"A Walk Through 'Visible Storage'", section 5 of 6, by LEN SHUSTEK
From "CORE 2.3", a publication of The Computer History Museum.

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By the mid-1970s, computers became really personal and started showing up in homes. The do-it-yourself computer kit that started this revolution was the Altair 8800,

Photo by Jessica Huynh
which appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics

in January 1975 and had thousands of propellerhead hobbyists dreaming of owning their own.

None of the companies that built "real" computers took this kind of computer seriously. But new companies started in the most unassuming ways and surprised the establishment. The two scruffy bearded Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) who showed off this Apple I

Photo by Jessica Huynh
at a 1977 Homebrew Computer Club meeting were not obvious candidates for creating Apple Computer, a hugely important company that would still be a major force 25 years later.

Only a few hundred of the Apple I's were built. The company's first big success was the Apple II,

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which was wildly popular in schools and even made a foray into businesses because of VisiCalc, the world's first interactive spreadsheet. Apple kept moving quickly: their first big failure was the Apple III,

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their first non-product was the Lisa,

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and the world's first mass-market high resolution graphical computer was the justifiably famous Macintosh.

Photo by Jessica Huynh

Eventually large companies recognized that personal computers were becoming a serious force, and even IBM produced one that subsequently set the standard for 90% of the desktop computers. In retrospect, that was a most unusual turn of events: the "open standard" computer was produced by the starched shirts at "Big Blue" whereas the hippies at Apple kept their design to themselves. The interpretations and lessons of this bit of history will be debated for years.

But the 1981 IBM PC, of which we have many examples in the collection, was not IBM's first personal computer. Back in 1975 they had produced this "IBM 5100"

Photo by Michael Dubinsky
to run the BASIC and APL languages. The remarkable thing, besides the high price tag, was that it was actually a shrunken mainframe on a desktop running an emulation of the big System/360 machines and their software. Fred Brooks' idea of "one computer for everything" had perhaps gone a bit too far.


Where were the big companies when the innovative products were first coming out of the young upstarts? Well, in some cases, they were creating innovations and failing to make products out of them. Xerox, in their Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), created the Alto,

Photo by Kevin Powers
a high-resolution graphic computer that was intended to be what the Macintosh became. Xerox PARC also created the world's first prototype laser printer,

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based on a standard office copier. But even with that head start they did not come to dominate the early laser printer market.

PARC also prototyped portable computers, like the NoteTaker,

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which was never produced but looks remarkably similar to the later Osbome 1.

Photo by Kevin Powers

How Xerox repeatedly managed to invent the future but failed to build it has been chronicled in several books like the aptly titled Fumbling the Future by Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander and the more recent Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik.

One of the minefields in the technological history business is the election of "firsts." It depends on pedantically precise definitions, requires meticulous and detailed records, is almost always controversial, is often historically meaningless, and engenders emotional responses that can sometimes lead to fisticuffs. But it's fun! So in that spirit, The Boston Computer Museum, our ancestor whose collection is the core of ours, ran a contest in 1985 to discover the real first personal computer. The winner, as the "first advertised commercially available non-kit computer under $1000," was a computer you have never heard of: the Kenbak-1,

designed by John V. Blankenbaker and advertised in Scientific American in 1971. "Firsts," when you find them, may not be what you expect.

The Museum's award for the first microprocessor-based computer was given to an almost equally obscure French computer, the Micral, designed by Vietnamese immigrant Thi Truong around an Intel 8008 and programmed by Philippe Kahn.

The election of "firsts" depends an pedantically precise definitions, requires meticulous and detailed records, is almost always controversial, is often historically meaningless, and engenders emotional responses that can sometimes lead to fisticuffs. But it's fun!

Speaking of microprocessors and firsts, what was the first microprocessor-based device? It was this calculator from Busicom,

Photo by Kevin Powers
a Japanese company that hired Intel in 1971 to create the world's first microprocessor, the 4004. This prototype, from Federico Faggin's desk, has one of the world's first working microprocessor chips plugged into it.

Stand-alone analog computers became dinosaurs that only survive in textbooks and computer history museums.

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