Mers Kutt

Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things.
Henri Poincare

Mers Kutt (left) and his team are presenting MCM/70
Mers Kutt (left) and his team are announcing MCM/70 in September 1973

It was in April of 1972 when the USA company Intel Corp. announced its first 8-bit microprocessor, the 8008. In just a few months, the prototypes of the first general-purpose computers powered by the 8008 chip were already working on-site at Réalisations et Études Électroniques in Paris and at Micro Computer Machines (MCM) with headquarters situated on the outskirts of Toronto. So, in the first half of 1973, the first microprocessor-based computers appeared—the French Micral-N and the Canadian MCM/70.

The remarkable MCM/70, a product of Micro Computer Machines, one of three related companies set up in Toronto in 1971 by the entrepreneur and technical wizard Merslau “Mers” Kutt (born 1933), is one of the first microcomputers in the world, the second to be shipped in completed form, and the first portable computer. Kutt, a professor of mathematics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario during the late 1960s, noted that the efficiency of computer users there was hampered by the long wait times involved in submitting programs in punched card form for batch processing by a shared mainframe computer. In 1968, Kutt founded a company and began to produce a data-entry device named Key-Edit. This was a low-cost terminal, with a one-line display device, which bypassed the need for keypunching.

In 1971, Kutt began planning a machine to support software development in the recently developed by Kenneth Eugene Iverson programming language APL. APL was best programmed using a custom keyboard and these were very rare at the time. He initially named his design the Key-Cassette; similar in design and concept to Key-Edit, it would offer editing ability and support for either two cassette decks or one cassette and an acoustic coupler to upload programs to other machines.

MCM Model 70 microcomputer, 1974
MCM Model 70 microcomputer, 1974

In May 1972, a technology development company of Kutt, named Kutt Systems, received one of the earliest SIM8-01 kits, featuring an Intel 8008 CPU, 1KB of RAM, and 2KB of ROM memory. The development team of Kutt Systems started to build what was then termed the M/C (for microcomputer). By then, the design had expanded to include a complete keyboard, a chiclet design similar to the ones used on early models of the Commodore PET, and a Burroughs Self-Scan 32-character display. Unlike the earlier Key-Edit system, the M/C would allow entering and executing APL programs.

One of the early prototypes of MCM/70 was demonstrated in May of 1973, the official announcement was made in September in Toronto. The company maintained that the MCM/70 was “of a size, price, and ease-of-use as to bring personal computer ownership to business, education, and scientific users previously unserved by the computer industry”.

The MCM/70 (see its Users Guide), manufactured by Micro Computer Machines (MCM) in Kingston, was encased in a wedge-shaped metal box about half a meter on the side, with a keyboard at the front, a compact audio cassette tape recorder(s) in the middle, one-line plasma display at the top, and an alphanumeric keyboard. An APL interpreter was built into the read-only memory (ROM), and the machine included a battery which allowed it time to save the workspace automatically when it was turned off. The MCM/70 weighed 20 pounds (9 kg) and shipped with up to 8 kilobytes of RAM and zero, one, or two cassette drives.

The first complete systems were shipped in the autumn of 1974. The basic unit, model 720 with an 800 kHz 8008, 2 KB RAM, and no cassette drive sold for $4950 Canadian dollars. The fully equipped model 782 with 8 KB and two drives was $9800 and was the only model that sold well.

At the time, the machine was already officially being called a “personal computer”. The first manuals contain a note from Kutt to future customers, “But the simplicity of the MCM/70 and its associated computer language… make personal computer use and ownership a reality… Enjoy the privilege of having your own personal computer.” In fact, the MCM/70 was too expensive to become a real “personal computer”, and was sold mainly to companies and government institutions (from hospitals and insurance companies to NASA and the United States Army) with the need to make complex calculations and mathematical analysis. Several hundred units of MCM/70 and its upgraded versions (MCM/700, 800, 900, and 1000) were sold, before ceasing production in the late 1970s.

Michael Wise

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool than to talk and remove all doubt of it.
Maurice Switzer

Michael Donald Wise (1949-2002)
Michael Donald Wise (1949-2002)

The Sphere 1 computer, one of the earliest microcomputers, was touted by its creator—Michael Donald Wise (1949-2002), the founder and president of Sphere Corporation, a computer company based in Bountiful, Utah, as the first true PC, because it had a keyboard (with a number pad), a monitor, external storage, and did not run on a punch tape (prior microcomputers lacked the user I/O interface built into the Sphere 1).

The Sphere 1 also included a keyboard-operated reset feature consisting of two keys wired in series that sent a reset signal to the CPU triggering a hard reboot. Wise considered this to be the first keyboard-activated reset, a predecessor to the now-common Ctrl-Alt-Delete key combination. The Sphere keyboard has two reset switches and both had to be pressed at the same time. One was in the upper right of the keyboard and one was in the lower left, thus a reset required two hands.

Sphere 1 (see ad 1, ad 2, and newsletter) was created by Michael Wise (with the help of his colleague, the computer engineer Monroe C. Tyler) in early 1975 and announced in November. Initially, Sphere 1 was sold as a kit but later became available to consumers fully assembled. The machine had a limited run of 1300 units (about half were sold as kits and the remainder were sold assembled), with an initial price of $650 (for the kit), and $1400 (assembled).

The Sphere 1 computer from 1975 (source:
The Sphere 1 computer from 1975 (source:

The Sphere 1 featured a Motorola 6800 microprocessor, 4KB DRAM (expandable to 64 KB), onboard 1 KB EPROM, a full-sized CRT monitor (16 lines x 32 characters), and a keyboard. The peripheral selection includes floppy disks, printers, paper tape punches and readers, additional terminals, digital I/O, etc. The ROM of a basic system contains drivers, BASIC language, a debugger, and an assembler (just imagine how to fit all this in 1 KB, in fact, its BASIC was very slow). When the disk system is purchased, the user received FDOS (disk operating system with an editor, file structure, and full assembler) (for a full description, see the Sphere 1 brochure).

Michael Wise was an inventor and creative genius, not a businessman. His company began advertising (Wise even announced Sphere 2, Sphere 3, and Sphere 4) before the product was fully debugged in order to finance its growth. Enormous, unexpected demand overwhelmed the company, which was literally killed by success (Michael Wise resigned as president in March 1976 and Sphere Co. entered bankruptcy in April 1977.) Competitors quickly filled the void. Nonetheless, the Sphere had made its mark on the history of the personal computer and contributed to both the specs and design of future generations of hardware. Sphere 1 inspired many copycats.

Biography of Michael Wise

Mike Wise and Sphere 1 computer
Mike Wise (1949-2002) and his Sphere 1 computer

Michael Donald “Mike” Wise was born on 22 June 1949, in Wiesbaden, Germany, to Donald Wise (1918-2007), a Major in the Air Force stationed in Germany, and his wife Bonnie Jean Eacho Wise (1921-1988) (married 1939). He was the third of five children (3 girls—Donna Jean, Edith, and Sandy; and 2 boys—Mike and John Keith) born to the family.

Mike attended 24 schools worldwide before graduating from High School in Brewster, Washington, in 1968.

That summer Mike began college at Brigham Young University in Utah and took a course in BASIC using an IBM 360/50. From that point on he quickly became what we would call a hacker. While in college, he wrote device drivers and two operating systems and also managed to go to school. He also started his first programming business, IPCS, in 1970, developing a mailing list program on an NCR Century 50. Other computers he used in school included the SEL-810b, IBM 1130, IBM 370/65, IBM 650, and IBM 1410.

In 1971 Mike began teaching at the College and was on staff for 18 months before leaving for an engineering company that used the PDP-11 computer in Automated Inventory Control (Robotics) applications. Wise quit two years later to start his own Sphere Corporation (together with Monroe C. Tyler) in 1975.

Later Wise was involved in the development of the TRS-80, Commodore PET, and the Macintosh, as well as in the building and selling of the first screen-based microcomputer WYSIWYG word processor, and numerous other “firsts”. Later he had also a successful career in software development starting A-Systems Co. in 1978, the first company to provide job cost accounting software for the PC, as well as his own Internet business (Splor Co.—Internet’s media and commerce network).

Michael Donald Wise passed away on 28 December 2002 (aged 53), in Salt Lake City, after a lengthy battle with diabetes.

Ed Roberts

To better understand why you need a personal computer, let’s take a look at the pathetic mess you call your life.
Dave Barry

Henry Edward Roberts (1941-2010)
M.D. Henry Edward Roberts (1941-2010)

In contrast with the first microprocessor-based personal computer—Micral of Gernelle, and the first microprocessor-based computer kit—Scelbi-8H of Wadsworth, the MITS Altair 8800 was an extremely successful market product. The designer—Ed Roberts intended to sell only a few hundred to hobbyists, but he was surprised when he sold thousands in the first month.

Altair 8800 microcomputer was sold by mail order through advertisements in Popular ElectronicsRadio-Electronics, and other hobbyist magazines. Both kits and fully assembled machines were available. Today the Altair 8800 is widely recognized as the first spark, that led to the microcomputer revolution of the next few years, because the computer bus designed for the Altair was to become a de facto standard in the form of the S-100 bus, and the first programming language for the machine was Micro-Soft’s founding product—Altair BASIC.

In 1969 an engineer, working at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico—Henry Edward Roberts (1941-2010), together with three other colleagues decided to use his electronics background to produce small kits for model rocket hobbyists. Therefore they founded Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) in Roberts’ garage in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and started selling radio transmitters and instruments for model rockets. Rocket kits didn’t achieve market success, thus later on MITS switched to calculator kits, which appeared to be a more successful venture.

The microcomputer industry really took off when Intel introduced the 8080 CPU in April of 1974. The 8080 processor was capable of addressing up to 64Kb of RAM and was powerful enough to build a real computer. Following the line of several improved models of calculator kits and test equipment, Roberts decided to design an Intel 8080-based computer, and the first prototype was ready in October 1974. At the same time, he was contacted by one of the editors of the magazine Popular Electronics, who knew MITS was working on an Intel 8080-based computer project and thought Roberts could provide the project for the always popular January issue. Thus the Altair 8800 (the name Altair was suggested by the editors, not by Roberts) was born (see the nearby image).

January 1975 cover of the magazine Popular Electronics, featuring the Altair 8800
January 1975 cover of the magazine Popular Electronics, featuring the Altair 8800

The Altair 8800 was launched at just the right time. There was already a sizable customer base who knew about computers and wanted to have one at hand—schools, colleges, electronics hobbyists, etc. Actually, there were Intel 8008-based computer systems available in 1974, but they were not powerful enough to run a high-level language like BASIC, suitable for non-professionals. The Altair had enough power to be actually useful and was designed as an expandable system, that opened it up to all sorts of applications.

Roberts optimistically told his banker that he could sell 800 computers and he knew they needed to sell 200 over the next year just to break even. To his surprise, when readers got the January issue of Popular Electronics, MITS was flooded with inquiries and orders. They had to hire extra people just to answer the phones. In February MITS received 1000 orders for the Altair. The quoted delivery time was 60 days but it was months before they could meet that. Roberts focused on delivering the computer; all of the options would wait until they could keep pace with the orders. MITS claimed to have delivered 2500 Altair 8800s by the end of May. The number was over 5000 by August 1975. MITS had under 20 employees in January but had grown to 90 by October 1975.

The Altair 8800 computer was very profitable and the expansion bus allowed MITS to sell additional memory and interface boards. Altair used a CPU Intel 8080A (rarely 8080), which worked at a speed of 2 MHz (each instruction takes 4 clock cycles). The RAM provided was only 256 bytes (“1024 word” memory) and you had to buy this memory board. The BASIC language, which was announced in July 1975, required one or two 4096-word memory boards and an interface board to be provided. The computer kit cost $439, and 2 types of memory boards were provided—1024 word Memory Board ($176) and 4096 word Memory Board ($264). Later Roberts offered also a Parallel Interface Board ($92), 2 types of Serial Interface Boards, Audio Cassette Interface Board, and Teletype.

Altair 8800
Altair 8800 computer

Initially, programming the Altair was an extremely tedious process, as a keyboard wasn’t provided. The user must toggle the switches to positions corresponding to an 8080 microprocessor instruction or opcode in binary, then use the enter switch to load the code into the machine’s memory, and then repeat this step until all the opcodes of a presumably complete and correct program were in place (see the lower image of the front panel). Sounds weird, but when the machine was first shipped, the switches and lights were the only interfaces, and all one could do with the machine was making programs to make the lights blink. Nevertheless, many boxes were sold in this form. Roberts was already hard at work on additional cards, including a paper tape reader for storage, additional RAM cards, an RS-232 serial interface to connect to a proper teletype terminal, a video card, and an 8″ floppy drive that used hard sectored floppies and stored 300 KB.

The January 1975 article for Altair excited a Harvard University undergraduate named Bill Gates, and his good friend Paul Allen, and the duo contacted Roberts to write a BASIC language interpreter for the machine. Roberts shows his interest, but… in fact Gates and Allen had no BASIC yet to offer. When they called Roberts to follow up on the letter he expressed his interest, the two started work on their BASIC interpreter, using a self-made simulator for the 8080 on a PDP-10 minicomputer. They figured they had only several weeks before someone else beat them to the punch, and once they had a version working on the simulator, Allen flew to MITS in Albuquerque to deliver the program, Altair BASIC (see the reference manual), on a paper tape. The first time it was run, it displayed Altair Basic, then crashed, but that was enough for them to join. The next day, they brought in a new paper tape and it ran (thank God 🙂 The first program ever typed in was “10 print 2+2” and after typing “run” it typed back the correct answer: “4“. Allan was offered a position by Roberts as the Director of Software and the only member of the software department 🙂 Gates, who was then still a student, started working for MITS part-time after he left school. Later, Gates and Allen would leave MITS to begin a company called Micro-Soft.

Altair 8800b (front panel)
Altair 8800b (front panel)

The January 1975 article would also inspire the creation of the Homebrew Computer Club by a group of Altair 8800 enthusiasts, and from this club emerged twenty-three computer companies, including Apple Computer.

In 1977, MITS was bought by Pertec Computer Corp. for upwards of $6 million, and Roberts retired to a life of vegetable farming in rural Georgia before going to medical school (medicine, but not electronics was his true passion) at Mercer University, where he got a medical degree in 1986. Then he worked as a country doctor in Cochran, Georgia, and died on 1 April 2010.

Nat Wadsworth

Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.
Edsger Dijkstra

Nathaniel (Nat) G. Wadsworth (30 May 1943-25 Nov 1998)
Nathaniel (Nat) G. Wadsworth (1943-1998)

It was in September 1972, when Nathaniel “Nat” G. Wadsworth (30 May 1943-25 Nov 1998), a 29-year-old electrical engineer, decided to leave his job to create a new kind of computer. Working with a few friends (Bob Findley (who became his main engineering and business partner), Fred Lucas, and Frank Zawacki) in his cottage in Milford, Connecticut, soon he started designing his computer around the new Intel 8008 microprocessor.

Nat Wadsworth show interest in electronics as a teenager, when he was a Ham radio operator since the age of 12, and at 14 made early business assembling electronic kits (heathkits). He dropped from high school and ran away from home at age 17 to join the US Navy, where he served as a shipboard radio operator in the western Pacific. Discharged from the service in 1961, he attended night school, then found a job and entered the University of Connecticut to study electrical engineering. His interest in computers began in 1965 when he worked at the electro-mechanical department of Bunker Ramo, an American electronics company. He worked on DEC PDP-5, and PDP-8 at the end of the 1960s. He even managed to buy his own PDP-8 (at the time only large companies and universities could afford that, but Nat was happy to find a cheap used machine) and wrote a lot of programs in his spare time.

In 1970 Nat got his degree (BSEE) Cum Laude from the University of Connecticut. In the autumn of 1972, he attended a seminar given by Intel Corporation, designed to introduce engineers to Intel’s new 8008 CPU-on-a-chip. He quickly became convinced that he could use the 8008 to replace a great deal of the logic chips he was using in the design of a product underway at the firm where he was then employed as an electronic engineer. His enthusiasm for the 8008 however was not appreciated by management, so he decided to leave and begin his own business.

In 1973 Wadsworth and Findley found the company Scelbi Computer Consulting (an anacronym for SCientific ELectronic BIological). Its Scelbi-8H microcomputer (H standing for hobby, as Nat’s plan was to market his computer at a low price to hobbyists through advertisements in amateur radio magazines) is now recognized as being the first microprocessor-based computer kit to hit the market (the earlier Micral wasn’t a kit, as it was only available in fully assembled form, while Scelbi was available both in kit form and as fully assembled).

The first market announcement for Scelbi-8H was a tiny advertisement in the back of the March 1974 issue of QST, an amateur radio magazine. According to the advertisement, Kit prices for the new Scelbi-8H mini-computer start as low as $440! Actually, with 1K of RAM, the price was some $500. Unfortunately, sometime in the middle of 1974, Zawacki’s and Nat’s close friendship ended, and Zawacki left the company, taking SCELBI’s major investors with him. This affected the company, in that future projects had to be financed by revenues, alone.

Scelbi-8H (see a product brochure) was based on Intel’s first 8-bit microprocessor—8008 (launched in April 1972), the predecessor to the Intel 8080 CPU, used in the Altair 8800. The 8008 was capable of addressing 16Kb of memory and started the design of the first series of microcomputers. The Scelbi-8H had 1K of RAM as a minimum, and an additional 15K of RAM could be purchased for $2760. It had a cassette tape interface, as well as Teletype and oscilloscope interfaces.

Scelbi-8H, the first microprocessor-based computer kit
Scelbi-8H, the first microprocessor-based computer kit

After the first advertisement in QST magazine, Scelbi-8H (see the nearby image) appeared in Radio-Electronics and later (September 1975) in BYTE magazine.

Scelbi-8H soon had competitors. In July 1974 Radio-Electronics published plans for a similar 8008 machine, called the Mark-8, that skilled hobbyists could fabricate for the cost of parts. Companies like MITS started selling systems based on more capable processors, such as the 8080 used in the MITS Altair 8800. SCELBI responded by introducing the Scelbi-8B model with 16K of memory (the upper limit of the 8008) and more software available for it (see an ad in Byte magazine).

No high-level programming language was available for the Scelbi-8H in the beginning (see the Users Manual of Scelbi-8H). In 1975 Wadsworth wrote a book, Machine Language Programming for the 8008 and Similar Microcomputers, that taught the assembly language and machine language programming techniques needed to use the 8H. The book included a listing of a floating point package, making it one of the first examples of non-trivial personal-computer software distribution in the spirit of what would much later become known as open source. Because of the similarities between the 8008 and the 8080, this book was purchased by many owners of non-SCELBI hardware. In 1976 Wadsworth and Findley authored a book for computer games.

As the Scelbi-8H did not sell well, it was discontinued by December 1974, and the next year an improved business-market version (named Scelbi-8B), was introduced. Some 200 Scelbi-8B boxes were produced in 1975 and sold at about $580 each, but it also did not become a big market success (as the production cost of the kit was about $1000, so money lost on hardware was recovered through software sales).

Scelbi Computer Consulting discovered that they made more money selling software books than hardware, so by the late 1970’s the company had discontinued making hardware and switched to highly documented software published in book form, including many games, a monitor, an editor, an assembler, and a high-level language dubbed SCELBAL (a dialect of BASIC, that incorporated Wadsworth’s floating-point package), to compete against Altair BASIC.

In 1982, Wadsworth sold the SCELBI publishing business to Hayden Publishing and started exploring pocket computer technology. In 1988, he had the design done for a new pocket computer that he thought would revolutionize the industry. He had parts on hand and was ready to build the first production units when his heart stopped again (he had already survived several heart attacks and two heart surgeries). He survived again, but with heavy damage to his body and mind. On 25 Nov 1998, Nat’s heart stopped again, this time forever.

An Wang

Success is more a function of consistent common sense than it is of genius.
An Wang

An Wang (1920-1990)
An Wang (1920-1990)

Wang Laboratories was a computer company founded (with $15000) in June 1951 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Dr. An Wang (1920-1990). An Wang emigrated from China in 1945 (he became a US citizen in 1954) and had gotten Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in applied physics from 1945 to 1948 at Harvard. Wang later made some key inventions in the development of core memory technology (the predominant form of random-access computer memory between about 1955 and 1975) and pulse transfer controlling devices (implemented in the Whirlwind computer) and floppy disk drives. At its peak in the 1980s, Wang Labs had annual revenues of $3 billion and employed over 33000 people.

By the mid-1960s, Wang Labs had already made a name for itself in building a series of increasingly sophisticated electronic calculators, such as LOCI, the Wang 300 and 700 families, and many derivative products. Seeing that calculators were getting cheaper and developments in LSI technology would soon make them a commodity item, An Wang decided to develop a general-purpose computer. After several failures, finally he found success with the Wang 2200 computer. Within three years, Wang had sold more than 10000 of the machines (some 65000 systems were shipped in its lifetime), a remarkable success.

The first Wang 2200 (see Wang 2200 A/B Reference Manual) was shipped in May 1973. Over time, various kinds of peripherals were developed, and enhancements were made to Wang BASIC with new microcode.

The Wang 2200 from the brochure
The Wang 2200 from the brochure

Build before the era of the widespread use of microprocessors, the Wang 2200 processor consists of a couple of hundred TTL chips spread over half a dozen boards and housed in a heavy steel box. It had a capable BASIC interpreter (written in microcode, there was no machine code that a user could access, unlike microcomputers that would come years later), meaning it could be turned on and used within seconds.

The 64×16 cathode ray tube (CRT) display made editing and running programs interactive and immediate, in comparison with the then-standard method of studying printouts on green bar paper. The 2200 was also expandable; eventually, nearly 100 different peripherals were developed for the system.

Over the years, the 2200 evolved to a desktop computer with an ever-more powerful BASIC dialect, to accommodate multiple users simultaneously, to support up to 16 workstations, and utilized commercial disk technologies that appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s. New models were produced for nearly 20 years before Wang ended the development.

Biography of An Wang

An Wang (1920-1990)
An Wang (1920-1990)

An Wang was born on 7 February 1920, in Kunshan, Shanghai, China, as the eldest of five children. His mother, Zen Wan (Chien) Wang was a homemaker, his father studied at Shanghai Jiao-Tong University (formerly Nanyang Public School) and his family had been practicing Chinese medicine for generations. An lived in Shanghai with his mother’s family when he was a child, while his father taught English at a private primary school in Kunshan. At the age of six, An moved back to Kunshan to go to school. Because there was no first or second grade in that primary school, he began to study in the third grade. As extracurriculars, his father taught him English, and his grandmother taught him Chinese literature and history. An entered junior high school as the top student in the whole Kunshan district and came to the famous Shanghai high school at the age of 13. In 1936, at the age of 16, he was admitted to Jiao-Tong university to study electrical engineering, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1940, then taught there for a year, then worked as an engineer at the Chinese National Government Central Radio Station.

After the war and devastation in China and the loss of half his family, Wang moved to the United States in June 1945 as part of a Chinese government program, to attend Harvard University for graduate school, earning a Ph.D. in applied physics in 1948. After graduation, he worked at Harvard as a research fellow in its Computation Laboratory with Howard Aiken on the design of the Mark IV, Aiken’s first fully electronic computer. At the end of the 1940s, Wang co-invented the pulse transfer controlling device with Way-Dong Woo, a schoolmate from China. The new device implemented write-after-read which made magnetic core memory possible. Wang’s patent (US pat. Nr. 2708722) was one of the most important for core memory and IBM paid him $500,000 in 1955 for rights to it.

Harvard reduced its commitment to computer research in 1951, prompting Wang to start his own engineering business, thus he founded Wang Laboratories in June 1951 as a sole proprietorship. The company became one of the world’s most successful computer companies and by 1984, Wang and his family owned about 55 percent of the company stock, and Forbes magazine, estimating his worth at $1.6 billion, ranked him as the fifth richest American. When Wang looked to retire from actively running his company in 1981, earnings at Wang Labs fell from $210 million in 1984 to $15.5 million in 1985. In July 1985, Wang resumed the presidency and saw profits increase to $50.9 million in 1986. In 1986 he retired again, insisting upon handing over the corporate reins to his elder son Fred (An’s younger son Courtney was a vice president). Hard times ensued for the company and An Wang was eventually forced to remove Fred in 1989. By then the company’s fortunes were already sinking, and Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992.

Wang is one of the most prolific American inventors (he held 40 patents and 23 honorary degrees) and also was given the Presidential Medal of Liberty by President Reagan. He is considered the creator of word processing as well as a pioneer of the electronic calculator.

In July 1949 An Wang married (second time) Lorraine (Chur) Wang (1920-2016), who was also from Shanghai and immigrated to America in the mid-1940s to do post-graduate work in English Literature at Wellesley College. The family lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and had three children: Frederick (born in 1951), Courtney (born in 1956), and Juliette (born in 1964).

In his 1986 autobiography, “Lessons,” Wang attributed his success to typical American business daring, his Confucian values and beliefs, and his skill in being able to “go for a long time without shooting oneself in the foot.”

An Wang, one of America’s wealthiest men, who had given away tens of millions of dollars to charities, died of esophageal cancer on 24 March 1990, in Boston, Massachusetts.

François Gernelle

Computer users soon learn that the miraculous powers of personal computers are based on the avoidance of error.
Robert Burchfield

François Gernelle in 1973
François Gernelle in 1973

It is a difficult task to define the term personal computer, but one of the popular definitions is containing the following criteria:
• small, stand-alone
• general purpose
• advanced microelectronics technology (microprocessor)
• operated by a single individual, interactively
• no requisite computer training
• affordable by an individual or small group

It appears the first computer, fulfilling the all abovementioned conditions is Micral N. It was introduced in early 1973, powered by Intel’s 8008 chip, and was the first commercial non-kit computer based on a microprocessor. It was conceived in France by François Gernelle (born 20 December 1944), an ex-engineer at Intertechnique (a french high-tech company, specializing in electronic measurement for aviation). The term microcomputer first appeared in print in reference namely to the Micral.

The Micral-N was initially developed for the I.N.R.A. (French National Institute for Agronomic Research) which was looking for a computer for process control in its hygrometric measurements but didn’t have sufficient budget to buy the lowest “mini” at the time (e.g. Digital Equipment PDP-8), so Gernelle proposed to make a computer for them for half the price. The development began in July 1972, in a hut in Chatenay-Malabry (Paris suburbs), with Gernelle and three of his collaborators: Benchetrit (software engineer), Alain Lacombe (electrical technician), and Jean-Claude Beckmann (in charge of the mechanical part).

In 1973-74 François Gernelle applied for patents for different features of Micral in France (patent FR2216883), Germany (patent DE2404886), Netherlands (patent NL7401328), Japan (patent JP50117333), and the USA (patent US3974480 for Data Processing System).

The french Micral N from 1973
The french Micral N from 1973

The first Micral (see the nearby image) was delivered to the INRA in January 1973, and commercialized in February 1973 by the French company Réalisation d’Études Électroniques (founded in 1972 by Gernelle and his ex-colleague Andre Truong), for the amazing price (at the time) of FF 8500 (about $1750).

The 8008 CPU, that powered the Micral was essentially an improvement of Intel’s first microprocessor—4004 and was Intel’s first 8-bit processor. It was available as a DIL chip with 18 pins and was originally intended to be a custom chip for Computer Terminals Corp. of Texas (later known as Datapoint). CTC rejected the 8008 because it was too slow and required too many supporting chips, and when Intel offered it to the open market, it was not quite successful. The Micral’s CPU was working at 500 KHz (period 2µs), running approximately 50000 instructions per second. It was set on a bus and did have MOS memory, parallel and serial I/O cards, and a real-time system. In one word, it had all the characteristics of nowadays computers.

The software was written on an Intertechnique Multi-8 minicomputer, using a cross-assembler. Micral had a back-panel bus, the so-called Pluribus with a 74-pin connector. 14 boards could be plugged into a Pluribus. With two Pluribus, the Micral could support up to 24 boards. R2E developed many boards for Pluribus: a processor board, memory boards, channel boards named “channel-stack”, communications adapters, digital I/O boards, analog I/O boards, floppy disk, hard disk, and magnetic cartridges controllers. The computer used MOS memory instead of core memory. It had eight levels of interrupt and a stack. Micral was programmed with perforated cards and used a teletype as output.

An 8-inch floppy disk reader was added to the Micral in December 1973, following a command of the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique. This was made possible by the pile-canal, a buffer than could accept one megabyte per second. In 1974, a keyboard and display were fitted to the Micral computers. A hard disk became available in 1975. In 1979, the Micral 8031 D was equipped with a 5″ 1/4 inches hard disk of 5 Megabytes made by Seagate.

Micral C design team in 1977 (Joubert, Beckmann, Gernelle, and Francina)
Micral C design team in 1977 (Joubert, Beckmann, Gernelle, and Francina)

The Micral processor board embarked on the 8088 with its addressing capability of 16 KB (address field 14 bits).

The following Micral computers successively used the Intel 8080 at 1 MHz (Micral G and Micral S), Zilog Z80 (Micral CZ), and Intel 8088 as microprocessors. The Micral M was a multiprocessor. The original SYSMIC operating system was renamed Prologue in 1978. The last Micral designed by François Gernelle was the 9020. In 1981, R2E was bought by Groupe Bull. Starting with the Bull Micral 30, which could use both Prologue and MS-DOS, Groupe Bull transformed the Micral computers into a line of PC compatibles. François Gernelle left Bull in 1983.

The Micral series was a rather successful market product. The company R2E sold about 90000 units of the Micral that were mostly used in vertical applications such as highway toll booths and process control.

The initial software available on Micral was application specific and the Prologue operating system was developed during the late 1970s. It was to be one of the operating systems available to PC compatibles.

Edgar Codd

At the time, Nixon was normalizing relations with China. I figured that if he could normalize relations, then so could I.
Edgar Codd

Edgar Codd (1923-2003)
Edgar Codd (1923-2003)

The English computer scientist Edgar Codd is the creator of the relational databases model, an extremely influential general theory of data management, the foundation of RDBMS (Relational Databases Management Systems), used everywhere nowadays.

In the early 1940s Edgar studied mathematics and chemistry at Exeter College, Oxford, before serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II. In 1948, after graduating from Oxford, he moved to New York and was soon hired by IBM as a programmer for the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, IBM’s first electronic computer, an experimental machine with 12500 vacuum tubes. He then invented a novel “multiprogramming” method for the pioneering IBM 7040 STRETCH computer. This method enabled STRETCH, the forerunner to modern mainframe computers, to run several programs at the same time. In 1953, disappointed by the USA policy, Codd moved to Ottawa, Canada. A decade later he returned to the USA and received his doctorate in computer science from the University of Michigan. Two years later he moved to San Jose, California, to work at IBM’s San Jose Research Laboratory.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Codd worked out his theories of data arrangement, based on mathematical set theory. He wanted to store data in cross-referenced tables, allowing the information to be presented in multiple permutations. It was a revolutionary approach. In 1969 he published an internal IBM paper, describing his ideas for replacing the hierarchical or navigational structure with simple tables containing rows and columns, but without great success and interest. Codd firmly believed that computer users should be able to work at a more natural-language level and not be concerned about the details of where or how the data was stored. In 1970 Codd published his landmark paper, A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks.

Codd’s concept of data arrangement was seen within IBM as an “intellectual curiosity” at best and, at worst, as undermining IBM’s existing products. Codd’s ideas however were picked up by local entrepreneurs and resulted in the formation of firms such as Oracle (today the number two independent software firm after Microsoft), Ingres, Informix, and Sybase.

Let’s see how Don Chamberlin, an IBM colleague of Codd and coinventor of SQL, was acquainted with Codd’s ideas: “…since I’d been studying CODASYL (the language used to query navigational databases), I could imagine how those queries would have been represented in CODASYL by programs that were five pages long, that would navigate through this labyrinth of pointers and stuff. Codd would sort of write them down as one-liners. … They weren’t complicated at all. I said, ‘Wow.’ This was kind of a conversion experience for me. I understood what the relational thing was about after that.”

To Codd’s disappointment, IBM proved slow to exploit his suggestions until commercial rivals started implementing them. Initially, IBM refused to implement the relational model at all for business reasons (to preserve revenue from its current database implementation—IMS/DB.

In 1973 IBM finally included the relational model of Codd in his plans, for the System R subproject, but Codd was not involved in the project. Among the critical technologies developed for System R is the Structured Query Language (SQL), (initially called SEQUEL) developed by Chamberlin and Ray Boyce. Boyce later worked with Codd to develop the Boyce-Codd Normal Form for efficiently designing relational database tables so information was not needlessly duplicated in different tables.

In 1981 IBM released to market its first relational database product, SQL/DS. DB2, initially for large mainframe machines, was announced in 1983. IBM’s DB2 family of databases proved to be one of IBM’s most successful software products and is incorporated in the operating systems of the mainframe and middleware servers of IBM.

Still, in IBM, Codd continued to develop and extend his relational model. As the relational model started to become fashionable in the early 1980s, Codd fought a sometimes bitter campaign to prevent the term from being misused by database vendors who had merely added a relational veneer to older technology. As part of this campaign, he published his famous 12 rules to define what constituted a relational database.

Later he joined up with the British database guru Chris Date, whom Codd had introduced to San Jose in 1971, to form the Codd and Date Consulting Group. The company, which included Codd’s second wife Sharon Weinberg, made a good living from conducting seminars, writing books, and advising major database vendors. Codd never became rich like the entrepreneurs like Larry Ellison, who exploited his ideas. He remained active as a consultant until 1999.

Biography of Ted Codd

Edgar (Ted) Frank Codd (1923-2003)
Edgar (Ted) Frank Codd (1923-2003)

Edgar (Ted) Frank Codd was born on 19 August 1923, in Fortuneswell, on the Isle of Portland in the county of Dorset on the south coast of England. He was the youngest of seven children of Edgar Codd, a leather manufacturer, and Katherine Adcock, a schoolteacher.

During the 1930s Codd attended Poole Grammar School in Dorset. He was awarded a full scholarship to Oxford University (Exeter College), where he initially read chemistry (1941-1942). In 1942, despite the fact that he was eligible for a deferment because of his studies, Codd volunteered for active duty and became a flight lieutenant, then captain, in the Royal Air Force Coastal Command. After the war, in 1945, he returned to Oxford to complete his studies, switching to mathematics and obtaining his degree in 1948.

As part of his service in the RAF, Codd was sent to the United States for aviation training. That experience led to a lifelong love of recreational flying, and also to a recognition that the United States had a great deal to offer for someone of a creative bent like himself. As a consequence, he emigrated to the United States soon after graduating in 1948. After a brief period with Macy’s in New York City, working as a sales clerk in the men’s sportswear department, he found a job as a mathematics lecturer at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he taught for six months.

Codd’s computing career began in June 1949 when he joined IBM in New York City as a programming mathematician. In 1953, Codd left the United States (and IBM) in protest against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunting and moved to Ottawa, Canada, where he ran the data processing department for Computing Devices of Canada Limited (which was involved in the development of the Canadian guided missile program). A chance meeting with his old IBM manager led to his return to the U.S. in 1957 when he rejoined IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York. Codd retired from IBM in 1984 at the age of 61, after a serious injury resulting from a fall. Then he established two companies to provide worldwide lecturing and consulting services to vendors and users of database management systems and continues to write technical papers in response to ill-conceived criticisms of the relational model.

At the end of the 1960s, Codd became a U.S. citizen, though he never lost his British accent, his British sense of humor, or his British love for a good cup of tea.

Codd had a long list of honors and elected positions that were conferred on him during his lifetime, including IBM Fellow; Fellow of the Britain Computer Society; member of the National Academy of Engineering; member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. In 1981 he received the ACM Turing Award, the most prestigious award in the field of computer science.

Codd was married twice. First, in 1952, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he married Elizabeth Shannon Forbes, a daughter of George Shannon Forbes, professor emeritus of chemistry at Harvard. They had four children: Katherine, David, Frank, and Ronald. They divorced in 1978 and in 1990 Codd married Sharon Boroff Weinberg.

The genuine computing pioneer Edgar Frank Codd died of heart failure at his home in Williams Island, Florida, on 18 April 2003.

Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard

Object-oriented programming is an exceptionally bad idea that could only have originated in California.
Edsger Dijkstra

Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard
Ole-Johan Dahl (left) and Kristen Nygaard

The first object-oriented programming language was developed in the 1960s at the Norwegian Computing Center in Oslo, by two Norwegian computer scientists—Ole-Johan Dahl (1931-2002) and Kristen Nygaard (1926-2002).

Kristen Nygaard, an MS in mathematics at the University of Oslo, started writing computer simulation programs in 1957. He was seeking a better way to describe the heterogeneity and the operation of a system. To go further with his ideas on a formal computer language for describing a system, Nygaard realized that he needed someone with more computer programming skills than he had, thus he contacted Ole-Johan Dahl, also an MS in mathematics and one of Norway’s foremost computer scientist, who joined him in January 1962.

By May 1962 the main concepts for a simulation language were set. “SIMULA I” was born, a special-purpose programming language (similar to ALGOL 60) for simulating discrete event systems. SIMULA I was fully operational by January 1965 on the UNIVAC 1107 computer of Sperry Rand. In the following years, Dahl and Nygaard spent a lot of time teaching Simula. Simula spread to several countries around the world and was later implemented on Burroughs B5500 computers and the Russian URAL-16 computer.

In 1966 the British computer scientist Tony Hoare introduced the concept of record class construct, which Dahl and Nygaard extended with the concept of prefixing and other features to meet their requirements for a new generalized process concept. The first formal definition of Simula 67 appeared in May 1967. In June 1967 a conference was held to standardize the language and initiate a number of implementations. Dahl proposed to unify the type and the class concept. This led to serious discussions, and the proposal was rejected by the board. SIMULA 67 was formally standardized at the first meeting of the SIMULA Standards Group in February 1968.

Simula 67 contained many of the concepts that are now available in mainstream OO languages such as Java, C++, and C#:
• Class and object. The class concept is a template for creating instances (objects).
• Subclass. Classes may be organized in a classification hierarchy by means of subclasses.
• Virtual methods. A Simula class may define virtual methods that can be redefined in subclasses.
• Active objects. An object in Simula may be the head of an active thread (technically it is a coroutine).
• Action combination. Simula has an inner-construct for combining the action-parts of a class and its subclass.
• Processes and schedulers. It is easy in Simula to write new concurrency abstractions including schedulers.
• Frameworks. Simula provided the first OO framework in form of Class Simulation. The simulation features of Simula I was made available through Class Simulation.
• Automatic memory management. Simula had automatic memory management, including garbage collection.

Rene Pardo and Remy Landau

The global economy is built on two things: the internal combustion engine and Microsoft Excel. Never forget this.
Kevin Hector

Rene K. Pardo (image source:
Rene K. Pardo (image source:

After the pioneering work of Canadian Professor Richard Mattessich (1922-2019), who suggested in 1961 to use budget simulation in form of a computerized spreadsheet, the next key invention in the development of electronic spreadsheets was made in the summer of 1969 by his compatriots Rene Pardo and Remy Landau, who just graduated from Harvard University.

The program, called LANPAR (LANguage for Programming Arrays at Random or LANdau PARdo) was developed by Pardo and Landau in response to the problem that Bell Canada and AT&T had in changing the numerous cells in their budgeting forms. Pardo imagined, that the managers at Bell Canada shouldn’t depend on programmers to program and modify budgeting forms (which took several months), and he thought of letting users type out forms in any order and having an electronic computer calculate results in the right order (“Forward Referencing/Natural Order Calculation”). LANPAR, written for 6 weeks in the middle of 1969, introduced forward referencing and natural order recalculation, which allowed for a complex set of connections to be quickly charted across the array of cells of an electronic ledger. LANPAR was sold to the Plant Budgeting Divisions of Bell Canada, AT&T, and the 18 Operating Telephone Companies across the U.S., in addition to General Motors in Michigan. The program was written in Fortran language, coded on punch tapes, and ran on the General Electric GE-400 Time Sharing Series on several computers in North America and on mainframes Honeywell 6000 series used by Bell Canada, AT&T, and General Motors.

In August 1970 Pardo and Landau filed a U.S. Patent 4,398,249 on a spreadsheet automatic natural order calculation algorithm. While the patent was initially rejected by the patent office as being a purely mathematical invention, following 12 years of appeals, Pardo and Landau won a landmark court case at the Predecessor Court of the Federal Circuit, overturning the Patent Office in 1983 — establishing that “something does not cease to become patentable merely because the point of novelty is in an algorithm.”

Rene Pardo on the cover of ComputerData magazine, July 1982
Rene Pardo on the cover of ComputerData magazine, July 1982

Rene K. Pardo was born in 1947 in Lausanne-Pully, Switzerland, to parents who were residents of Egypt, with ancestry from Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ukraine. His family emigrated to Canada when he was at the age of 4. In the New World Pardo studied at Westmount High School (1964) in Westmount, Quebec, then got his BSc degree at McGill University (1968) in Montreal, and an M.Ed. degree at Harvard University (1969).

In 1970 Pardo founded LANPAR Technologies Inc. in Markham, Ontario. Until the early 1980s, LANPAR was Canada’s largest independent distributor of computer terminals, between 1982 and 1988, the company was involved in the distribution and manufacturing of personal computers, then shift its corporate focus to sales and service of PC networking products. The company was dissolved in January 2003. Pardo also founded companies for Digital Image Library and Online Communities, advanced hybrid capacitor-battery energy storage technology, advanced membrane technology, providing clean drinking water and electricity for emerging nations with portable solar-wind powered technology, area lighting LED technology, and innovations in the electrical & construction industry, energy management & control.

Besides their seminal work in the area of electronic spreadsheets, Pardo and Landau pioneered also: 1. The educational multimedia game & online computer timesharing-based multiplayer games; 2. Online conference registration and message retrieval system; 3. Artistic computer-assisted animation.

Dan Bricklin

I’m not rich because I invented VisiCalc, but I feel that I’ve made a change in the world. That’s a satisfaction money can’t buy.
Dan Bricklin

Daniel Singer Bricklin
Daniel Singer Bricklin

In the spring of 1978, a Harvard Business School student, Dan Bricklin, came up with the idea for an interactive visible calculator, the program (called VisiCalc), which will be called later the First Killer App of the Computer Era.

Bricklin certainly was not the inventor of the electronic spreadsheet. The first known ideas for such a program were from 1961 when Richard Mattessich (1922-2019), Professor of Accounting at the University of British Columbia, pioneered the development of computerized spreadsheets for use in business accounting. Then in 1969 Rene Pardo and Remy Landau co-invented “LANPAR” LANguage for Programming Arrays at Random, an electronic spreadsheet-type application, which was used for budgeting at Bell Canada, AT&T, Bell operating companies, and General Motors. Mattessich, Pardo, and Landau’s work and that of other developers of spreadsheets on mainframe computers probably had no influence on Bricklin however. Thus, a history of the modern era of microcomputer-based electronic spreadsheets should begin with VisiCalc.

Daniel Singer Bricklin was born on 16 July 1951, in Philadelphia, USA, where he attended Akiba Hebrew Academy during his high school years. Then he received a B.S. in electrical engineering/computer science from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), before going for an MBA from Harvard University in 1977.

Once sitting in his room, as he remembered …I would daydream. “Imagine if my calculator had a ball in its back, like a mouse…” (I had seen a mouse previously, I think in a demonstration at a conference by Doug Engelbart, and maybe the Alto). And “…imagine if I had a heads-up display, like in a fighter plane, where I could see the virtual image hanging in the air in front of me. I could just move my mouse/keyboard calculator around on the table, punch in a few numbers, circle them to get a sum, do some calculations, and answer ‘10% will be fine!'” (10% was always the answer in those days when we couldn’t do very complicated calculations…).

Later in the summer of 1978, between the first and second year of the MBA program, while riding a bike along a path on Martha’s Vineyard, he decided that he wanted to pursue this idea and create a real product to sell after I graduated.

Dan Bricklin (right) and Bob Frankston (left)
Dan Bricklin (right) and Bob Frankston (left)

So in the spring of 1978, Bricklin tried prototyping the product’s display screen in Basic on a video terminal connected to the Business School’s timesharing system. His hope for using a mouse was replaced in the first personal computer prototype in the early fall of 1978 by the game paddle of the Apple ][. (This was a dial one could turn to move game objects back and forth). One could move the cursor left or right, and then push the “fire” button, and then turning the paddle would move the cursor up and down. The R-C circuit or whatever in the Apple ][ was too sluggish and my pointing too imprecise to accurately position the cursor that way, so I switched to the two arrow keys of the Apple ][ keyboard (it only had 2) and used the space bar instead of the button to switch from horizontal movement to vertical.

The first PC prototype of VisiCalc was created over a weekend on an Apple ][ (using Apple Integer Basic), borrowed for the purpose from a friend, Dan Fylstra, later his publisher. It did not scroll, yet, but it had columns and rows and some arithmetic.

Then Bricklin decided to recruit a more experienced programmer, to do a real, assembler version of the program (first for the MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor used in the Apple ][). Thus he called his MIT colleague Bob Frankston, to build production code (faster speed, better arithmetic, scrolling, etc.). Frankston not only managed to code the program in assembler (using an assembler, which ran on a minicomputer equipped with the Multics operating system) but also expanded the program and packed the code into a mere 20k of machine memory, making it both powerful and practical enough to be run on a microcomputer. Actually, the size of the program was the biggest problem for Frankston, because Apple II had limited memory, and 16 KB of RAM on the low-end Apple II. No matter how hard Frankston tried, however, he could not fit VisiCalc in the 16, that’s why VisiCalc would only be available for the much more expensive 32 KB Apple II.

A screenshot from the first version of VisiCalc
A screenshot from the first version of VisiCalc

Bricklin and Frankston formed Software Arts Corporation in January 1979. In May 1979, the firm Personal Software of Dan Fylstra (later renamed VisiCorp) began marketing VisiCalc with a teaser ad in Byte Magazine (see the nearby image). Initially, Bricklin conceived several names for the program, between them Calcu-ledger and Calcu-paper, but the name “VisiCalc” is an abbreviated form of the phrase “visible calculator” that was chosen by Dan Fylstra.

VisiCalc was one of the key products that helped bring the microcomputer from the hobbyist’s desk into the office. Before the release of this groundbreaking software, microcomputers were thought of as toys; VisiCalc changed that.

VisiCalc went on sale in November of 1979 (see the User’s Guide of VisiCalc 1.1) and became immediately a big hit. It retailed for US$100 and sold so well that many dealers started bundling the Apple II with VisiCalc. The success of VisiCalc was one of the main reasons Apple to be turned into a successful company, selling tens of thousands of the pricey 32 KB Apple IIs to businesses that wanted them only for the spreadsheet.

In 1981, Software Arts made over $12 million in royalties from VisiCalc. It became Personal Software’s flagship product, financing the groundbreaking VisiOn office suite and GUI. Just before the release of VisiOn, Personal Software was renamed VisiCorp.

The success wouldn’t last long, though. Soon, more powerful clones of VisiCalc were released.

In 1983, Lotus 1-2-3 was released. It was available exclusively for the IBM PC and other MS-DOS computers, and it quickly outsold VisiCalc. Lotus worked a lot like VisiCalc, which made migration easy, and it took full advantage of the PC’s 80-column display and vast amounts of memory, which allowed much bigger spreadsheets than the Apple II could handle.

In 1980 Microsoft also released a spreadsheet, MultiPlan, then Excel in 1985. Countless other developers heated up, and tensions developed between VisiCorp and Software Arts. Eventually, VisiCorp sued Software Arts when the company delayed the development of VisiCalc for the IBM PC so they could first finish a version for the Apple IIe and III.

Software Arts’ assets were eventually sold to Lotus, which unsurprisingly stopped the development of VisiCalc.