Feature

My PC's so old it wears flares

When we asked readers to help us find the oldest working PC and Toshiba laptop in the UK, hundreds of you came out of the computing closet as secret seventies throwbacks. Nathalie Towner reports

When Xtra! teamed up with Toshiba to offer two Tecra 9000 laptop computers to the readers who could track down the oldest working PC and the oldest working Toshiba mobile PC in the UK, our inbox was inundated with e-mails from people adamant that no one could possibly have a relic older than their own.

Choosing a winner was tough, which is why Xtra! passed the task of identifying the oldest PC onto a panel of volunteers from the computer museum at Bletchley Park and got boffins from Toshiba to pick the oldest laptop.

Defining the term "PC" was in itself a challenge. As with the origins of mankind, there are also many different schools of thought when it comes to the true beginnings of the personal computer. The IBM PC from 1981 was the first machine to sport the label, and to many in the IT community this marks the beginning of the PC era. However, PC purists choose to delve further back in time.
"I used to think of it [the first PC] as the IBM PC but this rules out so much," says head of the judging panel John Sinclair. "Lots of people had PCs prior to this."

The majority of technology historians agree that the MITS Altair 8080 was the first true PC. It was introduced in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine as a construction project. An Altair owner did send in an entry to the competition but unfortunately the machine was based in Illinois in the US, so the judges were unable to verify the claim.

With the Altair out of the running, the field was wide open to the PC whippersnappers.

We received three entries nominating the Apple II. Launched in 1977, this was a good contender for title of the first PC. It was factory-built, relatively cheap, easy to use and was the first mainstream computer to offer colour graphics. However, hot on the Apple IIs' heels were five Commodore PETs.

Also launched in 1977, the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) was designed by Chuck Peddle, the man who once joined forces with Bill Gates to buy Apple - their bid failed because they could not afford the $150,000 price tag. Retailing for $795 (£550), the PET featured a built-in monitor, keyboard and tape drive housed in a compact case.

The Apple II and the Commodore PET were developed almost simultaneously, but the judges were saved the task of choosing between the two by technical director Nigel Bennee, who put forward his SWTP 6800.

Bennee purchased his Southwest Technical Products machine, which is based on the Motorola 6800 chip, on 29 November 1976, and he still has the receipt.

"I was living in Holland at the time and had the kit sent through from the States," he recalls. "I had been designing my own computer as a hobby from 1972 to 1975 and, although I was progressing, it was going very slowly. So when 'microcomputer chips' started to appear I kept up to date with data sheets.

"The Motorola 6800 design and instruction set just felt right. Fortunately, others thought so as well, so when I spotted the SWTP kit advertised I couldn't wait. To my knowledge it was the first personal computer to come out that did not have switches on the front to bootstrap it, as it had a built-in monitor program in Rom."

When it arrived through the post it was all boxed up in modules. It took Bennee three nights to put the thing together, with the disc drive kit needing an extra night of work.

"It looks very basic but it is over 25 years old. It has a main bus and an I/O bus, which are known as the SS50 and SS30 standard, and many companies produced add-on cards for them," says Bennee. "Unlike today's PCs, these machines were totally open. You got the schematics of the PCBs [printed circuit boards] and, in the early days, the source code of the software. It could do whatever you wanted it to do because you could easily add your own circuitry."

Kevin Murrell, one of the Bletchley Park judges, was particularly pleased that this entry won because Benne has continued to use Motorola microprocessors to this day, providing a direct link to his PC heritage.

"The SWTP was the first PC you could get where you could plug it in and get a result straightaway," says Murrell. "The Altair is commonly cited as the first PC, in that it was a computer and it was personal, but you had to be a geek to operate all the switches on the front panel. The SWTP was in comparison useful and affordable."

Although the judges had to discard some entries because they were not true PCs, a couple are still worth mentioning.

Paul Morgan, group IT manager at pharmaceutical company William Ransom & Son, e-mailed to tell us that two Epson HX-20 portable computers (circa 1981) are still being used in his company's packaging hall. "Quite simply, as a bottle rolls off the production line, the HX-20 checks whether it has the right amount of liquid in it. The computer rejects the bottle if it is too heavy or too light. Both HX-20s have been used on a daily basis since they were bought," he says.

Terry Froggatt unsuccessfully tried to convince the judges that his Elliott 920B, an 18-bit transistor machine built in 1966, qualified as a PC. "I have owned the machine and kept it at home since 1977, and I used it regularly for assorted things until we got our first 8086 in 1990, so it is indeed a 'personal computer'," he says.

The Toshiba judges' job was a lot easier. The first Toshiba laptop was the T1000, which hit the market in 1985. There were lots of entries from this time but the judges ruled that the prize should go to information engineer Andrew Shapton. He bought his T1000 second-hand in 1993 for £100 and has been using it on a weekly basis ever since.

"It runs Dos 2, modified Toshiba version, and I still have the original installation discs, the carry case, charger, mains adapter and instruction manual," says Shapton. "It has a mono screen and a hard disc drive of 20Mbytes which you have to manually switch on and power up."

The T1000 was Shapton's first home PC, although he had been using PCs at work for a number of years. He bought it to aid his study of his family's genealogy. "I use it to hold all of my family tree details using a Dos-based package," he explains. "I carry it to the local archives, after first charging it up for several hours, and transcribe family tree information onto it."

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This was first published in May 2002

 

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