Forgotten PC history: The true origins of the personal computer

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

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Giving all 1201 rights to Intel

"Roche said the idea that you can print a computer on a chip is astounding, a profound innovation, and we should own the intellectual property," Frassanito recalled. "They said, why spend $50,000 for a product we can't use? It was one of the worst business decisions in history."

The 4004 was put in the Intel catalog in November 1971, becoming history's first commercial microprocessor. The 1201, renamed the 8008, was offered in April 1972, for $120. Unlike the 4004, the 8008 could use standard RAM (which had become available) and ROM memory, making it popular with embedded applications, the interviewees recalled. Since no one was using the chip initially to compete against the mainstream computer vendors, there was no backlash from them, and the nervousness of Intel's management eventually eased.

Also in 1972, design Patent 224,415 was issued to Roche, Ray, and Frassanito for the appearance of the Datapoint 2200, allowing them to say they held the patent for the first PC. (Other parties claimed utility patents for the microprocessor, and the precedence of these other patents was in litigation for decades.)

In 1974, Intel brought out the 8080 chip based on the same architecture as the 8008, using suggestions from CTC engineers derived from developing the Datapoint 2200 II. Its use of a recently developed 40-pin package meant that fewer support chips were required to multiplex the output. Its descendants formed the x86 dynasty, especially after the 8088 was used in the first IBM PC in 1981.

Therefore, any PC in use today can trace its ancestry to the Datapoint 2200.

"I can look at a current PC and still see the image of that original machine buried down in there, with a lot of other stuff, especially more registers," said Victor D. Poor, then a CTC executive, now retired in Melbourne, Fla.

Intel went on to make billions of dollars off its x86 line. As for CTC, it changed its name to Datapoint at the end of 1972, and some of the same engineers involved in the Datapoint 2200 project were involved in developing the first commercial local-area network -- ARCnet -- which came out in 1977. But in the 1980s Datapoint went into decline, thrown into turmoil by an accounting scandal. Later, like many minicomputer firms, it proved unable to compete with cheaper PCs -- Datapoint's progeny, ironically. Datapoint's remnants were liquidated in 2000.

Roche died in a car accident in 1975, Ray died in 1987, and Noyce died in 1990. Frassanito left Datapoint to set up his own firm in 1975 and worked on the space shuttle and space station projects, among other things.

It turns out that the Datapoint 2200 was never used as an IBM 029 card punch replacement that he knew of.

Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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