10 Important Computers in Early Tech History

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It’s been 30 years since Time Magazine named the personal computer its Man of the Year (actually, Machine of the Year is how the magazine phrased it). At the time, even the greatest visionaries could not have foreseen how the technology would transform our lives. So whom can we thank for inventing the first personal computer? A man named Ed Roberts is generally regarded as the “Father of the Personal Computer” for leading the development of a computer known as the Altair 8800 in the mid-1970s. Yet that computer, with no monitor or keyboard, looks nothing like the PCs we use today. Here are 10 key developments in the early evolution of the personal computer, both from a technological and commercial standpoint.


10. Scientist Gives “The Mother of All Demos” (1968)

Douglas Engelbart gave a computer demonstration in 1968 that has since become known as The Mother of All Demos.

Douglas Engelbart, 1968; SRI International

Almost half a century later, Douglas Engelbart’s presentation on the future of computing remains so incredibly prescient it’s widely hailed as “The Mother of All Demos.” On Dec. 9, 1968, Engelbart, a computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute, wowed an audience of 1,000 computer professionals with a demonstration that included the first use of a computer mouse and a primitive PowerPoint-type computer slideshow. It also introduced such concepts as shared-screen video conferencing, word processing and the use of hypertext links. Engelbart’s demonstration proved enormously influential in the computer industry in the 1970s and ’80s. You can find video of the presentation here on Engelbart’s website.

By the way, it’s uncertain who first mentioned the term “personal computer,” or when that happened. Wikipedia cites a reference to a 1962 New York Times article quoting Dr. John Mauchly, an American physicist and computer scientist who helped develop the UNIVAC 1 and other seminal computers in the 1940s and ’50s.


9. Hewlett-Packard Introduces “Personal Computer” In Advertisement (1968)

Hewlett-Packard introduced the first machine referred to as a personal computer.

Photo credit: Rama and Musée Bolo

According to hp.com, the first documented use of the phrase “personal computer” attached to a specific machine came in a 1968 Science magazine advertisement for the Hewlett-Packard 9100A. By today’s standards, this was nothing more than a high-end calculator. And that’s how HP actually decided to market it in the end, for a bizarre reason — executives felt sure no one would want to buy such a small computer when much bigger ones were available.


8. Intel Markets the First Commercial Microprocessor (1971)

The French-made Micral N made use of Intel microprocessors.

The Micral N, built with an Intel microprocessor; Rama

Modern computing, from desktop computers to our smartphones, would be impossible without the microprocessor. They made it possible to build faster, smaller and less expensive computers than before. Intel began selling the first commercial microprocessor, the Intel 4004, in November 1971. It’s worth noting that Texas Instruments claimed to have developed the first microprocessor, the TMS 1000, earlier that year. In support of TI’s claim, the company received the first patent for a microprocessor, which Intel later licensed. According to the Computer History Museum, the earliest commercial, non-kit computer based on the microprocessor, the French-made Micral N, launched in early 1973.


7. Altair 8800 Hailed as the First Commercial “Minicomputer” (November 1974)

The Altair 8800 is widely regarded as the first personal computer.

The January 1975 edition of Popular Electronics; © Poptronix Inc. Fair use

The January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, published several weeks before the issue date, featured a photo of the Altair 8800 on its cover, hailing it as the “World’s First Minicomputer Kit.” The aforementioned Roberts, president of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), led development of the microcomputer to replace his company’s calculators, after Texas Instruments began dominating that market. By today’s standards, the Altair 8800 was primitive, featuring only 256 bytes of RAM and no keyboard or video display, yet it proved wildly popular at the time, selling thousands of units by mail order in the first month. It also inspired a couple of computer hobbyists, Paul Allen and Bill Gates, to begin writing software for the Altair, before they left to found their own company, Micro-Soft.


6. Apple Sells its First Homemade Computers (1976)

The Apple 1 was primitive by modern standards, but it launched one of the most influential companies in the world.

Apple 1 on display at the Smithsonian Institution; Ed Uthman

The story of Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and the development of the first Apple computer is the stuff of legend that has been recounted in books, museums, etc. By July 1976, the duo was selling their homemade computers for $666.66 each. While the circuit board came fully assembled, users still had to provide a keyboard, monitor and case — hardly the type of user-friendly out-of-the-box experience Apple users celebrate today.


5. The Year of the Computer Trinity (1977)

The TRS-80 was an immediate commercial success.

A Radio Shack TRS-80; Rechner Museum

So-called “desktop computers” began finding their way into the workplace in the mid-1970s. These products were prohibitively expensive; one popular such model, the IBM 5100 introduced in 1975, cost between $9,000 and $12,000. These were clearly not intended for home consumers. But 1977 saw a revolution in personal computers, as no less than three companies introduced personal computers much like the ones we use today in that they came preassembled, featured a monitor and keyboard, and were relatively inexpensive. The Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) was the first to reach the market, selling a few thousand units within the first year. Next up, the Tandy-Radio Shack 80 (TRS-80) became an instant sales sensation. Radio Shack originally allocated one TRS-80 to each of its 3,000 some stores; within a month or so it had orders for more than 10,000 units. Finally, the Apple II was a much-improved version of the Apple I — now with a keyboard, case, monitor and up to 16K of RAM — unveiled the year before. Apple sold only a few hundred units that year, as consumers balked at the $1,300 to $1,700 price tag. At the time, the influential Byte Magazine christened the arrival of the three personal computers so close together as the “1977 Trinity.”


4. Xerox Introduces First Computer With a “Desktop” (1981)

The Xerox Star became the first commercial computer to offer a graphical user interface.

Photo credit: Al Lemos

Xerox introduced the concept of a desktop graphical user interface (GUI) in its Xerox Alto, which it introduced in 1972. However, that revolutionary new computer, while popular in the Xerox offices and at universities, was never offered for public sale. It took another decade before Xerox launched the Star, which introduced for the first time in a commercial computer many of the features we now take for granted, such as the aforementioned desktop user interface, Ethernet networking, a mouse, icons, folders, networking, file servers and email. Despite all that, the Star proved to be a commercial failure. Prone to crashes, the machine could take hours to reboot. It was also very expensive; Xerox intended the Star to be sold as part of an office package that could easily top $50,000. Its most lasting legacy, of course, is the graphic user interface desktop that directly inspired the Apple Macintosh released less than three years later.


3. IBM Introduces the PC (1981)

The IBM PC revolutionized the computer world.

An early IBM PC in use; Engelbert Reineke

IBM didn’t invent the personal computer, but its introduction of the IBM 5150 in August 1981 revolutionized the industry. The instant commercial success of the IBM PC led a number of rival companies to introduce IBM-compatible software and products that could be shared across various machines, making computers much more user-friendly to the masses. This led to more computer use everywhere from homes to schools and the corporate world. For the first time, the term personal computer, or PC, came to mean the IBM PC.


2. Commodore 64 Becomes an Instant Success (1982)

The Commodore 64 was a huge commercial success.

Original Commodore 64 box; Eric Fischer

Commodore had already struck computer gold a few years earlier with its Commodore PET, but that hardly prepared it for the success of its Commodore 64. Introduced in 1982, this computer featured 64KB of RAM, clean graphics, games and sold for the bargain price of around $600. By the end of 1983, Commodore had sold more than 2.5 million computers, an astounding figure for that era. A series of bad business decisions and the continued rise of the PC led to hard times for Commodore, which declared bankruptcy in 1994.


1. First Modern Laptop Computer is Introduced (1982)

The Grid Compass was the first laptop computer to feature a clamshell design.

Astronaut John Creighton with his GRiD Compass aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in June 1985; NASA

The first so-called laptop computers traced their origins to 1968 and a concept for a small, portable unit, the DynaBook, theorized by noted computer scientist Alan Kay. But it would take years before technology in the form of microchips made such small computers possible. The Xerox NoteTaker, a small portable computer developed in 1976, never made it to market, but it had a significant influence on several competitors that did become available commercially, including what is regarded as the first “portable” computer, the Osborne 1. However, at 24 pounds, the Osborne 1 is nothing like the laptops we’re familiar with today. Enter the GRiD Compass, the first portable computer to use the now-familiar clamshell design. Introduced in April 1982, the GRiD Compass was remarkably advanced for its era, with an Intel 8086 processor and a 320 x 240 pixel display. But a cost of up to $10,000 each (about $24,000 in 2012 dollars) made it a tough sell, although NASA and the U.S. military eagerly bought early models.

(Editor’s note: There is some debate among computer historians regarding the relative importance of the aforementioned computers, along with several others that were not mentioned. Sources for this story included hp.com, ibm.com, wired.com, gizmodo.com, computerhistory.org, arstechnica.com, JeremyReimer.com and Wikipedia.)

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.