Do you know what and when the first recognizable modern day personal computer with BASIC was?

Bill Loguidice's picture

Commodore PET 2001-8Based on a lively discussion over at AtariAge, I finally have what appears to be independent confirmation of what and when the first recognizable modern day personal computer with the BASIC programming language was. For purposes of definition, "first recognizable modern day personal computer" means a pre-assembled (non-kit) computer with a built-in display output (typically to a monitor early on and later to a TV) and full keyboard. The BASIC part means having some type of operating system with BASIC commands, preferably (though not required to be) in ROM. Now, we all know the holy trinity of 1977, the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80, which were released (meaning not just announced, but actually available to buy and, more importantly, use) in that magical year, in that order, and each of which set the standard for all others to follow. Logic would dictate then that the first computer to fit our definition would be the Apple II. However, as the French would say au contraire mon frere. After some total misses were brought up, one computer in particular began to generate some legitimate consideration, the Processor Technology SOL-20 (SOL 20; NOTE: Though apparently far less popular, the reduced feature-set SOL 10 was also available). Unfortunately, there is a criminal lack of historical information related to both the company and the computer, so pinning down a release date for the pre-assembled version was difficult (as was customary for the time, kit versions were available--even the Apple II could be bought as a kit, though the Commodore PET and TRS-80 could not). While I've been able to briefly handle a fully operational SOL-20 in the past, due to its high cost on today's open market (easily north of $400 with often questionable functionality), I've been unable to acquire one, so my first-hand knowledge of the system is decidedly limited.

AtariAge user "desiv", was the first to find this article, which is a report from a gentleman who had a computer store at the time and pretty much pegged a general availability of 1976 for the SOL-20. Not satisfied with this single account (for one thing, there were a few mis-remembrances in there, like saying the SOL-20 was never sold as a kit), I decided to end the debate (if only primarily with myself) once and for all by checking my personal library's materials for another contemporary perspective. Luckily, I found one.

According to my copy of Owning Your Home Computer (The Complete Illustrated Guide) (1980) by Robert L. Perry, on page 49, "About the same time [mid-1975], Robert Marsh, a computer engineer, founded Processor Technology, which marketed the first computer complete with keyboard and video screen--SOL, the first personal computer deserving the name." and "Except for the first version of the Processor Technology personal computer, called SOL, there was no complete home computer at the beginning of 1977." Then he goes on to talk about the usual suspects, Commodore PET, Apple II, TRS-80, Exidy Sorcerer and Ohio Scientific Challenger, as being introduced that year (of course actual availability is a different issue).

He mentions another challenger a bit later, the Polymorphic 8800, which was introduced in 1976, which contained connections for a video monitor and a cassette recorder (as well as BASIC in ROM). Unfortunately, you had to add your own keyboard, which disqualifies it. He then talks a bit more about the SOL 20, "The first computer a hobbyist could simply turn on and use was the Processor Technology SOL 20. It had its own keyboard, an audio cassette interface, a complete video processor that used numbers and letters (in upper and lower case...), both kinds of input/output ports (serial and parallel), and an internal power supply. It had neither switches nor blinking lights on a complicated-looking front panel. It did have an internal operating system fixed in its memory, which allowed a user to simply plug it to a video monitor and use it. [description of an operating system] Yet the SOL, too, was too complicated for the average user. A buyer still had to know computer programming to use it." So, while BASIC was not in ROM (just a "simple" operating system was), it was apparently readily available on paper tape and cassette (see more info, here, here, and here (the latter of which points to BASIC availability no later than circa January 1977, still well before the Apple II's actual release)).

Perry then devotes some time to the second generation of kit computers, like the RCA Cosmac Elf II, and Heathkit H-8. Then, towards the end of page 54, he starts in with the TRS-80, leads into the PET, talks about the Apple I and II, the Ohio Scientific Challenger, the Compucolor 8001, and the Exidy Sorcerer (which he says, correctly, was introduced in the Spring of 1978).

On another note, he devotes Chapter 5 to "The Newest Home Computers", which, given sufficient publishing lead time for this 1980 book, would have placed most of these releases between 1978 - 1979, which falls in line with what we already know well (of course, some, like the Mattel Keyboard Component, were only ANNOUNCED at this time and would still be some time away). These systems include: Sinclair ZX80, APF Imagination Machine, Interact Model One, Mattel Intellivision (with Keyboard Component), TI-99/4 (not the 4A), Bally Professional Arcade, and HP-85.

On a final note, in Chapter 6, "The Handiest Home Computers", he discusses the TRS-80, Commodore PET, Apple II/III, Ohio Scientific Challenger series, Compucolor II, Exidy Sorcerer, and the Atari 400/800. Definitely a good book, and definitely an end to the "mystery". Nevertheless, if you want all of the usual qualifiers above and BASIC to reside in ROM, you're still looking at the Apple II, which was released in June 1977.

Any thoughts out there to the contrary?

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Bill Loguidice
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Distinctions
Matt Barton wrote:

There seems to be some confluence between personal computers and mini-computers, such as the IBM 5100, the Wang 2200 and HP 9800.
Is there an official distinction between personal and mini or "desktop" computers?

Don't forget the WYSWIG Xerox Alto from 1973: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerox_Alto

The main distinction is how the systems were sold and marketed (including the fact that some really needed to be networked/access a server to be truly effective), and the relative costs. Consider even $3,000 in 1975 dollars would be equivalent to over $10,000 in today's dollars.

That's why the Altair 8800 made such a stink in 1975, despite being modestly capable and unusable for the average person. It was relatively cheap at $439 ($1471.46 today) for the kit or $621 ($2081.50 today) assembled (both bare bones).

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Matthew Reed (not verified)
A very interesting discussion

Don't forget about the Datapoint 2200, first introduced in 1970. It wasn't personal and the BASIC was on tape rather than ROM, but it did bear a striking resemblance to "modern day" computers. It's not hard to imagine an alternate history where its development began the microcomputer revolution a decade early.

Bill Loguidice
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Datapoint 2200

Nice find! Funny that the machines were leased rather than sold...

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Bill Loguidice
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Do we a NEW contender?!

As stated, the InfoWorld link claims 20,000 sold in a single year for SOL and the cryptic "dealership restrictions" as the reason why they lost out by 1978 (again, I think a lot of companies must have felt the crunch when Radio Shack began selling their own computers from the relative ubiquity of their stores alone). We can only speculate (for now) what those "dealership restrictions" were, but it could very well have been related to kit versus non-kit. Interestingly, though, to contradict that idea, I DO have a Tandy Computers 1978 catalog with a wide range of systems for sale in it, including the SOL-20 (kit form, $899, assembled, $1099, with a ship weight of 10 lbs.).

In fact, based on that Tandy Computers catalog I just mentioned, I took a look at the "Intecolor 8031" in there and came up with this: http://www.old-computers.com/MUSEUM/computer.asp?st=1&c=565 , which THEY claim is from 1975 and has BASIC in ROM. More research is needed, plus as to why it's sometimes referenced as "Intecolor" and "Compucolor". Presumably since the 1978 Tandy catalog calls it the "Intecolor 8031", the company dropped the "Compucolor" designation at some point. It was always my understanding that the Compucolor systems didn't hit until 1978, and were quite expensive at that (in fact, the complete Intecolor 8031 in the catalog is an astounding $4495, which is well over $14,000 in today's dollars!)...

EDIT: The links at the bottom of the Wikipedia page provide some additional, though still vague information - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compucolor_II

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Bill Loguidice
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OK, despite erroneous reports

OK, despite erroneous reports that the Compucolor 8001 was released as early as 1975, it seems it was at least 1977. The earliest mention is in this apparently 1977 issue of Byte (pity there are no available archives): http://books.google.com/books?id=qmofAAAAMAAJ&q=compucolor+8001+1976&dq=... , "Explore the Universe of Color Compucolor Corp, Norcross GA 30071, announced plans in December 1976 to begin marketing a new 8 color personal computer, the Compucolor 8001, in early December. According to the press release, ..."

This site, http://peripheralexchange.com/aboutus/aboutus2.htm , provides a great history, including the whole name thing: "The "Compucolor 1" was the first intelligent color terminal product based on the 8080 microcomputer architecture. This product evolved rapidly and later was re-branded the name Intecolor. The product name was derived from the founder's notion for the contracted words "Intelligent" and "Color" to come up with "Inte" and "color", or simply "Intecolor"."

and

"The Original 8001 Series

In 1977, ISC's manufacturing operations relocated to a small warehouse and office space located at 5965A Peachtree Corners East in Norcross, Georgia. The first commercially available terminal product was the 8001 Series. Based on an RCA 19-inch delta-gun cathode ray tube (CRT) design, thousands of these terminals were sold. As newer CRT designs became available, the 8001 used a pre-converged in-line (PIL) CRT designs from Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Panasonic. This product series lasted for 20 years."

and

"The 8050/8060 Series

In 1978, additional options were designed to extend terminal operations into one of the first standalone microcomputers. Operating systems incorporated within the product had included the BASIC language (in EPROM) which was based on Microsoft BASIC (at the time). Options for floppy disk drives (made by Wangco, Shugart, or Seimens), light pens (ICC), printer drivers (Centronics, Daisywriter, Okidata, Qume, Printronix), programming languages (BASIC, 8080 ASM, FORTRAN IV), and developer tools were added to the product line.

During this time, there were fewer than three companies manufacturing color microcomputer based products with a robust peripheral offering. The 8050 Series was a self-contained microcomputer system having a proprietary file control system known as FCS. It was a precursor to today's DOS based systems.

The 8060 Series was also a self-contained microcomputer system but designed on the CP/M operating system licensed from Digital Research Corporation which was founded by Gary Alan Kildall. Both the 8050 and 8060 Series products filled a niche until about 1988, at which point newer PC competitive products became the new platform of choice."

So that leaves us earliest some time 1977 and latest early 1978 for the Compucolor 8001, so it still doesn't qualify as first (though technologically it's quite cool).

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Catatonic
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Microcomputer

The computers we all loved in the late 70's - early 80's were called microcomputers or "micros" at the time. The Alto would apparently not qualify as its CPU is not a microprocessor. But it definitely looks like a personal computer to me.

Bill Loguidice
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Distinctions
Catatonic wrote:

The computers we all loved in the late 70's - early 80's were called microcomputers or "micros" at the time. The Alto would apparently not qualify as its CPU is not a microprocessor. But it definitely looks like a personal computer to me.

I'm leaning towards the theory that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck, even if a DNA test says it's a swan. In other words, just because say, the Alto or Magnavox Odyssey don't use a traditional microprocessor (among other variations from the "norm"), it seems disingenuous not to call them a personal computer and videogame console respectively because they superficially meet every other criteria. In many ways, it doesn't matter what's going on on the "inside".

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Matthew Reed (not verified)
Intecolor or Compucolor?

According to Michael Nadeau's book Collectible Microcomputers, "Intelligent Systems sold assembled versions of the Intecolor 8001 to other vendors for resale, so it is possible for this machine to turn up with a different brand name. For example, the Compucolor 8001 is the same system as the Intecolor 8001." He also gives 1976 as the introduction date for the Intecolor 8001.

Bill Loguidice
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Possible corrections
Matthew Reed wrote:

According to Michael Nadeau's book Collectible Microcomputers, "Intelligent Systems sold assembled versions of the Intecolor 8001 to other vendors for resale, so it is possible for this machine to turn up with a different brand name. For example, the Compucolor 8001 is the same system as the Intecolor 8001." He also gives 1976 as the introduction date for the Intecolor 8001.

Yeah, I think Nadeau is off about that based on the information I quoted below (though his name suggestion is accurate based on my Tandy 1978 catalog). It may have been announced as early as 1976, but it seems like it was most certainly at least 1977 before its actual release, and more likely early 1978 before being released in quantity.

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