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Brief History of the Progression of Computer Technology

The Personal Computer

In 1972, Intel brought out its 8008 chip, capable of processing 8-bits of data, enough to convey numbers and letters of the alphabet. In that same year, Xerox began working on a personal computer at their Palo Alto Research Center. For the next several years, a team of Xerox scientists worked on the "Alto," a small computer that would have become the first PC if only the development team had been able to convince someone of its usefulness.

Likewise, in 1972 Digital Equipment Corporation, a minicomputer manufacturing company headed by Kenneth Olsen, had a group of product engineers developing the DEC Datacenter. This PC incorporated not only the computer hardware but the desk as well. The DEC Datacenter could have put tremendous computing capability in the home or at work, but management saw no value to the product and halted its development.

In the end, none of the giant companies whose names had been synonymous with computers would introduce the PC to the world. There seemed to be no future in an inexpensive product that would replace the million dollar mainframes that they were selling as fast as they could make them.

In 1975, Rubik's Cube was put on store shelves and proved to many that the human brain was incapable of complex problem solving. But a ray of hope also appeared; the first PC was introduced. Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, Inc. sold a kit for the MITS Altair 8800 that enabled computer hobbyists to assemble their own computers. It had no monitor, no keyboard, no printer, and couldn't store data, but the demand for it, like Rubik's Cube, was overwhelming. The Altair proved that a PC was both possible and popular, but only with those people who would spend hours in their basements with soldering irons and wire strippers. The Altair, which looked like a control panel for a sprinkler system, didn't last, but it helped launch one of the largest companies in the computer world and gave a couple of young software programmers a start.

In 1974, Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a version of BASIC for the Altair and started a company called Microsoft Corporation.

In 1976, another computer kit was sold to hobbyists - the Apple I. Stephen Wozniak sold his Volkswagen and Steve Jobs sold his programmable calculator to get enough money to start Apple. In 1977, they introduced the Apple II, a pre-assembled PC with a color monitor, sound, and graphics. It was popular, but everyone knew that a serious computer didn't need any of this. The kits were just a hobby and the Apple II was seen as a toy. Even the Apple name wasn't a serious, corporate sounding name like IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, or Control Data. Apple introduced the floppy disk drive in 1978, allowing Apple II users to store data on something other than the cumbersome and unreliable tape cassettes that had been used up to that point. But despite the popularity of PCs, non-computer people still saw little reason to buy an expensive calculator when there were other ways to do the same things. In 1979, that all changed.

When VisiCalc was introduced for the Apple II, non-computer people suddenly saw a reason to buy a computer. VisiCalc, a spreadsheet program created by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, allowed people to change one number in a budget and watch the effect it had on the entire budget. It was something new and valuable that could only be done with a computer. For thousands of people, the toy, the computer few could find a use for, had been transformed into a device that could actually do something worthwhile.

Even with all of the success the early PC manufacturers had in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the advances in microprocessor speeds, and the creation of software, the PC was still not seen as a serious business tool. Unknown to everyone in the computer industry; however, a huge oak tree was about to drop an acorn that would fall close to the tree and change everything.

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