PCs

Dinosaur Sightings: Computers from the 1970s

MSAI 8080

During the disco days of the 1970s, personal computers moved out of the electronic hobbyist's garage or basement and into the office, classroom, and family den. This gallery showcases several 1970-era machines from Steven Stengel's vintage computer collection. Steven has graciously allowed us to republish his photos and descriptions. You can find a much more detailed description of each machine and additional photos of Steven's collection on his Web site oldcomputers.net.

MSAI 8080

Built by IMS Associates, Inc. of San Leandro, California, the IMSAI 8080 is one of the first consumer computers available.

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

40 comments
gilesrm
gilesrm

I had several of those. But what of the Altair, which I also had?

Christian Wootton
Christian Wootton

Got to love the PET. Although I also have a soft spot for the IBM XT (fromt he 80s)

orchidman2010
orchidman2010

I worked at IMSAI in the late 70's and sold this unit IMSAI 8080 kit computers. We had a powerful and productive sales department. I still have some card kits and other IMSAI equipment in storage - I would really have to search to find the relics! We had to use switches to load the programs into the IMSAI 8080 - it was quite a process as compared to today. Today I teach the latest advanced computer systems, along with PLC [Programmable Logic Controllers (Industrial computers)], and Fiber Optics Certifications. We have come a long way my friends...

naldino
naldino

Although my experience was a bit later, in 1981, I used an ITT PC, one of the first, to create an auto parts catalog.  I worked for a subsidiary of ITT, and they put out one of the first IBM PC clones (I believe).  No one at the office had a clue of what to do with it, so I figured it might be better than doing this catalog with a typewriter, or by hand writing it.  Having zero experience or aptitude (it used MS-DOS as an OS, but I really didn't know what that meant at the time), I used Lotus 123 (instead of a database program) to list the part#'s, applications, etc of Koni shock absorbers for the US market.   The program was on one 5 1/4 inch floppy, and I wrote data to another floppy.  Kind of strange way to to do it, but it worked, dammit!  I think it was the only attempt at a PC from ITT , never heard or saw anything like that old PC again.

RELF
RELF

There was the ICE accounting computer (don't remember the model number).  Came out of San Jose.  Stood about 30" off the floor.  Was about 30" wide and 18" deep.  Two 8" floppies. (They didn't have to use the 12" floppy)  Seemed like it took 3 to 5 minutes to boot up.  Each entry took about 10 to 30 seconds.  Closing a set of books took about 10 to 20 minutes each month.  Drive A held the program.  Drive B held the data.  Not as fast as my CP/M computers.  Learned to program on a Sanyo PC compatible.  DOS 2.1.  A disk editor.  Great fun.

RELF
RELF

Come to think of it,  I remember first learning to program IBM business machines at the Alameda Naval Shipyard in 1963.  True "Plug 'n Play".  Think PBX operators.  Open the panel on the back or on the side and there were all the jacks - "Plug 'n Play".  They had to be reprogrammed each time there was a new card run so that the machine would correctly respond to the different holes punched in each card.  "Don't fold, spindle, or mutilate".

RELF
RELF

I remember getting a KIM-1 for my kids in the early 80's.  They programmed 'Lunar Lander' and 'Fox and Chickens' games for it.  All entered in hex.  They had to enter the program each time they turned it on to play.  The program controlled each segment of the LED display.  They had great fun.  We even modified it later to be used with the TV.  It had 1k of RAM.  The operating system was 250k.  Lots of fun.

Matt Ridge
Matt Ridge

You also missed the entire Ti Line. 

denfather
denfather

How did you miss the Commodore VIC 20 in your line-up. Many of us cut our teeth on that gem... in spite of the painfully slow cassette tape drive for program and data storage.

jwozniak
jwozniak

I repaired one of the IMSAI units in the 1990s. It was being used in a physical therapy clinic in Uniontown, PA in conjunction with a piece of equipment. The owner loved the thing, and wouldn't hear of upgrading to something less creaky. Bad salesmanship on my part, but I was just starting out.

MaryWeilage
MaryWeilage moderator

I'm sorry to hear that some of you are having problems viewing this gallery. The problem appears to be isolated to viewing the gallery in IE or Firefox on a PC. I have filed a bug with our engineering team. For now, the gallery navigation seems to work if you hit Refresh.

My sincere apologies for the hassle. I hope this is resolved soon.

moself
moself

Slideshow not working in IE9, or Firefox

stansil
stansil

Slideshow also not working on IE on Surface 8.1

non.sequitur
non.sequitur

your silly little slideshow doesn't work with chrome *or* firefox. what does work? mosaic?... netscrape?... internet exploder?...

MWRose
MWRose

Have scrolled to "Exidy Sorcerer Dynasty smart-ALEC" and have been continually pestered by "Device Management with Google" ads PLUS there are now 6 of them at the top of the page!   -- what gives?

dimonic
dimonic

The slideshow does not work in chrome, or firefox, which means it only works on dinosaur PCs.

Rick429CJ
Rick429CJ

I have tried running the slideshow on Firefox and Chrome but it doesn't work

jed.gart
jed.gart

I still have an exidy sorcerer in working order stashed away. It was my first computer, ran off cassettes and the 48k memory was massive in those days. I wonder can it be classified as an antique?

jeremyhall
jeremyhall

My personal use of computers is pre-Dinosaur - more primordial (antediluvian) - the GE Mark 1 Time-Sharing using an ASR33 teletype by my desk to access a remote computer at a massive 10 characters per second (110 bits pre second) where I had 15 k of memory - happy days.

john.vinton
john.vinton

Why do I never see Cromemco mentioned in these stories. I had a Cromemco System III. It must have weighed 150 lbs. I financed it at the bank using the computer as colateral, just like an automobile. The bank had never done this with a computer before. I couldn't afford any software other than a $100 version of C programming language. My son sold it many years later at a flea market for $5 and he had to carry it for the old gentleman who bought it.

micker377
micker377

I still have my 1972 Compaq "suitcase". It even has a handle on top to carry it. About the size (and weight), of a portable sewing machine! Laid down, open the catches, and the base is the keyboard. This also uncovers a storage compartment where the mouse is stored. 9" green screen, with dual 360 floppys. And yes - it still works! Will your laptop still function in 40 years???

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...with a slightly modified case with an extension on the back with a handle so the unit could be easily carried, and with extra power outlets and designed so you could wrap the power cord about it for transport and storage. These features made it much more practical for institutional settings.

mjacquet
mjacquet

Looks to me that these were not "Dinosaurs" but the little mammals waiting in the dark to replace the big IBMsaurus, ControlDatasaurus on their way out...

willis0966
willis0966

Had one of these also! The thing had TWO Z80 processors! Running at 1 Mhz, it was a "screamer." I went "all-out" and bought the dual-floppy version. The 5.25" floppys were 160kb hard-sectored. I only was able to afford 48kb memory instead of the fully loaded 64kb. Amazingly enough, I was able to write a rudimentary word processor and a spreadsheet program using "Benton Harbor Basic!"

willis0966
willis0966

I had a KIM-1 - wish I had hung onto it. It was a "marvel" at the time. It's hard to remember back that far but it seems like it was more suited to machine control rather than "personal computing." I can remember having to program everything in hex - pain in the rear - sorta' like using assembly language but worse...

bratwizard
bratwizard

I always liked the IMSAI 8080 though-- the movie WARGAMES made it popular. It definitely had a cool factor.

bratwizard
bratwizard

What about the Altair? It came out before the IMSAI, although the IMSAI certainly did look cooler. Lessee... in my personal arsenal I had two of the Altairs, a US Micro (generic S-100/CPM), a Sinclair, Commodore64, IBM-PC, several Masscomp 5700's & Silicon Graphics IRIS 3130' which were 68020-based multibus systems. And I got to work on a lot of the other computers you mention-- the IMSAI, the SOL, a Comemco something-or-other that ran M/PM, numerous no-name Z80-based systems, IBM system 23 (a cute little thing). The Apple II, the VIC-20. And other fun toys such as the Perkin-Elmer 7/32 and 3200-series mini-mainframes. Nowadays, its all just boring PC's and laptops. No more massive cases, no more spinning tape reels, no more deafening Centronics line-printers, no more walking your Data-General Nova 3C across the computer room floor by moving the heads on the 14-inch hard drive (snicker). Oh-- and I almost forgot my Atari ST's-- 520's and 1040's-- those were a lot of fun too. Especially "Dungeon Master". Anybody remember Dungeon Master? Or "Kill a Happy Face", one of the early "networked" games? Oh nostalgia... (sigh) :-)

robo_dev
robo_dev

When Soviet engineers were stealing DEC intellectual property, on the CVAX processor the DEC chip-designers etched the words: "when you care enough to steal the very best" in Russian as a message to the Soviet engineers who were known to be both purloining DEC computers for military applications, along with reverse engineering their chip design.

BNusbaum
BNusbaum

The vast majority of these systems, as well as those in the 1980-1983 display, are systems targeted at the home / hobby user, with the exception of some of the IBM models. There are some serious omisisons. In 1979 Digital Equipment Corporation, then the world's second largest computer company, launched a line of desktop computers based on its industry-leading LSI-11 microprocessor and its single-user operating system, RT-11. The top of the line was the PDT-150, which had dual floppy diskettes and a VT100 terminal. It could run not only BASIC, but also FORTRAN and DIBOL (a DEC derivative of COBOL). However, through a quirk of DEC internal politics, the PDT-150 had been funded by the marketing group whose charter restricted them to selling the product to OEMs in lots of ten or more, so it could not be marketed to individuals. This proved near-tragic, according to DEC folklore, when a guy in a plaid shirt and a ponytail showed up at the OEM group's headquarters in Marlboro, Mass. and wanted to buy a unit to develop an application that he had in mind. The suits in the OEM group blew him off, since he wasn't going to buy ten of them and re-sell them, and he didn't [i] look [/i] like a serious businessman. It turns out that the guy's name was Dan Bricklin, and he ended up calling his program Visicalc - the firt "killer app" for PCs. Had this gone the other way, and the PDT-150 not been a political prisoner, the PC revolution might have run on PDP-11s and RT-11 instead of Intel and CP/M, then MS-DOS.

PhysicsTech2
PhysicsTech2

HeathKit released this computer in conjunction with Zenith in 1978 as I remember. I ordered one that had two 7" floppy disk drives. I remember the model as a HZ89 (Heath Zenith model 89). The processor was an 8088 and the memory board came pre-assembled with either 64 or 128K of memory. This computer was in my hands at least two years before the IBM PC came out. At that time it was part of a mail order training program that walked a person thru all of the logic theory first. The training came with a breadboarding system and a series of logic chips. When the logic training was finished, you could order the computer for assembly. The logic board and high voltage module were pre-built, but everything else was assembled and soldered by hand.

spykor
spykor

@jeremyhall yep, those were the days! Even though I could use a Univac 1100/10 for running my FORTRAN card-decks, for my Elecronic Computers class I had at my disposal a RCA 110A computer (formerly used as the machine that contolled the trajectory of the Apollo spacecrafts) which was equiped with a TAME Assembler, 10Kbytes of core memory, tape drive (with partial void!), card reader/puncher, a printer and an EBCDIC card puncher for "writing" your cards of your program to feed them to the card reader/puncher. The reason the card reader was also a puncher is that, the Assebler was a two-stage assembler. To execute the program, first was reading the "source" program cards and it punched out the "executable". Then you would feed the executable cards to the reader again and the machine would run the program. Fantastic eh?

The whole thing was cooled down by a huge Carrier airconditioner that was taking up half of the room, because the heat produced by the computer was phenomenal, since the pulse needed to write to the core memory was 1A high!!! 

It is unbelievable that this computer, took man to the Moon.

spykor
spykor

@micker377 1972 or 1982? It seems to me there were no "portables" in 1972. As a matter of fact, the first microcomputer I came across for my "Microprocessors" class in 1976 at the University, was a ALTAIR 8080 (I think) and later that semester I used a Commodore microcomputer called PET!

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...programmed via paper tape. It was a massive achievement to get it to flash numbers in binary. It certainly looked like we thought a computer was supposed to.

therende
therende

@BNusbaum There was more to the PDT line, there were also the 110 & 130 and then there was the DEC Robin (VT-180). The company I worked for in 1979 OEM'ed the 150's as a batch front-end terminal for accessing CDC Cyber-net main frames (anyone remember Jerry West, I think he was CDC's only customer service agent). It is interesting to note that in the mid-80's DEC's market cap exceeded IBM's