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
$96.13
Apple Inc.
+0.53
MSFT
$42.86
Microsoft Corpora
-0.30
GOOG
$566.07
Google Inc.
-5.53

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Data Rescue 3.2.4 - Recover lost data on...
Data Rescue is a robust and reliable hard-drive recovery solution for your Mac. Recover lost or deleted files, mount corrupted drives, and more -- Data Rescue offers complete relief from crippling... Read more
Adobe Lightroom 5.6 - Import, develop, a...
Adobe Lightroom software helps you bring out the best in your photographs, whether you're perfecting one image, searching for ten, processing hundreds, or organizing thousands. Create incredible... Read more
OneNote 15.2 - Free digital notebook fro...
OneNote is your very own digital notebook. With OneNote, you can capture that flash of genius, that moment of inspiration, or that list of errands that’s too important to forget. Whether you’re at... Read more
iStat Menus 4.22 - Monitor your system r...
iStat Menus lets you monitor your system right from the menubar. Included are 8 menu extras that let you monitor every aspect of your system. Some features: CPU -- Monitor cpu usage. 7 display... Read more
Ember 1.8 - Versatile digital scrapbook....
Ember (formerly LittleSnapper) is your digital scrapbook of things that inspire you: websites, photos, apps or other things. Just drag in images that you want to keep, organize them into relevant... Read more
OmniPlan 2.3.6 - Robust project manageme...
With OmniPlan, you can create logical, manageable project plans with Gantt charts, schedules, summaries, milestones, and critical paths. Break down the tasks needed to make your project a success,... Read more
Command-C 1.1.1 - Clipboard sharing tool...
Command-C is a revolutionary app which makes easy to share your clipboard between iOS and OS X using your local WiFi network, even if the app is not currently opened. Copy anything (text, pictures,... Read more
Knock 1.1.7 - Unlock your Mac by knockin...
Knock is a faster, safer way to sign in. You keep your iPhone with you all the time. Now you can use it as a password. You never have to open the app -- just knock on your phone twice, even when it's... Read more
Mellel 3.3.6 - Powerful word processor w...
Mellel is the leading word processor for OS X and has been widely considered the industry standard since its inception. Mellel focuses on writers and scholars for technical writing and multilingual... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.0.4 - 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

Bio Inc. is $0.99 for the Weekend, Recei...
Bio Inc. is $0.99 for the Weekend, Receives Small Update Posted by Ellis Spice on August 1st, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Happy 7th Birthday Readdle! Thank You fo...
Happy 7th Birthday Readdle! | Read more »
Sharknado: The Video Game Review
Sharknado: The Video Game Review By Lee Hamlet on August 1st, 2014 Our Rating: :: SHARKNA-DON'TUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Sharknado: The Video Game brings the craziness of the movies to iOS, though it quickly... | Read more »
Clima (Weather)
Clima 1.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: Weather Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Clima show you all weather information, just beautifully simple. A series of color bars can tell you at a glance exactly current... | Read more »
Sticky Soccer Review
Sticky Soccer Review By Andrew Fisher on August 1st, 2014 Our Rating: :: STICK THIS GAMEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Sticky Soccer puts too much emphasis on the ‘sticky’ and not enough on the ‘Soccer’ or ‘Fun’.   | Read more »
Graphics-less Apocalyptic Adventure A Da...
Graphics-less Apocalyptic Adventure A Dark Room Goes Free for a Limited Time Posted by Rob Rich on August 1st, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Fraud Tycoon Review
Fraud Tycoon Review By Rob Thomas on August 1st, 2014 Our Rating: :: UNHEALTHY CREDITUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Fraud Tycoon is a half-baked, messy, promotional tie-in that does their sponsor no favors whatsoever... | Read more »
Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal W...
Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal Weapon is on Sale for the Weekend Posted by Rob Rich on August 1st, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Mister Beam Review
Mister Beam Review By Jordan Minor on August 1st, 2014 Our Rating: :: ILLUMINATINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Mister Beam’s puzzles are great. But its platforming? Not so much.   | Read more »
Hook Some More Fun With MapHook’s New Up...
Hook Some More Fun With MapHook’s New Update Posted by Jessica Fisher on August 1st, 2014 [ permalink ] iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

13-inch MacBook Airs on sale for $100 off MSR...
B&H Photo has the new 2014 13″ MacBook Airs on sale $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only. They also include free copies of Parallels Desktop and LoJack for... Read more
16GB iPad Air on sale for $399, save $100
Best Buy is offering the 16GB WiFi iPad Air for $399.99 on their online store for a limited time. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Choose free shipping or free store pickup (if available). Price is for... Read more
All Over For Tablets Or Just A Maturing, Evol...
CNN’s David Goldman weighs in on tablet sector doom and gloom, asking rhetorically: “Is this the beginning of the end for the tablet?” Answering that, he contends that hysteria and panic are... Read more
Letterspace 1.0.1 – New Free iOS Text Editor...
Bangkok, Thailand based independent developer Sittipon Simasanti has released Letterspace, a new text editor for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices. Letterspace is a note taking app with an... Read more
Save up to $130 on an iPad mini with Apple re...
The Apple Store has Certified Refurbished 2nd generation iPad minis with Retina Displays available for up to $130 off the cost of new models, starting at $339. Apple’s one-year warranty is included... Read more
iPad Cannibalization Threat “Overblown”
Seeking Alpha’s Kevin Greenhalgh observes that while many commentators think Apple’s forthcoming 5.5-inch panel iPhone 6 will cannibalize iPad sales, in his estimation, these concerns are being... Read more
Primate Labs Releases July 2014 MacBook Pro P...
Primate Labs’ John Poole has posted Geekbench 3 results for most of the new MacBook Pro models that Apple released on Tuesday. Poole observes that overall performance improvements for the new MacBook... Read more
Apple Re-Releases Bugfixed MacBook Air EFI Fi...
Apple has posted a bugfixed version EFI Firmware Update 2.9 a for MacBook Air (Mid 2011) models. The update addresses an issue where systems may take longer to wake from sleep than expected, and... Read more
Save $50 on the 2.5GHz Mac mini, plus free sh...
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 $140 on an iPad Air with Apple ref...
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

Jobs Board

Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** The Apple Store is a retail environment like no other - uniquely focused on delivering amazing customer experiences. As an Expert, you introduce people Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** At the Apple Store, you connect business professionals and entrepreneurs with the tools they need in order to put Apple solutions to work in their 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
Sr. Product Leader, *Apple* Store Apps - Ap...
**Job Summary** Imagine what you could do here. At Apple , great ideas have a way of becoming great products, services, and customer experiences very quickly. Bring Read more
Sr Software Lead Engineer, *Apple* Online S...
Sr Software Lead Engineer, Apple Online Store Publishing Systems Keywords: Company: Apple Job Code: E3PCAK8MgYYkw Location (City or ZIP): Santa Clara Status: Full Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.