It might seem impossible today but prior to the late 1970s home and personal computers did not exist. Computers were big, large affairs, which filled up entire rooms in Universities, laboratories and public offices. Microprocessors (the heart of a computer) were practically nonexistent.
Then in 1969 Intel, the chip manufacturer, was commissioned by Busicom, a Japanese calculator manufacturer, to design an integrated chip for them to build a desk top calculator. Intel succeeded in putting all the functions required by this calculator into a single chip, (the 4004) which entered production in 1971, thus beginning the microprocessor era with the first integrated circuit ever to contain all the basic necessary functions of a calculating machine.
Microprocessors (and therefore computers) need programs to run with. In 1972 Gary Kildall started writing PL/I the first programming language for the 4004 and Intel started producing a more sophisticated microprocessor: the 8008. In 1973 the magazine Radio Electronics published an article by the now well known electronics guru Don Lancaster describing a "TV typewriter", a kind of box of tricks to compose text electronically. It was only a fantasy but in the same year the first amateur home computer using the 8008 microprocessor (the Scelbi 8H) began to be sold to enthusiasts soon followed by the Mark-8, still based on the 8008 chip, but supplied in kit form only.
Then in 1975 the magazine Popular Electronics published an article describing another computer kit called the Altair 8800 (named after a planet in the TV series Star Trek) made by a pocket calculator company called MITS. This started an avalanche of requests which practically led to the establishment of the personal computer culture and the success of Bill Gates and his BASIC computer language which he and his friend Pal Allen supplied to MITS.
When in 1975-6 other better microprocessors (the 6502 and the Z80) became available and their prices more affordable the first really usable home computers appeared on the market. In 1977 they were:
- The Apple II
- The Tandy TRS-80
- The Commodore Pet
They sparked a revolution that still continues today by putting a tool that was reserved to the privileged few into everybody's home and life.
In 1981 Osborne, a programmer, writer and computer consultant, produced an "all in one piece" computer: the appropriately named model I. It was really too big and heavy to be carried around but still managed to enter into history as the first portable computer ever.
In 1981, after a short struggle, the giant corporation IBM managed to put on the market their first real personal computer, the 5150, establishing a standard which dominates the world market even today. Its arch rival Apple came out with a much better product in 1982 (the Lisa) but it was too late and too expensive to fight the battle with the mainframe manufacturer giant.
Apple tried again in 1984 with the Macintosh succeeding in conquering the graphic and enthusiast market with a revolutionary machine which offered (like the Lisa) a completely different way of managing the graphic and interaction among the computer and its user.
The success of the American computer industry sparked off a surge of European manufacturers at first and Japanese later. They (the European manufacturers) came on the market with ever improving machines with ever diminishing prizes. The pioneer in this field was, of course, Sinclair Research with its MK 14 in 1978, ZX-80 in 1980, the ZX-81 in 1981 and the very successful ZX Spectrum in 1982. Sinclair came out later with another machine, the QL which, for various reasons, did not do as well as the previous computers. The Sinclair machines were so popular that they ended up being built, under licence, in Portugal and also by Timex in USA with their models T/S 1000 (= ZX-81), T/S 1500 (= ZX-81 in a Spectrum case) and T/S 2040 (= enhanced Spectrum) plus scores of illegal clones in Russia and neighbouring countries.
In the meantime scores of other manufacturers tried (and succeeded) to enter the market and many made a remarkable job of it. In the USA Atari came out with their excellent models 400 and 800, Texas with the TI-99/4a, Commodore with the VIC 20, Apple with the model III. In Great Britain competition was really fierce with several firms trying to combat the ZX-81 easy domination of the market, for example the Jupiter Ace and the Acorn Atom. The Spectrum, which was really the king of the market, was opposed, among others, by Oric with their models I and Atmos, Commodore with model 64 and Plus4, by Camputers with the Lynx, by Sord with the M5, by Spectravideo with the xxxx, by Acorn with the Electron, by Grundy with the Newbrain and by Dragon Data with the Dragon 32 and 64.
The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) started a series of programs on TV to teach computing to home viewers and schools and initially based its model computer on the Acorn Atom design, much to the annoyance of (Sir) Clive Sinclair who thought that his project was better and more convenient.
The Japanese decided that to fight the American and European competition, they had to come up with a different (and better) standard. So they teamed up with the Dutch firm Philips for the hardware and with American Microsoft for the Software and came out with the MSX standard which failed miserably as it was too late to fight the already de-facto standards (Ms-Dos and Macintosh OS for the office, Sinclair and Commodore for the home market).
The dramatic arrival of the Macintosh in 1984 put an end to the historical period of great excitement and developments. Many people working in the industry today will gladly admit that their first programming notions were acquired whilst trying to learn how to program on one these early home computers.
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