Pop Quiz: What was the first personal computer?
Be careful before you answer! The question is highly ambiguous. Are
you sure you know what first means? How about personal?
Even computer is an ambiguous term!
We’ll make it easy for you. Let’s define personal computer as
a computer having the following attributes:
Was it the IBM PC?
Bzzzt! The IBM PC was introduced in 1981. It was perhaps the first to
wear the “PC” label, but that was IBM’s only innovation. They sure sold
a bunch of them, though.
Was it the Apple ][?
No, the 1977 Apple ][ was the first highly successful mass-produced personal
computer, but not the first personal computer. Nor was the 1976 Apple 1, which
can be considered an Apple ][ prototype since only 200 or so were made.
The Apple 1 signaled the end of toggle switches and blinkenlights, and
|Apple||Apple ][||April 1977||$1295||6502/LSI||desktop|
|Apple||Apple 1||May 1976||$666||6502/LSI||single-board|
Was it the IBM 5100?
Good answer! But no, the IBM 5100, introduced in September 1975, was IBM’s first
personal computer, but it was priced too high for most people to have
considered. Pricing was as follows:
The 5100 was just one of several personal computers IBM made before the PC.
|IBM||5100 portable Computer||September 1975||$9000-$20,000||LSI||portable all-in-one|
|IBM||5120||1980||?||LSI?||all-in-one with build-in 8″ floppies|
|IBM||Datamaster||1981||?||LSI/8085||all-in-one with build-in 8″ floppies|
Was it the MITS Altair?
You’re way off! The Altair, introduced in January 1975, was the first computer to be produced in
fairly high quantity, and it was the first computer to run Microsoft
software, but we’re not sure that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately for computer history buffs, the Altair is often mistakenly
|MITS||Altair 8800||January 1975||$439 for kit, $621 assembled||8080/LSI||S-100 desktop box|
Was it the Mark-8?
Nope, but the Mark-8 (1974) was the first microcomputer kit with plans published
in a popular magazine. The Mark-8 provided the first big spark that catalyzed
the hobbyist movement.
Before the Mark-8 appeared, there was at least one
The machine was designed by Jon Titus.
|Radio Electronics||Mark-8||July 1974||$5 for assembly plans||8008/LSI||desktop kit|
Was is the Scelbi-8H?
No, but the Scelbi-8H (1973) was another microcomputer that preceded the
Altair. Like the Altair, it was available from the manufacturer both as
a kit and as a pre-assembled computer.
The machine was designed by Nat Wadsworth.
Was it the HP 65?
No. Some people consider the HP 65, introduced in 1973, a mere calculator, but it was fully
programmable; you could even play games on it. HP even called it a personal
computer in their introductory article in the HP Journal, but
it wasn’t the first.
Was it the Xerox Alto?
You’re getting warmer. The Alto, introduced in 1973, but never commercially
produced, was perhaps the most innovative design in computer history: it
had a mouse, a GUI, an object-oriented OS and development tools, and
fast networking with the first ethernet cards. These are features
that wouldn’t be common until 10 years later, and even 20 years later
some of them were still cutting edge.
Was it the Micral?
No, but the French Micral (1973) was yet another commercial microcomputer
that preceded the Altair. It has been said that the term “microcomputer”
was coined to describe the Micral. This is not true; Intel was using the
term “micro computer” to describe its MCS-4 and MCS-8 chip sets from the very
beginning (MCS stood for Micro Computer Set).
It has also been said that the Micral is the earliest non-kit microcomputer.
This might be true only in a very narrow sense. Intel themselves made
earlier microcomputers, such as the SIM4 and Intellec-4, and Intel advertises
design wins such as the Seiko S-500 desktop computer as early as March 1973.
Was it the Intel SIM4?
The Intel MCS-4-based SIM4 (1972) was the first microcomputer, but not the first
The single-board SIM4-02 is shown at the right plugged
Was it the HP 9830?
Good guess! The HP 9830, introduced in 1972, was the first desktop
all-in-one computer. It even had BASIC in ROM, but few people know
about it because HP marketed it primarily to scientists and engineers,
very quiet people.
Even earlier (1968), HP produced a similar desktop machine called the
|Hewlett Packard||9830A||1972||$5975||MSI||desktop all-in-one|
Was it the Kenbak-1?
Was it the Imlac PDS-1?
Whoa! Where’d you hear about the Imlac? The little-known Imlac PDS-1, introduced
in 1970, was the first personal graphics computer. MIT hackers used
it to play MazeWar over the ARPANET well before the Xerox Alto could
do the same.
|Imlac||PDS-1||1970||?||SSI, core memory||workstation|
Was it the Paperclip Computer?
I don’t think so. The “paperclip computer” was introduced in 1967
in a book called How To Build a Working Digital Computer by
Alcosser, Phillips, and Wolk. The book describes how you can build
a simple computer with things around the house, like paperclips for
switches, and a tin can for drum memory.
In 1969, a company called COMSPACE created a “professional” version of
|Alcosser, Phillips, and Wolk||Paperclip Computer||1967||$3.75 + parts||paperclips, tin can, knife switches||desktop|
Was it the Honeywell Kitchen Computer?
He he! Stop; you’re killing me! Incredibly, around 1966 Honeywell tried to
enter the home computer market with the Kitchen Computer. Cutting board
The same computer, sans cutting board, was used by BBN to build the
|Honeywell||Kitchen Computer (based on DDP-516)||1966||$7000||SSI, core memory||appliance|
Was it the DEC PDP-8?
|DEC||PDP-8||1965||?||SSI, core memory||desktop|
Was it the Minivac 601?
Very close, but no. Like some of the earliest computers, the Minivac
was relay based, but unlike the early room-filling monsters, the
Minivac had only six relays and was easily afforded by almost anybody
interested in computers.
|Scientific Development Corporation||Minivac 601||1961||$135||relay||desktop|
Was it the Heathkit EC-1?
Almost! The EC-1, introduced in 1959, was a small inexpensive desktop
computer. It was available as a kit for under $200! But it wasn’t
digital. It was analog, and could be used to solve certain types of problems,
but it’s not what most people think of as a computer today.
Was it the GENIAC?
|Berkeley Enterprises||GENIAC||1955||$19.95||electric rotary switches||single-board|
Was it Simon?
|Berkeley Enterprises||Simon||1950||about $300||relay||desktop|