TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Apr 86 History
Volume Number:2
Issue Number:4
Column Tag:Historical Computing

A Pioneer looks back

By Dick Heiser, Founder, The Computer Store, MacTutor Contributing Editor

IN THE BEGINNING...

[ Dick Heiser started the personal computer revolution when he opened the world's first computer store in Santa Monica, CA. in 1975. In this column he traces those early days that laid the foundation for the Apple, Macintosh and all the other electronic wonders we enjoy today. A participant of the Great Peace March of 1985, Dick is filing his reports "on the walk" so to speak and is currently somewhere between Barstow and Las Vegas, walking to Washington D.C. for peace. We wish him well as he admirably represents the personal computing fraternity. -Ed.]

My first personal computer

Back in the bad old days, Herbert Grosch announced his Law: big computers are more cost-efficient than little ones. That was bad news for users; big computers mean arranging for authorized account numbers, waiting until unlikely hours of the night, and the annoyances of bureaucracies and rules. The best way to become a radical is to start by defending the establishment: I made elaborate arguments in favor of Grosch's Law at Pertec. In 1973, I flipped over, when I saw the microprocessors from Intel, and started dreaming of personal computers.

Computer Automation introduced the "Naked Mini", claiming that "what this country needs is a good $995 computer." By the time I had mine outfitted with a Teletype, CRT, two floppy disks, and 8K words of core memory, the "extras" had increased the cost to $14,000. Another time, I'll tell you more about do-it-yourself systems integration. For now, just say it was an exciting 18 months, filled with surprises and learning.

The MITS Altair

So, I was astonished to see the MITS Altair computer on the cover of the January '75 Popular Electronics magazine. According to the Altair system catalog, you could build an Altair system similar to my $14,000 computer, for only $4,000. I felt the same, years later, when my $995 Mac upgrade depreciated so fast. You'll notice, "once a plunger, always a plunger."

The grand plans for the "Altair business system" were premature, however. The catalog specified Pertex (sic) disk drives. If they can't spell the name right, they haven't done the work yet! It was a long time before that whole system came together.

The Altair was a blockbuster for both price and technology. For $439 you got a kit for the CPU and chassis. That was the right price: at that time, its Intel 8080 chip alone was selling for over $300! Then, for an extra few hundred bucks each, you could build 4K memory boards, serial interface cards, even an audio cassette recorder interface. The Altair looked just like a minicomputer: rows of switches and lights on the front panel. It worked like one, too: it used a 100-pin open bus design that became known as "S-100".

In the Wake of the MitsMobile

The first time I saw the MitsMobile, it was parked on the concrete at the Anaheim Convention Center. The event was the National Computer Conference, and the folks at MITS were too late to get a real booth. No booth number, no carpet, but they had a spellbinding act anyway: a cheap computer running BASIC. Every few minutes, somebody touched the power switch and crashed the system; then the technical support people had to toggle-in the bootstrap program, dash inside the RV to the teletype, and re-load the paper tape.

A few days after the NCC, my wife Lois and I went to see the MitsMobile again at a motel in the San Fernando valley. We arrived early, just before the last seats were taken. Then the aisles were taken, then the hallway out the door. The pitch-man began to explain the history of MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems was a model rocket telemetry company that almost went broke selling calculator kits). Before he could finish his first sentence, someone interrupted to ask when the "free binary listing" would be available. A steady stream of technical questions followed. Lois was impressed -- these people were planning to toggle-in 2,000-byte programs with the binary switches on the front panel! We knew we were among some serious hackers. Finally, after a few hours of technical questions, the evening adjourned, without ever finishing the history of MITS or anything else from the planned presentation.

came the SCCS

At the MitsMobile meeting, Don Tarbell circulated a note tablet. We inscribed our addresses, and were invited to his house on Fathers' Day for the first meeting of the Southern California Computer Society. 125 people showed-up for that first meeting; for awhile, the SCCS became the fastest-growing organization ever; by extrapolation, in 1980 the entire population of the earth would join-up. More than half of the SCCS'ers at that first meeting had ordered Altairs by prepaid mail order; few had received them yet.

and my computer store

I started my store in July. People would prefer to deal with me face-to-face, than to do business by mail. Waiting on long-distance for technical help was as frustrating then as now. With a simple flyer, a two-line classified ad, and a small storefront on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, I was in business faster than I expected. My slogan "The Computer Store" soon became the name of my business.

If you came into my store in July 1975, you'd have to call me out from the back room. I'd have been soldering on my first Altair. The "computer" in the front room would turn out to be just a cabinet -- a gutless wonder. By August, I got the computer working, with 8K BASIC running on a teletypewriter.

Besides kits, you could buy books of BASIC game programs. Dave Ahl wrote 101 BASIC Games while he was still at DEC; it was one of their most unusual and best-selling books. Another good book was What to Do After You Hit Return , a dynamic collection of games from Bob Albrecht. Bob is a pioneer in teaching people the "hands-on imperative", and I learned an enormous amount from his Peoples Computer Company newspaper.

Byte magazine was also for sale in my store then. Issue number one, produced by Carl Helmers and Wayne Green, sold astonishingly well. It had an electronics surplus feeling to it. I remember ordering some surplus Sanders $10,000 graphics terminals for about $100 each. The broker called back to explain that they were being sold as scrap, for parts only. Fixing them up into working terminals wouldn't be fair. Sanders didn't want to find lots of illegitimate babies out there with the Sanders name on them.

Summary

Was the Altair the first personal computer? No, the Mark-8 pre-dated it. The Altair was lots better because it used the superior Intel 8080 chip instead of the Intel 8008, and had an expandable bus system with interface options. What made the Altair the start of an industry, though, was BASIC. Bill Gates and Paul Allen had provided a magic ingredient: software.

Was Herb Grosch right about big computers being more efficient than little ones? Nowadays, small computers cost less per byte and less per MIPS. More importantly, we've learned how to use extravagant amounts of computer power. The Mac uses tons of power to deliver its graphic object interface. It's definitely worth it. Now that micro chips deliver power so cheaply, we can have "effectiveness" instead of "efficiency".

Next Month Dick files another report on the history of an industry he helped to create!

 
AAPL
$103.22
Apple Inc.
+0.72
MSFT
$44.88
Microsoft Corpora
-0.55
GOOG
$574.15
Google Inc.
+2.55

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

NetShade 6.0.2 - Browse privately using...
NetShade is an Internet security tool that conceals your IP address on the web. NetShade routes your Web connection through either a public anonymous proxy server, or one of NetShade's own dedicated... Read more
Mac DVDRipper Pro 5.0 - Copy, backup, an...
Mac DVDRipper Pro is the DVD backup solution that lets you protect your DVDs from scratches, save your batteries by reading your movies from your hard disk, manage your collection with just a few... Read more
pwSafe 3.1 - Secure password management...
pwSafe provides simple and secure password management across devices and computers. pwSafe uses iCloud to keep your password databases backed-up and synced between Macs and iOS devices. It is... Read more
StatsBar 1.8 - Monitor system processes...
StatsBar gives you a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the following areas of your Mac: CPU usage Memory usage Disk usage Network and bandwidth usage Battery power and health (MacBooks only)... Read more
Path Finder 6.5.5 - Powerful, award-winn...
Path Finder is a file browser that combines the familiar Finder interface with the powerful utilities and innovative features. Just a small selection of the Path Finder 6 feature set: Dual pane... Read more
QuarkXPress 10.2.1 - Desktop publishing...
With QuarkXPress, you can communicate in all the ways you need to -- and always look professional -- in print and digital media, all in a single tool. Features include: Easy to Use -- QuarkXPress is... Read more
Skype 6.19.0.450 - Voice-over-internet p...
Skype allows you to talk to friends, family and co-workers across the Internet without the inconvenience of long distance telephone charges. Using peer-to-peer data transmission technology, Skype... Read more
VueScan 9.4.41 - Scanner software with a...
VueScan is a scanning program that works with most high-quality flatbed and film scanners to produce scans that have excellent color fidelity and color balance. VueScan is easy to use, and has... Read more
Cloud 3.0.0 - File sharing from your men...
Cloud is simple file sharing for the Mac. Drag a file from your Mac to the CloudApp icon in the menubar and we take care of the rest. A link to the file will automatically be copied to your clipboard... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.1.2 - Free Open Source o...
LibreOffice is an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing tool) compatible with other major office suites. The Document Foundation is coordinating development and... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Function Space, a Social Network App for...
Function Space, a Social Network App for Science, Launches on iOS Posted by Ellis Spice on September 2nd, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Treasure Tombs: Ra Deal Coming from Bulk...
Treasure Tombs: Ra Deal Coming from Bulkypix and Dark Tonic This Fall Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 2nd, 2014 [ permalink ] Dark Tonic and | Read more »
Tiny Tower Vegas Review
Tiny Tower Vegas Review By Jennifer Allen on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: STEADY DEVELOPMENTUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Build a huge tower again but Vegas-style in Tiny Tower Vegas.   | Read more »
The Manhattan Project Review
The Manhattan Project Review By Andrew Fisher on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: ROCKET SCIENCEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad The Manhattan Project offers a great Euro-style gameplay experience, but it is totally... | Read more »
Rhonna Designs Magic (Photography)
Rhonna Designs Magic 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Photography Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Want to sprinkle *magic* on your photos? With RD Magic, you can add colors, filters, light leaks, bokeh, edges,... | Read more »
This Week at 148Apps: August 25-29, 2014
Shiny Happy App Reviews   | Read more »
Qube Kingdom – Tips, Tricks, Strategies,...
Qube Kingdom is a tower defense game from DeNA. You rally your troops – magicians, archers, knights, barbarians, and others – and fight against an evil menace looking to dominate your kingdom of tiny squares. Planning a war isn’t easy, so here are a... | Read more »
Qube Kingdom Review
Qube Kingdom Review By Nadia Oxford on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: KIND OF A SQUARE KINGDOMUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Qube Kingdom has cute visuals, but it’s a pretty basic tower defense game at heart.   | Read more »
Fire in the Hole Review
Fire in the Hole Review By Rob Thomas on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: WALK THE PLANKUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Seafoam’s Fire in the Hole looks like a bright, 8-bit throwback, but there’s not enough booty to... | Read more »
Alien Creeps TD is Now Available Worldwi...
Alien Creeps TD is Now Available Worldwide Posted by Ellis Spice on August 29th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple refurbished iPads available for up to $...
Apple is offering Certified Refurbished iPad Airs for up to $140 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free. Stock tends to come and go with some of these... Read more
Are We Now In The Post-Post-PC Era?
A longtime and thoroughgoing laptop aficionado, I was more than a little dismayed by Steve Jobs’s declaration back in 2010 when he sprang the iPad on an unsuspecting world. that we’d entered a “post-... Read more
PC Outlook Improves, But 2014 Shipments Still...
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, worldwide PC shipments are expected to fall by -3.7 percent in 2014. To hat’s actually an improvement from the... Read more
IDC Lowers Tablet Sales Projections for 2014...
Following a second consecutive quarter of softer than expected demand, International Data Corporation (IDC) has lowered its worldwide tablet plus 2-in-1 forecast for 2014 to 233.1 million units. The... Read more
Apple now offering refurbished 21-inch 1.4GHz...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 21″ 1.4GHz iMacs for $929 including free shipping plus Apple’s standard one-year warranty. Their price is $170 off the cost of new models,... Read more
Save $50 on the 2.5GHz Mac mini, on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2.5GHz Mac mini on sale for $549.99 including free shipping. That’s $50 off MSRP, and B&H will also include a free copy of Parallels Desktop software. NY sales tax only. Read more
Save up to $300 on an iMac with Apple refurbi...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available for up to $300 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. These are the best prices on... Read more
The Rise of Phablets
Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group, a businesses and technology consulting firm focused solely on the financial services industry, has released an infographic depicting the convergence of... Read more
Bad Driver Database App Allows Good Drivers t...
Bad Driver Database 1.4 by Facile Group is a new iOS and Android app that lets users instantly input and see how many times a careless, reckless or just plain stupid driver has been added to the... Read more
Eddy – Cloud Music Player for iPhone/iPad Fre...
Ukraine based CapableBits announces the release of Eddy, its tiny, but smart and powerful cloud music player for iPhone and iPad that allows users to stream or download music directly from cloud... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
Senior Event Manager, *Apple* Retail Market...
…This senior level position is responsible for leading and imagining the Apple Retail Team's global event strategy. Delivering an overarching brand story; in-store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.