Pop Quiz: What was the first personal computer?
August 28, 2003 6:05 PM   Subscribe

Pop Quiz: What was the first personal computer? "Be careful before you answer! The question is highly ambiguous. Are you sure you know what first means? How about personal? Even computer is an ambiguous term! Let's define personal computer as a computer having the following attributes: It must be a digital computer. It must be largely automatic. It must be programmable by the end-user. It must be accessible, either as a commercially manufactured product, as a commercially available kit, or as widely published kit plans. It must be small enough to be transportable by an average person. It must be inexpensive enough to be affordable by the average professional. It must be simple enough to use that it requires no special training beyond an instruction manual. Ready?"
posted by quonsar (11 comments total)

It must be simple enough to use that it requires no special training beyond an instruction manual.

By that criteria, there's no such thing as a personal computer. It sounds like a good idea, though, and I look forward to one of these newfangled devices to put in my flying car.
posted by me & my monkey at 6:20 PM on August 28, 2003

The first computer I owned was a TI-99/4A. The first computer I programmed on was a Pet 4032, which I had access to since my mother was a teacher. They could sign up to bring them home on weekends. I learned programming (in BASIC) by deconstructing what the statements in the game Dungeon did. I was hooked.

As a tangent in my latter years of high school I was introduced to the Icon computer system. It was, I think, a mainframe system in that you interfaced to it through colour dumb terminals. My computer science teacher had become ill with lung cancer, he was replaced with an automaton who didn't think programming games in assembler on a Commodore 64 was a suitable curriculum. I however viewed making text look pretty in Pascal as a step backwards. Anyway, can any body find any information on this system? I know it had a hard drive, which was cutting edge for the early 80's. Unfortunately Icon and computer have become awfully common to try searching for through google.
posted by substrate at 6:56 PM on August 28, 2003

Edmund Berkeley first described Simon in his 1949 book, "Giant Brains, or Machines That Think" and went on to publish plans to build Simon in a series of Radio Electronics issues in 1950 and 1951.

I wonder how long he could go without getting the note pattern wrong?
posted by Space Coyote at 6:58 PM on August 28, 2003

"... Simon is so simple and so small in fact that it could be built to fill up less space than a grocery-store box; about four cubic feet..."

FOUR CUBIC FEET! You would have to be arnold swarzenegerdoodle to conveniently move that rock!

"It is 'guaranteed to make every member of an audience feel superior to it.'"

suweeeettt.... that's all i ask for in a mate.
posted by poopy at 7:03 PM on August 28, 2003

(posting via my girlfriend's metafilter account)

Substrate: I remember the Icon computers pretty well. Our high school in Niagara Falls, ON had an Icon lab with about 12 computers and a server.
They were UNIX-based, built by Burroughs, and had many pretty advanced features for the mid-80s: colour screens were available with, I think, 16 colours.
They had massive keyboards with dedicated keys for many, many tasks. They also had a built-in trackball that sat near the upper-right corner of the keyboard, and there were other keys that acted like left/right mouse buttons.
They were server-based systems, ours included LOGO, PASCAL, Waterloo BASIC, and several other programming packages. The server was a block of metal about the size of a small camp cooler. it contained two 8" floppy-disc drives, and a 70(!) Megabyte Hard Drive. I don't recall what the network protocol/connection standard was...Ethernet, maybe?
They were definitely designed for too many tasks, though: some of the functions/capabilities seemed designed to appeal to business users, but then things like the trackball hadn't yet "broken through" to where business users would see them as anything other than a videogame controller...despite the fact that the trackball worked with an awesome screen editor that would have made spreadsheets/coding/etc. a breeze. Being a UNIX system, too, business users could have dumped LOGO and PASCAL and Waterloo (Watcom) BASIC, and loaded it up with any of several implementations of FORTRAN or COBOL...
Sadly, I don't think they were around very long, and anybody who owns even a few of them has got a cool piece of computer history on their hands...

actually, I just found this very informative link...
posted by Badmichelle at 8:14 PM on August 28, 2003

Yeah, my elementary school graduated from the Commadore 64 to an Icon computer. I didn't remember the name of the computer until this post, and I had been wondering about it.
posted by aclevername at 8:25 PM on August 28, 2003

Badmichelle, thanks! I went to high school in Ontario as well, though in Windsor, not Niagara Falls. They were neat machines, if we'd have had a more knowledgeable CS replacement I'd have liked them.
posted by substrate at 8:37 PM on August 28, 2003

My first was a DigiComp from Edmund. Digital yes, but not automatic nor electric.
posted by HTuttle at 9:50 PM on August 28, 2003

substrate: for a minute you had me going there, thinking I'd somehow posted something and forgotten about it, so close was your computing path to mine. I never got a Commodore 64 or Amiga of my dreams, alas, but I started on a PET and TI/994a (and occasionally, school Apple ]['s)... and in high school, learned Pascal and then C on an ICON system. That's also where I learned vi and nethack and basic shell commands.
posted by weston at 10:46 PM on August 28, 2003

Started with a Timex/Sinclair ZX81, grandfather (an old FORTRAN/COBOL hand from way back) got a Radio Shack Color Computer. Then they started getting TRS-80s in various models at school, and eventually the Apple IIc (and for one brief shining moment, the Apple IIgs.) And no, I never used the Logo turtle, but it always looked like fun.

I'd say the Altair was probably the first, though.
posted by Vidiot at 3:29 AM on August 29, 2003

Classic. Thanks.
posted by carter at 9:49 AM on August 29, 2003

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