back to article A history of personal computing in 20 objects part 1

Personal computing. Personal. Computing. We take both aspects so completely for granted these days, it's almost impossible to think of a time when computing wasn't personal - or when there was no electronic or mechanical computing. To get from there to here, we've gone from a time when 'computers' were people able to do perform …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Apple machines really weren't that important or successful until the Mac came out.

    Try looking at the other home computers of the era, especially those from Commodore. Don't believe the Apple revisionists, even Apple lied about who sold a million machines first (it was Commodore, not Apple).

    1. joeW

      The VIC-20 was an early 80s machine though. Maybe we'll see it tomorrow?

    2. Ancient Oracle funkie

      > The Apple machines really weren't that important or successful

      Maybe, but I used one in the office back in the early 80s. Great little machine, 48kb memory, twin floppies and the killer app, Visicalc.

      When the company acquired its first IBM PC it seemed inferior in every sense. "It'll never catch on", thought I. Thus starting my ability to be 100% wrong about new technology.

      DOS or CCPM? - no question, Concurrent CPM was superior in every way!

      Future PC with CCPM or IBM PC with PC-DOS? - no brainer, I can multitask on my Future pc and store data on my 800kb floppies rather than 1 thing at a time with 360kb storage.

      Word Perfect of MS Word? - easy. MS Word is so clunky it's all but unusable

      Apple Lisa and a mouse? No-one needs a mouse

      If only I had bet against myself

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Here's hoping you're confidently expecting Windows 8 to be a runaway success then.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      For me the Apple II was a distinct improvement on my 1976 Motorola 6800 evaluation kit. Visicalc was useful for expenses. However the Apple's most powerful feature was being able to add home-brewed cards to interface to other electronic kit. At one point it was emulating an ICL 2900 mainframe, or its various terminals, to enable bug resolution on comms software. It also acted as a peripheral to a MOD 1 bus to suck software diagnostic traces out in realtime.

      No Apple has ever had a similar "buy me" lure since that Apple II. The Apple Lisa was never considered - it was just an expensive appliance. So the upgrade path went to IBM PC clones with their ISA bus for home-brew cards.

  2. ColonelClaw


    Why am I not surprised? After reading a well-researched peice spanning 170 years' of innovation and the first comment is someone bashing Apple.

    Say something intelligent and relevant or fuck off

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Seriously?

      "Say something intelligent and relevant or fuck off"

      Well that rules out Microsoft.

    2. Lars Silver badge

      Re: Seriously?

      Well. the Apple I does not deserve to be mentioned here as the "first" one, or at all. Radio Shack perhaps. Apple II is Ok in this list, not least because of VisiCalc. Then there are of course plenty of other computers that could have been mentioned but I suppose the list would have been too long then. My first computer was an Elliott 803 in 1968. Algol, punch tape and a plotter. Far more capable than the Apple II except that Apple had floppy drives.

      They were made by Shuhart and very unreliable bastards.


      Re: Seriously?

      Historical revisionism is bound to upset those of us that actually lived through this stuff.

      In my mind, the Apple 2 line will always be associated with Apple's tendencies to gouge it's fans. Apple was gouging people for 8-bit machines well into the 68K era to the point where you could get an Amiga or Atari ST for less than an Apple 2.

      That sort of thing tends to put a damper on the spread of technology.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Seriously?

        Wow where were you? I had an Apple IIe way before Amiga's and ST's came out. There were several years of no crossover in dates between them as i recall. No chance of buying them at the same time....

        It was to be the last time i touched an Apple product but it was awesome. Loved that little white plug for analog games controllers for robotic experiments etc.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Seriously?

        My UK Apple II had 48KB of memory and a 100KB floppy drive. At GBP1750 it was an expensive buy - but it was bought for function not form. With no Apple brand established in the UK it was a straight fight between the few PCs of that spec on the UK market. I suspect that Apple was the cheapest at that time for that spec.

        To put the cost into perspective - in 1980 another new technology, a JVC "portable" home video and camera cost GBP1350. In the late 1980s an Elonex IBM clone base unit with 640KB of memory, floppy, and a 20MB hard disk cost GBP2000.

  3. Chris Rowland

    0. The Antikythera mechanism?

    1. Anonymous Custard

      Indeed, or even perhaps the abacus?

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Abacus.

        There was a programme on Radio 4 this week about Japanese arithmetic competitions, and the culture around maths in general (favourite sums displayed outside Shinto temples, for example). Quite eye-opening, and staggering the feats these people can do in their heads.

        On the subject of BBC output, there was an hour long programme about Tutte and Flowers on BBC 4 (TV) on Sunday evening. Both are still available on iPlayer. Flowers, who built Colossus, attended an 'Introduction to IT' course when he was 87 and received a certificate to say he could perform simple tasks on a PC.

        Oh heck, OT, whilst I'm plugging radio and TV shows, this programme is about how Rupert Murdoch set up a company to reverse engineer his pay-TV competitor's systems, making piracy rife:

      2. Peter Stone

        How about that mainstay of engineers over the years, the slide rule?

      3. Colin Brett

        Or fingers?

    2. Steven Roper

      Not only that

      There's talk of pioneers like Babbage and Flowers but no mention of Ada Lovelace or Alan Turing? WTF El Reg?

      1. Alister

        Re: Not only that

        Um, possibly because whilst Babbage and Flowers designed and actually built computing devices, neither Lovelace or Turing did. This article is mostly about the hardware, not the theory behind it.

    3. Neil 30

      Utterly brilliant

      Purportedly invented by Archimedes recent research has shown. So it must be good.

  4. rurwin

    I'd be the first to bash Apple at any opportunity, but in this case the Apple ][ deserves its place here. It was the first micro-computer to allow third-party plug-in cards, and it prospered for that reason. Maybe without the Apple ][, the IBM engineers would never have had the idea.

    But where is the Manchester Baby? It was the first computer to store the program in rewritable memory. So no rewiring or punching film to reprogram it.

    And I think you will find the Ferranti Mark One may give LEO a run for its money.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Oh, no it wasn't.

      The IMSAI 8080 (,_Inc.) and MITS Altair 8008 ( both allowed third-party plug-in cards, and were launched in 1975.

      That predates the Apple ][ by two years.

    2. Geoff Campbell Silver badge

      Err, what?

      Whilst I will happily defend the Apple II's place in this article, and in the history of personal computing generally, the first micro-computer to allow third party plug-in cards was the Altair, or anything that came before - pretty much all micros were based on some derivative of the S-100 bus precisely to allow expansion with plug-in cards, and there was a healthy third party market selling them way before the Apple II.


    3. Chemist

      "But where is the Manchester Baby?"

      Agree wholeheartedly - was taught Physics by someone who had worked on it as a student.

  5. Ancient Oracle funkie


    Any reference to Leo always reminds me of the story my father-in-law (95 and still going strong) tells. Lyons offered the use of Leo to the Inland Revenue to calculate the tax tables after a budget change. One year he was selected to go to Lyons, taking with him the highly confidential envelope that contained details of the tax changes to be announced in the budget. The rule was that the changes were secret until the budget announcements were made and the chancellor had sat down. Which meant waiting for the phone call to say that the chancellor had sat down. The envelope could be opened and the details given to the Lyons' techies. He opened the envelope, took out the paper that was inside and read it - "No Change".

  6. Mark R
    Thumb Up


    Let's not forget the Whirlwind:

    Completed in 1951, it was the first real-time (not batch) computer, and the first to use video displays for output. The Whirlwind project also later gave us core memory, and light guns as input devices, which I would enjoy many years later playing Duck Hunt on the NES. A guy named Ken Olsen who apparently went on to do some other stuff with computers also worked on Whirlwind. : )

    (Full disclosure: my uncle worked on Whirlwind)

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Also worthy of mention

    is the IMSAI 8080. I had one, which I initially programmed in binary using paddle switches. Later I added keyboard, monitor and support for audio tape storage, then finally added 8 inch floppy drives.

    Used the floppy drives to run CPM and wrote programs in Microsoft Fortran.,_Inc.

    PS: Get off my lawn.

  8. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    You want "personal"?

    Maintenance manual for the mechanical targeting computer onboard Navy Ships:

    Babbage would approve.

  9. Pen-y-gors

    Tide predictions?

    There's a big gap after Babbage - what about the various tide-predicting machines developed in the late 19th/early 20th century?

  10. Chris Miller

    What about a mention for Hollerith and other related tabulators. They were the nearest thing to a computer before the 1940/50s and gave IBM their start.

  11. vulcan

    Surely the World's first stored program electronic digital computer should be included.

  12. Anonymous Custard


    Brings to mind also the evolution in the circuitry and silicon that goes to make the things up. Amazing to think that in less than 1 human lifetime (65 years this year) we've gone from the first transistor (Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley in 1947) to modern microchips. 1 germanium point contact on a desk to a few billion in a device that fits in your pocket.

    I occasionally give a course to new recruits about the history of such things, including a few little nuggets for newbies:

    * You can fit about 60 million modern transistors on a pinhead, and about 2000 across the width of a hair.

    * If your house had shrunk at the same rate as transistors have, it would now be microscopic.

    * In the time it takes to switch from ON to OFF, a beam of light would travel about 0.1 inches.

    * Modern PGA chips have one transistor for every 2-3 people on the planet.

    It's always a fun course to give, as it opens their eyes to quite the scale of what they're getting into (IC manufacture).

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: Evolution

      "(65 years this year) we've gone from the first transistor (Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley in 1947)"

      Actually the Colossus used lumps of silicon with a contact wire a bit like a "cats whisker" to replace some of the unreliable valves, although not named as such and kept secret until 1970 they were in every respect transistors.

      But Tommy Flowers is long gone and the records are in place and the awards awarded so Bell labs keeps the award. Perhaps it would be better to refer to their invention as the "first commercial transistor"

      1. Anonymous Custard
        Thumb Up

        Re: Evolution

        Well you learn something new every day :) That said given what a marvel Colossus was, it's not a huge surprise...

        Indeed I was actually watching a (repeat) BBC Timewatch on the very subject last night about Colossus, Tommy Flowers and Bill Tutte. If you're quick (and in the UK) it's still available on iPlayer for a couple more days:

        It's a shame that all the secrecy was needed - Flowers and Tutte should have their names up there with Turing and Babbage.

  13. Toxteth O'Gravy
    Thumb Up


    I have to say, I do like the history stuff El Reg runs every now and then. Roll on part two.

  14. Kubla Cant


    Other missing gadgets: the slide rule, the electro-mechanical desktop calculator, and the basic electronic calculator. All three might be excluded for not being general-purpose computers, but the same criterion would rule out Napier's Bones and the Difference Engine.

    1. Martin Gregorie

      Re: Gaps

      This just beat me to it. Here's my take on the earliest personal, portable computing devices:

      Slide rules fully deserve their place in this history.

      Several generations of engineers and scientists used slide rules, an essential tool from their invention in the early 1620s that remained in common use into the late 1960s. Arguably, these were the first portable calculation devices unless you want to include the far earlier, but less capable, abacus which, in its modern form, was in use from the 2nd century BC and printed tables of logarithms, which appeared in 1617.

      Curta Calculator

      However, a slide rule, though portable and deserving its place in every engineers' desk or briefcase, wasn't really pocketable. The Curta calculator gets that slot. It was far from the first mechanical calculator, but all its predecessors were heavy, bulky desktop machines, while the Curta was a comfortable handheld device and much loved by the rally-driving fraternity.

      HP-35 calculator

      This was the first really good pocket electronic calculator. It was not only affordable, but a real game changer because it was the first that could replace a good slide rule, being capable of dealing with logarithms and trigonometric functions.

      1. Chemist

        Re: Gaps

        "a slide rule, , though portable and deserving its place in every engineers' desk or briefcase, wasn't really pocketable.

        Circular ones were , at about the size of a drink mat

        The rather more accurate helical ones were about the size of a mid-sized torch

        I was using slide-rules well into the 70s

        1. MrT

          Re: Gaps

          I was issued with a slide rule in my first engineering job, mid 80's, but only ever used it out of curiosity because we were just getting issued with one PC and the new-fangled HevaCAD software, about 6 grand or so.

          BYOD then meant calculators. Still have the slide rule, but the old calculator is no more - IIRC a big clicky-keyed TI with red LED numerals. It took so many batteries that it was cheaper to wire in a 9v PP3 and stick it on top of the case with insulation tape. Replaced it with a Casio FX82, which I do still have. My attic is getting full.

          We still dropped back to using log tables in our O-level maths exam even though we were using calculators for part of the course work.

      2. sad_loser

        Re: Gaps

        or HP65 as the first programmable, went on apollo etc

  15. No, I will not fix your computer
    Thumb Up

    Notable wartime mention - Alan Turing?

    Apart from some of his work (which directly predicts what computers would be), the logic of the Bombe is undeniable (OK, not a multipurpose computer, but still important in the history).

  16. Spoonsinger
    Paris Hilton

    The list seems to be missing the Turk.

    i.e. a piece of technology which flim-flams the mentally challenged but during it's existence made a good deal of money for those involved. Tablet anyone?

    Paris obviously because, although you knew she didn't, you thought about it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The list seems to be missing the Turk.

      Tablets can actually play chess, the Turk only pretended to.

      1. Spoonsinger

        Re: The list seems to be missing the Turk.

        Hiring a dwarf and sourcing a cardboard box for the few times I play chess now might be cheaper.

  17. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


    Surprised there was no mention of this:

    I remember I was more impressed with that than with electronic calculators, back at school. It seemed natural that you press a button on some electronic gadget and it shows you a number. When "cold iron" calculated an answer - it was awe-inspiring!

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    computer techs were babes in those days.

    What went wrong?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: ENIAC

      They still were in the 1960s and 1970s in the UK. As a junior I shared an office with five people doing technical support plus system programming for a major UK computer company. Four of them were women in their twenties. They delighted in making me blush - although they were nowhere near as bad as running the gauntlet in the all-women data preparation room.

      The rest of the company's OS and application development departments had a high proportion of women too. Don't remember any women who were hardware engineers though. Women computer operators were restricted from working nightshifts. That didn't stop the women programmers coming in to see their jobs run late at night - and inviting the evening shift back for coffee at their nearby flats.

      Somewhere is the 1980s was when women started to fade out of serious technical roles in the company.

      1. PT
        Thumb Up

        Re: ENIAC

        They delighted in making me blush - although they were nowhere near as bad as running the gauntlet in the all-women data preparation room.

        Oh, I remember those days. I was very young and it was - educational. You mean people actually do that?

  19. Armando 123

    Excuse me?

    "Onto the Desktop...

    Xerox Alto"

    Excuse me? How big and how reinforced is the desk where THAT is a desktop?

  20. Robert E A Harvey

    Pet-free zone

    What about the commodore Pet.

    Whilst the Apple ][ had visicalc, the Pet was very common in engineering circles for conencting to IEEE-488 instruments. I remember seeing one in 1995, still quietly recording diurnal variations in the earths magnetic field, and pumping them out of the RS232 port. The software had been altered some time at the start of that decade to change the data format.

  21. GrahamV

    Wot, no Jacquard Loom?

  22. Captain DaFt

    Paperclip computer

    A fully programmable hobby computer from the 1960s, built from paperclips, tin cans, lightbulbs and wire.

    People are still building these things and writing programs for them today! Why? Because it's fun!

    (I'm not supplying a link, just google "Paperclip computer" and be freakin' amazed at how big the community is!)

  23. G R Goslin

    Re Evolution

    In fact, the transistor was invented (and patented), around 1927, but never taken up until it's re-invention in 1947. The patent pointed out it's application as a stage amplifier in early radio receivers. There was some speculation, following it's re-invention that one or more of the later inventors had knowledge of the earlier patent.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Re Evolution

      Wasn't there a 1928 patent for a transistor that was effectively an FET - not the point contact type? The relatively sophisticated material technology required to implement the FET took a long time to mature.

  24. Mike 16

    Programmable refrigerators

    1) EDSAC had Wheeler's "Initial Orders" from pretty much the beginning. This provided a Higher Level (than toggling in binary) language somewhat like a Forth assembler, and a subroutine library on paper tape. EDSAC was also based less on ENIAC than on EDVAC, although that machine did not appear until later.

    2) While I agree that the PDP-8 was very significant, small (i.e. fridge-sized) computers such as the LGP-30 and G-15 (designed by harry Huskey, who had worked with Turing) pre-date it. They did, however, cost about the same as a suburban single-family house (still cheap at the time), while the PDP-8 could be had for the price of a (very nice) auto.

  25. LordHighFixer

    More history.

  26. just_me

    Babbage difference engine, better example

    While Babbage was never able to build the complete engine, there are two in existence. They were built from Babbage's drawings. One is currently located near Silicon Valley @ Computer History Museum ( It is a bit noisy, but it does run. Much more interesting than the segment thereg showed.. which is basically two digits of the machine (probably one of his prototypes Babbage was using to try to get money to build the full machine)

    The other one (full machine) should be at the Science Museum in London.

  27. Filbert

    Don't forget the Manchester Baby in 1948

    Don't forget the Manchester Baby - the world's first stored program computer built in 1948 (in Manchester)

    See, for example, this Wikipedia link:

    This is one the Americans never mention :)

  28. Eugene Crosser


    Along with the slide rule, this was definitely a personal computing device.

    Definitely more personal than ENIAC and the rest of electromechanical monstrosities mentioned in the article.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    im sorry to break it to you

    but all these computers are out of date

  30. PT

    Talking of machines with front panels ...

    The Altair sure bore a marked resemblance to the slightly earlier Intel Intellec 8. I wonder if they might be related?

  31. Anonymous Coward

    Olivetti P101 - World's First Desktop ?

    Nostalgia Rules.

    Fond memories of the Olivetti Programma 101/203/602/652 Family of the late '60s/early '70s.

    Olivetti P101 regarded by many as the world's first desktop computer.

    Some great products with superb design but never made money.

    Around that time HP & Wang introduced competing products.

    HP Salesman used to drive around in flash Audis.

    We've come a long, long, long way since. Quite a party.

  32. Alter Hase

    What about the IBM 1620?

    The IBM 1620 debuted in 1959 and was conceived as a computer for small engineering companies. As such, it could be thought of as a small "personal" computer as it was often run by a single programmer/operator.

    It was succeeded in 1965 by the IBM 1130 which could drive the IBM 2250 Graphical Display, allowing direct interaction with the user. (As a Junior Engineer at IBM in the 1960s, I developed a tic-tac-toe demo for the 1130/2250 combination.)

  33. Pretz1
    Thumb Down

    No dedicated entry for the C64?


    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: No dedicated entry for the C64?

      This is part 1 of the article, and runs through the end of the 1970s. When do you think the C64 was released?

  34. Josir

    What Britisher are you???

    You just forget the legendary TK-80 from Lord Clive Sinclair!!!

    It was my first computer and much more affordable than the Apple stuff. It was joy packed in 2K :))

    1. Josir

      Re: What Britisher are you???

      Sorry: the computer correct name is ZX80. TK-80 was the name of the brazilian clone.

  35. Turgut Kalfaoglu

    why so many apple machines listed?

    The author skipped a large number of machines and just highlighted a lot of apple products, for some reason.

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