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  • Early Home Computers
  • Written by Kevin Murrell
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780747812166
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Early Home Computers

Written by Kevin MurrellAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kevin Murrell

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This is the story of the people and machines that revolutionized our lives and made personal computers an integral part of our homes. For the typical family in the 1960s and 1970s, computers were both fascinating and frightening, but largely a mystery. Developments in microelectronics in the early 1970s meant that computers at home seemed about to become commonplace: the kitchen computer would hold all of the family's recipes and keep a record of food in the larder, the study computer would manage the family finances, and the kids' computers would educate and entertain them. Engineers, enthusiasts and budding entrepreneurs set about making home computers a reality, and although the first machines were extremely limited, later machines would indeed begin to revolutionize our lives at home, at school, and at work.


For most people in the late 1960s and early 1970s, home entertainment was limited to television and the wireless. The wireless receiver had been the centrepiece of the living room and, newspapers and newsreels aside, it was the main source of information and entertainment in the home in the 1950s. Television began to supplant wireless in the 1960s; although it had been invented some time earlier, regular colour television transmissions did not begin in the UK until 1967 – some ten years later than in the US. Initially, colour televisions were prohibitively expensive, but as prices fell, they replaced almost all monochrome receivers by the mid-1970s.
Hi-fi systems were increasingly popular in the home, and many enthusiasts built their own – the same enthusiasts who were also building ham radio receivers and wireless sets at home. Bought music was limited to long-playing vinyl records and the cheaper ‘45’. Some audiophiles were using reel-to-reel tape recorders to record wireless programmes, but it was the arrival of the cheap compact cassette that allowed young people especially to record music from the radio and share it with friends.
If they were considered at all by the average person, computers were thought to be impressive, mysterious, awe-inspiring and frightening in equal measure. Press coverage of the time typically described new computers as ‘electronic brains’ and they were often depicted as cartoon machines with faces and arms. Despite the best efforts of engineers explaining their inventions, most people knew more about malevolent computers like HAL from Kubrick’s film 2001 – A Space Odyssey, than the real thing.
In the UK there was at least one well-known benevolent computer: ERNIE. Electronic Random Number Indicating Equipment, or ERNIE for short, was a special-function computer designed to generate random numbers as part of the government’s Premium Bond saving scheme. Each month the computer would produce a random batch of bond numbers and the winning bondholders would be awarded cash prizes. ERNIE became so well known in the popular imagination that winners would write personally to thank him!
Large mainframe computers were being used by government and industry and almost anyone in work would have been aware of computer systems, even if only from computer printed listings. The machines themselves were carefully watched over by teams of operators, and access to – or even sight of – the machine was strictly limited. For most people outside of the computer industry their only interaction would be a badly printed bill from a telephone or power company and the inevitable press coverage of a program bug generating a telephone bill for several million pounds!
The general public began to be concerned about ‘number-crunching electronic brains’ taking over the jobs of individuals, particularly office workers, but at a time of general high employment, the prospect of increased leisure time outweighed most people’s worries.
Personal computers, that is machines designed to be used by individuals rather than many users at once, were built from the mid-1960s onwards and a typical example is the DEC PDP8 computer. This was a desktop computer designed to be programmed and used by one person at a time. Despite being personal, computers like this were never designed for the home and in 1977 DEC’s founder and CEO Ken Olson famously said, ‘There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home’. In fairness, Olson was probably referring to the possibility of home automation by computer.
Although simple games had been written for almost all of the large mainframe computers, the first recognisably modern computer game was called ‘SpaceWar!’ which ran in 1962 on a DEC PDP1 mini-computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. This was a two-player game with each player controlling a spaceship displayed on a large circular screen and attempting to shoot each other. Either player could jump to hyperspace and return on a different part of the screen.
One computer advertised specifically for the home during this period was the spectacular ‘Honeywell kitchen computer’, one of several extravagant gift suggestions in the Neiman-Marcus catalogue of 1969. This was a proper Honeywell 316 minicomputer built into an attractive pedestal unit with a built-in chopping board in front of the control panel. It was advertised for $10,000, but that did include some saved recipes and a two-week programming course! Quite how the home chef would have managed reading recipes through the binary light display is not explained. Sadly, it is not thought that any were ever sold.
Home video game consoles became generally available in the early 1970s with the launch of the Magnavox Odyssey – a device that plugged into the home television and played a simple bat and ball tennis-style game. The original machines lacked sound and simulated a colour display by including colour transparencies to fix to the front of the television screen!
The American engineer, Nolan Bushnell, who had seen the ‘Spacewar!’ computer game at university and had previous experience with arcade games, founded a new company called Atari in 1972. Nolan and his colleagues produced a coin-operated video arcade game called ‘Pong’ and had installed their first machine in a bar in 1972. Such was the success of this video game that a modification had to be made quickly to handle the huge number of coins fed into the machine! In 1975, Atari launched a home version of the game called ‘Home-Pong’ with graphics and sound effects, and was to lead the video game console market for many years, producing many popular machines and games.
The coming of the microchip
Since the development of the transistor, it was possible to build computers smaller and more cheaply than ever. While still typically at least as large as a medium-sized refrigerator, and of limited capacity, desktop computers began to be available to university departments and smaller companies in the 1960s.
Modern integrated circuits, or chips, were first demonstrated in 1958 and allowed engineers to put many transistors on a single silicon chip. Each new chip was typically designed with a single purpose in mind – the processor in a pocket calculator or the sound generator in a video console game, for example.
In 1971, the American company Intel was tasked with designing a new chip for a calculator soon to be launched by the Japanese company Busicom. Rather than creating a new dedicated chip for the job, they instead produced a general purpose device with all the elements of a computer on a single chip. This new chip, or micro-processor, could then be programmed to act as the calculator chip that Busicom needed, but could also be programmed to perform any other function needed by new customers. The new micro-processor, and the many that quickly followed, embodied the fundamental principle of modern computers in that they were general purpose devices – blank canvases on which new tasks could be written.
The outlet for men and boys (and it was almost exclusively men and boys in those days) with an interest in technology in the 1960s and 1970s was through the construction of electronic projects at home – often radios, hi-fi systems and other gadgets that could be soldered together in the garden shed or workshop. Subscriptions for one or more of the widely available electronics magazines were typical, with Popular Electronics and Electronics Today International being popular titles in the US and the UK respectively.
The design for a circuit would be published in one of the magazines and the eager hobbyist would first visit a local radio store to purchase the necessary parts or perhaps use one of the growing mail order companies that advertised huge lists of components, and begin the exciting and technically skilled job of building the device. Building a working circuit was just part of the job, and his peers would expect to see the circuitry enclosed in a well designed and constructed case – typically folded aluminium or later moulded plastic – with neatly labelled controls and indicator lights. The craft skills developed through years of radio and hi-fi construction made the assembly of these new computer kits practical for the hobbyist.
The first complete computer kit advertised was the Altair 8800, which appeared on the front cover of the American magazine Popular Electronics in January 1975. Similarly, the first issue of the British magazine Personal Computer World featured a British kit computer, which it described as ‘perfectly at home’. The Nascom 1 computer on the front cover was a Z80-based kit, available for less than £200.
The computers built were of no real practical use other than to demonstrate the fundamentals of computer design and to act as a learning tool for programming. Once the machine was working, the hobbyist needed to learn how to write a computer program to get anything useful out of it. This was something quite new to most hobby engineers and was often an up-hill struggle: it was not unusual for the talented engineer to build the machine, debug all the hardware and then to pass it on to a budding programmer. More often than not, the very early machines had front panels of switches to act as the computer keyboard, and lights to act as the computer display, and a great deal of skill and patience was needed to use the machines at all – not least the ability to think in binary!
Having the customer build and debug the computer at home did make it a lot easier for bright young entrepreneurs and talented engineers to establish companies to market the new computer kits, as a workforce to build or test the machines was not required. A computer company could be formed with simply a good design and a stock of components.
Supporting these budding engineers and programmers were new monthly magazines targeted directly at the emerging market of personal computer users. In the US, Byte magazine was first published in 1975 and, in the absence of complete machines to review, typically included articles like ‘Choosing a micro-processor’ and ‘Writing your own assembly program’. Some three years later, in February 1978, Personal Computer World Magazine was launched in the UK and was quickly followed by similar titles. PCW Magazine and Practical Computing covered a wide range of machines for both home and business use, and soon magazines dedicated to particular home computers were also published.
These early computer magazines included a wide range of articles including hardware projects to build at home, program listings for games and applications, which often covered several pages of instructions that needed to be typed in laboriously by hand, reviews of new hardware, and advertisements for component suppliers.

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