Here's part of "The Secret Guide to Computers," copyright by Russ Walter, 29th edition. For newer info, read the 33rd edition at

Our past

Here’s how computers arose.…


Ancient history

The first programmable computers were invented in the 1940’s. Before then, people were stuck with the abacus, adding machine, and slide rule.

During the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, most computers used punched cards — whose history is weird. The cards were first used for weaving tapestries. Where the cards had holes, rods could move through the cards; those moving rods in turn made other rods move, which caused the threads to weave pictures. That machine was called the Jacquard loom.

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage was a wild-eyed English mathematician who, in the 1800’s, believed he could build a fancy computing machine. He convinced the British government to give him lots of money, then bilked the government for more. Many years later — and many British pounds later — he still hadn’t finished his machine. So he dropped the idea and — can you believe this? — tried to build an even fancier machine. He didn’t finish that one either. You might say his life was a failure that was expensive for the British government.

But Charlie (as I’ll call him) is admired by all us computerniks (in spite of his face, which was even sterner than Beethoven’s), because he was the first person to realize that a computing machine must consist of 4 parts:

an input device (he used a card reader)

a memory (which he called “The Store”)

a central processing unit (which he called “The Mill”)

an output device (he used a printer)

Lady Lovelace

Feminists will kill me if I don’t mention Charlie’s side-kick, Lady Lovelace. (No, she’s not related to Linda.) She was one of Charlie’s great admirers, but he never noticed her until she translated his stuff. And boy, it was impossible for him not to notice her translations. Her “footnotes” to the translation were three times as long as what she was translating!

She got very intense. She wrote to Charlie, “I am working very hard for you — like the Devil in fact (which perhaps I am).”

The two became lovebirds, though he was old enough to be her dad. (By the way, her dad was Lord Byron, the poet. She was Lord Byron’s only “official” daughter. His other daughters were illegitimate.) Some people argue that she was actually brighter than Charlie, despite Charlie’s fame. She was better at explaining Charlie’s machines and their implications than Charlie was. Some people have dubbed her “the world’s first programmer”.

Stunning She stunned all the men she met. She was so bright and… a woman! Here’s how the editor of The Examiner described her (note the pre-Women’s-Lib language!):

“She was thoroughly original. Her genius, for genius she possessed, was not poetic, but metaphysical and mathematical. With an understanding thoroughly masculine in solidity, grasp, and firmness, Lady Lovelace had all the delicacies of the most refined female character. Her manners, tastes, and accomplishments were feminine in the nicest sense of the word; and the superficial observer would never have divined the strength and knowledge that lay hidden under the womanly graces. Proportionate to her distaste for the frivolous and commonplace was her enjoyment of true intellectual society. Eagerly she sought the acquaintance of all who were distinguished in science, art, and literature.”

Mad Eventually, she went mad. Mattresses lined her room to prevent her from banging her head. Nevertheless, she died gruesomely, at the ripe young age of 36, the same age that her dad croaked. (I guess premature death was popular in her Devilish family.)

Who’s the heroine? I wish feminists would pick a different heroine than Lady Lovelace. She was not the most important woman in the history of computing.

Far more important were Grace Hopper and Jean Sammet. In the 1950’s Grace Hopper invented the first programming languages, and she inspired many of us programmers until her recent death. Jean Sammet headed the main committee that invented COBOL; she’s the world’s top expert on the history of programming languages, and she’s been president of the computer industry’s main professional society, the ACM.

Lady Lovelace was second-string to Babbage. Grace Hopper and Jean Sammet were second-string to nobody.

But since Hopper and Sammet led less racy lives, journalists ignore them; and since Hopper was an Admiral in the Navy (bet you didn’t know the Navy had lady Admirals!), she irked some of us doves. Nevertheless, whenever she stepped in front of an audience she got a standing ovation because all of us realize how crucial she was to the computer industry.

But I’m straying from my story.…

Herman Hollerith

The U.S. Bureau of the Census takes its census every ten years. To tabulate the results of the 1880 census, the Bureau took 7 years: they didn’t finish until 1887. When they contemplated the upcoming 1890 census, they got scared; at the rate America was growing, they figured that tallying the 1890 census would take 12 years. In other words, the results of the 1890 census wouldn’t be ready until 1902. So they held a contest to see whether anyone could invent a faster way to tabulate the data.

The winner was Herman Hollerith. He was the first person to successfully use punched cards to process data.

Hermie (as I’ll call him) was modest. When people asked him how he got the idea of using punched cards, he had two answers. One was, “Trains”: he had watched a train’s conductor punch the tickets. His other, more interesting answer was, “Chicken salad”. After saying “Chicken salad”, he’d pause for you to ask the obvious question, “Why chicken salad?” Then he’d tell his tale:

One day, a girl saw him gulping down chicken salad. She said, “Oh, you like chicken salad? Come to my house. My mother makes excellent chicken salad.” So he did. And her father was a head of the Census. (And he married the girl.)

By the way, Herman Hollerith hated one thing: spelling. In elementary school, he jumped out a second-story window, to avoid a spelling test.

In some versions of FORTRAN, every string must be preceded by the letter H. For example, instead of saying —


you must say:


The H is to honor Herman Hollerith.

The Census used Hollerith’s punched-card system in 1890 and again in 1900.

In 1910 the Census switched to a fancier system created by a Census Bureau employee, James Powers, who later quit his job and started his own company, which merged into Remington-Rand-Sperry-Univac. Meanwhile, Herman Hollerith’s own company merged into IBM. That’s how the first two computer companies began doing data processing.

World War II

The first programmable computers were invented in the 1940’s because of World War II. They could have been invented sooner — most of the know-how was available several decades earlier — but you can’t invent a computer unless you have big bucks for research. And the only organization that had big enough bucks was the Defense Department (which in those days was more honestly called the “War Department”). And the only event that was big enough to make the War Department spend that kind of money was World War II.

Of course, the Germans did the same thing. A German fellow, Konrad Zuse, built computers which in some ways surpassed the American ones. But since the Germans lost the war, you don’t hear much about old Konrad anymore. Fortunately, throughout World War II the German military ignored what he was doing.

During the 1940’s, most computers were invented at universities, usually funded by the War-Defense Department. Some of the most famous computers were the Mark I (at Harvard with help from IBM), the ENIAC and the EDVAC (both at the University of Pennsylvania), the Whirlwind (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, M.I.T.), and the
Ferranti Mark I (at the University of Manchester, in England). Which of those computers deserves to be called “the first programmable computer”? The answer’s up for grabs. Each of those machines had its own peculiar hang-ups and required years of debugging before working well.

Each of those computers was, as they say in the art world, a “signed original”. No two of those computers were alike.

First generation (1951-1958)

The first computer to be mass-produced was the UNIVAC I, in 1951. It was made by the same two guys (Eckert & Mauchly) who’d built the ENIAC and EDVAC at the University of Pennsylvania. (Mauchly was an instructor there, and Eckert was the graduate student who did the dirty work.) While others at the school were helping build the EDVAC, Eckert and Mauchly left and formed their own company, which invented and started building the UNIVAC. While building the UNIVAC, the Eckert-Mauchly company merged into Remington Rand (which later merged into Sperry-Rand, which later merged into Unisys).

The UNIVAC I was so important that historians call it the beginning of the “first generation”. As for computers before UNIVAC — historians disparagingly call them the “zeroth generation”.

So the first generation began in 1951. It lasted through 1958. Altogether, from 1951 to 1958, 46 of those UNIVACs were sold.

46 might not sound like many. But remember: in those days, computers were very expensive, and could do very little. Another reason why just 46 were sold is that newer models came out, such as the UNIVAC 1103, the UNIVAC 80, and the UNIVAC 90. But the biggest reason why only 46 of the UNIVAC I were sold is IBM.

The rise of IBM Although IBM didn’t begin mass-marketing computers until 1953 — two years after UNIVAC — the IBM guys were much better salesmen, and soon practically everybody was buying from IBM. During the first generation, the hottest seller was the IBM 650. IBM sold hundreds and hundreds of them.

There were many smaller manufacturers too. People summarized the whole computer industry in one phrase: IBM and the Seven Dwarfs.

Who were the dwarfs? They kept changing. Companies rapidly entered the field — and rapidly left when they realized IBM had the upper hand. By the end of the first generation, IBM was getting 70% of the sales.

Primitive input and output During the first generation, there were no terminals. To program the UNIVAC I, you had to put the program onto magnetic tape (by using a non-computerized machine), feed that tape to the computer, and wait for the computer to vomit another magnetic tape, which you had to run through another machine to find out what the tape said.

One reason why the IBM 650 became more popular was that it could read cards instead of tapes. It really liked cards. In fact, the answers came out on cards. To transfer the answers from cards to paper, you had to run the cards through a separate non-computerized machine.

Memory At the beginning of the first generation, there were no RAM chips, no ROM chips, and no “core memory”. Instead, the UNIVAC’s main memory was banks of liquid mercury, in which the bits were stored as ultrasonic sound waves. It worked slowly and serially, so the access time ranged from 40 to 400 microseconds per bit.

UNIVAC’s manufacturer and IBM started playing around with a different kind of memory, called the Williams tube, which was faster (10 to 50 microseconds); but since it was less reliable, it didn’t sell well.

In 1953, several manufacturers started selling computers that were much cheaper, because they used super-slow memory: it was a drum that rotated at 3600 rpm, giving an average access time of 17000 microseconds (17 milliseconds). (During the 1970’s, some computers still used drums, but for auxiliary memory, not for main memory.) The most popular first generation computer, the IBM 650, was one of those cheap drum computers.

Eventually, computer manufacturers switched to a much better scheme, called core memory. It consists of tiny iron donuts strung on a grid of wires, whose electrical current magnetizes the donuts. Each donut is one bit and called a core. The donuts are strung onto the wire grid by hand, by women knitting.

Core memory was first conceived in 1950. The first working models were built in 1953 at M.I.T. and RCA, which argued with each other about who owned the patent. The courts decided in favor of M.I.T., so both RCA and IBM came out with core-memory computers. Core memory proved so popular that most computers used it through the 1970’s, though in the 1980’s RAM chips finally overshadowed it, since RAM chips don’t require hiring knitters.

Languages During the first generation, computer programming improved a lot. During the early 1950’s, all programs had to be written in machine language. In the middle 1950’s, assembly language became available. By 1958, the end of the first generation, three major high-level languages had become available: FORTRAN, ALGOL, and APT.

Fancy programs Programmers tried to make computers play a decent game of chess. All the attempts failed. But at IBM, Arthur Samuel had some luck with checkers:

He got his first checkers program working in 1952 and then continually improved it, to make it more and more sophisticated. In 1955, he rewrote it so that it learned from its own mistakes. In 1956, he demonstrated it on national TV. He kept working on it. Though it hadn’t reached championship level yet, it was starting to look impressive.

Computer music scored its first big success in 1956, on the University of Illinois’ ILLIAC computer:

Hiller & Isaacson made the ILLIAC compose its own music in a style that sounded pre-Bach. In 1957, they made the program more flexible, so that it produced many styles of more modern music. The resulting mishmash composition was dubbed “The ILLIAC Suite” and put on a phonograph record.

In 1954, IBM wrote a program that translated simple sentences from Russian to English. Work on tackling harder sentences continued — with too much optimism.

Second generation (1959-1963)

Throughout the first generation, each CPU was composed of vacuum tubes. Back in 1948, Bell Telephone had invented the transistor, and everybody realized that transistors would be better than vacuum tubes; but putting transistors into computers posed many practical problems that weren’t solved for many years.

Finally, in 1959, computer companies started delivering transistorized computers. That year marked the beginning of the second generation. Sales of vacuum-tube computers immediately stopped.

All second-generation computers used core memory.

IBM The first company to make transistors for computers was Philco, but the most popular second-generation computer turned out to be the IBM 1401, because it was business-oriented and cheap.

IBM announced it in 1959 and began shipping it to customers in 1960.

Its core memory required 11½ microseconds per character. Each character consisted of 6 bits. The number of characters in the memory could range from 1.4K up to 16K. Most people rented the 1401 for about $8,000 per month, but you could spend anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000 per month, depending on how much memory you wanted, etc.

Altogether, IBM installed 14,000 of those machines.

IBM also installed 1,000 of a faster version, called the 1410.

It required just 4½ microseconds per character, had 10K to 80K, and rented for $8,000 to $18,000 per month, typically $11,000.

Altogether, IBM produced six kinds of computers.…

small business computers:              the 1401, 1410, 1440, and 1460

small scientific computers:               the 1620

medium-sized business computers:  the 7010

medium-sized scientific computers:   the 7040 and 7044

large business computers:               the 7070, 7074, and 7080

large scientific computers:                the 7090 and 7094

CDC Several employees left Remington-Rand-Sperry-Univac and formed their own company, called the Control Data Corporation (CDC). During the second generation, CDC produced popular scientific computers: the 1604, the 3600, and the 3800.

Software During the second generation, software improved tremendously.

The three major programming languages that had been invented during the first generation (FORTRAN, ALGOL, and APT) were significantly improved. Six new programming languages were invented: COBOL, RPG, LISP, SNOBOL, DYNAMO, and GPSS.

Programmers wrote advanced programs that answered questions about baseball, wrote poetry, tutored medical students, imitated three-person social interaction, controlled a mechanical hand, proved theorems in geometry, and solved indefinite integrals. The three most popular sorting methods were invented: the Shuffle Sort, the Shell Sort, and Quicksort.

Third generation’s dawn (1964-1967)

The third generation began with a big bang, in 1964. Here’s what happened in 1964, 1965, 1966, and 1967.…

Families The first modern computer families were shipped. They were the CDC 6600, the IBM 360, and DEC’s families (the PDP-6, PDP-8, and PDP-10).

Of those families, the CDC 6600 ran the fastest. The IBM 360 was the most flexible and was the only one that used integrated circuits (chips). The PDP-6 and PDP-10 were the best for timesharing. The PDP-8 was the cheapest.

Here are the dates:

CDC began shipping the CDC 6600 in 1964. IBM announced the IBM 360 in 1964 but didn’t ship it until 1966. DEC began shipping the PDP-6 maxicomputer in 1964, the PDP-8 minicomputer in 1965, and the PDP-10 maxicomputer (a souped-up PDP-6) in 1967.

New languages IBM announced it would create PL/I, a new computer language combining FORTRAN, COBOL, ALGOL, and all other popular languages. It was designed especially for IBM’s new computer, the 360. In 1966, IBM began delivering PL/I to customers.

Programmers invented the first successful languages for beginners using terminals. Those languages were BASIC, JOSS, and APL.

Dartmouth College invented the first version of BASIC in 1964, and significantly improved it in 1966 and 1967.

The RAND Corporation invented JOSS in 1964 for the JOHNNIAC computer, and put an improved version (JOSS II) on the PDP-6 in 1965. In the 1970’s, three popular variants of JOSS arose: a souped-up version (called AID), a stripped-down version (FOCAL), and a business-oriented version (MUMPS).

IBM completed the first version of APL in 1965 and put it on an IBM 7090. IBM wrote a better version of APL in 1966 and put it on an IBM 360. IBM began shipping APL to customers in 1967.

Stanford University invented the most popular language for statistics: SPSS.

Artificial intelligence Researchers calling themselves “experts in artificial intelligence” taught the computer to chat in ordinary English.

For example, Bertram Raphael made the computer learn from conversations, Daniel Bobrow made it use algebra to solve “story problems”, The Systems Development Corporation made it know everything in an encyclopedia, General Electric made it answer military questions, Ross Quillian made it find underlying concepts, and Joe Weizenbaum made it act as a psychotherapist.

Also, Richard Greenblatt wrote the first decent chess program. It was good enough to play in championship tournaments against humans.

Era of boredom (1968-1974)

As you can see, the first three generations — up through 1967 — were exciting, full of action. But then, from 1968 to 1974, nothing newsworthy happened. That was the era of boredom.

During that era, progress was made, but it was gradual and predictable. Nothing dramatic happened.

Of course, nobody actually came out and said, “Life is boring.” People phrased it more genteelly. For example, in September 1971 Robert Fenichel and Joe Weizenbaum wrote this introduction to Scientific American’s computer anthology:

“Partly because of the recent recession in the American economy, but more for reasons internal to the field, computer science has recently relaxed its pace. Work has not stopped, but that the current mood is one of consolidation can scarcely be doubted. Just a few years ago, computer science was moving so swiftly that even the professional journals were more archival than informative. This book could not then have been produced without great risk of misfocus. Today it’s much easier to put the articles that constitute this book — even the most recent ones — into context.”

Since the first generation had lasted eight years (1951-1958), and the second generation had lasted four years (1959-1963), people were expecting the third generation to last at most four years (1964-1967) and some kind of “fourth generation” to begin about 1968. But it never happened.

The only “major” announcement around then came in 1970, when IBM announced it would produce a new line of computers, called the IBM 370, which would make the IBM 360 obsolete. But to IBM’s dismay, many computer centers decided to hang onto the old 360 instead of switching to the 370.

Since the 370’s advantage over the 360 was small, not even IBM claimed the 370 marked a fourth generation. Computer historians, desperate for something positive to say about the 370, called it the beginning of the “late third generation”, as opposed to the 360, which belonged to the “early third generation”.

No consistency Unfortunately, in the entire history of computers, there was just one year all computer manufacturers acted together to produce something new. That year was 1959, when all manufacturers switched from vacuum tubes to transistors. Since 1959, we haven’t had any consistency.

Although the third generation began with a “big bang” in 1964, each manufacturer was banging on a different drum. IBM was proclaiming how great the IBM 360 would be because it would contain integrated circuits; but other manufacturers decided to ignore integrated circuits for several years, and concentrated on improving other aspects of the computer instead. For many years after the beginning of the third generation, CDC and DEC continued to use discrete transistors (a sign of the second generation) instead of integrated circuits.

Why? The era of boredom happened for 3 reasons:

1. The preceding years, 1964-1967, had been so successful that they were hard to improve on.

2. When the Vietnam War ended, the American economy had a recession, especially the computer industry, because it had depended on contracts from the Defense Department. In 1969, the recession hit bottom, and computer companies had to lay off many workers. In that year, General Electric gave up and sold its computer division to Honeywell. In 1971, RCA gave up too and sold its computer division to Remington-Rand-Sperry-Univac.

3. The world wasn’t ready yet for “the era of personal computing”, which began in 1975.

Quiet changes During the era of boredom, these changes occurred — quietly.…

In 1970, DEC began shipping the PDP-11.

The PDP-8 and PDP-11 became the most popular minicomputers — far more popular than IBM’s minicomputers. So in the field of minicomputers, IBM no longer had the upper hand.

BASIC became the most popular language for the PDP-8 and PDP-11 and most other minicomputers (except IBM’s, which emphasized RPG). In high schools and business schools, most of the introductory courses used BASIC, instead of FORTRAN or COBOL.

Many businesses and high schools bought their own minicomputers, instead of renting time on neighbors’ maxicomputers. The typical high-school computer class used a PDP-8. The richest high schools bought PDP-11’s.

In universities, the social sciences started using computers — and heavily — to analyze statistics.

All new computer families used 8-bit bytes, so the each word’s length was a multiple of 8 (such as 8, 16, 32, or 64).

Most older computer families, invented before the era of boredom, had used 6-bit bytes, so the length of each word had been a multiple of 6: for example, the PDP-8 had a word of 12 bits; the PDP-10 , UNIVAC 1100, and General Electric- Honeywell computers had a word of 36 bits; and the CDC 6600 had a word of 60 bits. The IBM 360 was the first computer to use 8-bit bytes instead of 6-bit; during the era of boredom, all manufacturers copied that feature from IBM.

CRT terminals (TV-like screens attached to keyboards) got cheaper, until they finally became as cheap as hard-copy terminals (which use paper).

Most computer centers switched from hard-copy terminals to CRT terminals, because CRT terminals were quicker, quieter, and could do fancy editing. Also, many computer centers switched from “punched cards and keypunch machines” to CRT terminals.

Interest in new computer languages died. Most computer managers decided to stick with the old classics (FORTRAN and COBOL), because switching to a progressive language (such as PL/I) would require too much time to retrain the programmers and rewrite all the old programs.

Programmers made two last-ditch attempts to improve ALGOL. The first attempt, called ALGOL 68, was too complicated to win popular appeal. The second attempt, called PASCAL, eventually gained more support.

Maxicomputers were given virtual core — disks that pretend to be core, in case you’re trying to run a program that’s too large to fit into core.

Memory chips got cheaper, until they were finally cheaper than core. Most manufacturers switched from core to memory chips.

In 1971, Intel began shipping the first microprocessor (complete CPU on a chip).

It was called the 4004 and had a word of just 4 bits. In 1972, Intel began shipping an improved version, the 8008, whose word had 8 bits. In 1973, Intel began shipping an even better version, the 8080.









Micro history

In 1975, the first popular microcomputer was shipped. It was called the Altair and was built by a company called MITS. It cost just $395.

It was just a box that contained a CPU and very little RAM: just ¼ of a K!

It included no printer, no disk, no tape, no ROM, no screen, and not even a keyboard! The only way to communicate with the computer was to throw 25 switches and watch 36 blinking lights.

It didn’t understand BASIC or any other high-level computer language. To learn how to throw the switches and watch the blinking lights, you had to take a course in “machine language”.

You also had to take a course in electronics — because the $395 got you just a kit that you had to assemble yourself by using a soldering iron and reading electronics diagrams. Moreover, when you finished building the kit, you noticed some of the parts were missing or defective, so that you had to contact MITS for new parts.

That computer contained several empty slots to hold PC cards. Eventually, many companies invented PC cards to put into those slots. Those PC cards, which were expensive, let you insert extra RAM and attach a printer, tape recorder, disk drives, TV, and terminal (keyboard with either a screen or paper).

Bill Gates invented a way to make the Altair handle BASIC. He called his method Microsoft BASIC. He patterned it after DEC’s BASIC; but he included extra features that exploited the Altair’s ability to be “personal”, and he eliminated features that would require too much RAM.

Gary Kildall invented a disk operating system that the Altair could use. He called that operating system CP/M.

Many companies built computers that imitated the Altair. Those imitations became more popular than the Altair itself. Eventually, the Altair’s manufacturer (MITS) went out of business.

The computers that imitated the Altair were called
S-100 bus computers, because they each used a Standard cable containing 100 wires.

In those days, the microcomputer industry was standardized. Each popular microcomputer used Microsoft BASIC, CP/M, and the S-100 bus. The microcomputer was just a box containing PC cards; it had no keyboard, no screen, and no disk drive. A cable went from the microcomputer to a terminal, which was priced separately. Another cable went from the microcomputer to a disk drive, which was also priced separately.

Built-in keyboards

In 1977, four companies began selling microcomputers that had built-in keyboards, so you didn’t have to buy a terminal. Their computers became popular immediately. The four companies were Processor Technology, Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack.

Processor Technology’s computer was called the Sol 20, to honor Solomon Libes, an editor of Popular Electronics.

Apple’s computer was called the Apple 2, because it improved on the Apple 1, which had lacked a built-in keyboard.

Commodore’s computer was called the Pet (inspired by Pet Rocks).

Radio Shack’s computer was called the TRS-80, because it was manufactured by Tandy’s Radio Shack and contained a Z-80 CPU.

For a fully assembled computer, Processor Technology charged $1850, Apple charged $970, Commodore charged $595 (but quickly raised the price to $795), and Radio Shack charged $599 (but soon lowered the price to $499).

Notice that Commodore and Radio Shack had the lowest prices. Also, the low prices from Commodore and Radio Shack included a monitor, whereas the prices from Processor Technology and Apple didn’t. So Commodore and Radio Shack were the real “bargains”.

In those days, “the lower the price, the more popular the computer”.

The cheapest and most popular computer was Radio Shack’s.

The second cheapest and second most popular was Commodore’s Pet.

The third cheapest and third most popular was the Apple 2.

Processor Technology, after a brief fling of popularity, went bankrupt.

The most expensive kind of microcomputer was the CP/M S-100 bus system, which was the oldest kind and therefore had accumulated the greatest quantity of business software.


In 1978 and 1979, the three main companies (Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack) improved their computers.

The improved Apple 2 was called the Apple 2-plus. The improved Commodore Pet was called the Commodore Business Machine (CBM). The improved Radio Shack TRS-80 was called the TRS-80 model 2.

After announcing the Apple 2-plus, Apple Computer Company stopped selling the plain Apple 2.

Commodore continued selling its old computer (the Pet) to customers who couldn’t afford the new version (the CBM), which cost more. Likewise, Radio Shack continued selling its model 1 to customers who couldn’t afford the model 2.

Texas Instruments & Atari

In 1979, Texas Instruments (TI) and Atari entered the microcomputer marketplace and began selling low-priced computers.

TI’s microcomputer was called the TI 99/4. Atari offered two microcomputers: the Atari 400 and the Atari 800.

TI charged $1150. Atari charged $1000 for the regular model (the Atari 800) and $550 for the stripped-down model (the Atari 400).

TI’s price included a color monitor. Atari’s prices did not include a screen; you were to attach Atari’s computers to your home’s TV.

TI’s computer was terrible, especially its keyboard. The Atari 800 computer was wonderful; reviewers were amazed at its easy-to-use keyboard, easy-to-use built-in editor, gorgeous color output on your TV, child-proofing (safe for little kids), and dazzling games, all at a wonderfully low price! It was cheaper than an Apple (whose price had by then risen to $1195) and yet was much better than an Apple.

From that description, you’d expect Atari 800 to become the world’s best-selling computer, and the TI 99/4 to become an immediate flop. Indeed, that’s what most computer experts hoped. And so did the TI 99/4’s product manager: when he saw what a mess the TI 99/4 had become, he quit TI and went to work for Atari, where he became the product manager for the Atari 400 & 800!

But even though computer experts realized that TI’s computer was junk, TI decided to market it aggressively:

TI coaxed Milton Bradley and Scott Foresman to write lots of programs for the 99/4. TI paid researchers at MIT to make the 99/4 understand LOGO (a computer language used by young children and very popular in elementary schools). TI improved the keyboard just enough so that people would stop laughing at it; the version with the new keyboard was named the 99/4A. TI paid Bill Cosby to praise the 99/4A and ran hundreds of TV ads showing Bill Cosby saying “wow”. TI dramatically slashed the $1150 price to $650, then $150, and then finally to just $99.50! (To bring the price that low, TI had to exclude the color monitor from the price; instead, TI included a hookup to your home’s color TV.)

By contrast, Atari did hardly anything to market or further improve the Atari 400 & 800.

Atari concentrated on its other products: the big Atari game machines (which you find in video arcades) and the Atari VCS machine (which plays video games on your home TV).

The TI 99/4A therefore became more popular than the Atari 400 & 800 — even though the TI 99/4A was inherently worse.

Sinclair, Osborne, backlash

In 1980 and 1981, two important companies entered the microcomputer marketplace: Timex Sinclair (1980) and Osborne (1981).

The first complete computer selling for less than $200 was invented by a British chap named Clive Sinclair and manufactured by Timex.

The original version was called the ZX-80 (because it was invented in 1980, contained a Z-80 CPU, and was claimed to be “Xellent”); it sold for $199.95. In 1981, Clive Sinclair invented an improved version, called the ZX-81. Later, he and Timex invented further improvements, called the
ZX Spectrum and the Timex Sinclair 1000. When TI dropped the price of the TI 99/4A to $99.50, Timex retaliated by dropping the list price of the Timex Sinclair 1000 to $49.95, so the Timex Sinclair 1000 remained the cheapest complete computer.

In April 1981, Adam Osborne began the Osborne Computer Corp. and began selling the Osborne 1 computer, designed by Lee Felsenstein (who’d invented Processor Technology’s Sol 20 computer).

The Osborne 1 computer included practically everything a business executive needed: its $1795 price included a keyboard, a monitor, a Z-80A CPU, a 64K RAM, two disk drives, CP/M, Microsoft BASIC, a second version of BASIC, the Wordstar word processor, and the Supercalc spreadsheet program. Moreover, it was the world’s first portable business computer: the entire computer system (including even the monitor and disk drives) was collapsible and turned itself into an easy-to-carry attaché case. (Many years later, Compaq copied Osborne’s idea.)

While Timex Sinclair and Osborne were entering the marketplace, Radio Shack, Apple, and Commodore were introducing new computers of their own:

In 1980, Radio Shack began selling three new computers. The
TRS-80 model 3 replaced Radio Shack’s cheapest computer (the model 1) and was almost as good as Radio Shack’s fanciest computer (the model 2). The TRS-80 Color Computer drew pictures in color and cost less than the model 3. The TRS-80 Pocket Computer fit into your pocket, looked like a pocket calculator, and was built for Radio Shack by Sharp Electronics in Japan.

In 1980, Apple began selling the Apple 3. It was overpriced; and to make matters worse, the first Apple 3’s that rolled off the assembly line were defective. Apple eventually lowered the price and fixed the defects; but since the Apple 3 had gotten off to such a bad start, computer consultants didn’t trust it and told everybody to avoid it.

In 1981, Commodore began selling the Vic-20, which drew pictures in color and cost less than Radio Shack’s Color Computer. In fact, the Vic-20 was the first computer that drew pictures in color for less than $300.

The Vic-20 originally sold for $299.95. When TI lowered the price of the TI 99/4A to $99.95, Commodore lowered the price of the Vic-20. At discount department stores (such as K Mart, Toys R Us, and Child World), you could buy the Vic-20 for just $85: it was still the cheapest computer that could handle color. (The Timex Sinclair 1000 was cheaper but handled just black-and-white.)

Moreover, the Vic-20 had standard Microsoft BASIC, whereas the Timex Sinclair 1000 and TI 99/4A did not; so the Vic-20 was the cheapest computer that had standard Microsoft BASIC. It was the cheapest computer that was pleasant to program.

Also, the Vic-20 had a nice keyboard, whereas the keyboards on the Timex Sinclair 1000 and TI 99/4A were pathetic.

The Vic-20 became immediately popular.


On August 12, 1981, IBM announced a new microcomputer, called the IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC).

Although IBM had previously invented other microcomputers (the IBM 5100 and the IBM System 23 Datamaster), they’d been overpriced and nobody took them seriously — not even IBM. The IBM Personal Computer was IBM’s first serious attempt to sell a microcomputer.

The IBM Personal Computer was a smashing success, because of its amazingly high quality and amazingly low price. It became the standard against which the rest of the microcomputer industry was judged.









Rise and fall

Let’s take a closer look at how 3 computer companies — Commodore, Tandy, and Atari — rose and fell.


A computer company called Commodore was called “the house that Jack built” because it was started by Jack Tramiel.

How Commodore began Jack began his career by being in the wrong place at the wrong time: he was a Jew in Poland during World War 2. He was thrown into the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he learned to view life as a war to survive. When he escaped from the camp, he moved to Canada and started an aggressive, ruthless company called Commodore, whose motto to survive was, “Business is war!”

At first, Commodore just repaired typewriters; but it grew fast and started to manufacture pocket calculators. In those calculators, the CPU was a microprocessor chip manufactured by MOS Technology, a company with a troubled past:

Back in 1974, the most popular microprocessors were the Intel 8080 and the Motorola 6800. But one of the 6800’s inventors, a guy named Chuck Peddle, quit Motorola in 1975 and started a new company with his friends. That start-up company, MOS Technology, began manufacturing the 6501 microprocessor, which resembled Motorola’s 6800.

When Motorola threatened to sue, MOS Technology stopped making the 6501 and switched to the 6502, which Chuck Peddle designed differently enough to avoid a suit. That 6502 chip became very popular and was used in many devices, including Commodore’s calculators. Commodore was one of MOS Technology’s biggest customers.

Though the 6502 was legal, Motorola sued MOS Technology for its illegal predecessor, the 6501. The suit dragged through the courts for two years and cost MOS Technology many thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees. Finally, in 1977, Motorola won $200,000. The lawyer fees and $200,000 put MOS Technology in financial trouble.

MOS Technology wanted to be bought by some company having lots of cash. Commodore, rich by then, bought it.

Just before that sale, Canada’s tax laws changed, so Commodore moved its headquarters (in theory) from Canada to the Bahamas. That’s how MOS Technology became part of “Commodore Limited”, a Bahamas company, and how Commodore found itself running a company that made chips. Commodore had entered the computer business.

Dealing with competitors At MOS Technology, Chuck Peddle had sold a 6502 chip for $25 to Steve Wozniak, who used that chip to create the Apple computer. When Commodore saw Apple computers become popular, Commodore offered to buy the Apple Computer Company — and almost succeeded.

Apple wanted $15,000 more than Commodore offered, so the deal never came off. If Commodore were to have offered just $15,000 more, Apple would be part of Commodore now!

Commodore hired Chuck Peddle to design a “Commodore computer”, which Commodore hoped to sell through Radio Shack’s stores. Radio Shack said, “Great idea! Finish designing it and tell us more.” Commodore finished designing it and showed it to Radio Shack. Radio Shack said, “Your argument for selling low-cost computers was so convincing, we decided to build our own. Thanks for the idea.” That’s how Radio Shack got the idea of manufacturing computers!

Pet Rebuffed by Apple and Radio Shack, Jack Tramiel decided to retaliate by building a computer better and cheaper than anything Apple and Radio Shack had. Commodore called its new computer the Pet — because Commodore’s marketing director was the guy who invented the Pet Rock, and reckoned that if folks were stupid enough to buy a Pet Rock they’d love a Pet computer! He was right: sales of Commodore’s Pet Computer skyrocketed.

Commodore told the press that “Pet” was an abbreviation for “Personal Electronic Transactor”; but Commodore had invented the name “Pet” first and later made up what it stood for.

Commodore announced the Pet in 1977 and said its $495 price would include everything (the CPU, RAM, ROM, keyboard, monitor, and tape recorder), its ROM would include a good version of BASIC, and its screen would display capital letters, lower-case letters, punctuation, math symbols, and graphics symbols.

Commodore’s competitors got scared — because Commodore’s price was much lower than other computers, Commodore’s computer offered more features, and Commodore was rich enough to spend more on ads & marketing than all other manufacturers combined. Computer magazines called the Pet “the birth of a new generation” in personal computers and treated the Pet’s designer (Chuck Peddle) to many interviews.

But Commodore disappointed its customers:

Commodore raised the Pet’s price from $495 to $595 before taking orders. To order the Pet, the customer had to send $595, plus shipping charges, then wait for Commodore to deliver. Many folks mailed Commodore money and waited long, but Commodore didn’t ship. Folks got impatient. Computer stores that had advertised the Pet got worried: customers who’d prepaid complained to the stores, but the stores couldn’t get Commodore to ship.

Meanwhile, Radio Shack entered the market with its TRS-80 model 1 priced at $599 — about the same price as Commodore’s Pet. Radio Shack was kinder than Commodore:

Radio Shack asked customers for just a 10% deposit. Commodore required payment in full.

Radio Shack didn’t charge for shipping. Commodore did.

Radio Shack set up repair centers throughout the USA. Commodore’s only repair center was in California.

Radio Shack delivered computers fast. Commodore still wasn’t delivering! Finally, Commodore admitted that the $595 Pet would not be delivered soon; instead, Commodore would deliver a $795 version that included 4K of extra RAM. So if you already sent $595 to Commodore and wanted a computer soon, you’d have to send an extra $200. That was a rip-off, since 4K of extra RAM was not worth an extra $200; but desperate customers sent the $200 anyway.

Radio Shack shipped its computers on a first-come first-served basis; if you ordered a Radio Shack computer, Radio Shack gave you an accurate estimate of when you’d receive it. Commodore gave preferential treatment to its “friends”; if you ordered a computer from Commodore, you hadn’t the faintest idea of when it would arrive, since you didn’t know how many “friends” were on Commodore’s list.

Radio Shack’s computer came with a 232-page manual that was cheery and easy. Commodore’s computer came with just 10 loose pages that were incomplete and hard to understand.

Commodore announced a low-cost printer but then reneged and decided to sell just an expensive printer. Commodore announced a low-cost disk drive but then reneged and decided to sell just an expensive unit containing 2 disk drives. Commodore became known as a liar.

At first, the Pet was the world’s best-selling computer; but all those disappointments made its popularity drop to #3, below Radio Shack (#1) and Apple (#2).

Commodore developed a souped-up Pet, called the Commodore Business Machine (CBM), but it wasn’t enough to raise Commodore above the number 3 spot. As Commodore’s fortunes dipped, Chuck Peddle and his friends quit. Apple hired them but treated them as second-class citizens, so they returned to Commodore.

Commodore sold several Pet versions, each containing a different quantity of RAM.

If you bought a cheap version and wanted to increase its RAM, Commodore refused to install extra RAM. Instead, Commodore insisted you buy a whole new Pet.

Customers tried buying extra RAM from chip dealers and installing the chips themselves; but to stop those tinkerers, Commodore began cutting a hole in the PC board where the extra RAM chips would go. Commodore was an asshole.

Commodore changed the Pet’s tape-handling system.

Tapes created for old Pets wouldn’t work on new Pets. Commodore didn’t tell customers of the change. Customers who wrote programs for old Pets and then bought more Pets discovered that their programs didn’t work on the new Pets. They thought their new Pets were broken. Companies who’d been selling tapes of Pet computer programs began getting angry letters from customers who bought the tapes and couldn’t make them work on their new Pets: the customers thought the companies were crooks; the companies thought the customers were lying; eventually folks realized the real culprit was Commodore, who’d changed the Pet secretly.

When the companies discovered that Commodore had changed the Pet without providing a label to distinguish new Pets from old, the companies realized they’d have to give each customer two copies of each program, so the customer could try both versions. That’s when many companies gave up trying to sell Pet tapes. They sold tapes for Apple and Radio Shack computers instead. Commodore programs became rare.

Vic Jack’s experience at Auschwitz made him scared of Nazis and the Japanese. He feared the US would be invaded by cheap Japanese computers putting Commodore and other American companies out of business.

Paranoid, in April 1980 he called his engineers together and screamed at them, “The Japanese are coming! The Japanese are coming! So we’ll become the Japanese!” He laid out his bold plan: Commodore would build the world’s first under-$300 computer to display colors on an ordinary TV and produce three-part harmony through the TV’s speaker.

At that time, the only under-$300 computer was Sinclair’s ZX-80, which was black-and-white and crummy. Commodore’s engineers said it was impossible to build a color computer cheaply, but Jack insisted. Commodore’s engineers finally managed to do it. Here’s how:

MOS Technology, owned by Commodore, had already invented the amazing Video Interface Chip (Vic), which could handle the entire process of sending computer output to the TV screen. Since that chip was cheap, Commodore used it in the under-$300 computer. Unfortunately, it put just 22 characters per line on the screen, so the under-$300 computer would display just 22 characters per line.

Since the new computer was feminine and foxy, Commodore wanted to call it the “Vixen”; but Commodore discovered that a “Vixen” computer couldn’t sell in Germany, since “Vixen” sounds like the German word “Wichsen”, which means “jerk off”. Commodore hastily changed the name to “Vic” and ran TV ads for the “Vic” computer; but that got Commodore into even worse trouble, since “Vic” sounds like the German word “Ficke”, which means “fuck”. Commodore kept calling it the “Vic” in the USA but called it the “VC” computer in Germany and pretended “VC” stood for “Volks Computer”.

Commodore began shipping the Vic in 1981 at $299.95. Later, the price gradually dropped to $55.

To sell the Vic, Commodore tried 3 kinds of ads:

The first ad featured TV star William Shatner (who played Captain Kirk in Star Trek) and said the Vic was wonderful, amazing, out of this world, fun! But then people started thinking of the Vic as just a sci-fi toy. To combat the “toy” image, Commodore changed to a second kind of ad, which said the Vic was as cheap as a video-game machine but more educational for kids. When Texas Instruments began making similar claims, Commodore changed to a third kind of ad, which said Commodore’s disk drives, printers, and phone hookups cost much less than Texas Instruments’.

The Vic’s low price, fun colors, and effective ads made it popular in the USA, England, Germany, and Japan. Commodore quickly sold over a million Vics! The Vic became the world’s best-selling computer!

Commodore 64 In 1982, Commodore began selling an improved Vic, called the Commodore 64 because it included 64K of RAM. (The original Vic had just 5K.) The Commodore 64 also improved on the Vic by displaying 40 characters per line (instead of just 22) and including 20K of ROM (instead of just 16K).

The Commodore 64’s price went through 4 phases:

In phase 1, $599.95 was the recommended list price, and Commodore tried to force all dealers to charge that. If a dealer advertised a discount, Commodore refused to send that dealer any more computers. (Commodore’s policy was an example of price fixing, which is illegal.)

In phase 2, Commodore allowed discounts. Dealers charged just $350, and Commodore mailed a $100 rebate to anybody trading in another computer or a video-game machine. Bargain-hunters bought the cheap Timex Sinclair 1000 computer just to trade in for a Commodore 64. A New York dealer, “Crazy Eddy”, sold junky video-game machines for $10 just so his customers could mail them to Commodore for the $100 rebate. Commodore donated most of the trade-ins to charities for a tax write-off but kept some Timex Sinclair 1000’s for use as doorstops.

In phase 3, Commodore stopped the rebate but offered a lower price: discount dealers charged just $148.

In phase 4, the Commodore made an improved version, the Commodore 64C, sold by discounters for just $119. It came with a copy of the Geos operating system (which made it resemble a Mac), and its keyboard contained extra keys.

The Commodore 64 cost much less than an Apple 2c or IBM PC. Here’s why:

Commodore’s disk drive (Model 1541) was slow and unreliable and put few bytes on the disk (just single-sided single-density).

Commodore’s color monitor (Model 1702) produced a blurry image, which restricted it to 40 characters per line instead of 80, and made the M look too much like an N, the B look too much like an 8.

Commodore’s BASIC was weak: it didn’t even include a command to let you draw a diagonal line across the screen.

Commodore’s printer port was non-standard: it worked just with printers built by Commodore, unless you bought a special adapter.

Eventually, Commodore developed an improved monitor (Model 1802) and improved disk drives (Models 1541C and 1541-2).

Because the Commodore 64 was cheap, Commodore sold over a million of them.

Many programmers who wrote programs for Apple computers rewrote their programs to also work on the Commodore 64. Soon the Commodore 64 ran nearly as many popular programs as the Apple 2c.

The Commodore 64’s price, even after adding the price of a disk drive and a monitor, still totaled less than the price of an Apple 2e, Apple 2c, IBM PC, or IBM PC Junior. The Commodore 64 was a fantastically good value! It also contained a fancy music synthesizer chip that produced a wide variety of musical tone qualities: when it played music, it sounded much better than an Apple 2e or 2c or IBM.

Jack jumps ship After the Commodore 64 became successful, Jack Tramiel wanted to hire his sons to help run Commodore; but Commodore’s other major shareholders refused to deal with Jack’s sons, so Jack quit. He sold his 2 million shares of Commodore stock, at $40 per share, netting himself 80 million dollars in cash.

New computers After Jack quit, Commodore tried selling two new computers (the Commodore 16 and Commodore Plus 4), but they had serious flaws. Then Commodore invented two great computers: the Commodore 128 and Amiga.

The Commodore 128 ran all the Commodore 64 software and also included a better version of BASIC, better keyboard, and better video. To go with it, Commodore invented a better RGB monitor (Model 1902) and better disk drive (Model 1571). Later, Commodore invented the Commodore 128D computer, which included a built-in disk drive.

The Amiga was even newer and fancier. It contained 3 special chips that produce fast animated graphics in beautiful shades of color. Like the Mac, it used a mouse and pull-down menus. It was bought mainly by video professionals and by others interested in animated graphics. On TV, weathermen used the Amiga to show the weather moving across the weather map.

The Amiga was not compatible with the Commodore 64 or Mac. Aside from graphics, not enough good software was available for the Amiga.

Bankruptcy In 1994, Commodore filed for bankruptcy. Commodore was bought by Escom, which sold Amiga Technologies to Visual Information Services Corp. (Viscorp), which sold it to Gateway, which eventually abandoned the technology.


Tandy, which owns Radio Shack, has survived many years.

Thanks to Tandy Radio Shack helped the computer industry in many ways:

Radio Shack was the first big chain of stores to sell computers nationally. It was the first chain to reach rural areas.

Radio Shack invented the first low-cost assembled computer (the TRS-80 model 1, which cost just $599, including the monitor).

Radio Shack was the first company to keep computer prices low without skimping on quality.

Radio Shack sold the first notebook computer (the Tandy 100, invented by Tandy with help from Microsoft and a Japanese manufacturer, Kyocera).

Radio Shack sold the first pocket computers. They were manufactured for Tandy by Sharp and Casio.

Radio Shack invented the first cheap computer having fancy graphics commands. That was the Color Computer, whose BASIC was designed by Microsoft as a “rough draft” for the fancier BASIC in the IBM PC.

But when the IBM PC came out and became the standard, Americans suddenly decided to buy just the IBM PC and clones. Tandy tried building IBM clones innovatively, but in 1993 gave up: it stopped making computers and sold all its factories to another computer company, AST. Afterwards, Tandy sold computers built by AST, then switched to selling computers built by IBM. Now Tandy sells computers built by Compaq instead.

Nicknames Tandy’s computers are often called “TRS” computers. The “TRS” stands for “Tandy’s Radio Shack”. Cynics add the letters A and H, and call them “TRASH” computers, so Tandy’s customers are called “trash collectors”. On the other hand, Apple lovers are called “fruits”; IBM lovers are called “blue bloods” (because old IBM computers were blue); Commodore lovers are called “boat people”; and kids who play with Atari computers are called “Atari-eyed dreamers & screamers”.

How Tandy began The Tandy Leather Company was begun by Charles Tandy. Later, he acquired Radio Shack, which had been a Boston-based chain of discount electronics stores.

Under leadership from his Fort Worth headquarters, Tandy/Radio Shack succeeded and grew 30% per year, fueled by the CB radio craze. When the market for CB radios declined, he began looking for a new product to continue his 30% growth.

Commodore was inventing a computer and tried to convince Tandy’s staff to sell it. Don French, a Tandy salesman whose hobby was building computers, told Charles Tandy that Radio Shack should start selling computers.

The original TRS-80 computer Instead of buying from Commodore, Radio Shack hired Steve Leininger to design a Radio Shack computer and keep the cost as low as possible:

Steve wanted his computer to handle lower-case letters instead of just capitals; but since the lower-case chip would have added 10¢ to the cost, management rejected lower case: Radio Shack’s computer handled just capitals.

The monitor was a modified black-and-white TV built for Radio Shack by RCA. When RCA told Radio Shack that the TV case’s standard color was “Mercedes silver”, and any other color would cost extra, Radio Shack accepted Mercedes silver and painted the rest of the computer to match the TV. When you use a Radio Shack computer, you’re supposed to feel as if you’re driving a Mercedes; but since Mercedes silver looked like gray, Radio Shack became nicknamed “the great gray monster”. Californians preferred Apples, whose beige matched their living-room decors. (Later, in 1982, Radio Shack wised up and switched from “Mercedes silver” to white.)

Radio Shack’s original computer listed for just $599 and consisted of 4 devices: a keyboard (in which hid the CPU, ROM, & RAM), a monitor (built for Radio Shack by RCA), a cheap Radio Shack tape recorder, and an AC/DC transformer. Wires ran between those devices, so that the whole system looked like an octopus. Radio Shack wanted to put the AC/DC transformer inside the keyboard, to make the computer system consist of three boxes instead of four; but that internal transformer would have delayed approval from Underwriters Laboratories for 6 months, and Radio Shack couldn’t wait that long.

Radio Shack named its computer the TRS-80 because it was by Tandy’s Radio Shack and contained a Z-80 CPU chip.

To announce the computer, Radio Shack called a press conference for a Monday morning in August 1977 on the front steps of the New York Stock Exchange. But when Radio Shack’s leaders stood on those steps, surrounded by reporters, a guy ran up and yelled that a bomb exploded two blocks away. The reporters ran to the bomb site, and Radio Shack couldn’t announce its computer!

Radio Shack needed a new place to announce the computer. Radio Shack heard that the Boston Computer Society would run a computer show that week, Wednesday through Friday; so Radio Shack’s management drove to that Boston show, got a booth, and announced its computer there — and was shocked to discover that the whole show and Boston Computer Society were run by Jonathan Rotenberg, a 14-year-old kid!

That intro was successful: people liked and bought Radio Shack’s new computer. The base price was $599. For a complete business system (including a souped-up base plus two disk drives and a printer), Radio Shack charged $2600, while Radio Shack’s competitors charged over $4500.

Problems with DOS Radio Shack hired Randy Cook to write the DOS. My friend Dick Miller tried DOS version 1.0 and noticed it didn’t work; it didn’t even boot! He told Radio Shack, which told Randy Cook, who fixed the problem and wrote version 1.1. Dick noticed it worked better but still had a big flaw: it didn’t tell you how much disk space was left, and as soon as the disk was filled it would self-destruct! Then came version 1.2, which worked better but not perfectly.

Since Radio Shack’s DOS was still buggy, the inventors of Visicalc (the world’s first spreadsheet program) put Visicalc onto the Apple instead of the TRS-80. Apple became known as the “spreadsheet machine”, and many accountants began buying Apples instead of TRS-80’s.

Dealing with the public In 1977, when Radio Shack began selling the TRS-80, customers didn’t understand what computers were.

At a Radio Shack show, I saw a police chief buy a TRS-80. While carrying it out of the room, he called back over his shoulder, “By the way, how do you program it?” He expected a one-sentence answer.

Radio Shack gave customers an 800 number to call for free tech support. Many customers called because they were confused. For example, many customers had this gripe: “I put my mouth next to the tape recorder and yelled TWO PLUS TWO, but it didn’t say FOUR!”

Radio Shack’s first version of BASIC provided just three error messages: WHAT (which means “What the heck are you talking about?”), HOW (which means “I don’t know how to handle a number that big”) and SORRY (which means “Sorry I can’t do that — you didn’t buy enough RAM yet”). Those error messages confused beginners. For example, here’s a conversation between a Radio Shack customer and a Radio Shack technician (Chris Daly).…

Chris:           “What’s your problem?”

Customer:    “I plugged in the video, then the tape recorder, then…”

Chris:           “Yes, sir, but what’s the problem?”

Customer:    “It doesn’t work.”

Chris:           “How do you know it doesn’t work?”

Customer:    “It says READY.”

Chris:           “What’s wrong with that? It’s supposed to say READY.”

Customer:    “It isn’t ready.”

Chris:           “How do you know it isn’t ready?”

Customer:    “I asked it ‘Where’s my wife Martha?’, and it just said WHAT.”

Other Z-80 computers After the TRS-80, Tandy invented improved versions: the TRS-80 Models 2, 3, 4, 4D, 4P, 12, 16, & 16B, and the Tandy 6000. Like the Model 1, they included a Z-80 CPU and a monochrome monitor.

Coco To compete against the Commodore 64, Tandy invented the Color Computer, nicknamed the Coco. Like the Commodore 64, the Coco could attach to either a monitor or an ordinary TV, and it could store programs on either a disk or an ordinary cassette tape (the same kind of tape that you listen to music on).

Tandy began selling the Coco in 1980 — the year before IBM began selling the PC. Microsoft invented the Coco’s BASIC ROM and also invented the IBM PC’s. The Coco’s BASIC ROM was Microsoft’s rough draft of the ROM that went into the IBM PC, so the Coco acted as “an IBM PC that wasn’t quite right yet”. In the Coco’s BASIC, the commands for handling graphics & music were similar to the IBM PC’s but more awkward. Folks who couldn’t afford an IBM PC but wanted to learn how to program it bought the Coco.

Pocket computers Tandy sold 8 different pocket computers, numbered PC-1 through PC-8. They fit in your pocket, ran on batteries, and included LCD screens.

Notebook computers In 1983, Tandy, Epson, and NEC all tried to sell cheap notebook computers. Just Tandy’s became popular, because it was the cheapest ($499) and the easiest to learn how to use. It was called the Model 100.

Later Tandy sold an improved version, the Model 102, which included more RAM (32K), weighed less (just 3 pounds), and listed for $599. It including a nice keyboard, a screen displaying eight 40-character lines, a 32K ROM (containing BASIC, a word-processing program, some filing programs, and a telecommunications program), and a 300-baud modem (for attaching to a phone, after you bought a $19.95 cable). It was 8½ inches by 12 inches and just 1½ inches thick. Reporters used it to take notes and phone them to the newspaper.

Popularity Tandy’s 7000 Radio Shack stores penetrated every major city and also remote rural areas, where few other computer stores competed.

Tandy offered “solid value”. Tandy kept its quality high and its prices below IBM’s and Apple’s (though not as low as generic clones). Tandy’s computers and prices were aimed at middle-class American consumers, not business executives (who bought from IBM) or bargain-hunting hobbyists (who bought from mail-order discounters).

Tandy’s computers were built reliably. Tandy’s assembly line checked them thoroughly before shipping to Tandy’s stores. If a Tandy computer needed repair during the warranty period, the customer could bring it to any Radio Shack store for a free fix, even if purchased from a different store. After the warranty expired, Radio Shack was kind and charged very little for labor.

Worse attitude During the 1970’s, Tandy’s headquarters gave toll-free tech help. During the 1980’s, Tandy switched to numbers that were not toll-free. Later, Tandy refused to answer any questions unless the customer bought a support contract. Tandy’s claim to offer better support than mail-order companies became Texas bull.

During the 1980’s, Tandy established a dress code for its computer centers: employees who met the public had to wear blue or gray suits, blue or white shirts, no beards, and no moustaches. Tandy fired a center manager for refusing to shave his beard. Wasn’t the personal-computing revolution supposed to give us tools to express our individuality?

Eventually, Tandy shut down all its computer centers.


Of all the major computer manufacturers, Atari was the most creative — and the strangest! Atari was in America’s strangest state (California) and had the strangest name: “Atari” is a Japanese war cry that means “beware!”

Video games In 1972, Atari invented the world’s first popular video game, Pong. Next, Atari invented the game called Asteroids, then dozens of other games. Atari’s games were placed in arcades & bars and required you to insert quarters. In 1975, Atari invented a machine that could play Pong on your home TV. In 1976, Atari gave up its independence and was bought by Warner Communications (the gigantic company that owned Warner Brothers movies & cartoons, Warner Cable TV, and DC Comics).

In 1977, Atari invented a machine called the Video Computer System (VCS), which could play many games on your home TV: each game came as a ROM cartridge. Later, Nintendo and Sega invented machines that were similar but fancier.

Early personal computers In 1979, Atari began selling complete personal computers. Atari’s first two computers were the Atari 400 (cheap!) and the Atari 800 (which had a nicer keyboard). They were far ahead of their time. Of all the microcomputers being sold, Atari’s had the best graphics, best music, and best way of editing programs. Compared to Atari, the Apples looked pitiful! Yet Atari charged less than Apple!

But Atari made two mistakes:

Atari didn’t hire Bill Gates to write its version of BASIC. Instead, it hired the same jerk who invented Apple’s DOS. Like Apple’s DOS, Atari’s BASIC looked simple but couldn’t handle serious business problems.

Atari believed personal computers would be used mainly for games. Atari didn’t realize that personal computers would be used mainly for work. Atari developed spectacular games but not enough software to handle word processing, accounting, and filing.

Atari developed some slightly improved computers (the 600 XL, 800 XL, and 1200 XL) but still lost lots of money.

Jack attack Atari got bought by Jack Tramiel, who’d headed Commodore. Here’s why:

When Jack quit being the head of Commodore, he sold his Commodore stock for 80 million dollars. He spent some of that cash to take his wife on a trip around the world.

When they reached Japan, the heads of Japanese computer companies said, “Jack, we’re glad you quit Commodore, because now we can enter the American computer market without having to fight you.”

That comment scared Jack. To stop the Japanese from invading the U.S. computer market, he started a new computer company, Tramiel Associates, which bought Atari from Warner. Since Jack was rich and Atari was nearly worthless (having accumulated lots of debt), Jack managed to buy all of Atari at 4PM one afternoon by using his Visa card.

Jack and his sons ran Atari. Jack replaced Atari’s old computers by two new computers (the 65 XE and the 130 XE), which ran the same software as Atari’s old computers but cost less.

In 1985, Jack began selling the Atari 520ST, which imitated Apple’s Macintosh computer cheaply and nicknamed the “Jackintosh”. It used the Gem operating system (invented by Digital Research for the Atari and the IBM PC), which made the 520ST computer look like a Mac but did not run Mac software: you had to buy software specially modified to work on the 520 ST.

When the 520 ST first came out, its price was about half as much as the Mac and Amiga so that, by comparison, the Mac and Amiga looked overpriced. To fight back, Apple lowered the Mac’s price, and Commodore lowered the Amiga’s; but Atari’s 520 ST remained the cheapest of the bunch.

When Apple announced the Mac Plus, which contained a whole megabyte of RAM, Atari retaliated with the 1040 ST (which contained a megabyte also), then a 2-megabyte version (the Mega-2) and 4-megabyte version (the Mega-4).

Atari’s had difficulty competing in the USA, but Atari computers were popular in Europe. Eventually, Atari’s fortunes declined. In 1996, Atari died: it got merged into another company, JTS, which made disk drives.



Every 8 years, the country’s mood about computers has changed. After 8 years of dramatic revolution, we switched to 8 years of subtle evolution, then back again.

Pivotal years

The pivotal years were 1943 (beginning the first revolution), 1951 (beginning the first period of evolution), 1959 (revolution), 1967 (evolution), 1975 (revolution), 1983 (evolution), 1991 (revolution), and 1999 (evolution). Here are the details.…

Revolution From 1943 to 1950, researchers at universities were building the first true computers, which were big monsters. Each was custom-built; no two were alike.

Evolution In 1951, Sperry began selling the first mass-produced computer: the UNIVAC I. Sperry built 46 of them. During the 8-year era from 1951 to 1958, computers gradually became smaller and cheaper and acquired more software. That evolutionary era was called the first generation.

Revolution The next computer revolution began in 1959, when IBM began selling the IBM 1401, the first IBM computer to use transistors instead of vacuum tubes. During that eight-year revolution from 1959 to 1966, computerists polished FORTRAN and ALGOL (which had been begun earlier), invented 9 other major computer languages (COBOL, BASIC, PL/I, LISP, SNOBOL, APL, DYNAMO, GPSS, and RPG), and began developing FORTH and SPSS. They created many amazing programs for artificial intelligence, such as Weizenbaum’s Eliza program, which made the computer imitate a therapist. During that same eight-year period, IBM invented the IBM 360: it was the first popular computer that used integrated circuits, and all of IBM’s modern mainframes are based on it.

Evolution The years from 1967 to 1974 showed a gradual evolution. Computer prices continued to drop and quality continued to improve. DEC began selling PDP-10 and PDP-11 computers, which became the favorite computers among researchers in universities.

Revolution In 1975, MITS shipped the first popular microcomputer, the Altair, which launched the personal computer revolution. Soon Apple, Commodore, Tandy, and IBM began selling microcomputers also. Programmers developed lots of useful, fun software for them. The revolution climaxed at the end of 1982, when many Americans bought microcomputers as Christmas presents.

Evolution In January 1983, the cover of Time magazine declared that the 1982 “man of the year” was the personal computer. But consumers quickly tired of the personal-computer fad, chucked their Commodore Vic and Timex Sinclair computers into the closet, and shifted attention to less intellectual pursuits. Many computer companies went bankrupt. In 1983, Lotus announced 1-2-3, but that was the computer industry’s last major successful new product. After that, prices continued to fall and quality gradually increased, but no dramatic breakthroughs occurred. The computer industry became boring. During that time, if you were to ask “What fantastically great happened in the computer industry during the past year?” the answer was: “Not much”.

Revolution In 1991, the computer industry became exciting again. Here’s why.…

Part of that excitement came from revolutionary influences of the previous two years: in 1989 & 1990 the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended, a new decade began, Microsoft finally invented a version of Windows that worked well (version 3.0), and Apple invented a color Mac that was affordable (the LC). In 1991, Microsoft put the finishing touches on Windows (version 3.1) and DOS (version 5).

In 1991 and 1992, price wars made the cost of computers drop 45% per year instead of the customary 30%. Those lower prices made people spend more money on computers, because the ridiculously low prices for fancy stuff encouraged people to buy fancier computers: 486 instead of 286, Super VGA instead of plain VGA, 8M RAM instead of 1M, 200M hard drives instead of 40M.

The sudden popularity of Windows whetted the public’s hunger for those muscle machines, since Windows requires lots of muscle to run well. That growing American muscle (bigger and bigger!) then made Windows practical enough to become desirable. All big software companies hastily converted their DOS and Mac software to Windows.

The challenge of doing that conversion forced them to rethink the twin questions of software wisdom: “What makes software easy to use?” and “What kinds of software power do users want?” Many creative solutions were invented to those questions.

During the 1992 Christmas season, fast CD-ROM drives finally became cheap enough to create a mass market: many American bought them, and CD-ROMs became the new standard way to distribute encyclopedias, directories, other major reference works, and software libraries (full of fonts and shareware). The attention given to CD-ROMs made customers think about the importance of sound, and many customers bought sound cards such as the Sound Blaster.

In 1995, Windows 95 was invented, Netscape Navigator 2.0 was invented, and the Internet began to become popular. During the next few years, the Internet’s popularity grew wildly.

Evolution In 1999, interest in the Internet peaked, then declined, as Internet companies began running out of clever ideas. Microsoft stopped coming out with major new products, partly because Microsoft got distracted by lawsuits against it. In the fall of 1999, RAM prices shot up. In November 1999, Packard Bell went out of business. In December 1999, many companies selling on the Internet developed bad reputations by not shipping goods in time for Christmas. Companies prepared for computer problems that the year 2000 might cause.

The year 2000 began boringly, a disappointing way to begin a new millennium. In January 2000, IBM and Acer stopped selling desktop computers through retail stores. In March 2000, the Internet part of the stock market crashed. In June 2000, a judge ruled that Microsoft should be split into two companies. Will the computer industry continue to disintegrate? What does this “evolution” accomplish? Stay tuned!

Presidential politics

The 8-year computer cycle coincides with the American cycle of switching political parties. After years of Roosevelt & Truman, the presidential election of 1952 ushered in eight years of a Republican (Eisenhower); 1960 brought eight years of Democrats (Kennedy & Johnson); 1968, eight years of Republicans (Nixon & Ford).

1976 began another 16-year experience of “Democrat followed by Republicans”; but alas, the Democrat (Carter) got just 4 of those years, and the Republicans (Reagan and Bush) got the remaining 12. (Carter got just 4 of those years instead of 8 because he lost face in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis, oil crisis, and recession.)

1992 began another experience of “Democrat followed by Republicans”. The Democrat was Clinton (8 years). The Republican is George W. Bush.

When Americans love liberals and revolution, they vote for Democrats; when Americans prefer conservative evolution, they vote for Republicans. As historian Krigsman remarked, “An excitable mood in the country causes a computer revolution, and the next year the Democrats grab power.”



Nine events dramatically changed the public’s perception of what a computer is.

Powerful computers

In the 1940’s, universities built the first powerful computers, to help World War II Allies calculate ballistics (trajectories of bullets and bombs). Before then, “powerful computers” were just science fiction; suddenly they’d become reality!

Mass-produced computers

The first computer to be mass-produced was the UNIVAC I, in 1951. Before then, computers were just military research projects; suddenly they’d become practical commercial tools!

Forty-six UNIVAC I computers were built, and competitors such as IBM began building computers in much bigger quantities.

Transistors & high-level languages

In 1959, computer manufacturers began using transistors (instead of vacuum tubes), so that computers became much smaller, cheaper, more reliable, and more powerful. About the same time, the first reasonable computer languages were invented: FORTRAN, COBOL, and ALGOL.

For the first time, computers became cheap enough and easy enough to program so that colleges could encourage students to take computer courses.

Chips & BASIC

The first computer to contain integrated circuits (chips) was the IBM 360, which IBM began selling in 1966. Chips had been invented by other companies earlier, but chips weren’t used in complete computer systems until 1966. Afterwards, other computer brands began using chips also. The chips made computers even smaller, cheaper, more reliable, and more powerful. About the same time, the first easy full-featured computer language was invented: BASIC.

For the first time, computers became cheap enough and easy enough so that high schools could encourage students to take computer courses.

Personal computers

In 1975, MITS began selling the first popular personal computer, the Altair, for $395. Before then, computers were too expensive for individuals to afford.

Unfortunately, the Altair came as a kit that was hard to assemble, and it contained inadequate hardware and software. But soon afterwards, in 1977, came personal computers that were easy to set up and contained reasonable hardware, built by Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack.

For the first time, computers became easy enough and cheap enough to be put into the typical American home.


In 1981, IBM began selling the IBM PC. It was slightly better than earlier personal computers and set the standard for all future personal computers.

Mouse & graphical interfaces

In 1984, Apple began selling the Macintosh computer. Priced at $2495, it was the first affordable computer to use a mouse. It was a stripped-down version of Apple’s Lisa computer and Xerox’s Alto computer, which had been invented earlier but were too expensive.

The Macintosh became immediately popular and led Microsoft to create Windows, which made the IBM PC try to act like a Mac. Versions 1 and 2 of Windows worked terribly, but Windows 3 (which came out in 1990) worked well. Then came Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, Windows 95, and Windows 98, which worked better.

Now every desktop personal computer comes with a mouse, and every notebook computer comes with a mouse or an imitation (such as a Touchpad).

CD-ROMs & multimedia

During the Christmas season of 1992, many folks bought CD-ROM drives. The drives were available before then, but the public had to wait until 1992 for the drives to become cheap enough and the disks to become plentiful enough.

Now most software comes on CD-ROM disks instead of floppy disks. CD-ROM disks hold enough info to make the storage of music possible, so now most computers come with nice sound cards and speakers, and entertainment software produces nice music. CD-ROM disks can also hold short video clips; longer video clips are available on souped-up CD-ROM disks called DVD.


In 1995, the Internet suddenly became popular, as Netscape 2 came out. (Earlier browsers and e-mail systems were awkward and less powerful.) Also in 1995, Windows 95 came out, which was the first version of Windows that could attach to the Internet well. That year, Americans took crash courses in how to use the Internet.

Now most computers come with modems or other ways to connect to the Internet, and the Internet continues to expand.