History Problem with a Friend

The real interesting scenario would have been Acorn entering the US market with the BBC Micro in a timely manner, with a 6502 running at double speed, superior OS, various text and graphics modes, networking and an expandable architecture (including the Tube interface for additional processors). Acorn had even contracted a GUI for the purpose. Apple was apparently pretty much afraid of this and I’m also not so sure about what this could have meant for the business market. (Ironically, it was for all those buses and expandability that Acorn struggled over FCC compliance and burried a fortune in the effort.)


Acorn’s BBC architecture very much had legs, as the 2MHz 6502 system only needed to act as a front end. As you may know, they sold 8 bit, 16 bit and 32 bit second processors, with substantial RAM and performance. Maybe it could do with some re-engineering, but the architecture was there.

I’ve previously written a couple of overview descriptions elsewhere:
Acorn’s BBC micro - some resources
Acorn’s Second Processors and the Tube - what, and why

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This may be a bit too much of a diversion from the original post topic, but doesn’t the Tube interface go back to the “fruit machine”? (For the benefit of the reader: Quite literally a fruit machine driven by digital electronics, an early contract work by Acorn.)
I’ve forgotten, why it had been there and what it was supposed to do (probably burdening I/O loads, as well), but details may be in the interview with Steve Furber by the Centre of Computer History YT channel.

(And, no, I didn’t know not too much about the various coprocessor offerings – as my general knowledge of the BBC Micro is rather limited, since it hadn’t been available here, probably a typical Austrian revenge for Hauser’s daring success abroad :wink: –, but I learned some from your write-up. BTW, it’s amazing, how much Hauser is still ignored in Austria. There are probably only few who know his name, while everyone is handling some ARM-powered device.)

I think the Tube interface is a relatively late development. Sophie made a cow feeder, Acorn (or maybe CPU) made a fruit machine, Acorn made the System and then the Atom. All these are single-CPU, I think. Then came the Proton project, where a 6502 was to be a front end to a second processor, and that project was transformed into the BBC Micro according to the specification (or guidance) of the BBC themselves. It’s at this point that the Tube appears in public, I think. As it happens, the Tube allowed Acorn to say that the Beeb can run CP/M, but it’s unclear whether this was crucial. It’s true that the Z80 and 6502 second processors were the first to turn up, but I can’t say in which order. I suspect it was 6502 first: a 3MHz 6502 with 64k RAM, rather a splendid machine for development or computation. For internal purposes only Acorn also tricked out a large-address-space 6502 second processor.

This thread is well worth a read:
“Outline specification for the BBC MICROCOMPUTER system”

There was a lot of discussion about this in that screening of “Micro Men” to the Acorn guys. Steve kept insisting the Tube was there from the start and Herman remembered it as being a late development. Steve was thinking about the connector which would later make the Tube possible while Herman was thinking about the logic on the expansion module that actually made it work. So both were right.

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Yes, “Tube” ends up with as many as four meanings if you’re not careful: the connector, which was early and cheap; the interface chip, which was a significant engineering effort and arrived a bit later; the protocol, which is a crucial part of the technology; the second processor, also sometimes called the parasite or the slave. And perhaps a fifth meaning of Tube is the overall architecture which has a 6502-based front end and a big fast simple machine in the back end. The original interface chips are of course a finite supply today, so a bit like the case with the VIC and the SID there are efforts to re-implement, which are now very high fidelity and open source. (There’s also one or two which are not open source.)

The internet was not born alongside MS Dos. The birth of the internet was a gradual process, in wich Arpanet, was slowly replaced and different network protocols were gradually merged into what we know as the internet today. That process can be roughly placed between 1975 and 1995. So you can not say that the internet was born with MS-Dos, as the process had already begun.

Regarding the Apple-1 not being the first real home computer. Well… I think he is right. Although the computer he is thinking about, might be the Altair-8800 or something like that. Nope… The Kenbak-1 is like the first affordable computer for the private market. That was introduced in 1971. That is around 5 years before the Apple-1.

Yet the Altair was indeed designed for home use. Yes the price might have been steep, yet price have nothing to do, with what market the designer intended the machine for. The steep price can be explained, by the time it was designed in, and how few machines that were made. Today things are cheap, because it is mass produced.

Okay, but how much could you do with an Altair once you have one up and running?

Let’s have some links!

MITS Altair Simulator

Some things to remember: computers were a big deal, and hugely expensive and rare, and there was a great appetite to have access to one, which meant programming it. Forget applications, or even operating systems: the aim was to learn how to program the machine, because that was the revolutionary prospect - a machine that will follow instructions.

I would rephrase that the Altair was designed to be ‘Used at Home’… but I disagree it was engaging to someone who wasn’t a computer enthusiast or in one of the sciences. I would not say someone would use one for indexing their cook-books and doing the personal finance,

I would say that back in the early 1970’s, a computer owner, would be just as much a computer owner as today. Sure things were in no way like how we understand what a computer is. It was a different time, and if you told people back then, how a computer would be like today. Then even an actual computer owner, would tell you that you were crazy and that computers would never be able to do what they can do today. Basically. A computer owner back then, would be just as much as a computer owner is a computer owner today. Things have just progressed.

I don’t really know what you were able to do with a computer back then. From what I can understand, is that you started by writing a program in binaery code. Like a simple addition or subtraction, and you would enter that binaery code into the machine. Then make it run the program, and you would get the result. That was the reality for people, on what a computer was, in the early 1970’s. A monitor came along later and an operating system as well. I think it was in that computer user group that woz and gates were a member of, that these things were pionered.

So. Even though it only ran binaery code, had no mouse and keyboard, nor a tv-screen/monitor. The Kenbak and Altair were still genuine and fully functioning computers.

Sorry, this isn’t accurate at all.

People who bought computers back in the day were either hobbyists/enthusiasts, or they were buying them to solve some particular computing problem, notably business automation (i.e. accounting, payroll, etc.). They were very much tools of industry, and they were expensive, and they required quite a bit of arcane knowledge to make work. Most owners were not casual.

Today, the #1 use of computers is to connect to the internet to facilitate communication. Shopping is big, communication is bigger. “Why do you want a computer?” “To get on the internet!”

Modern smart phones have overtaken the role of the “personal computer” for many. The modern user is far more casual than they were in the past, the modern machines, applications, and systems make it far easier for them to be used.

As Sun used to say, “The network is the computer”. Without the internet, most folks would not have a computer today.

Outside of enthusiasts, computer use is driven by applications. Most folks don’t care about what’s going on inside as long as their work is done.

They want their computers like their cars: safe, reliable, and efficient. And if they never have to open the hood, even better.

The Altair really raises an interesting question – and I personally have to admit that I have no clear answer for what a home computer actually is for.

The early kit computers like the Altair, which we may call enthusiast’s machines, were clearly more about having a grip on the technology, in gathering some personal knowledge and experience, much like more conventional science kits, chemistry kits and so on. I guess, if there was any goal in this, it was about “doing stuff with this thing”, the particular task probably being more of a pretense. The media/technology was the message.

When home computers became more of a thing, or more mature, marketing tried to suggest particular use cases which would turn this into some kind of home appliance. However, apart from replacing a typewriter (with dot matrix printers a rather questionable endeavor), much of this didn’t make much sense after all. Say, I want to listen to the Beatles’ White Album. Would I really want to get my VIC-20 out of the cupboard, hook it up to the TV set, connect the Datasette, find my tape with the audio cassette database, load and run it in order to know that the cassette ought to be in the second place in the third row, where it probably isn’t? Again, the audio cassette database, everyone’s favorite example for “what can I do with a home computer” is more about building it, in being in contact with and passing time with this technology. (The other goto-application, which also offered some visual appeal, the biorhythm, eventually faced some questionable reputation, ultimately dismissing its prospects of becoming a tech-affin replacement for the horoscope.)
The often praised educational aspect is probably similar to this: Even, if it boiled down to games, it was at the same time about a general familiarization (the educational effect not that dissimilar from what you may expect from a chemestry kit). The message was still, using a computer. (I guess, this was also true for a number of games, which were solely bought to have another thing to pass time with on the machine, regardless of any particular expectations.)

Modern private computers are probably for the most media display stations, telecommunication terminals for exchanging messages (there’s a bit of irony in this one, since most technical communication advances were about remote communications becoming more realtime, while it’s now more about decoupling by intermediate storage and retrieval – except, when it isn’t, being more about disrupting your otherwise essentially non-modal media or work environment in realtime), and, of course, about games. And there’s a certain mood about this, suggesting that the media is still the message…
(Enter the IoT, where you sign into your pocket terminal in order to sign into an app in order to connect to a server in order to adjust a light bulb. This, too, is probably more about the media than about the application. Like with the maker movement and playing with microcontrollers, where making lights blink becomes a viable application again. Much like on the Altair.)


2 posts were split to a new topic: On the 1980s home computing boom

6 posts were split to a new topic: Mural (and poster) showing mini, personal, and home computers

The idea of personal computers may be traced back to as early as the late 1950s, when Sperry developed the concept of a small PC and may have even built a prototype:

“During the late 1950s I was involved in trying to build what could now be called a personal computer, probably the first such machine to fit on a desktop. We used hundreds of magnetic core amplifiers and diodes, a few transistors and tubes, and a motor-driven drum for memory storage. The same motor powered a flyprinter, which typed the computer’s output onto a moving strip of paper. Unlike the first microcomputer systems, which came later, our machine included a keyboard for easy input. We figured we could sell our Desk Computer for $5,000. Some insurance firms expressed interest, but our executives just couldn’t see business need for that small a computer.”

J. Presper Eckert in “Who Needs Personal Computers?”

(I think, the problem of coming up with a PC wasn’t so much technological or conceptual, but envisioning an economy of scale that would make this a feasible business project. Chips and integrated circuits definitely helped.)

Whereas the actual desk sized machines of about that era were about 10x that price:

I guess, the idea would have been about keeping the price low by using magnetic cores and diodes only (much like the soviet Setun – yes, the ternary one) and a single motor serving all moving parts of the integrated peripherals. Which would have been quite slow, I guess. Regarding the target price, for selling this at about $5,000 the production costs ought to be about a third or at max half of this. (No idea, how feasible this would have been.) Still, the idea of a low-cost, all-in-one desktop computer is quite remarkable for the time.

*) For comparison, the Setun (1958, featuring also ferrite core logic and a magnetic drum) is said to have come at a price of 27,000 Rubles (for a batch of 50 machines produced in total). I’ve no idea, if this amount would have been given in 5th (old) or 6th (new) Rubles, but the 1950–1960 exchange rate would have been 4 RUB to 1 USD, converting this to US$ 6,750. Given the potentials of Western industrial production (and will to cost-cutting), US$ 5,000 doesn’t seem totally out of reach and unrealistic.

The PDP 8 almost made it as home computer, as it was the most common surplus
computer around. Why did DEC fail in the late 1980s, I am thinking it was not that
Intel has a better cpu than a RISC design, but because in the 1960’s DEC made
the computer (transistors and diodes) and the Core memory (wire and holes).
I happend to look at some old price lists (1970) and the price of memory was
about half the price of the base computer. PDP 15, with 4K ram $16,000
and 4K ram $8,000. PDP 11 with 8K words of ram,1975. $16K. 8K words MOS ram
$6K. After 16K drams came out I am guessing the same 8K words would be
1/3 the price, about 2K. DEC makes profit now on the CPU because they don’t
make DRAM. PDP 8/a (TTL) with 4K, $2K. 1976? In 1975 the CMOS version cpu
of the PDP 8 came out, Intersil 6100. No massive profit like in the 60’s, no company.
in the 90’s. Of course DEC sales after that was time sharing systems, PDP 10,
PDP 11 and later the VAX, not home PC’s. Sadly the only HOME PC’s with
PDP 11’s lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain.