1975: ancient history. (Reminiscence - technology and hardware) Robert Marsh.
It has been one amazing decade for us personal computer fans! Today there are millions of computers in homes and businesses around the world, but 10 years ago things were different.
The first home-built computer kit, the Mark 8, came out in 1974. This little machine used an 8088 plus about 50 other chips. You had to build it completely from scratch--there was no power supply, no CRT screen, no keyboard, no case. There wasn't even any software. When you tried to use a Mark 8 you felt you had all the technical sophistication of a caveman holding the first fire-hardened spear. Since only a few Mark 8s were ever finished, I think of 1974 as part of the pre-historic era. History began in 1975. What was it like back then?
First of all, nobody owned a personal computer then. We called them "hobby computers," believe it or not. This term was to stick to our machines for almost two years and was to become a major handicap for those of us who wanted to use our computers for business purposes. Many of us called them microcomputers or small computers.
Later on that year, Ted Nelson (if you haven't read his classic book, Computer Lib, you should) came up with my favorite name, dinky computers. Portia Isaacson didn't come to our rescue by coining the term personal computer for another year or so.
I have seen ads in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere in which Apple Computer Corp. claims Wozniak and Jobs invented the personal computer, but Steve and Steve waited until 1977 to invent the Apple II. By then tens of thousands of Altairs, Imsai 8080s, Cromemco Z-1/Z-2s, and Processor Technology Sol 20s had already been sold by computer stores around the world.
Today, who can even guess how many different personal computers are available? Back in '75, we didn't have to spend much time deciding between brands; there was just one. MITS in Albuquerque, NM made the Altair 8800, and if you wanted your own computer, that's what you got. Early in the year you could get one of these machines for only $400 in kit form.
Three to six months after sending in your hard earned cash, you got:
* A nice blue box with four card slots, a power supply, and a binary front panel complete with lots of toggle switches and red LEDs.
* A CPU board with an 8080 microprocessor chip.
* 256 bytes of RAM (that's right, 256 bytes, not K-bytes)
* No ROM at all
* No interfaces to the outside world at all.
* No software at all.
* Assembly instructions and schematic diagrams.
* Lots of solder.
A really sophisticated (and well-heeled) buyer might get up to 16K bytes of RAM for an additional $1000 or an RS-232 interface for $120. Basic was an extra $150.
You had to put it together yourself. MITS advertised them assembled and tested but those units took even longer to get. For an old-time electronics hardware guy like me it was fun and challenging to put one together, but for some others, well . . . have you ever watched a Cobol programmer try to figure out which end of a soldering iron to pick up?
Can you imagine what it was like to finish building the very first dinky computer on your block, maybe the only one in the state? Yes, it was quite a feeling. But as soon as you finished building and testing your computer, you were forced to confront the awesome truth. You had to start programming. That meant setting in a program in binary, one bit at a time, switch by switch. Real binary virtuosos could key in the bootstrap loader for MITS Basic in about three minutes. But even Steve occasionally made mistakes and would have to start over, back to bit zero.
After keying in the loader you had to wait 40 minutes while your teletype loaded Basic. Almost no one had a CRT terminal then. We usually needed ASR33 teletypes with paper tape readers attached. If you are lucky, you have never used paper tape. Back then you were very lucky to get an ASR33 for less than $1000. (Only a few years later I tried to give away a portable version of this teletype at a Home Brew Computer Club meeting and no one would take it). These entirely mechanical monsters generated quite a few bit errors even at 110 baud. Often, about three quarters of the way through loading Basic, you got an error. Then you started over again.
Many times did I dream of a replacement for paper tape, but floppy disk drive systems for microcomputers hadn't been invented yet. There was no CP/M and, of course, no PC-DOS. No one had even dreamed of owning a hard disk. In 1975 the state of the art for program storage and loading was 1200 baud on audio cassette tape.
Can you imagine what an advance cassettes were over paper tape? Cassettes were ten times faster and, though far from perfect, lots more reliable. Imagine the thrill of waiting only four minutes to load Basic.
If you wanted to program your machine, you had a choice between binary machine code and Basic. Hardly anyone had an assembler for the 8080. Most people did have the 4K, 8K, or 12K versions of Basic written by college dropout Bill Gates and Paul Allen (later founders of Microsoft).
Many Altair owners had never heard of Pascal, C, or PL/I, and anyway no versions of these languages existed for the 8080 chip. What if you wanted to balance your checkbook with your computer? You wrote your own program in Basic. What about word processing? You would have had to dream about it for two more years until Electric Pencil came out. WordStar came even later. Data base? Spread sheet? Not for three more years.
If you were able to get your machine up and running and actually did some programming in Basic, you were probably the de facto hobby computer expert in your area. What did you do if you needed help? Remember, the computer store wasn't invented until 1976. You spent lots of money (and lots of time on "hold") for phone calls to Albuquerque. Or you joined a local computer club or formed your own club. Overnight, computer clubs sprang up just about everywhere so people could get together to learn from each other how to build and use hobby computers.
Today, every newsstand in the country has several computer magazines, and the racks in computer stores can barely carry the load. In 1975 there were only four magazines with any content on hobby computers: Byte, Creative Computing, Popular Electronics, and Radio Electronics. We needed to read every word in every advertisement and article about computers. Today you probably couldn't find enough time in a month to read just the lead articles in every personal computer magazine.
We didn't have many things you take for granted today, but we did have a feeling of excitement and adventure. A feeling that we were the pioneers in a new era in which small computers would free everyone from much of the drudgery of everyday life. A feeling that we were secretly taking control of information and power jealously guarded by the Fortune 500 owners of multi-million dollar IBM mainframes. A feeling that the world would never be the same once "hobby computers" really caught on.