The Fruits of Civilization (10-1) Personal Computers

Personal Computers

Microprocessors cut their teeth in programmable electronic calculators; then came the Intel 8080 microprocessor, released in April 1974. The 8080 was powerful enough to run a computer: so thought American electronics engineer Edward Roberts, who designed the Altair 8800 computer around the 8080 for his hobby-kit company: Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS).

The Altair got off to a roaring start, thanks to fanfare from the editors of Popular Mechanics magazine, which proclaimed in its January 1975 issue:

For many years, we’ve been reading and hearing about how computers will one day be a household item. Therefore, we’re especially proud to present in this issue the first commercial type of minicomputer project ever published that’s priced within reach of many households – the Altair 8800, with an under-$400 complete kit cost, including cabinet.

The Altair was the 1st microcomputer popular with hobbyists. Many others had been marketed before. Below is a brief survey of a few.

The 1st hobbyist calculator was Simon: a $600 kit for building a “mechanical brain” that could perform simple arithmetic. ($600 in 1950 = $5,910 in 2015 dollars.) Simon was first described by Edmund Berkeley  in his 1949 book: Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. Instructions on how to build Simon were published in a series of articles in Radio Electronics in 1950–1951.

Simon is of no great practical use. It knows only the numbers 0, 1, 2, and 3. ~ Edmund Berkeley

Italian typewriter and electronics manufacturer Olivetti introduced the Programma 101 at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It was a desktop programmable calculator, with a keyboard, printer, and magnetic card reader.

Over 44,000 Programma 101 units were sold worldwide, 90% of them in the US. 10 went to NASA, where they were used to plan the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. The initial US price was $3,200 ($25,000 in 2015 dollars).

If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute. ~ Neiman Marcus advertisement for the Kitchen Computer

The first time a computer was offered as a consumer product, none sold. In 1966, Honeywell introduced the Kitchen Computer, which included a cutting board. It was promoted as an extravagant gift at high-end department store Neiman Marcus for $10,600 ($77,650 in 2015 dollars).

Weighing over 45 kg, the Kitchen Computer was advertised as useful for storing recipes. But that would have been quite a chore for the average housewife. Learning the user interface, which was a gaggle of toggle switches, required taking a 2-week course, which was included as part of the price.