05/12/2021

038 – French evolutions – 1972

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…a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit.
But its very simplicity and the great ease which it lent to all computations
put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions…  Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace

The first commercial non-kit based PC was created in France to control hygrometric, atmospheric and humidity measurements at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique.   The organisation was renamed R2E, Realisations Études Électroniques SA; André Truong Trong Thi from Vietnam became CEO. 

François Gernelle led the design of the hardware and Philippe Kahn developed Sysmic, the multi-tasking software; renamed Prologue.  Launched in June 1972, Micral-N had all the attributes of a PC, predating Scelbi by a year and Altair by two!

R2E pursued high-value applications such as process-control and road-toll booths where its cost at 8,500 French francs (c$1,300) was affordable; 90,000 Micral Ns were sold.

R2E later developed systems around the 8080, 8088 and Z80 microprocessors.  1981 it merged with Groupe Bull and designed IBM PC compatibles.

Gernelle left in 1983 and Kahn concluded that to be successful he needed to be in the USA.  He took a job with Hewlett Packard, leaving to form Borland in 1982.

Kahn went on to grow Borland into a $500m listed business.  Later he launched Starfish Software, then LightSurf Technologies and is credited with developing the first camera phone.  Later still he founded FullPower Technologies which developed MotionX and MotionX-GPS for Apple’s iPhone and iTouch.

Truong Trong Thi sought to be recognised as the inventor of the first PC.  French courts in 1998 decided he was merely the R2E entrepreneur, not the inventor, and awarded that status to François Gernelle.

Truong Trong Thi left Bull to join Normerel where he developed the Oplite PC;1988 Normerel was third largest PC company in France.

France’s Institut de Recherche d’lnformatique et d’Automatique funded several local manufacturers and research institutions to develop a packet-switching approach.

1972 Louis Pouzin had worked on MULTICS and the CTSS time-share system at MIT and he had used ARPANET.  He was a natural choice to develop a means to connect French government departments.  Pouzin felt the ARPANET had blind spots or weaknesses, specifically in its over-reliance on hardware.

His system was named Cyclades, from the scattered Greek island group which was symbolic of the task.  The system’s packets were ‘datagrams’, a contraction of data and telegram.  It became CIGALE, the French word for cicada, a choice based on the chirping sound heard through a small speaker as datagrams passed through.

Pouzin’s innovation was software that encapsulated the datagram; in this way the hardware was relieved of the delivery task.  ARPANET handled its packets sequentially; Pouzin’s datagrams became muddled along the way but the software sorted them out at the other end.

The first demonstration led to three connections by February 1974 and it soon reached sixteen universities.  But later in 1974 a new French government decided computing be industry-run without government support. by 1981 Cyclades was dead.

Pouzin’s work did pave the way for host computers to take responsibility for their own packets; it was this approach that prevailed on the Internet.

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