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

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

How to evolve Eevee in Pokemon GO
By now, almost everyone should be hip to how to evolve Pokemon in Pokemon GO (and if not, there's a guide for that). Just gather enough candy of the appropriate type, feed them all to the Pokemon, and evolution happens. It's a miracle that would... | Read more »
CSR Racing 2: Guide to all game modes
It might not seem like there are all that many ways to go fast in a straight line, but CSR Racing 2 begs to differ. [Read more] | Read more »
Bulb Boy (Games)
Bulb Boy 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Multi-award winning 2D point & click horror adventure about a boy with a glowing head. | Read more »
5 top free emoji keyboard apps
If we're not at peak emoji yet as a society, it feels like we definitely should be. The emoji concept has gone far beyond what anyone in Japan could have envisioned when the people there unleashed it on an unsuspecting world, but the West has... | Read more »
How to unlock more characters in Disney...
One of the big charms of Disney Emoji Blitz is seeing a wide variety of beloved Disney and Pixar characters transformed into smiling emojis. Even someone like the sneaky Randall from Monsters Inc., who probably never cracked a smile on film, is... | Read more »
Cubway (Games)
Cubway 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Cubway is a journey with an abstract story of lifecycle of rebirth, called Samsara. Guide the cube through the long way full of dangers... | Read more »
Colorcube (Games)
Colorcube 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Turn pieces and blend colours in this minimal yet visually stunning puzzler.Over 200 handcrafted and challenging levels. Features... | Read more »
Doodle God Griddlers (Games)
Doodle God Griddlers 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
Crusader Kings: Chronicles (Games)
Crusader Kings: Chronicles 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Crusader Kings: Chronicles is an interactive text based game that puts you in the shoes of Guy de Rose as you make... | Read more »
Roads of Rome: New Generation (Games)
Roads of Rome: New Generation 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $5.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Charitybuzz Set to Auction Unique Apple-1 Com...
Offering an opportunity to own the computer that sparked a revolution, on Monday, July 25, leading online charity auction platform Charitybuzz will auction what is claimed to be the world’s most... Read more
MacBook Airs on sale for up to $150 off MSRP
Amazon has 11″ and 13″ MacBook Airs on sale for up to $150 off MSRP for a limited time. Shipping is free: - 13″ 1.6GHz/128GB MacBook Air (sku MMGF2LL/A): $899.99 $100 off MSRP - 13″ 1.6GHz/256GB... Read more
Apple refurbished 13-inch Retina MacBook Pros...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 13″ Retina MacBook Pros available for up to $270 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.7GHz... Read more
Apple refurbished 11-inch MacBook Airs availa...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 11″ MacBook Airs (the latest models), available for up to $170 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, and shipping is... Read more
Apple iPad Pro Sales Far Outpacing Microsoft...
A report on Appleinsider notes that despite Microsoft Surface tablet PC sales growing by 9 percent year over year, revenues remained below $1 billion, and are down sequentially from the $1.1 billion... Read more
DEVONthink 2.9 Features Ultra-fast, Robust, A...
DEVONthink 2.9 allows users to keep databases synchronized using many means of transport. It transmits them between Macs on the local network or stores them in a syncable form on removable hard... Read more
12-inch WiFi Apple iPad Pros on sale for up t...
B&H Photo has 12″ WiFi iPad Pros on sale for up to $100 off MSRP, each including free shipping. B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 12″ Space Gray 32GB WiFi iPad Pro: $749 $50 off MSRP - 12″... Read more
Apple refurbished 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2015 15″ Retina MacBook Pros available for up to $380 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 15″ 2... Read more
Apple refurbished Mac minis available for up...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Mac minis available starting at $419. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each mini, and shipping is free: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $419 $80 off MSRP - 2.6GHz Mac... Read more
Apple Mac Sales Finally Colliding With ‘Innov...
After successfully swimming against a tide of diminishing PC sales through 2014 and 2015, it appears that Apple has finally stopped defying gravity and is running up against the unwritten “innovate... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant - APPLE (United...
Job Summary As an Apple Solutions Consultant, you'll be the link between our future customers and our products. You'll showcase your entrepreneurial spirit as you Read more
*Apple* Professional Learning Specialist - A...
Job Summary The Apple Professional Learning Specialist is a full-time position for one year with Apple in the Phoenix, AZ area. This position requires a high Read more
*Apple* Picker - Apple Hill Orchard (United...
Apple Hill Orchard, Co. Rte. 21,Whitehall, NY 9/7/16-10/228/16. Pick fresh market or processing apples Productivity of 60 boxes and 80 boxes processing fruit per Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant - APPLE (United...
Job Summary As an Apple Solutions Consultant, you'll be the link between our future customers and our products. You'll showcase your entrepreneurial spirit as you Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description:SalesSpecialist - Retail Customer Service and SalesTransform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.