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.