Forgotten PC history: The true origins of the personal computer

The PC's back story involves a little-known Texas connection

This year marks an almost forgotten 40th anniversary: the conception of the device that ultimately became the PC. And no, it did not happen in California.

For decades, histories have traced the PC's x86 lineage back to 1972, with Intel Corp.'s introduction of the 8008 chip, the 8-bit follow-on to the 4-bit 4004, itself introduced in 1971 and remembered as the world's first microprocessor (download PDF).

But the full story was not that simple. For one thing, the x86's lineage can be traced back four additional years, to 1968, and it was born at a now-defunct firm in San Antonio. The x86 was originally conceived by an all-but-forgotten engineer, Austin O. "Gus" Roche, who was obsessed with making a personal computer. For another thing, Intel got involved reluctantly, and the 8008 was not actually derived from the 4004 -- they were separate projects.

Industrial designer John "Jack" Frassanito, head of John Frassanito & Associates Inc., a NASA contractor in Houston, remembers wincing while plans for the device were drawn by Roche on perfectly good tablecloths in a private club in San Antonio in 1968. He was then a young account manager for legendary designer Raymond Lowey (who did the Coke bottle and the Studebaker Avanti, among other things). Frassanito was sent to Computer Terminal Corp. in San Antonio to help design CTC's first product, an electronic replacement for the Model 33 Teletype. CTC had been recently founded with local backing by former NASA engineers Phil Ray and Roche.

After arriving in San Antonio -- where he soon joined CTC's staff -- Frassanito said that he quickly discovered that the teletype-replacement project was merely a ruse to raise money for the founders' real goal of building a personal computer.

A hidden agenda

"When writing the business plan, they decided to stay away from the notion of a personal computer, since the bankers they were talking to had no idea what a computer was or wasn't," Frassanito recalled. "So for the first product, they needed something they could get off the ground with existing technology. But the notion from the get-go was to build a personal computer firm."

The resulting terminal, the Datapoint 3300, established CTC as a going concern, and planning began on the project that Frassanito realized was Roche's obsession. He remembers lengthy discussions with Roche about what a personal computer should do and look like. Roche often expressed himself using metaphors from various classics, such as Machiavelli's The Prince, which Frassanito found necessary to read.

To ensure a market for the machine, Frassanito said that the CTC founders decided to promote it (with appropriate programming) as a replacement for the IBM 029 card punch machine, and they gave it a half-height display to match the aspect of an IBM punch card. To keep it from being intimidating in an office, they gave it the same footprint as an IBM Selectric typewriter.

The resulting compact enclosure had heat problems, and in late 1969 and early 1970, the designers began looking for ways to reduce the number of components, including reducing the CPU board to one chip.

The start of Intel's involvement

Frassanito recalled accompanying Roche to a meeting with Bob Noyce, head of Intel, in early 1970 to try to get Intel -- then a start-up devoted to making memory chips -- to produce the CPU chip. Roche presented the proposed chip as a potentially revolutionary development and suggested that Intel develop the chip at its own expense and then sell it to all comers, including CTC, Frassanito recalled.

"Noyce said it was an intriguing idea, and that Intel could do it, but it would be a dumb move," said Frassanito. "He said that if you have a computer chip, you can only sell one chip per computer, while with memory, you can sell hundreds of chips per computer." Nevertheless, Noyce agreed to a $50,000 development contract, Frassanito recalled.

Frassanito's recollection of Noyce's negative reaction is echoed in the transcript of a group interview done in September 2006 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. (download PDF). The group included six people who were involved in the development or marketing of Intel's first CPU chips: Federico Faggin, Hal Feeney, Ed Gelbach, Ted Hoff, Stan Mazor and Hank Smith. They agreed that Intel's management at the time feared that if Intel put a CPU chip in its catalog, the computer vendors that were Intel's customers for memory chips would see Intel as a competitor and go elsewhere for memories.

That fear, they indicated, was evident as late as 1973. The group also recalled that work was suspended on the CTC chip, called the 1201, in the summer of 1970 after CTC lost interest, having decided to go ahead with a CPU board using transistor-transistor-logic (TTL) circuits instead of relying on a chip-based design. TTL is the level of integration that preceded microcircuits, where a chip might have tens of transistors rather than thousands.

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