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!

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Adium 1.5.10.3 - Popular instant messagi...
Adium is a fast and free instant messaging client which supports AIM, ICQ, Jabber, MSN, Yahoo!, Google Talk, Yahoo! Japan, Bonjour, Gadu-Gadu, Novell Groupwise, SIP/SIMPLE (Text), and Lotus Sametime... Read more
CleanMyMac 3.8.1 - $39.95
CleanMyMac makes space for the things you love. Sporting a range of ingenious new features, CleanMyMac lets you safely and intelligently scan and clean your entire system, delete large, unused files... Read more
BusyCal 3.1.7 - Powerful calendar app wi...
BusyCal is an award-winning desktop calendar that combines personal productivity features for individuals with powerful calendar sharing capabilities for families and workgroups. Its unique features... Read more
Lyn 1.8.9 - Lightweight image browser an...
Lyn is a fast, lightweight image browser and viewer designed for photographers, graphic artists, and Web designers. Featuring an extremely versatile and aesthetically pleasing interface, it delivers... Read more
Tweetbot 2.5 - Popular Twitter client.
Tweetbot is a full-featured OS X Twitter client with a lot of personality. Whether it's the meticulously-crafted interface, sounds and animation, or features like multiple timelines and column views... Read more
Monolingual 1.7.8 - Remove unwanted OS X...
Monolingual is a program for removing unnecesary language resources from OS X, in order to reclaim several hundred megabytes of disk space. If you use your computer in only one (human) language, you... Read more
Dash 4.0.3 - Instant search and offline...
Dash is an API documentation browser and code snippet manager. Dash helps you store snippets of code, as well as instantly search and browse documentation for almost any API you might use (for a full... Read more
Posterino 3.3.6 - Create posters, collag...
Posterino offers enhanced customization and flexibility including a variety of new, stylish templates featuring grids of identical or odd-sized image boxes. You can customize the size and shape of... Read more
Apple Numbers 4.1.1 - Apple's sprea...
With Apple Numbers, sophisticated spreadsheets are just the start. The whole sheet is your canvas. Just add dramatic interactive charts, tables, and images that paint a revealing picture of your data... Read more
Apple Pages 6.1.1 - Apple's word pr...
Apple Pages is a powerful word processor that gives you everything you need to create documents that look beautiful. And read beautifully. It lets you work seamlessly between Mac and iOS devices, and... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Die With Glory (Games)
Die With Glory 1.2.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.2.0 (iTunes) Description: Die with Glory is an epic adventure game where your goal is to die in glorious fashion. You must help Sigurd, a brave old... | Read more »
Get Ike in the new Fire Emblem: Heroes u...
One of the most popular Fire Emblem characters is finally available in a new update to Nintendo'sFire Emblem: Heroes. [Read more] | Read more »
Die With Glory in a new viking adventure...
If you're a fan of classic adventure games you'll do well to pick upDie With Glory, the gorgeous new title from Cloud Castle inc. Die With Glory updatesthe gameplay of the same kind of adventure classics such asMonkey Island for modern, mobile... | Read more »
Get up to speed with everything you need...
In case you haven’t heard, MU Origin just got a colossal new update with new all-server events, battle modes, and systems making their way to the land of MU. Here’s a handy guide to everything you need to know about the latest content. [Read... | Read more »
Minimalist puzzle game, Cuts, free on iO...
If you're looking for a gorgeous puzzle experience on iOS devices, developer Gamebra.in's aesthetically interesting puzzler, Cuts, is discounted to free on the iOS App Store right now. [Read more] | Read more »
Anime tactical RPG, War of Crown, comes...
If you're looking for another tactical RPG fix to go alongside your Fire Emblem Heroes campaigns check out Gamevil's newest, anime-inspired tactics RPG, War of Crown, which comes out tomorrow. [Read more] | Read more »
Fantasy MMORPG MU Origin adds new modes,...
MU Origin, Webzen’s highly popular fantasy MMORPG is getting ready to shake things up for the second time this year, as a new update makes its way to the Google Play and App Store from today. Introducing new systems, modes, and events, the land of... | Read more »
Blizzard is looking to hire a mobile dev...
A new thread on the popular video game rumor forum, NeoGAF, uncovered an interesting job listing over at Blizzard Entertainment. It appears the studio behindStarCraft, World of WarCraft, Hearthstone,andOverwatch is looking to bring on a new hire... | Read more »
Legend of Zelda meets Cooking Mama in ne...
Dungeon Chef is what happens when you mix the RPG elements (and style) of a Legend of Zelda game, with cooking elements. Although, now that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also has cookingelements, so maybe the gameplay is not so novel.... | Read more »
ChordFlow (Music)
ChordFlow 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Music Price: $6.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: ChordFlow is a chord sequencer with a unique 4-track polyphonic arpeggiator, extensive chord library, MIDI out and Ableton Link... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Digital Paper Tablet Offers Distraction Free...
I typically spend 8-10 hours a day gazing at the screens in my laptops and iPad, as tools of my livelihood, I don’t as a rule use electronic devices for pleasure reading. I subscribe to a daily... Read more
“Today at Apple” Bringing New Educational Ses...
Apple has announced plans to launch dozens of new educational sessions next month in all 495 Apple Stores ranging in topics from photo and video to music, coding, art and design, and more. The hands-... Read more
Smart Finance Free Comprehensive Personal Fin...
Moscow-based indie developer, Alexander Survillo has announced the release and immediate availability of Smart Finance: Personal Finance, Budget & Money 1.1.4, an update to his comprehensive... Read more
12-inch 1.1GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for $1...
B&H has 12″ 1.1GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY & NJ sales tax only: - 12″ 1.1GHz Space Gray Retina MacBook: $1199.99 $100 off MSRP - 12... Read more
13-inch 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $130 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY & NJ tax only: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro (MF839LL/A): $1169 $... Read more
15-inch 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pros available...
B&H Photo has the 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro available for $200 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only: - 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro (MJLQ2LL/A): $1799.99 $200 off... Read more
13-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale for up...
B&H Photo has the 2016 Apple 13″ Touch Bar MacBook Pros in stock today for up to $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY & NJ sales tax only: - 13″ 2.9GHz/512GB Touch Bar... Read more
Apple refurbished Apple TVs available for up...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 32GB and 64GB Apple TVs available for up to $30 off the cost of new models. Apple’s standard one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: -... Read more
12-inch 1.2GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for up...
B&H has 12″ 1.2GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for up to $160 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 12″ 1.2GHz Space Gray Retina MacBook: $1439.99 $160 off MSRP - 12″ 1... Read more
HyperX Ships Pulsefire FPS Gaming Mouse, Winn...
Your reporter is a longtime fan of gaming mice for general purpose coomnputing use, finding them typically superior in comfort and performance. HyperX, a division of Kingston Technology Company, Inc... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Mac Computer Technician - GeekHampto...
…complex computer issues over the phone and in person? GeekHampton, Long Island's Apple Premium Service Provider, is looking for you! Come work with our crew Read more
Product Manager, *Apple* Platforms - Viacom...
…Product Manager to drive the execution of its iOS and AppleTV experiences. The Apple Platform Product Manager will be a leader in our Agile/Scrum environment and Read more
Geek Squad *Apple* Master Consultation Agen...
**500662BR** **Job Title:** Geek Squad Apple Master Consultation Agent **Location Number:** 000286-Canton-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Geek Squad Read more
*Apple* Mobile Master - Best Buy (United Sta...
**500710BR** **Job Title:** Apple Mobile Master **Location Number:** 000279-North Olmsted-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Buy Apple Mobile Master Read more
*Apple* Engineering Specialist - CSRA (Unite...
Apple Engineering Specialist All times are in Eastern Daylight Time Requisition ID Job Locations US DC Washington DC Posted Date Category Engineering Sciences Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.