Personal Computer Museum, Canada's Videogame Museum

Hobby Computers of the 80's (cont'd)

By Jim Butterfield

©2005 (shown here with permission)

Intel 4004 CPU V. Emergence of LSI: Viatron (1970), then Intel (1971)

As fabrication techniques were advanced, more and more elements could be packed onto an integrated circuit chip. The first chips were flip-flops and gates. Then came larger assemblies such as shift registers and ALUs (arithmetic/logic units). Inevitably, a complete CPU (Central Processing Unit) would be placed onto a single chip. With a collection of chips such as CPU, memory, input/output, and some sort of control logic in a ROM (Read Only Memory), a complete computer system could be put together.

The first microcomputer that I know of was made in 1970 by an almost-forgotten company called Viatron. Viatron's main marketing thrust was terminal devices as inexpensive substitutes for Teletype machines, which were priced in the $1,000 to $1,500 region.

Viatron's concept and design was good, and they advertised massivly in Datamation magazine. But their fabrication plant had poor chip yields, and eventually they disappeared from the scene.

The Viatron era called for some technical innovation. CRT display devices were rare and generally costly; modestly priced printers were virtually unknown. Viatron's use of converted television displays and "printing robots" seems quaint today.

Intel entered the microcomputer field in 1971 with the 4004. It seems almost as if Intel wasn't planning this as a product; they needed to find a quick way to fulfil their contract to build a calculator for a Japanese firm, and devising and programming a microcomputer seemed to be the quickest method. But once the 4004 had been devised, the electronics industry accepted it quickly as a general-purpose component which replaced wiring with code. Motorola announced their 6800 chip very quickly.

Altair 8800 VI. The emergence of "hobby" micros; early user groups

There was a rush to build. Even before computers were offered in kit form, hobbyists were salvaging parts and building logic devices. A friend of mine, Julien Dube, salvaged some magnetic core memory from a telecommunications relay device, and restrung the little ferromagnetic doughnuts into a working memory, with a view to creating a small computer of his own design.

Kits came on the market from various small entrepreneurs. Electronic houses produced their own versions, which consisted of a circuit board and a bunch of chips loose in a plastic bag. Sometimes the supplied circuit boards had printed circuit connections; other times you were expected to make the connections yourself using wire wrap techniques (rarely soldering). Sometimes the parts worked, sometimes they were defective, and sometimes incorrect wiring would wreck the chip. A saying of the times was, "All computer chips are powered by smoke; if the smoke gets out, the chip will fail."

When the December 1975 issue of Popular Electronics described the Altair 8800 computer, available in kit form for about $500, the computer hobbyist world took off.

Apple I The Apple I was also a kit that you needed to assemble yourself. The founders of Apple - Wozniak and Jobs - liked the new, inexpensive 6502 chip, and designed their system around it.

Users started to get together and swap notes. In the Toronto area, TRACE (Toronto Regional Association of Computer Enthusiasts) was under way in early 1976. An amazing assortment of machines was under construction. Some liked the Intel 4004 or 8008, some the Motorola 6800. Memory was whatever came to hand, seldom more than 256 bytes. And input/output ... paper tape, toggle switches, home-brew keyboards, LED or LCD character or numeric displays, arrays of LED lights. Whatever you could get your hands on, or afford. There was little commonality between one home-brew machine and the next.

Oddly, few of the builders had any idea of what to do with the computer once it was complete. This may have been due, in part, to the shortage of programming skills; and lack of standardization across the assortment of machines also posed difficulties in conceptualization.

In 1977 and 1978, the Ontario Science Centre invited TRACE members to display their home computers to the public. One member's computer controlled a model train set; another played simple logic games; one played simple music tunes. And I believe a couple just sat there, perhaps blinked lights, and looked pretty.

VII. The struggle for standards

There was an attempt to introduce some standards into this tower of Bit Babel. Two areas of concern seemed to be: a standard wiring concept, to connect several boards; secondly, a way to exchange data.

S-100 Bus The S-100 bus was conceived as a standardized way to pass information between the various units of the computer. It included schemes for pin numbering and for power distribution. It was in use for a number of years until the IBM PC juggernaut took over.

A form of standardization existed for paper tape input and output, carried over from teleprinter days. An attempt was made to generate an audio data standard, mostly for data storage on cassette tapes, called the Kansas City Standard. It didn't take hold.

The Basic language was starting to creep into the scene. Hot debates were taking place between users on the west coast of the USA as to how a simple Basic interpreter could be constructed in a small amount of memory storage: 8K, 4K, or even 2K. "Tiny Basic" was produced as a free program; to publish it, the authors started a publication which they called "Dr. Dobbs Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia." At that time, Dr. Dobbs was conceived as a public domain vehicle; all material in it was free from copyright. The publication still exists, but the whimsical name has been truncated to "Dr. Dobbs Journal." ... and its contents are now copyright.

A side comment on whimsical names: when Gary Kildall developed a standard operating system, he called his distribution company "Intergalactic Digital Research." A few years later, as IBM entered the field, the "Intergalactic" was dropped. In a similar vein, Commodore called their first home computer "PET", perhaps after the "Pet Rock" fad; but later regretted the name as they tried to convince the marketplace that their products were serious business machines. I'm sure they were not influenced by the fact that "PET" means flatulence in French.

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