<Micro History Part 4

History of the Microcomputer Revolution

Part 4 - High School Kid's Computer Company

In 1971, The Intel Corporation introduced the 4004 microprocessor chip which began the microcomputer revolution. The 4004 was limited in power and was more of an industrial controller than a general purpose computer chip. The architecture of the chip worked with 4 bits of data as its basic unit. 4 bits of data can be used to express computer instructions, but not characters or letters. Even the old teletype machines used a 5 bit code to represent uppercase characters only.

Less than a year later, Intel introduced the 8008 - an 8 bit computer on a chip. With an 8 bit architecture, you can do a lot of things. With 8 bits you can express computer instructions, upper and lower case characters, numbers, and symbols. In computer terms, 8 bits of data comprises a byte, as in Raw Bytes.

Intel's introduction made a lot of people take notice. One of them was Paul Allen, who read about it while attending Washington State University. He and his friend Bill Gates had already worked summers at a variety of computer jobs which provided them with invaluable on-the-job computer learning experience.

In 1971 the boys had started a part-time company named Traf-O-Data related to traffic analysis. We've all seen those boxes with rubber hoses that stretch across a road that cities use to count cars. The cars rolled over the hose, and inside the box a device punched holes in a paper tape. The paper tapes were then transcribed by people onto punched computer cards, and these cards were then entered into a big computer which analyzed the data and produced reports . The boys had hired other students to do this data entry, but they knew there had to be a better way.

As soon as Paul Allen read about Intel's 8008 microprocessor he realized this chip had the power to do some real work. In 1972 they bought one of the first 8008 chips for $ 360, and hired a Boeing engineer to design and build the electronics. Their idea was to be able to have their device read the paper traffic tapes and convert this raw data into computer format - eliminating the manual data entry. They had a modest amount of success with their device and sold it to several cities. This experience with electro-mechanical devices and a very early microprocessor may have reinforced their belief that software - not hardware - was their future.

Paul Allen tired of college and dropped out to become a programmer at a northwest computer company. In 1973 Bill Gates enrolled in Harvard and applied for a summer computer job at Honeywell. He was able to get his friend Paul a job at Honeywell also, so Paul left Washington to travel to Boston. The two friends were together again, pursuing their dreams of starting their own computer company.

In 1974 Intel introduced the 8080 - the first true general purpose microprocessor. Using new technology, this chip offered 10 times the performance. In January 1975, Popular Electronics magazine's cover featured a picture of a computer and a related cover story which read:

"Project Breakthrough! World's first minicomputer kit to rival commercial models - the Altair 8800 ".

The story went on to say that this was a complete minicomputer kit anyone could purchase for under $ 400.00.

In historical perspective there were a few minor inaccuracies here I'll point out -

The picture was actually a mockup - not the real computer. The real one had been lost in shipment to the magazine.

It was not truly the world's first minicomputer kit - there had been other earlier computers in kit forms.

It wasn't a minicomputer - It was actually a microcomputer - using the Intel microprocessor - but the term micro-computer hadn't been invented yet.

But it was enough to make Paul Allen go running off to tell his friend that the revolution had truly begun, and we'll hear more about that next week on Raw Bytes.

On to Segment 5, "The World's First Commercially Available PC"

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