The personal computer, foundation of today’s digital environment, was born in a rented building in the 100 block of West Rhapsody, just south of the airport — at least, design work began there in late 1969. The designers quickly moved to a larger facility, at the corner of Wurzbach and Datapoint.
Sí, ha pasado aquí en la ciudad de San Antonio. Key circuitry of the machine that you are using to read these words was probably derived directly from a machine that first saw the light of day right here in the Alamo City. Others may have tinkered along the same lines, but the first practical, fully featured, mass-produced, single-person computer was a San Antonio native.
And having read that, there are people in the computer industry who will frantically pick at and dismiss the main facts of the story, until they are satisfied that the creation myth of the personal computer is again safely contained within Silicon Valley.
Or so I found after I wrote a book on the subject. The basic story, derived from interviews and documents, is that in about 1968, NASA engineers Austin Oliver “Gus” Roche (1929-1975) and Jon Philip “Phil” Ray (1935-1987) decided that progress in electronics would soon allow intelligent machines that fit on a desktop, and they wanted to be the ones to do it. They found backers in San Antonio, carefully avoiding the word “computer” lest anyone think they planned to compete with IBM. They set up Computer Terminal Corp. (CTC) and their first product, the Datapoint 3300, was an electronic replacement for the electro-mechanical Model 33 Teletype, released in the fall of 1969. Having designed, built, and marketed an electronic desktop machine, they began working toward their larger goal, a general-purpose desktop computer, which they named the Datapoint 2200.
Since they could barely fit the necessary circuitry into the unit’s cabinet, they approached fellow startup Intel about reducing the processor, which took up a whole circuit board, to a single chip. By the time Intel had managed to do so in late 1971, CTC – later renamed Datapoint Corp. – had lost interest and told Intel to keep the chip — one of the most colossal business blunders of the century. Intel marketed it as the 8008 eight-bit processor chip, starting in April 1972. It’s a myth, incidentally, that the 8008 was derived from the earlier Intel 4004 calculator chip, despite the similar names.
An enhanced version, the 8080, sparked the wave of hobby computers that began appearing in 1975. A major upgrade in 1978, called the 8086, used 16-bit architecture and allowed access to more memory. A simplified version, the 8088, was the heart of the original IBM PC and its many clones. The continual succession of updates and clones for the 8086 is now called the x86 dynasty, and a vastly enhanced descendant likely resides inside the machine you are using now.
Datapoint would later invent local area networking (LANs), but filed bankruptcy in 2000 after the success of the PC – its progeny, ironically – dried up Datapoint’s traditional business market. An accounting scandal in 1982 and a hostile takeover by a corporate raider in 1985 didn’t help.
The “Datapoint deniers,” as I call them, accept the Intel/x86/LAN part of the story, but dismiss the Datapoint 2200 itself, saying it really wasn’t a personal computer. No, it was a “smart terminal.” Having dismissed it with a wave, they restore pride of invention to California.
Their position is that the Datapoint 2200 was intended for terminal emulation. The programs it was capable of executing would have allowed it to pretend to be various brands of computer terminals. Any number of online articles parrot this belief. If the deniers point to any evidence other than each other, it is to the fact that Roche and Ray did not use the term “personal computer” in their business plans or marketing. The story is that they were surprised when the buyers began using the machine as a general purpose computer.
There are two issues. First, Roche and Ray indeed did not use modern terminology like “personal computer” in their business plans or early marketing efforts — nor could they have in 1970. Meanwhile, as mentioned, they were initially leery about calling their creation a computer. But taking that into account, all the evidence points to an intention, from the start, to create a general-purpose computer that fit on a desk. While it is possible to quibble with the wording of this or that business plan or advertisement, it’s hard to quibble with the results — they did produce a general-purpose computer that sat on a desk. The Datapoint 2200 integrated in one enclosure a keyboard, screen, processor, memory up to 8K, mass storage (on tape), a programming language, and various I/O ports. That was an accident?
The other issue is marketing. There was no established market in 1970 for what we call personal computers, leaving no obvious way to sell them. Unsurprisingly, CTC’s early marketing plans were a moving target. Memory being expensive, simple, canned, appliance-like software, such as terminal emulation, that could fit inside 2,000 bytes – the base amount in the Datapoint 2200 – seemed like a good idea at one point. There is evidence that such software was being planned, giving the deniers their one germ of truth. But the price of memory continued falling, and the first customer, Pillsbury, installed four Datapoint 2200s in chicken farms to run payroll software that the firm’s programmers had written.
In other words, the first customer launched the first documented use of a personal computer.
Finally, in clinging to their one germ of truth, the deniers get it wrong. The Datapoint 2200 had a half-height screen, to give its screen the same aspect as an IBM punched card used for programming mainframes, since the designers anticipated a big demand for electronic replacements for the IBM 029 Card Punch machine. With an intelligent machine with tape storage you could dispense with cards entirely. But in the end, they found no demand for 029 replacements. Meanwhile, its half-height screen made the Datapoint 2200 a poor choice for terminal emulation, since most terminals had screens with twice as many lines.
So it’s no surprise that I have found no evidence that the Datapoint 2200 was ever seriously used as a “smart terminal.” On the contrary, it was used with great success with a system called Datashare, where multiple terminals – with full-height screens – were connected to a Datapoint 2200. The terminals were used for office work, typically data entry or lookup, using software running on the Datapoint 2200, while the half-height screen of the Datapoint 2200 was used for system control.
Admittedly, had there been a serious demand for “smart terminals,” Roche and Ray likely would have followed the money. Instead, they uncovered, and tapped into, a vast appetite for computational power at the personal level.
Today you can get personal computers with tens of thousands of times more computational power than the Datapoint 2200 possessed. But after the sale of billions of personal computers (and now smartphones, etc.) and the unfolding of the Internet, the public’s appetite for such power remains unquenched. The result is a digital environment beyond the conception of anyone in 1970, yet it is clear that we have only scratched the surface of what can be done with these devices.
Perhaps, someday, digital romantics will decide to erect a monument to the birth of the personal computer and the people behind it — and discover, painfully, that it does not belong in California. In the meantime that monument is the world that has resulted — look around you.
*Featured/top image: An original Datapoint 2200 beside the original product design sketch. Photo by Jack Frassanito.