05/12/2021

040 – Early PC contenders – 1972

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Never trust a computer you can’t throw out a window.  Steve Wozniak

In the 1960s Mers Kutt, working at a university in Ontario, Canada, became frustrated by having to prepare punched cards to load programs onto a mainframe.  Looking for another approach he produced the Key Edit, a device allowing users to key programs directly into the mainframe and then edit the input.  He developed a strong relationship with Fujitsu with this product.

Knowing Bob Noyce of Intel personally, he obtained early access to that company’s microprocessor developments, beginning work on the 4004.  He later acquired some very early 8008 MPUs and used these to develop a PC.

The MCM/70 was a small desktop computer; it looked something like a large calculator with an integrated ‘chiclet’ keyboard and twin audio cassette recorders.  Disappointingly it had a Burroughs plasma display with a single line of 32 characters.  Subsequently it did include a floppy-disc drive, printers, plotters, card readers and an early RS232 interface. 

Kutt founded Micro Computer Machines in Toronto, Canada.  The MCM/70 was formally released in Canada in September 1973 and then sequentially launched in New York, Boston and a number of European locations.

It attracted interest from business, scientific and educational users, selling for example to the US Army and to the NASA Goddard Flight Center. 

It was not inexpensive at Can$4,950 for the 2K version without cassette recorder and Can$9,820 in its full glory; the Canadian dollar was then equivalent to the US dollar. 

The MCM/70 offered A Programming Language, an interpreter previously only available on mainframes.  As APL was hot at the time with universities around a third of MCM/70s were sold into education.

While MCM was one of the first true PCs, it lasted as a company and as a product for just a decade.  It was also the first portable at just 20lbs (9kg) and the first to achieve some serious end-user applications thanks to its APL.

Scientific Electronic Biological, another early contender, was founded by design engineer Nat Wadsworth. The Scelbi, which was pronounced as ‘sell-bee’, could be purchased as a kit or ready-assembled.  At just thirty years of age Wadsworth suffered a heart attack but recovered to complete the project.

Announced in QST, Radio Electronics and Byte magazines in March 1974, the Scelbi-8H kit cost $565 with 1K of RAM; a further 15K cost $2,760!   Wadsworth issued a book on its assembly language offering machine code techniques.

It was well received but Wadsworth had a second heart attack which forced him to scale down his ambitions.  As a result the Scelbi faded away after selling around two hundred units.

Not a quitter, while in hospital Wadsworth wrote a book on machine language programming for the 8008; this sold over 1,500 copies at $20 a shot.

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