Ten years and counting. (Reminiscence - technology and hardware) Harry Garland.
When Roger Melen and I started Cromemco, the largest memory chip had 1024 bits of storage, Ed Roberts was trying to name a new computer kit that he had developed, Federico Faggin had left Intel to design a high-performance successor to the 8080 microprocessor, and no one knew that the computer revolution was about to unfold.
It was in the cramped editorial offices of Popular Electronics magazine, high above the noisy streets of New York City that Roger Melen first saw a prototype of Ed Robert's computer. Les Solomon, the indomitable technical editor of Popular Electronics, was explaining to Roger how the Cromemco Cyclops camera, scheduled to appear in a future issue, would be an exciting peripheral for what was to be called the Altair computer. Les, as usual, was right, and the Cyclops became the first of many add-on products of what was to become the first of many S-100 bus computers. The Second Peripheral
But few people knew how to use these new computers. Those individuals with the vision to see the potential of microcomputers thirsted for more information on how these computers could be used. Subscriptions to Creative Computing (which was still being printed on newsprint stock) sky-rocketed and new magazines like Byte and Interface Age appeared. A book on microprocessors, written by a British chemical engineer named Adam Osborne, became an overnight best seller. Free communication of ideas was a hallmark of those early days as manufacturers, editors, authors, and computer users worked together cooperatively to build an industry.
Nowhere was this cooperation more evident than in the computer clubs that spontaneously appeared throughout the country. The Homebrew Computer Club in California was one of these. It was here that Steve Dompier demonstrated the first application program for the Altair computer (loaded from the front-panel switches it would play a tune on a nearby AM radio).
Bob Marsh used this forum to announce that his company (Processor Technology) would produce a 4K memory board for the Altair. The first microcomputer color graphics board, the Cromemco Dazzler, also premiered at the Homebrew Club. And club members Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak demonstrated a single-board computer with the unlikely name of "Apple."
As applications for these new computers developed, users were looking for more and more performance and features. When Federico Faggin's company (Zilog) introduced the Z80 processor, Cromemco was the first computer manufacturer to adopt this processor. The 4MHz ZPU card, as it was called, is still one of Cromemco's best selling cards and remained the performance champion on the S-100 bus until the Cromemco 8MHz 68000/Z80 DPU card was introduced recently.
As processors became more powerful, memory chips became more dense. The 4K memory card that Bob Marsh produced was exciting in its time because the original Altair computer came standard with just 256 bytes of memory. To appreciate the progress that has been made, consider that this year Cromemco introduced an S-100 RAM card (called the 2048 MSU) that has a whopping 2 megabytes of memory. Continued Progress
Amazingly, the rate of technological progress we have seen over the past few years is not slowing down at all. Microprocessors are becoming faster yet. Eight-bit processors gave way to 16-bit processors which are now yielding to 32-bit processors. And while the memory chips used in the Altair computer held 1024 bits of data, the chips now being used by Cromemco and other manufacturers hold 262,144 bits. At the current rate, memory chips containing more than one million bits' of data will be in use within the next three years.
No one would now deny that the last ten years have marked a revolution in the computer industry. But it is just a beginning. There is today an enormous gap between what computers could do and the software available to do it. Cromemco, for example, recently introduced a full-resolution TV camera interface for its line of 68000-based computers. The possibilities of a moderately priced computer that can see with full TV resolution are mind-boggling. Add to that multi-megabyte storage, pattern-recognition software, and robotic manipulation and you have the stuff of which the future is made.
Since Cromemco is the oldest surviving micrcomputer manufacturer I am sometimes asked what it is like to have participated in the fastest-growing period in the history of computing. My answer is that I don't know, because the fastest growing period in the history of computing is yet to come.