Designing the world's first home computers
May 10, 2020 12:56 PM   Subscribe

The story of how computers infiltrated our homes is not one of technology, but one of marketing and design, according to writer and journalist Alex Wiltshire, whose new book, "Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation," tells the industry's early history through its most influential models.
posted by Mrs Potato (41 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I mean, the original Macintosh's advertising tagline was "the computer for the rest of us."
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:42 PM on May 10

Looking at the Minivax, the all-function-no-form computer for the sake of doing binary operations, it occurred to me that the modern equivalent of this artefact (from the point of view of the role it plays to its users) would not be a programmable computer but some kind of analogue sound synthesiser; perhaps a Eurorack setup or similar.
posted by acb at 2:21 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

No love for the TRS-80, the piece-of-crap computer I grew up with. 4k ram! A printer so horrible I have a postcard from Issac Asimov himself chastising me for using it to write him a fan letter! No ability to do anything useful! Can't honestly say I'm at all surprised by the omission.
posted by Blackanvil at 3:17 PM on May 10 [17 favorites]

People remark on the Apple ][ plus I have hanging on my wall like a museum exhibition, and I'm always happy to pause for a little docent time to point out exactly how the wedgy beige plastic box properly launched the home computer revolution. It is very akin to the VW Beetle in terms of elegant, if lumpy, simplicity, and making it instant-open with that pop-off top was a work of absolute brilliance. There were earlier home computers, and better home computers, and, eventually, more popular home computers, but the Apple II really set the stage, and the push by Jobs to come up with industrial design that humanized the machine was a bit of true finicky brilliance on his part.
posted by sonascope at 3:17 PM on May 10 [10 favorites]

Also, the early Commodore PETs were ugly. The cases looked like they were made in a high school metalwork shop, and the keyboards looked like they belonged on the control panel of a 1950s Soviet power station, with their square grids of buttons bearing no resemblance to typewriter keys.

The Intertec Superbrain in the CNN article looks gorgeous, though; elegant curves in neutrals, with a subtle three-tone keyboard. It looks like something Olivetti may have come up with.
posted by acb at 3:23 PM on May 10 [6 favorites]

The TRS-80, known by us know-nothing kids as the "trash 80"... We were lucky enough to have been gifted a Commodore 64 with a cassette tape drive. A couple years later and my dad got us a floppy drive which was a revelation.

I wish I had gotten more into the programming side. All I ever managed were super simple Basic applications and studious copying, line by line, of programs printed in magazines.
posted by SoberHighland at 3:48 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]

Some home computers were work computers that came home. Some home computers were bought for the kids at xmas. The former was whatever work supplied, the later tended to be chosen based on price or whatever your kids' friends had. While there was design, because it had to be shaped like something, I'm not sure the early choices were so largely based on aesthetics.

I'm not confident the article (or the book) distinguishes between mass-produced and iconic. You might well as say that the way home computers got in the home was by getting into the stores so that they could be bought.
posted by krisjohn at 3:59 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I kind of miss the days of custom silicon. Everything is so generic now. Pick a CPU, pick a GPU, pick how much RAM you want. Everything is just a commodity. Even where there is custom silicon(Xbox/PlayStation), it's really just bolting two pieces of regular silicon together.

At least with this commoditization of computer power we get gobs of power to come with it. I have a GPU that is within an order of magnitude of IBM's Watson. 90 servers a decade ago and now I'm within striking distance of having that power available to me. Which I then use to watch videos on YouTube and bitch about how bad the world is. The irony is almost palpable.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 6:11 PM on May 10 [8 favorites]

In 1984, when I was 11, my mom was working at Apple during that first heyday. Back then, they were handing out computers to employees to bring home, and so I got a brand new Apple IIc which my mom had no use for. COOLEST MOM ON EARTH. That was a brand new model of computer and it went for $1295 in 1984 money. I had no idea how much it was worth, other than it was worth the world to me. A Mac 512k and a MAC SE/30 also showed up in their own time, but that IIc was my personal prized possession all the way through the end of high school.
posted by notoriety public at 6:48 PM on May 10 [9 favorites]

From the same book, the spectacularly unsuccessful but extremely pretty Matra Alice 90.
posted by scruss at 7:05 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I kind of miss the days of custom silicon. Everything is so generic now.

I get the nostalgia, having lived through the era of CPUs etc made out of discrete logic, wired together, possibly by hand. Everything requiring custom programming and fiddling about. That was a special time for sure.

But today, it's more like going to the hardware store to buy hand tools: screwdrivers and hammers and saws, etc. Sure, some are much much better made than others, but they are all more or less identical and generally offer mostly the same set of functions. That's convergence of design over time + commodification.

100 - 150 years ago, probably every one of those tools would have itself been hand made or close so it. Someone would have had to have made or sourced each of the parts in a hammer. You'd maybe even have had it made to your own specifications, e.g. weight of the head, length of the handle, etc.

Watches are another thing that have gone through a similar arc over time, though there are still people making watches by hand and there's still people willing to buy them. The act of 'telling time' itself hasn't changed all that much. But who would want to buy a computer made today with discrete logic and wire wrap connections? That might be someone's hobby at best.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 7:23 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Yeah, there was a big difference between computers for work (or just people who used computers at work) and just a computer for home because it's the thing to do. In those early days my father was the engineer type at a steel fabrication plant, the one who figures out how to actually build and put together those plans for bridges and the like that came down from above. All calculators and slide-rules and such. Then the computers started coming out.

So he got sent out to this consultant led class about using the TRS-80 for business and such and of course managed to bring me along. He decided that the TRS-80 wasn't any better than his calculator. Then he evaluated an Apple ][ with an add-on card that you could switch on to enable floating point vs integer BASIC. We played with it for a while, he again decided that it wasn't any better than his calculator and gave it back. But a bit later went ahead an bought an Apple ][ Plus because computers were going to be the wave of the future and I should get started.

Work eventually went IBM (of course). Friends ended up with Vic-20, C64 or Atari something. When it came to the end of the Apple ][ Plus era, he sold it and did the same sort of thinking between getting a PC, Mac or Amiga.... Yay Amiga! Preparing for university times, with a nice Sony Trinitron monitor that had a TV tuner, composite video, both digital and analog RGB that served me well all through school.

Buying choices were particular to parents. And then sometimes depending on what the schools were using. Apple went in big on the educational market so if you didn't need a PC for work stuff and your kid's school used Apple, you'd buy an Apple if you could or you'd go for something else if it's just for the kids depending on what it was going to be for. And do you have an electronics store in town (besides Radio Shack for the TRS) that sells things like Apple or do you just have the toy store that sells the Commodore / Atari systems as game+computer for cheap.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:51 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Another way of looking at it is that the Macintosh project was a colossal mistake that almost doomed Apple, and relegated it to also-ran for almost 20 years. It could have built in the II GS and had a good run at attaching off the PC. Instead, a focus on the closed design and casing led to several lost years. Only with Jobs booted from Apple and then managing to roll in the II GS's expandability and colour into "Macintosh II" did it start a comeback.
posted by meehawl at 7:51 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

I don't see it in the article, but I hope the book includes the original home computer that started it all: the Honeywell H316 Pedestal, aka the Kitchen Computer.
posted by ckape at 8:37 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

The IIgs was also a mistake in its way. Apple Computer had an early legal tussle with Apple Corps (of Beatles fame), over trademarks, and it was smoothed over eventually with one of the settlement terms being Apple Computer staying out of the music field.

When the IIgs (G for Graphics, and S for Sound) came along, Apple Corps deemed it to be infringement on their turf, and there was some more legal brouhaha. Not as ridiculous as it might seem, the GS had an ES5503 DOC wavetable chip in it for sound, a professional synthesizer grade chip, which under the control of a full-fledged computer is a pretty strong argument for getting seriously into the music business. So Apple Computer might not have been too keen to keep developing along that product line given the legal uncertainty around that.

It's all a little ironic in the long run, given how incredibly heavyweight Apple eventually became in the music biz with the iPod and so on.
posted by notoriety public at 8:38 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I still have and use on a regular basis the ti99/4a I got in 1981. Damn things are indestructible, and there is still a very active community developing new hardware and software for it.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:58 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]

The thing that actually relegated Apple to also-ran status was John Sculley's inability to negotiate with Bill Gates over Windows, because of Gates' threat to withdraw Office for the Mac; if Sculley had, say, had the foreknowledge to develop an adequate office suite for the Mac in-house, Gates wouldn't have had the leverage that he successfully used. Of course, you could put it back on Jobs for being obsessed by the Mac and also generally being a jerk, which led to his ouster, but Sculley was never a computer person; he was more concerned with selling the "Knowledge Navigator" (his awkwardly-named cyberspace appliance of the future) than the machines that his company was actually making. He totally blew the roll-out of the Newton, which could have been the next big thing.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:58 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Home computers were rather crap but they were at worst cool toys and that was enough for me to choose going for a CS degree when I filled out my college applications (all 2 of them) in November ‘84.

In retrospect ida been happier going into medicine or teaching maybe, something more socially useful.

Oh well it’s been a fun ride regardless and I’m still chasing my indie game dreams of 30+ years ago.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 11:16 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Actually looking at that Minivac 601, I would LOVE to see a sort of Korg Volca Modular in that style. In fact it looks a bit like a Volca Modular (the existing one) combined with the Korg Monotron Delay (with that round thing in the lower right looking like the radar sweep design on the monotron).

As krisjohn said "Some home computers were work computers that came home. " An old family friend worked at a local shipbuilding company and used to bring home the old computers. He was superintendent of our private Christian School back in the 80s, and donated some to it (we donated our PCjr as well). So I got to play with an original IBM PC and one of my favorites...

Kaypro. It was one of those big bulky "suitcase" portables - apparently designed to compete with Osborne... I loved that tiny screen. Playing an ASCII version of pacman on it was awesome Something about the Kaypro was neat to me.

The other computer, and I can't remember what it was exactly, I *think* it was an IBM of some sort, but not sure. But I DO know it had 2 vertical floppies, and in particular, they were 8" floppies. It's one of the cool things a kid in rural America can say that most kids (even in urban America) probably never got to say.

"I got to use 8" floppies". Mostly what I remember (being like 8 at the time) was the snoopy ASCII art printed out and (woohoo to this 8 year old kid) the ASCII nudie/pinup art. But yeah. Times were different then.

It's weird because even into the late 90s as stuff was pretty standardized there was still a lot of competition. Anyone remember the Zip drives and the attempt to move beyond 1.44 MB floppies? It does feel like maybe since the mid-00s is when things really sorta settled I think.

I remember back when Cyrix Co-Processors were a thing you could buy, back when floating point ops were a thing you could buy to enhance your 286 (was it 386 or 486 that finally got floating points?).

In some ways I don't miss the good old days in others, it felt like there was a whole world of exploration out there, and now - not just hardware, but everything, software, etc... it's all "been done".
posted by symbioid at 11:28 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Whither the Adam bomb?
posted by fairmettle at 11:34 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

The Trash 80 should have been there. That is what I was introduced to - with two whole floppy drives - back in Fall of 1982 when I entered senior year.

Dad brought home the IBM "portable" described above very soon afterwards so we both learnt BASIC together.
posted by Mrs Potato at 12:01 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Also, the early Commodore PETs were ugly. The cases looked like they were made in a high school metalwork shop, and the keyboards looked like they belonged on the control panel of a 1950s Soviet power station, with their square grids of buttons bearing no resemblance to typewriter keys.

Maybe because it was my first. Maybe because I'm of a certain tech vintage, but I've always liked that design. Mind you, I hadn't yet learned touch-typing, so that 1950's Soviet power station keyboard wasn't a showstopper...

And IIRC, each key had like 4 modes depending on modifier keys. More fun "living yesterday's tomorrow"
posted by mikelieman at 4:50 AM on May 11

We had a TI-99/4A that my stepdad bought. I mostly played games on it.

It was pretty much overshadowed by the less expensive Commodores.

Later on, we had a Mac IIGS, and after that, a Mac II SI. My parents are still Mac users to this day.

I still kinda miss the early days of that high tech feeling. It felt like we were racing into THE FUTURE.
posted by Fleebnork at 4:54 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]

I can confirm that Kaypros were very neat. Big, 27lbs ultra-rectangular suitcase where the keyboard folded out the front as a big wedge to hold up the body of the computer so you could see it.
posted by wotsac at 6:32 AM on May 11

You might well as say that the way home computers got in the home was by getting into the stores so that they could be bought.

But how do computers get in stores so they can be bought? More importantly, how do they stay in stores so they can be bought? I don't know that you're actually disagreeing with the thesis.
posted by PMdixon at 6:44 AM on May 11

The TI-99/4A was our first computer too. It seemed incredibly futuristic at the time, all black plastic and shiny metal. It looked like something from Battle Star Galactica, our absolute favorite TV show.
posted by bonehead at 6:51 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

The first computer I learned to program on--in ancient line-number BASIC, no less--was a TRS-80 Model III back around 1982 or so. Decades later, I'm somehow making a living at programming the things.

(I kind of wound up here by accident, really. Way back in my first undergrad days, I was registering for my first set of classes. I'd been considering going into something in the sciences like biology or chemistry, but I wound up registering for computer science instead because the classes were later in the day and I liked sleeping in.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:01 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]

I went to hobby shows full of Altairs, IMSAIs and SOL-20s as a tweener and don't recall the Intertec Superbrain at all. From the wiki page, it sounds like a real hotrod. (Tho I'm kinda skeptical about CP/M actually being able to utilize the dual Z-80s.) Why didn't it catch on? Too expensive?
posted by whuppy at 9:56 AM on May 11

(nm the second Z-80 was a disk controller. carry on.)
posted by whuppy at 10:16 AM on May 11

(nm the second Z-80 was a disk controller. carry on.)

So much like Commodore's 1541, which was essentially a VIC-20-class computer dedicated to reading and writing a floppy disk and sending data to/from the computer. You could send code to execute on it, and some people did come up with hacks that used their 1541's (not great) computing power for things other than floppy disk access. (Fast loaders which implemented a more efficient communications protocol over Commodore's crippled 1-bit version of IEEE-488 were one of the more conventional ones.)
posted by acb at 11:59 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]

Whither the Adam bomb?

Man, sometimes I am convinced that I am the only one who knows about the Adam. We actually even owned one!

I am not sure I agree with the clamshell Mac being where design began to play a role in people purchasing certain computers. The //c+ was beautiful. Quadras, as I recall, still had some PC look to them, but somehow seemed "more modern" at the time. Mac Powerbooks were also wonderful to look at. I say all of this from not being much of a fan of Jobs on his return to Apple.

I huge part of what the bondi blue Mac had going for it was it seemed to be prominently portrayed on every sitcom on Earth, thus making it the "gotta have it", more than the boring beige boxes. But you can see the focus on design going all the way back to the original Mac, I think.
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 5:39 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

The Bondi-blue iMac was eye-catching, and undoubtedly played a role in Apple's resurgence, especially after the ho-hum appearance of the beige boxes of the Sculley era. Though it also brought with it the hockey-puck mouse, arguably the ergonomically worst pointing device in history.

Jony Ive may be a brilliant designer, but he has made quite a few mistakes (that mouse and the Apple Pencil having to dangle off the bottom of an iPad to charge because a stylus slot in the iPad would disrupt its clean lines are perhaps the two most egregious, though perhaps the Apple tendency to pursue thinness at all costs and remove ports even if they are objectively useful may also have been an Ive-era phenomenon).
posted by acb at 3:26 AM on May 12

The thing I remember most was how so much of the future in the 1980s machines was outside the computer itself. It was all packaging, or artwork. It was the "feelies" that came with your Infocom games, or the way that you'd remember all this depth to a game of Carmen San Diego that was actually all in the paperback almanac that came with the game: the actual disks held very little data.

So yes, I'd spend more time poring over how-to-write-games books full of cartoon spaceships and dragons than actually sitting at the keyboard of the machine. The industry was excellent at selling you a future that was not quite there yet.

And when it came, it became mundane. It became a widget in a dull grey box. I celebrated the Alienware trend for a while, before realising it was all a pretty standard set of bling being slapped onto the same silly boxes.

I'm disappointed that I can't, for example, get a modern USB keyboard in a case like the Alice 90. I want such a thing, with space to stash a Raspberry Pi inside, and perhaps a little slot to mount an "inkyphat". I want a computer that looks like a vacuum-formed bubble of spherical space communism, or a curvy rainbow skateboard of a keyboard.

But it has to come with 500 pages of lore, so I have something to read in bed and dream of what it might be capable of.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 4:34 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

My first home computer was a Healthkit that my husband built. Every program was on a floppy; not on the computer drive. All DOS.

At university we had a massive computer building that was freezing cold where we had to go to terminals and key in our punch cards, then hand in the stack to be run and a printout handed back at a later time.

Nothing was as disappointing as a printout of failure because that could mean a half day lost. And pure meanness was to shuffle someone's stack ever so slightly. All it took was one card out of order.

I miss the days of almost understanding what the input was doing and kick myself for not taking the whole computer thing seriously because that would have been the wave to ride.

We couldn't figure out if the Apple products were toys or what... and naming it an 'unserious' fruit name was most confusing of all. IBM was taking over the business market and, thus everything else was seen as a pretender in our eyes.
posted by mightshould at 5:01 AM on May 12

Personal home and work-supported computers over the years: Apple II Plus > Macintosh Plus [*], SE, SE30, IICX, Portable, PowerBook, Performa 550, LCIII > Windows 3.1-10 (on Acer, Dell, Compaq, Gateway, HP, IBM/Lenovo, Microsoft, Toshiba, Sony VAIO, clones) > iPads, Kindles. Currently have about six working desktops, laptops, and tablets at home.

*Seeing and hearing the ”Welcome to Macintosh” startup screen (and the Mac GUI) in an Apple store for the first time was like having a lightbulb turned on. I like how my iPad — a window to the world in my hands — has about the same size screen as that Mac Plus.
posted by cenoxo at 5:54 AM on May 12

 But it has to come with 500 pages of lore, so I have something to read in bed and dream of what it might be capable of.

Can't favourite this enough. It's not what you can do, it's what it might do.

The sad reality is the cost of tooling. Injection mould a keyboard-sized case? The tooling's months and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars away. The home computer I know best - the Amstrad CPC - was designed around a case and motherboard shape long before they even had a CPU worked out because the tooling had been ordered. Despite changing from a 6502 to Z80 and rewriting everything, it ended up being a decent machine.

My favourite 80's computer design is what you'd get if you melted down all of Blake's 7 and left it in a puddle to congeal: the Enterprise 128.
posted by scruss at 9:41 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Nowadays, of course, there's a lot you can do with 3D printing, so people can go to town on their computer design fantasies, and just slap a Raspberry Pi and HDMI panel in the case. There is a subculture of making cyberdecks, i.e., Pi-powered Linux luggables that look like props from a cyberpunk movie.

The one thing that's lacking, from what I can tell, is custom keycaps. You can't 3D print keycaps of a decent quality, and there are no relegendable keycaps on the market except for proprietary POS terminals, so most cyberdecks and/or custom computers end up using a Bluetooth mini-keyboard or similar. (I'm guessing that the setup for keycap manufacturing is expensive; presumably you need several colours of plastic to go through the cap in 3D like a piece of Brighton rock only at high resolution.)
posted by acb at 10:20 AM on May 12

One of the greatest regrets of my childhood is not realizing that our Atari 800 was an actual computer and not just a video game machine. When I was a kid I thought that only the WarGames setup was a computer and our hokey beige box with a cassette drive that had to be plugged into the TV wasn't. Only decades later did I find the old catalogs that showed the optional modems and disk drives.
posted by hwyengr at 11:45 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

acb: most 3d printers are a bit small, though I was pleased to see amazing results at a reasonable price for a full computer fascia using HP's commercial technology. This was over 50% larger than would fit on a typical 3d printer. Also: keycaps, you say? Custom ones (like from WASD) are huge. While WASD are neat, there are out-there artisans like Primecaps. Do you need a key sculpted like a sloth? YES YOU DO.
posted by scruss at 2:56 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

I don't need a key sculpted like a sloth, though I could do with some keycaps with custom legends printed on it (or with space for labels under transparent plastic), for one-off projects. I found some such switches in Akihabara in Tokyo a few years ago, but nobody seems to sell them online.
posted by acb at 5:32 PM on May 12

But it has to come with 500 pages of lore, so I have something to read in bed and dream of what it might be capable of.

The MicroProse versions of Civilization were similarly awesome. Those manuals were better written than some of my school textbooks.
posted by bonehead at 7:41 AM on May 13

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