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Datapoint: The Lost Story of the Texans Who Invented the Personal Computer Revolution Paperback – August 30, 2012
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I first became aware of the Datapoint 2200 when I was a student majoring in Computer Science at the University of Illinois, when one day in 1972 my academic advisor (and Department Head), one Dr. H. George Friedman, handed me a looseleaf ring binder for the Datapoint 2200, labelled as a "Programmer's Manual". I still have that manual!
The manual contains a general specification of the machine, processor architecture, instruction set, typewriter-style keyboard, built-in 12-row x 80-column CRT display, dual magnetic cassette-tape drives (which under program control could be read (including bidirectionally), written, slewed (faster) in both forward and reverse directions, rewound and more), switching regulator power supply (which was revolutionary at the time), a description of the command line commands and internal routines (callable by user programs) within the Cassette Tape Operating System (CTOS) (which supported multi-file tapes with a directory etc etc), General Editor program, Assembler, and even a complete assembler source listing of the CTOS (dated 2/5/1971 !).
Separate manuals provided details of the various versions of Cassette DATABUS (a business-oriented programming language) which were offered. (There were five or six versions of Cassette Databus, depending upon how the programmer wanted to trade off available features versus how much memory the system software would use and how much was needed for the user's application). There were also a text-formatting document printing program called Scribe, an interactive debugging tool, and much more. There were a whole variety of external communications adapters and other external interfaces which could be daisy-chained on the 50-pin processor I/O bus (which was the only plug socket available on the back of the 2200, besides the AC power cord). The revolutionary thing about the 2200 was that here was a machine, of about the size, weight, and form factor of an IBM Selectric typewriter which could readily be user-programmed to perform a wide variety of general-purpose functions (including business applications) using nothing but the components inside the desktop package.
Intrigued, I wrote an emulator for the University's IBM 360/75 that used mainframe 9-track tape drives to emulate the 2200's cassettes, and which was actually able to run CTOS, assembler, and other Datapoint 2200 software (although obviously limited by the lack of interactive terminals on the mainframe).
I had driven to the Datapoint sales office in Chicago to run a program I had written to copy various Datapoint cassettes (CTOS, editor, compilers, etc) to a 9-track tape drive, which allowed me to access and run the 2200 software on my mainframe-based 2200 emulator.
I actually proposed a system (based on the Datapoint 2200) intended to support ID card readers (for the University Residence Hall cafeterias) to check students entering the cafeterias and provide easy ways to bill their University student accounts for guests (family and friends) who wished to eat in the cafeteria with the student. Clearly this went well beyond what one could do with a desktop calculator, or other just "smart terminal".
The 2200's internal 8-bit registers were A, B, C, D, E, H, and L. H and L were the high and low order parts of the memory address register, which allowed the programmer to specify which bytes of the main memory could be loaded to or saved from the registers. People now familiar with programming on the 8008 (which was almost identical to the Datapoint 2200 CPU... the main difference was the addition of an "increment" and "decrement" instruction which the 2200 did not have.) And the 2200's register names are (very) familiar also to PC assembler-language programmers to this day.
When Datapoint's Disk Operating System was released shortly thereafter (to support a Diablo Series 30 removable 2.5 Mb cartridge disk drive, comparable to what was used on the IBM 1130, and there called a "2315" IIRC).Datapoint also added support for programming with RPG II, BASIC, COBOL, and a multi-user version of Disk Databus (called Datashare) which on a 16K 2200 supported up to 8 external video terminals (and which could run independent programs on each terminal).
As for pricing, the original serial-processor Type 1 2200 could be bought with up to 4 2K byte shift-register-based memory boards, and the Type 2 2200 (with the 8-bit serial processor and regular RAM memory) could be bought with 1 to 4 4K byte memory cards. The 16K type 2 2200, as I recall, cost $14,110 dollars at the time. A desk-mounted controller and 2.5 Mb Diablo cartridge disk drive cost $9800.
One of the truly curious things (and you still see this, for example, if you go to the Computer History Museum out in the Bay Area) is the failure to understand the distinction between a "Personal Computer" versus a "Hobbyist Computer". The early hobbyist computers (Altair and such), which actually used the Intel 8008 version of the Datapoint 2200 CPU, were a totally different beast than the 2200 was,,. they were essentially a cheap hobbyist microprocessor-based version of a classical minicomputer (complete with sense switches, I/O lights, and all the rest, just like the PDP-8 and other such machines were) and like the PDP-8 didn't have a built-in (alpha, anyhow) keyboard, or display, or internal storage. Those (like the minicomputers of the time) had to all be added as external, independently cabled. devices.
The Datapoint 2200 on the other hand was a single unit, needing nothing but a power cord, offering an operating system (complete with console commands), a full typewriter-style keyboard, CRT, magnetic dual-drive cassette tape storage, and providing editors (for text and programs), assembler, all sorts of utilities (including diagnostics, terminal emulators and other comm packages) and a variety of compilers.
And all of this, in any case, was several years BEFORE the Jobs/Wozniak Apple II, or Bill Gates, or the Altair or its various sister microcomputers, which people who OUGHT to know better (like the Computer History Museum) confuse with the radically better, more complete, and earlier Datapoint 2200... which TRULY was the world's first real general-purpose desktop "personal computer".
(As for me, I left the University of Illinois in April 1974 and moved to Datapoint Corporation in San Antonio, where I took a position in Software Development and soon thereafter was given the lead programmer role for the development of the more powerful DOS-dot disk operating systems, many new utilities, the Partition Supervisor multi-OS VM-type facility, and perhaps most significantly was the person there who proposed and wrote the system software for what became the world's first commercially available local area network system (LAN). You can see the company's video (from 1977) introducing that revolutionary concept to the public on Youtube, look for "Datapoint ARC System" there.)
Their work creating the PC was truly remarkable. They originally called the product a “programmable terminal” to avoid confronting IBM, who dominated the market for “computers” then. But make no mistake, it was a fully functioning PC, and it was shipping years before the products from MITS/Altair and Apple usually considered the first PCs. Their ARC local networking system was also fully deployed well before Ethernet emerged on the scene.
Datapoint was wildly successful in the 1970’s, briefly breaking into the Fortune 500 for a couple years. But the combination of financial shenanigans at the hands of Wall Street financiers addicted to their profit growth, and the onslaught of cheap, commodity PCs finally did them in.
Lamont Wood does an excellent job of capturing the story. He interviewed many of the principles involved, and reconstructed more of the story from original documents. This is a well done and important contribution to the history behind the PC, the LAN and the microprocessor.
The story is a good one and could have been great. Unfortunately the first third of the book reads like a polemic as the author asserts that Datapoint invented the Microprocessor – and he’s going to prove to you by repeating that ad nauseam.
The reality is that like most inventions multiple people played a part in the invention of the microprocessor (including Lee Boysel at a company called 4-Phase.) The sad fact is that Intel’s marketing machine wrote everyone out of the history (including Federico Faggin) not just Datapoint. While Datapoint’s contribution was a part of history I didn't know, writing about it in such an aggrieved tone 40-years after the fact diminished what could have been a wonderful read.
The rest of the book is a good recounting of Datapoint and its contribution to computer history.
The downside is that the book feels like an extended series of newspaper articles rather than a great history. With another author or a great editor this book could have reached a much wider audience.
5-stars if you’re an ex-Datapoint employee or interested in the birth of the computer industry. 3-stars if you’re looking for a great history story.
Most recent customer reviews
Lamont Wood tries hard in the first third of this book to convince readers that the Computer Terminal Corporation (CTC) invented the "personal...Read more