Who Invented Personal Computing? Celebrating the Thirtieth Anniversary of Microcomputing

A generation of young people just leaving college and going out to seek their fortune have grown up with computers, and their computers have always been personal. They’ve always used a keyboard to enter data and have always viewed their work on a screen that reacted pretty much instantly to their input. Increasingly, they use a small portable computer with a flat high resolution screen, or maybe even a hand-held device, with a user interface they’ve customized to their own liking. Personal computing. Where did it come from?

I’ve had reason to think about this, having been involved in the early software business and having recently published a book about my experiences selling software in the late 1970s. The book is called Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution. In the book, co-authored with my husband David, we talk about how Steve Leininger, a newly-hired engineer and computer hobbyist, and Don French, a company insider, created this ground-breaking product for Tandy Corporation for under $150,000 in development costs. Tandy, parent of the nationwide chain of Radio Shack stores (3500 at the time) sold the TRS-80 for $599.95. It was the most expensive product Radio Shack had ever sold, and it was a phenomenal success, so successful that Radio Shack was overwhelmed with orders it couldn’t fill. People had to go on waiting lists to get one.

So was the TRS-80 the first truly personal computer? We do make the claim that it was the first mass produced (all made in factories in the US) off-the-shelf microcomputer. But in 1977, exactly thirty years ago, the TRS-80 was only one of three microcomputers introduced. There was also the PET from Commodore and the Apple I and II, designed by the guru of geekdom, Steve Wozniak. These three microcomputers hit the market that year, and for the TRS-80, it was the beginning of a series of upgrades and add-ons that eager users snapped up over the next seven or eight years. For Apple, their Apple II computer, which had color from the beginning and was a superb game machine, had an even longer run and sold in huge numbers. In fact, Steve Wozniak, in her new book, iWoz, claims that he “invented the personal computer” (iWoz: How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it, by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith, Norton & Company, 2006). But did anyone really “invent” the personal computer?

Before there were personal computers, there were big corporate computers. In the 1960s, computers were large and expensive and did not have a screen. The input/output device was likely to be a teletype machine, itself a large, clunky and expensive machine. Or it may have been connected to a “terminal,” another expensive machine that did have a TV-like screen and a keyboard. You might think that this type of computer somehow evolved into the smaller ones we use today, but that is not so.

Small computers, known initially as microcomputers, arose in the 1970s as a result of developments in electronics, specifically the microprocessor, which let many components that used to be individually mounted on a board be part of one integrated device. This was a technology that moved fast once the principles were in place. Intel founder Gordon Moore observed the fast pace and declared a proposition: Moore’s Law stated that processing power would double every 18 months, and he’s proved right in this observation. But it was more than technical advances that brought about personal computing. It was also a pent-up desire on the part of many people to own their own computer. This is what drove Ted Nelson to write his self-published book, Computer Lib, in 1974 and later write that he sought “the freedom of people to do their own thing with computers.” It is what drove Ed Roberts to build the Altair, the first microcomputer, which appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics in January 1975. Roberts was once quoted as saying that he “lusted” after a computer of his own and that “to have a computer was better than sex.”

When the Intel 4004 chip came out, it was a beginning, but only a concept, as this first microprocessor did not do enough to power a computer. Then came the 8008 and finally the 8080, the one that became the brains of the Altair and the IMSAI, kit computers that found an eager following. These chips were expensive but soon there were other microprocessors, like the 6502 from MOS Technologies and the Z80 from Zilog. Among the fruit trees of northern California soon to be known as Silicon Valley, a young Steve Wozniak had obtained two 6502 microprocessors at a computer show for the incredibly cheap price of $20 each. The man selling them was Chuck Peddle, who had designed them. I recently heard Chuck give a talk (via internet) to the Vintage Computer Festival in New Jersey in which he stated that his company, MOS Technologies, had experienced many quality control problems and a lot of the chips did not work. He wanted to conceal the problems and make it look like he had produced the chips in abundance, so he filled a barrel with them, but only the ones on top actually worked! Good thing Woz got two that worked, because with those he built the first Apple.

Chuck Peddle sold out to Commodore, which began work on a microcomputer project. Wozniak says in his book that Peddle came to see the prototype Apple II in Steve Jobs’ garage and was considering buying the rights to it, but Commodore decided to do their own design. The Commodore PET, released in 1977, had a keyboard for input and a tape cassette for storage; it was a complete system.

In 1976, another Steve – Steve Leininger – was working at National Semiconductor and moonlighting at Paul Terrell’s Byte Shop, where Wozniak’s Apple I models were for sale. Terrell launched Jobs and Wozniak into a real business with a $50,000 order for the hand-built computer, which had no keyboard or monitor; it was really just a board that hobbyists could make into a real computer with add-ons. Leininger found himself talking one day to some buyers from Tandy Corporation, parent of Radio Shack. He later received an offer of employment and was flown to Fort Worth Texas to meet with John Roach, company CEO, and the man who would be his partner in designing the TRS-80, Don French.

The TRS-80 Model I, introduced in August 1977, had some features that the others lacked. Unlike the annoying “chiclet” keyboard of the PET, the TRS-80 had a full size keyboard. The PET came with a monitor, but the TRS-80 had a larger one. Most importantly, the PET was an all-in-one case model, with no expandability, but the TRS-80 was designed for expansion; the tape cassette recorder (the storage device) and the monitor were separate and could be replaced with something else. Eventually, Radio Shack released an “expansion interface” that let users connect a disk drive and add more memory. The TRS-80, with the BASIC language built-in, could accomplish many useful tasks, and its popularity went well beyond the enthusiastic hobbyist market. Small business owners were among the most eager buyers.

The initial events that made the personal computer possible were about technical advances – better, faster microprocessors – and hardware innovations, such as the five-inch disk drive. But the next wave of innovation that made computers essential to modern life was software, all kinds of software that helped people do common tasks more efficiently. Word Processing. Accounting. Mail lists. Database. And the first “killer app” – spreadsheets, beginning with VisiCalc. At the same time, microcomputers were a new form of entertainment. Games were tremendously popular; some mimicked the arcade games of the day and others were analogies to board games like chess. Some broke new ground for gaming, like Scott Adams’ Adventure games, and the popular Oregon Trail. Without all the programmers out there creating useful applications, the computer would never be personal. In our case, David created a word processor called Lazy Writer. It received rave reviews in the many computer magazines that reviewed popular software. We sold copies all over the US and the world, with many buyers in Australia (who used a TRS-80 clone machine called the Dick Smith System 80). We never got rich selling software, but we felt the excitement of being part of something that really was a revolution.

So who invented personal computing? Was it Steve Wozniak, with his amazing designs, or was it Ed Roberts, who believed people lusted after a kit that let them build a computer called Altair, was it Chuck Peddle who gave the world a cheap microprocessor, or was it Leininger and French who built the TRS-80, a machine that had so many fans? Notice that I have not even mentioned Bill Gates or the IBM PC. Gates was there from the beginning, and he too has a claim on inventing personal computing. It was Gates who created the version of the BASIC language that was in the Altair and who later supplied the operating system for the IBM PC, the machine that first gave us the term, “Personal Computer.” But it seems clear to me that the vision of a personal computer was out there long before IBM got into the act. In fact, it seems unlikely that we can ever name one person who deserves the credit for “inventing” personal computing. A computer as a personal tool – an idea that was in the ether, as they say, and that had many inventors, both through breakthroughs in hardware and creativity in software.

The tremendous strides we’ve made in how we use our computers is exemplified for me in two remarks from family members. The first was something my daughter, born in 1985, said to me some years back. She said that when she first heard that computers were once huge machines that filled a room, she pictured in her mind a giant modern computer, with a gigantic screen filling a whole wall and a huge keyboard, with a person jumping from one enormous key to another. She couldn’t see how else a computer could fill a room. The other remark was just recently made by my sister, who is relatively new to computer ownership. She had finished reading my book, which she said she enjoyed despite her lack of computer savvy, and I was pleased because we did not intend our book just for geeks. Then she said, “I always thought early computers would be kind of like modern ones only maybe slower, but now I see that they were completely different.” My first reaction to this was wanting to say “No they weren’t,” but I didn’t say that because I wanted to think about why she would make this remark. I realized that the way a user interacts with a PC today really is completely different from looking at a screen displaying a blinking cursor and the word “Ready.” That’s what we used to see on our TRS-80 when we turned it on. It was ready for us to give it a command and until we did, it would do nothing. And it could only do one thing at a time. Just look at the graphics, sound and interactivity of modern personal computers and, even though they are the descendants of the blank screen with a blinking cursor, the way we use computers and take their amazing abilities for granted is completely different from the era of microcomputers that dazzled us thirty years ago.

You can buy Priming the Pump from the book website at http://www.microcomputerpioneers.com or from amazon.com.

Theresa Welsh is co-author of Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution (www.microcomputerpioneers.com) and two other books. She and her husband David started a software business selling TRS-80 software in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and she continued working in IT, first at EDS and later as a contract worker at Ford Motor Company. She currently is a free-lance writer and editor and operates a book review website at http://www.theseekerbooks.com

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