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Computers for Everybody

TRS-80 Personal Computer

Before 1977, most home computers were kits requiring technical know-how. The TRS-80 represented a new generation of inexpensive, mass-market personal computers. It came fully assembled with a monitor, keyboard and pre-installed BASIC software, using an audiocassette recorder for storage.

Computers for Everybody

When people begin building their own products in their garages, entrepreneurs take notice. That’s a good sign of a business opportunity.

Companies capitalized on the blossoming computer interest with products requiring little expertise. These included three influential computers introduced in 1977: the Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore PET. The expanding market also meant more demand for software—a niche many companies eagerly filled.

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Commodore PET

Commodore produced hand-held calculators. Designer Chuck Peddle convinced Commodore chairman Jack Tramiel to transform his KIM-1 design into the Commodore PET, which proved popular in schools and could be networked to share peripherals like printers and disk drives.

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Radio Shack TRS-80 in a classroom

Schools were a prime target for most personal computer manufacturers, and many libraries of educational software were available. Radio Shack had its own “education centers” to teach teachers and others about its computers.

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Apple Computer advertisement

Many early personal computer companies sold only through authorized computer dealers. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the computers became available in other stores.

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Apple II

Steve Wozniak designed the Apple II in 1977. The self-contained unit housed electronics, keyboard and power supply, with the BASIC language in permanent memory. A TV served as the display. The floppy disk drive (1978) and spreadsheet program VisiCalc (1979) made it a blockbuster.

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Home Computers

Growing interest in home computers in the 1970s and 1980s brought greater competition, lower prices, and deeper penetration. More and different companies began selling more and different computers to more and different customers.

Sales at retail stores such as Sears reached a broader public, and consumers who found the Apple II or IBM PC too expensive readily bought the more affordable Commodore 64, Radio Shack’s TRS-80, and others. Many home computers also doubled as game consoles.

One consequence of this rapid expansion, however, was a fragmented universe of incompatible hardware and software.

Radio Shack TRS-80 advertisement

All the early PC manufacturers emphasized how naturally their computers would fit into a home setting – which meant that many of the ads looked eerily similar.

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Sinclair ZX80

The ZX80 computer was first available in the UK as a kit for £99 ($186), or pre-assembled for slightly more. About 50,000 were sold in Britain, primarily to hobbyists.

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CPC 464 Microcomputer

The Amstrad Colour Personal Computer was popular in the UK, France, Spain and Germany for general home computing — but especially for video games. A custom gate array provided graphic resolution up to 640 by 200 pixels, and up to 16 colors.

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Dragon 32K Personal Computer

The Welsh-made Dragon 32K was an improved version of Tandy’s TRS-80 Color Computer. Many UK companies converted their TRS-80 Color Computer programs to run on the Dragon.

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Thomson TO7 micro computer

The Thomson TO-7/70 was an early commerical microcomputer sold in France. The TO-7/70 included a built-in lightpen stored in a drawer above its keyboard, sound and a 16-color display capability. Many TO-7/70s were purchased for use in French schools due to the large amount of educational software available.

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Atari 800 advertisement

Atari touted superior graphics as the 800’s main selling point. Although the customer base was expanding, ads still focused on technical details of displays and processors. Add-on memory cartridges insured that “your ATARI computer won’t be obsoleted by future developments.”

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Atari 800

Atari’s 400 and 800 home computers doubled as game consoles. The high-end 800 had twice the memory (a whopping 8 KB!), and a keyboard with moving keys instead of a flat membrane. Games and software came on plug-in cartridges.

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Amiga 1000 CPU

Amiga, founded in 1982, was bought by Commodore shortly before releasing its first product, the Amiga 1000. Advanced graphic and audio capabilities made it popular for games and primitive video editing. Amigas were successful in Europe, less so in America.

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Commodore 64

Simplicity, low cost, superior graphics, quality sound, good game software and aggressive marketing made the C64 a blockbuster success. Over more than a decade, about 30 million were sold, many in retail stores that had never sold computers before.

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Hit Bit Home Computer

To encourage uniformity for its software, Microsoft Japan created the MSX computer standard. It was modestly and briefly successful in some markets outside the US and UK. This Sony MSX computer included built-in calendar and address book applications.

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BBC Microcomputer System

The British Broadcasting Company’s Computer Literacy Project hoped “to introduce interested adults to the world of computers.” Acorn produced this popular computer so viewers at home could do what they saw demonstrated on the TV series.

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Sinclair ZX Spectrum Microcomputer

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum used the Zilog Z80 microprocessor. Any television could serve as its display. It was a popular target for unauthorized clone-makers in Eastern Europe and South America.

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1040ST Computer System

The ST series was Atari’s answer to the Apple Macintosh. Despite improvements such as a color display and MIDI music ports, it never generated the market sizzle of the Mac.

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Luxor Datorer ABC 802 display

Luxor, a radio and television manufacturer, launched a computer ("datorer" in Swedish) division in 1978, which sold through their existing electronics dealer network. Financial troubles plagued the company which was nationalized in 1979.

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Atari 800 joystick

Atari’s 400 and 800 home computers doubled as game consoles. The high-end 800 had twice the memory (a whopping 8 KB!), and a keyboard with moving keys instead of a flat membrane. Games and software came on plug-in cartridges.

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Commodore 64 advertisement

Commodore emphasized the low-price (“UNDER $600”) and gaming capabilities of the Commodore 64.

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Sinclair ZX81

Sinclair was the leader in low-cost personal computers for consumers. The keyboard was an inexpensive membrane without moving keys, programs were stored on an audio cassette recorder, and the display was “any television set.”

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Kookaburra Portable Computer

The Australian Kookaburra Laptop (the “Dulmont Magnum”) had MS-DOS, a word processor, spreadsheet, and appointment programs permanently in ROM. It weighed “only” 10.5 pounds. Design, begun in 1979, included novel power-management circuitry developed at the University of New South Wales.

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Smaky6 Microcomputer

Jean-Daniel Nicoud designed the Smaky, or Smart Keyboard, as a teaching computer. Based on the Zilog Z80 microprocessor, it was part of a classroom network with a Data General Nova as a server.

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Sinclair QL microcomputer

The Sinclair QL (Quantum Leap), successor to the successful Sinclair ZX Spectrum, was doomed by bugs and problems with the Microdrive miniature tape drives. Its Motorola 68008 microprocessor made it incompatible with the rising IBM PC.

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Commodore VIC-20

This low-cost replacement for the aging Commodore PET may have been the first million-seller computer. Sold primarily in retail stores instead of computer dealers, and promoted by personalities like Star Trek’s William Shatner, it focused on educational software and games.

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