Someone’s got to speak up for Simon, and it’s going to be me.
Intel broke out the party hats Tuesday with news that the industry had sold the one billionth personal computer. According to research firm Gartner Inc., we actually reached this milestone in April, but perhaps they kept a lid
on it until the IT downturn got worse and we all needed a summer pick-me-up. While it is important to recognize these progress points, however, there is at least one school of thought that would dispute the way this whole one billionth thing was calculated, and which would put the date of the first PC about 25 years earlier than Intel and Gartner do.
In its press release this morning, Intel started its timeline “”after the debut of the first commercially successful and widely available personal computer, the 1974 Altair powered by the Intel 8080 chip.”” It would be very easy to read that sentence and assume that this was, in fact, the first PC, predating even IBM’s 1981 version. Commercial success and wide availability can be debated, but the qualifiers here are important, and ignoring them leads to misconceptions.
The Blinkenlights Archaeological Institute would back me up on this. Blinkenlights is a Seattle-based organization formed five years ago to excavate, preserve, research, and present interesting and historically significant computing devices. Its Web site acknowledges the Altair as one of the most famous early PCs — and the first to run Microsoft software — but it stops short of giving it credit for fathering an industry.
The Altair “”tends to be overhyped, and its historical significance is often overplayed,”” the site says. “”Unfortunately for computer history buffs, the Altair is often mistakenly called the first personal computer by Microsoft-loving journalists who don’t know any better.”” (Well excuuuse us! It’s hard to get the story straight when the story comes from vendors.)
Blinkenlights pursues the “”first PC”” question in some detail, and I would encourage anyone interested in IT geneology to look through the PC family tree on its Personal Computer section. You’ll see not only the Scelbi-8H and the HP-65 but even lesser-known entries like the Mark-8, which the site says triggered the Altair’s development after it was featured in an issue of Radio Electronics magazine in 1972. More important than the trivia, the page offers a definition of “”personal computer”” that suggests life did not begin with Intel’s 8080 processor.
A PC “”must be small enough to be transportable by an average person,”” for example, inexpensive enough to be affordable by the average professional and simple enough to use that it requires no special training beyond an instruction manual. This contradicts the image recalled by Intel’s press release, where “”PCs were big and clunky, and performed simple word processing and basic spreadsheet functions.””
As for the first “”real”” PC, Blinkenlights gives the nod to Simon, which was described by Edmund Berkeley in his 1949 book Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. Only about 400 plans for Simon were sold, and certainly it was not as widely available as the Altair, but its ability to calculate addition, negation, greater than, and selection qualifies it as a PC under the Blinkenlights definition.
Intel’s 8080 (and more significantly its 8088) processor accelerated the PC industry’s growth, and its contributions should be duly noted. There is some danger, however, in accepting its version of history at face value, which obviously ignores those who did not benefit from its engineering breakthroughs. They say hindsight is 20/20, but in this young industry we tend to be more near-sighted than that. Simon, the Mark-8 and all that came before the Altair deserve a place in the record books too.