Here’s how computers arose.…
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 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:
Lady Lovelace 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 out-of-wedlock.) Some people think 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!):
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.
But I’m straying from my story.…
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:
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.
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.
Each of those computers was unique: no two 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 & 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 first generation’s beginning, there were no RAM chips, no ROM chips, and no “core memory”. Instead, the Univac’s main memory was banks of liquid mercury, where 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.
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, 3 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:
Computer music scored its first big success in 1956, on the University of Illinois’ Illiac computer:
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.
Altogether, IBM installed 14,000 of those machines.
IBM also installed 1,000 of a faster version, called the 1410.
Altogether, IBM produced six kinds of computers.…
CDC Several employees left Remington-Rand-Sperry-Univac and formed their own company, called 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 3 major programming languages that had been invented during the first generation (Fortran, Algol, and Apt) were significantly improved. 6 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).
Here are the dates:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Why? The era of boredom happened for 3 reasons:
Quiet changes During the era of boredom, these changes occurred — quietly.…
In 1970, DEC began shipping the PDP-11.
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).
CRT terminals (TV-like screens attached to keyboards) got cheaper, until they finally became as cheap as hard-copy terminals (which use paper).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cheapest computers were the most popular.
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 began selling microcomputers and priced them low.
TI’s microcomputer was called the TI 99/4. Atari offered two microcomputers: the Atari 400 and the Atari 800.
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:
By contrast, Atari did hardly anything to market or further improve the Atari 400 & 800.
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.
In April 1981, Adam Osborne began Osborne Computer Corp. and began selling the Osborne 1 computer, designed by Lee Felsenstein (who’d invented Processor Technology’s Sol 20 computer).
While Timex Sinclair and Osborne were entering the marketplace, Radio Shack, Apple, and Commodore were introducing new computers of their own:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
Commodore changed the Pet’s tape-handling system.
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:
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 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:
The Commodore 64 cost much less than an Apple 2c or IBM PC. Here’s why:
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:
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”.
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:
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.
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.
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 plays music).
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.
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 weren’t 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 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 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 conglomerate 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, Sega, and Sony 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 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:
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 Mac computer cheaply and nicknamed the “Jackintosh”.
Atari’s had difficulty competing in the U.S., 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.
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 8-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 (a spreadsheet program), 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.…
Evolution In 1999, interest in the Internet peaked, then declined, as Internet companies began running out of clever ideas.
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 8 years of a Republican (Eisenhower); 1960 brought 8 years of Democrats (Kennedy & Johnson); 1968, 8 years of Republicans (Nixon & Ford).
1976 began another 16-year experience of “Democrat followed by Republicans”; but the Democrat (Carter) got just 4 of those years (because he lost face in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis, oil crisis, and recession); the Republicans (Reagan and Bush the elder) got the remaining 12.
1992 began another experience of “Democrat followed by Republicans”. The Democrat was Clinton (8 years). The Republican is George W. Bush (8 years).
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.
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!
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!
46 of the 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.
In 1975, Mits began selling the first popular personal computer, the Altair, for $395. Before then, computers were too expensive for individuals to afford.
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, nicknamed the “Mac.” 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 Mac 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 further improvements (Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows XP, and Windows Vista).
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 can hold enough bytes to store music, 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.