idea of the OS didn’t start with microcomputers (but identifying the need and writing efficient code to write a viable OS within the limited resources of microcomputers was still a great facilitator in their subsequent adoption, especially the idea of more abstract OS software design that was more portable across specific hardware platforms).
00:10 “Your own train” explained. Having your own train would be great, and some people do have their own scaled down steam engine with track. But practically speaking, this statement refers more to the cost/time of maintaining a train – one would spend more time in that maintenance than actually making use of the system. But also, full sized trains were expensive and owned by a group or committee, which would also be how a computer at the time would also have to be financed.
00:16 Datamation ads – the center ad is funny because it is Lockheed Electronics (early portion of what later became Lockheed Martin) and is advertising a product called a MAC (which was the short name given later to the Macintosh). Aside from the $30k cost, the other point of these ads is that computers were still switches and a teletype (no CRT). CRT work was certainly around, as early as 1960, but as an expensive peripheral, not an integral native part of the computer system itself. Between 1968 and 1970, a typical minicomputer cost dropped from $30k to $20k. That was fairly base configuration, one would still add cost for main memory, data storage, and serial communication. The idea of operating systems was around, but Unix didn’t quite emerge until early 1970 (and later they tried to charge about $20k for it! there were other OS options like VAX/VMS). Still, the idea is a computer vendor would provide some base software, but you still largely had to program the system yourself. As you see in the chart below, the crossover-point on when computers became cheaper than cars was right during 1977. This is a good reference point, since a car generally can be bought by an individual (over one’s lifetime, you might buy one house, but likely purchase several cars). That is, cars represent another “personal” product.
00:22 The lady here is sitting within a circle of CRT tubes. We don’t know who this is, but it was a Datamation ad from a company stating that they had many shapes and sizes of CRTs (a few on the ground appear to be flashlights just to fill the picture). CRTs themselves maybe weren’t that expensive, but to control “the gun” and steer the beam in a fast and reliable (not flickering) fashion, and tight enough to draw individual characters, was still expensive. The display controller shown here is from CC (Computer Communications Inc.) – there CC-301 model had both text (20×40) and graphics mode (108×85) support.
00:29 Shown here is a portion of an article by D.J. Theis. The highlight here is that “the industry” was starting to acknowledge the limitation of line printers. Historically (for about the prior 15 years) you would “talk to” a computer through a type writer and the output would come back out in the printer. There was no concept of “clearing the screen” or “moving the cursor” yet, because there was no screen or cursor. It’s also interesting to think about this in the following terms: if you produced a report, you couldn’t just “forward it” to your manager or peer, because they’d have no computer to view it on. The only reason to print things out was to share the content or report with those who didn’t have a computer, hence much importance was placed on supporting a printer. Serial speeds were getting far faster (1200+ baud) than line printers could keep up with, so a CRT would help consolidate data and construct a cohesive report that was worth printing. On top of that, CRTs were quiet (no screaming ink heads), dynamic (change content), and didn’t consume any ink cartridges.
00:39 Daedalus (in the ad shown here) was another early personal computer, but without a CRT. VIATRON had a CRT (*and* self-contained tape storage) but was not quite a general-purpose computing. On the bottom right is an early CC concept (pre-1970) that includes a light pen. It looks quite a bit like what became the TRS-80. Few people used a calculator at home, let alone a “programmable computer device” (as few people were inclined to learn how to program such a thing anyway, and the limited memory capacity meant very primitive editors or compilers of any sort).
00:45 Why didn’t they sell the Datapoint to home users in 1971? It’s complicated. First, the system was still over $6000 in 1971 dollars. Second, if they put an ad in the paper, nobody would understand what they were trying to sell. Nobody really “bought” a computer, they were all leased either from IBM or HP or DEC. And this was hard for young startups, Datapoint had to bankroll building these machines while the lease-money came in later (if at all!). So it took time for society in general to really grasp that it was true, a truly small self-contained desktop sized computer was now actually possible (and in any case, it also took time for the application-software, development tools, and operating systems to also be developed that would make these systems far easier to operate).
00:58 Why is the IBM punch card shown? The Datapoint 2200 ended up not having much relationship with punch cards, but the designers did decide to make its screen also 80×12 resolution like those IBM punch cards. To get the company “off the ground” and some kind of revenue coming in, Datapoint first made a Datapoint 3300. It wasn’t programmable and replaced a Type 33 Teletype. Initially it was thought the DP2200 would replace another teletype for 80×12 systems, so they just followed convention of what they had done for the DP3300. But once the DP2200 became a programmable system, many other uses were realized (and so the original intent of the 80×12 screen became OBE). That said, another benefit of the low profile screen was that an accessory was produced that helped prop up 8.5×11 papers above the screen. This helped transcribe content from those papers into the Datapoint terminal.
01:19 On the surface it looks like Pillsbury just used these DP2200 systems as terminals to their corporate mainframes. But that’s not really the case. They didn’t have phone or network connections to do this over that great of a distance. So the DP2200 were standalone units. Data was collected, put to tape, then mailed to be uploaded into their mainframes. In time (within about a year), Datapoint produced a DATABUS language to help make the programming easier – and the Pillsbury customer found other uses for the system (like as a way to track specific chicken feed recipes/compositions. The first Datapoint 2200 batch was painfully slow, but a subsequent update (within a year) was orders of magnitude faster (then followed by a DP1100, DP5500, etc. models for about another decade).
01:37 Capt’N Crunch blue whistle appears. This is homage to the history of “phreaking” and the legend of John Draper that started in 1971. This whistle also has a relationship to the founders of Apple.
How Cap’N Crunch Hacked the AT&T Nationwide Phone Network
02:33 HP programming: The two examples here are directly from the HP manuals of these corresponding models (the 9100A from 1968 and the 9830A from 1973).
02:53 This Wang advertisement in Datamation has a couple interesting things. First, it shows how Wang went out of their way to hide the fact that the CPU was a huge external box. It’s true that for most of the 1970s, traditional TTL chips remained faster than microprocessors – but it was more parts, which meant higher cost and potential for failure. The second fun thing about this ad is the “what you see is what you get” slogan being used! But this didn’t mean what was on the screen, it meant what you saw in the ad (and note that it says “starting at $6,800”, so it didn’t mean “all” those peripherals were included). Another thing to notice here is that it says “Hardwired Basic Language.” I assume the benefit of “hardwired” meant it was fast (and always available).
03:54 Stiens;Gate is actually a fairly decent story on its own. It is interesting how it ties together the rather unique feature of the IBM 5100 to run some mainframe software and handle the mapping to support APL symbols and Z-code (that is, like most systems at the time, the keyboard scan codes and character screen codes weren’t ASCII and used their own “funky” standard — so not only were processors slow, but then they had to constantly translate each other codes in order to communicate; it was a mess that we called “vendor lock” but today is called “an ecosystem”). As a fairly robust and capable “portable” computer, the IBM 5100 was used scientific labs, banks (stock brokers), and 3-letter agencies.
04:24 Computer Lib is a book by Ted Nelson in 1974, published just before the release of the Altair 8800. The book foretold much of what was about to come as a result of the “small computer” revolution. Also, Community Memory is shown here, as a reminder of a great community project that helped show what computers-in-public might be used for (that is, a new approach to communicating using digital electronic computers). That project began in 1972, but I didn’t have an appropriate opportunity to show this image earlier. The project ended in 1975, but the organization behind it continued on through the 1980s.
04:45 This is the earliest reference to “appliance computer” that I came across. Just as had happened in the 1960s, a myriad of incompatible systems was being developed. Each “one-off” personally built homegrown computer had its own set of rules of how it operated. As nice as the ideals of “liberation” sound, having a set of standards and ground rules was a necessary evil to help give some consistency of how to write software and organically operate with new devices.
04:47 “computer shack” Notice on this ad it says “franchise opportunities available” and “coming soon” in the bottom left list of existing stores. This speaks to the aspect that the very concept of a “computer store” was still a new concept even in 1976 (some “surplus computing equipment” stores sprung up around 1972, and some of the first “official” computer stores were in 1975). There had been “tv and stereo stores” but computer stores became something else entirely.
05:10 The first image is a young lady with a set of components in her left hand, and gathering some next set of components in her right hand. She is preparing to mount those components on the board, which in a subsequent stage those components would be “welded” to the system. The “small computer” guys didn’t have factories or resources of IBM, HP, Digitial. You could build a few systems in your garage, but to really scale you needed more friends to help assemble the system – friends willing to do the work without much pay. This is a photo directly from within an early Tandy “factory” (said to be an old JC Penny store that they bought) to build TRS-80’s in 1978.
05:14 This next photo is the very important “wave soldering machine.” Within Tandy, this was managed by a young Vietnamese immigrant. Once all the components are in place, this machine can solder them all in place in one quick go. This means it is far more efficient to get as much of your system onto one board as possible.
05:20 Tandy started production in Fort Worth, but in 1979 had started a “factory” in South Korea. There are multiple stations here, some preparing containers of components, other doing initial preparation for quality control checks, and those staging the components. This particular photo is the Tandy Color Computer (released in 1980) production, which even in 1981 was organized but not yet highly mechanized.
05:25 The “other” systems shown here are: ALPHA Z-80, Challenger IIP (Ohio Scientific), HORIZON, Versatile 2, Sphere Corporation, IMSAI 8080, Veras Systems (F-8), VECTOR 1, Processor Terminal, POLY-88, System Research Inc SRI-1000. Some were kits, some were aiming at the minicomputer market, each has an interesting backstory of their own.
05:41 “A mess of parts doth not a computer make.” (BYTE April 1977) This is part of a BYTE magazine “ad.” Except, it is not really an ad, but page space is used to make this important statement. There is a certain “honor” in “making it yourself” (that is, making anything yourself). Early “hackers” were very keen on that point, that to truly understand a thing (such as making a computer) meant making it yourself. But there is a limit to this, since obviously those hackers didn’t craft their own chips. One generally “assembles” a computer rather than actually making one, then it is something else altogether to build a system out of a combination of chips. In any case, this “ad” is played at a key point of the dialog that is talking about software, and (to me) that is the real message of this “ads” statement. It’s very admirable and honorable to “make your own computer” except that “mess of parts” doesn’t really make a computer (in the new sense of the word, during that “computer liberation” revolution of the mid-1970s). Software was quickly becoming the more important component, to provide utility and application, independent of whatever the hardware was. And aspects like warranty, supportability, ease of use (automatic startup sequences).
NOTE: Visually, this ad was a play on the Star Wars theme (the quote being something like Yoda would say) which came out a month later in May 1977.
06:33 The BASIC keyword extensions pertains to things like entering the graphics mode and polling the paddle positions. Woz’s Integer BASIC was explicitly oriented towards making it easy to write games, as that was his personal dream (a system to compete with the Atari 2600, as recall both Jobs and Wozniak, the founders of Apple, had previously worked for Atari), but to also make it a programmable system.
07:34 Intended to elaborate how Bobby Fischer (chess grandmaster) actively got involved in testing and refining microchess over the years. Fischer was also involved in earlier computer chess projects on minicomputers. The real amazing thing about microchess was how its first version was implemented in nearly exactly 1K of memory that the KIM-1 had available.
07:45 “Software in stores.” Some of the cassette-based software was sold in stores too. Peter Jennings, of Micro Chess, also did sell his software. It’s hard to say precisely which one was first sold in a store or was sold in a solid cardboard box. ZORK-I is a good candidate because it already existed in the minicomputer realm (PDP-10) and just a portion of it could fit on the TRS-80 disks (so it was broken up into a series). ZORK contained a lot of English-text, which quickly eats up database – it couldn’t practically be released in a tape cassette. This is why disk drives were a key enabler of opening up the interest in appliance computers – the “linear load” approach of cassettes hindered how extensive software could be (there were more expensive tape options that did support a kind of random access, as the QIC tape on the IBM 5100 and Teketronic 4501, and of course 9-track tape on the minicomputers). Anyhow, subjectively I picked Zork 1, Mystery House, COMMBAT, Ultima 1 as representative examples of the earliest “appliance computer” software. Zork 1 was an extensive and entertaining text adventure, Mystery House was the first graphical adventure (Apple 2), COMMBAT was the first play-over-modem game (so a TRS-80 system could play against someone on an Apple2 — COMM being a play on “communication”). Ultima is a slightly later title and Wizardry should have been listed here. But Ultima was such a “diverse genre” game (was it a space game? adventure game? dungeon crawler?) as it intentionally packed every last byte available on the disk.
09:24 IBM’s BIOS assembly listing. The Apple II “monitor” source code was also published in the 1978 manual (see here). That was 15 pages, compared to the IBM 5150’s 60 page BIOS listing (with fairly verbose annotations/comments). Not all other companies published ROM BIOS source code (e.g. Commodore and TI). So it may be fair to say this was somewhat of a standard practice at the time and not so surprising. The tone in this section probably would be better to say the inclusion of this BIOS source was part of the “working together” attitude of IBM (in terms of being able to write CP/M like operating systems and integrate peripherals).
09:57 On the mystery of CP/M and 86-DOS… The legend goes that IBM representatives did come to Gary’s house to make a deal for a CP/M contrast. They had NDA’s about the project with various other partners. Gary wasn’t available and his wife refused to sign the NDA. Gary not being at a scheduled meeting like that is a bit weird. And even if his wife refused to sign, why couldn’t the IBM reps just wait a day? Bill Gates has made it clear that he was a CP/M advocate and in fact had helped arrange the IBM meeting with Digital Research. Gates knew that operating systems were tricky and risky software, why re-invent the wheel. Anyhow, IBM was trying not beo a very closed system,
11:25 This was not to imply that the IBM PC *first* introduced the concept of Flight Simulator. I’m aware of SubLogic’s prior Flight Simulator on the Apple II. But the IBM PC version was substantially better due to having realistic gauges. Various BASIC book also had flight simulator as example programs, including a horizon projection when banking. The point is, self-booter titles like that early Flight Simulator (that made use of high-resolution graphics) did help make the system become attractive to buyers.
14:56 I intentionally kept the names of these systems out of the video, to be a kind of “trivia game” older timers could play when coming to this scene, to see who knew any of the systems. They are:
- Heathkit ES 400 (1956) [analog computer w/ 45 vacuum tubes]
- LINC 6 (1962)
- Univac-422 (1963) [see Patty Duke season 1, episode 2, 1963 “The Genius”]
- SCELBI 8H (1974)
- DECscope VT-52 terminal (1975) [this should have been the ECHO IV; intent was to show how high quality terminals did have a part in the story]
- Intertec Superbrain (1978)
15:18 Minicomputers and TRON…. Per this October 1977 issue of Datamation, Minicomputers (PDP-11/45) was also used in the making of Star Wars.
There is much about the history of computers well before 1970. For instance, the first transistor-based computers were developed around 1954, along also with one of the first high level programming languages (FORTRAN). But as far as the general public was concerned, computers were still impersonal: locked behind guarded doors, usable only by specialists, and afforded only by a committee with extensive resources.
To me, the story of the personal computer is similar to that of the upright piano. Grand pianos began as difficult to make machines, but with extensive craftsmanship and generally reserved only for royalty. The transition to upright pianos took several decades, involving patents on various aspects of hammer design and metal string arrangements. There were fires and setbacks during that story, but ultimately around the decade of the 1850s an affordable upright piano emerged. In fact, they emerged to such an extent that by the 1880’s the market was well saturated with inexpensive upright pianos (a similar situation in 1982 with myriad of cheap computers, like the VIC-20).
During all that time, composers were like early software developers: writing “code” for these new instruments, some with such complexity that some cheaply-built pianos simply couldn’t play the full extent of that composition. But more than that, composers sought out publishing sponsors, and legal (copyright) protection for their work (in particular the works written for playhouses and theater performances). This especially came to a head during the rise of “player pianos” right around the 1900s, with copies of music being made on scrolls. Fast forward to 1976, with Bill Gates’ letter “An Open Letter to Hobbyists,” that made a similar argument about software. And within a few years after that, successful software (in terms of sales) was largely dependent on being associated with a software publishing firm.
Anyhow, the story of “domesticating the computer” was not intended to be a lengthy documentary and had to be scoped to a reasonable runtime. My view is that several technologies had to come together to truly make “personal computers” more approachable by the masses:
- The idea of the microprocessor (such as pioneered from the F-14 program)
- The introduction of affordable CRT displays (as a kind of virtualized replacement of line printers), a kind of “taming of the radar scope.”
- The development of MOSFET technology to store static data and instructions (so that the computer had some consistent and standard startup sequence).
- The improvement of switching power supplies, that were much smaller and more reliable.
And these four technologies came together not until the early 1970s (at least, in an affordable and repeatable fashion). Computers could now become far more portable and affordable, and the startup sequence could be encoded in “microcode” rather than a tedious sequence of switches. On reflection, this is somewhat similar to how a century earlier train engines were “miniaturized” to become automobile engines (that is, the idea of connecting rods and pistons and processes to forge small versions of those, combined with an “internal combustion” chamber to actuate them at high speeds with the controlled-combustion of gasoline). While not steam engine based, the automobile became a kind of “personal transport” similar to how computers had become now “personal” just due to becoming smaller. And not just due to their size, but also their overall affordability.
But it took a while to mature the technology. The few computers that there were, were locked behind doors. Computers offered a direct advantage to those nations who could build them, so to some extent they were guarded assets (even if informally within a university). But beginning right in 1970, one untold story is that a meaningful amount of military, government, and corporate surplus was beginning to become available. Combined also with a kind of “winding down” of the Apollo program after the first moon landing in 1969, there was an excess of both equipment and technical talent. Out of work engineers, or their children, began to tinker in electronics and make use of equipment that was, up until recently, unimaginably expensive. Equipment such as core memory, power supplies, large capacity tape reels, and retired minicomputers. See the story of Gary Kildall and the computer he put together to start work on CP/M in his shed.
With an original plan to keep the video to 10 minutes, we couldn’t possibly cover every system. Plus, we figured there was fairly extensive coverage of each individual system already, so we tried to focus on just a few main highlights of a few systems. Some of the main points we wanted to convey were:
- The idea of integrated CRT, keyboard, storage and some form of BIOS was well before 1977.
- The use of BASIC was well before MicroSoft in 1975.
- General home use of computers was still very sparse even by 1981. Just because some kits had become more formalized, there still wasn’t large amount of mass production. And “text-terminal” very much limited the appeal and utility of those systems.
Below I’d like to catalog references to some of the other systems that we would have liked to of covered:
- Intercolor 8000 (May 1974 from Norcross, Georgia) see article here
Richard Adams 1974 home computer kit: here
Micral N (France): An expandable system, but more expensive than what the Altair was (at about $1500). It looks like a “reversed” Intel Intellec to me.
Tektronix 4051: Motorola 6800 based, raster graphics, startup BASIC programmable. QIC tape storage like the IBM 5100. Used by US Navy. Great video of one in operation c. 2020:
The First Graphical PC Came From 1970s Oregon? – YouTube
PLATO I to PLATO IV: A kind of “remote terminal” like the DEC VT52/VT100 terminals, but instead of just text they had a protocol defined to convey graphics. Pioneered many concepts like multi-user application software (games, chat rooms). Used in schools but still fairly expensive ($5000+ per terminal). PLATO V in the 1980s became a more standalone microcomputer.
BLOOPERS AND MISTAKES
- 02:55 “Wang” is pronounced differently than it was earlier at 02:40. We’re not exactly sure which is correct. “Wang” seems to be predominantly pronounced “Wong” by Chinese, however many Wang commercials use the apparent “Americanized” version (which presumably would have been blessed/passed by Dr. Wang). As a naturalized American citizen, perhaps Dr. Wang preferred this.
- 06:55 We’re not sure if “Faggin” is pronounced correctly here. We tried to source contemporary video interviews of Faggin himself, and so we think it is correct. Other Italians who refer to Faggin seem to also use this pronunciation.
- 08:01 “Analysis” was pronounced incorrectly here as “analyst”. It’s fine 🙂
- 14:48 The DECscope should have been the PLATO IV system instead. In either case, it represents the idea of how “dumb terminals” did play a role in all this.