When I was growing up in the 1950s, I knew nothing about computers. They were big machines with lots of wires and mechanical gizmos inside, operated by solemn men who alone understood the mysterious workings of these exclusive machines. Only the US government and a few large and wealthy companies had computers, and I assumed these machines mainly crunched numbers, doing work for the military and replacing humans who would have to do all those calculations by hand. My assumptions were not too far off.
But that was not the only strand of computer history. Those big machines, with their vacuum tubes and high priests protecting them from the rest of us, would soon be a minor branch on the family tree of computing. With the social ferment of the 1960s, people were looking for ways to liberate themselves from convention, and some looked to computers as a form of individual expression. One such person was Ted Nelson, who wrote the first book about the personal computer, Computer Lib, which he self-published in 1974. The book tapped into a groundswell of desire on the part of individuals to have their own computer. Nelson sold 40,000 copies of his book.
Several books connect the 1960s to the the personal computer revolution. One such book is From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Another book with the same theme is What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry which tells the story of early Silicon Valley institutions, mainly connected to Stanford University in Palo Alto, that experimented with networking and the beginnings of the Internet; they were also researching ways for people to use computers in real time instead of through batch processing. Doug Engelbart gave a now-legendary performance of remote networking, multiple windows on a computer monitor, and use of a mouse to point to items on the screen back in 1968 at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). People who saw this presentation were blown away by its power! But the presentation was accomplished through meticulous planning, behind-the-scenes maneuvering and a certain amount of "smoke and mirrors." Personal computing was not yet ready for prime time.
During the 1970s, a technical innovation was paving the way for a new kind of smaller and faster computer, a “computer on a chip” that used a microprocessor instead of the clunky mechanical insides of the mainframe computers in use by the few corporations and government entities that could afford computing. Intel developed the 4004, then the 8008, and finally, the chip that could power a real computer, the 8080. Xerox did some amazing experimental work at its PARC facility, developing the Alto, a microcomputer with many of the features that Apple computer would later put into its Lisa and Macintosh products. However, Xerox, with its focus on leasing copiers to big companies, never marketed the Alto. An excellent account of the work at PARC is the book, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age.
Instead, it was hobbyists and idealists like Ted Nelson who resolutely followed their dream. Gary Kildall, a consultant for Intel, was instrumental in developing a way to connect a chip-based computer to an external disk drive. This eliminated the need for the expensive paper tape machines that were used on the big computers as storage devices. Kildall was also the inventor of the first operating system for microcomputers, CP/M. Hobbyists who longed for a computer began experimenting with microchips, building their own computers. The Homebrew Computer Club was born in California. In January of 1975, the Altair kit computer appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics. This 8080-based microcomputer was far from user-friendly, but it came with the BASIC language, thanks to Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to work with his friend Paul Allen on a version of BASIC that would fit into the limited memory of the Altair. A good book about some of those early programmers is Portraits In Silicon
As the movement grew, with hobbyists trading programming tips and small companies springing up to offer products to extend the capabilities of these home-built machines, a pivotal event occurred in 1977. Tandy Corporation, which operated 3500 Radio Shack stores across the country got into the act with a complete, off-the-shelf microcomputer, the TRS-80. This simple machine, selling for $599.95, came with BASIC, a cassette tape recoder as storage device and a monitor displaying only upper case letters. It set the market on fire. The book, Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution, tells the story of the creation of the TRS-80 and its impact on those who bought it. John Roach, Tandy CEO at the time, ordered 3500 of the machines to be built in Tandy’s own factory in the US. He thought this product might not find an audience and if they only built as many as they had stores, at least the stores could use them. He proved to be very wrong as their switchboard was paralyzed with calls following the TRS-80 introduction in August, 1977. In the first year, over 250,000 people went on waiting lists to get a TRS-80. Those who were able to get one almost universally remember it with fondness as the years have gone by.
Microsoft, led by Bill Gates, was out there, selling their version of BASIC to all the computer companies that appeared during the 1980s, including the IBM PC. You can read what Gates has to say in his own words in a book published for Microsoft’s 25th anniversary, Inside Out: Microsoft-In Our Own Words. While Microsoft has gone on to become a huge multinational company and Gates became the richest man on earth, this was not the future for the many small companies that produced products for those early microcomputers. Like every new industry, the business of hardware and software underwent consolidation and shakeouts, and the way things were done changed radically. In the early days, most software was created by one person, and some programmers became stars, but it wasn’t long before software development was done by teams of programmers, the work divided into modules. One of the best books about the people and products of those early years, when personal computing was all new, is Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer (Second Edition). Another great book, written by a true microcomputer pioneer, is Stan Veit's History of the Personal Computer. Stan Veit owned a computer store in New York City back in the 1970s and he was also editor of Computer Shopper during the formative years of the industry. That magazine used to be huge, bulging with ads for all kinds of hardware and software that the growing ranks of computer owners wanted.
The computers that most people use today are not the descendants of the big machines that once were the pride of the computer priesthood, but rather are the offspring of the hobbyist machines and the complete microcomputers that followed: the TRS-80, the Commodore PET, the Apple II, and host of other largely-forgotten products. The early users who delighted in writing lines of BASIC and watching as the screen ran their program (even if it was only a message like “Hello, I am your new computer”) touched off a revolution that just kept going, giving the public more computing power with each generation of microprocessor. But, despite the impressive power of today’s PCs, those early pioneers almost universally agree that it was more fun in the old days. I am one of those pioneers, and I hope to encourage more people to explore computer history and learn more about why those first humble microcomputers gave us so much enjoyment and went on to literally change the world.