1970s personal computer revolution: How people back then used computers, and imagined the future

An Apple II advertisement from the December 1977 issue of Byte m

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The 1970s personal computer revolution began as those ingenious devices that put men on the moon, revolutionized science, and perplexed millions were finding their way into the home.

Computers in the homes? Wave of the future is now! (1977)

It’s a weekday evening, sometime in the near future.

This Bucks-Mont family has just finished dinner and is settling into its normal weeknight routine. The children go to the VDTs in their room to work on their homework. Tonight’s assignment is in Levels 1 and 2 BASIC.

Mom putting the dishes in the dishwasher and programs the central processing unit to do the dishes and, while she’s at it, gives the unit new climate control instructions. Meanwhile, Dad is on his way to the store to buy that much-needed additional 2K memory he and the wife have been meaning to get.

Now wait a minute! 2KB memory? VDT? Levels 1 and 2 BASIC? What is this mish-mash? 

What it is is the family of the future — completely equipped with its own personal computer.

Time magazine - The computer society (1978)

A science-fiction world

The world that many thought could only exist in a dream or a science fiction, the world that others, such as George Orwell feared, is finally here.

Computers, those ingenious devices which have helped put men on the moon, revolutionized science, medicine and business, caused people as Orwell to fear for the worst, and perplexed millions of ordinary citizens, are finding their way into the home.

The breakthrough came last year when several firms started marketing home computers — usually composed of a typewriter panel, a television screen and a cassette recorder.

The machines now being marketed cost no more than a high-quality stereo, and require little more than reading an instruction manual to learn how to operate. The home models presently available can store recipes, do math problems, and even record telephone calls when a person is not home.

But that is only for starters, say those in the computer business. Someday the machines will be doing everything from the wash to income tax returns.

ALSO SEE: Computers in the 1960s: What they looked like & how they were used

Homework calculation by remote computer (1970)

Donald French, merchandising manager for the Tandy Corporation, said his company’s market research shows a “very good” potential for home computer sales.

Notably, the larger computer firms have yet to market any computers for household use, and instead are concentrating their efforts on business use. French said other firms would probably start marketing home computers as the costs decrease.

According to industry sources, there are about half a dozen firms now marketing table-top computers for use in the home. And many people involved in the industry are predicting computers will become the ultimate home life status symbol.

Computer system fights dognapping - 1969-1970

A recent computer convention in San Jose, California, drew over 14,000 people and the same show is scheduled for Philadelphia later this year.

To show how a home computer can help conserve energy, a man in Illinois is building a solar-powered home which will be controlled by a computer now available for home use.

But that is of small consequence compared to what is predicted for the years ahead. French said he and others in the industry are certain the home computer will revolutionize home life, making still more time available for leisure and other activities.

Is that R2D2 we hear in the background?

Vintage 1978 Commodore PET Computer tech

The personal computer revolution

We love, love, LOVE the line in this article excerpt about a computer eventually being as “standard as a toilet” — and the “slight exaggeration” rejoinder. In most households I know, computers outnumber that necessary plumbing fixture by at least 2-to-1.

Plugging in everyman: Cheap computers that balance checkbooks and water lawns

Michael Mastrangelo, 40, a Manhattan audiovisual consultant, has a servant who keeps the temperature and humidity in his home at just the levels he demands, puts his favorite music on the stereo as he pulls into the driveway, and phones him at the office in case of fire or burglary.

If Mastrangelo wanted, his major-domo could also wake him in the morning, make him a cup of tea, brief him on the day’s business appointments as he has breakfast, remind him that the car needs an oil change and, after he drives off, water the lawn, and roast a turkey dinner for twelve.

ALSO SEE: Apple introduces the Macintosh personal computer (1984)

Where did Mastrangelo get help like that these days? The answer: from a custom-built, household computer and some auxiliary gadgets.

The computer cost him $11,000 six years ago, but with advances in technology, the same hardware today would be only $4,000, and some new models are as compact and inexpensive as a good color TV set.

The age of the home computer (or microcomputer, as it is often called) is at hand.

Steve Jobs introducing the Apple II computer in 1977 in Cupertino, California

Since Micro Instrumentation & Telemetry Systems Inc of Albuquerque 2-1/2 years ago introduced its Altair 8800, a 250,000-calculations-per-second computer that retails for $1,070, some 30 other manufacturers have begun producing similar equipment.

Tandy Corp next week will begin delivering a $600 microcomputer (only $399 if hooked up to one’s own viewing screen) to the firm’s 6,756 Radio Shack stores.

Heath Co, the nation’s largest producer of build-it-yourself electronic gadgets, is selling a $1,240 Heathkit, and will introduce a souped-up $2,500 model in November.ir?t=clickamericana 20&l=ur2&o=1

Such industry giants as Timex and Texas Instruments are also said to be pondering a move into home computers, and Sears, Montgomery Ward and a number of other large chains are considering selling them.

“Someday soon, every home will have a computer,” says Byron Kirkwood, a Dallas microcomputer retailer. “It will be as standard as a toilet.”

ALSO SEE: After arcade video games like Pac Man & Space Invaders hit the scene in the ’80s, weekends were never the same again

Boy reading computer printouts (1971)

A slight exaggeration, perhaps. But already some 50,000 microcomputers have been sold, largely for home use, and industry analysts predict sales of three times that many in the next year alone.

Some 500 retail outlets have opened in the past couple of years to sell and service microcomputers — and serve as hangouts for the growing legions of home-computer nuts, or “hackers,” as they call themselves.

For further companionship, hackers have formed at least 150 computer clubs across the country and launched a dozen home-computer magazinesir?t=clickamericana 20&l=ur2&o=1. Says Theodor Nelson, author of a book called Computer Lib: “The lid is off. There’s going to be an avalanche as there was with hi-fi, calculators and CB radio.”


Will the personal computer become a mass-market product?

The drive to add computer power and flexibility to the video game is setting the stage for a dramatic battle for supremacy in what may be an enormous new market.

There is a great deal of controversy in the industry over whether the personal, or home, computer will become a true mass-market product. Some do not believe that the average consumer is interested in learning how to use a complex, relatively expensive home computer.

But Robert F Wickham, president of Vantage Research, predicts that the combined sales of simple video games, programmable games, and home computers will pass the $1 billion market within two years and reach $1.5 billion by 1982. And even by 1980, he forecasts, home computers will account for sales of $385 million.

If the home computer ever does make it into millions of US households, the path will be through the programmable game players, many experts predict. “The transition from games to a home computer is a straightforward one,” declares A Lorne Weil, vice president of General Instrument Corp., a semiconductor maker.

ABA Journal May 1977 office computers

“It will occur,” he believes, “as the consumer becomes conscious of buying a cartridge, plugging it in, and interacting with the set.”

Thanks to the burgeoning hobby market, true computers are already showing up in the home. A C “Mike” Markkula, chairman of Apple Computer Co., Cupertino, Calif, says that the home market for small computers like Apple’s will quadruple to $40 million this year, and more than double in 1978.

Hobbyists will account for only one-third of sales next year, he predicts, as more and more families learn to use computers for entertainment, education, and household management.

DON’T MISS: See some of the first laptop computers: Clunky, slow & expensive tech everyone wanted

An Apple II advertisement from the December 1977 issue of Byte m

An Apple II advertisement from December 1977
Apple II computer ad from 1977 – ‘Introducing Apple II: The home computer that’s ready to work, play and grow with you.’

Necessary and useful

“The computer will become a necessary and useful appliance,” he insists. Wilfred J Corrigan, Fairchild’s president, agrees, but he cautions that “we have to get more people comfortable with electronics.”

For the industry, selling equipment is only part of the object. Just as exciting is the prospect of selling the program cartridges: “It would be a real razor blade business,” says James R Berdell, analyst for Robertson, Colman, Siebel and Weisel.

And that is another reason the shortage of product is so frustrating. “We have to push the game units out the door this year and next,” says Shea of Atari, “because we can’t sell a cartridge to somebody who doesn’t have one of our games.”

Atari currently offers eight cartridges for its programmable Video Computer System, and Fairchild has 13 for its Channel F.

1977 Computer with kids

Only about 1.6 million game cartridges will be sold this year, but Wickham of Vantage Research expects that the industry will sell 33 million cartridges in 1980 as the installed base of programmable games climbs to 16 million. By then, the cartridge price will certainly have dropped from the present level of about $20.

Wickham predicts that it will fall to an average of $10, producing a total market that year of $330 million. But the price erosion could be greater. The heart of the cartridge, the semiconductor” memory, already sells for only $4 in volume quantities. – From Business Week

MORE: 30 retro-futuristic space-age inventions we’re still waiting for

Tired of home figuring? Let the computer do it

by Lynette Parker – Madison State Journal (Wisconsin) September 18, 1978

If your schedule is too hectic to worry with the details of life such as the balancing of your checking account, or if one more game of checkers with the kids will drive you crazy, for a small investment you can now buy a computer to do the things you don’t want to do.

For around $800, any family can buy a home computer that has “as much computer power as an IBM 1620, the workhorse of the 1950s,” according to Huron Smith, owner of the Madison Computer Store, 1863 Monroe St.

Smith said the computer will do practically anything you tell it to do, but it never does anything on its own.

“They’re absolutely stupid,” she said. “They have no smarts of their own. They have to be programmed.” A home computer can be programmed with ordinary words so a buyer doesn’t need any special skills.

Vintage Radio Shack TRS 80 computer (1970s)

The domestic variety of computers are programmed with BASIC language, which in computer talk is simple English. Len Lindsay, a salesman at the Computer Store, said, “The name implies it’s very easy; it took me three days to learn it.”

Since May, more than 40 Madison families have turned over their tedious memory and budget chores to their computers. More and more Madison families are programming machines to keep track of Aunt Minnie’s birthday and the grandparents’ anniversary.

Keeping up with the addresses of mobile friends is now the computer’s job. And it’s no problem to plan for four dinner guests, she can relegate that duty to the machine.

ALSO SEE: In the ’60s, computer programmers were in high demand to code in languages like COBOL and FORTRAN

The computers are unbeatable as managers of household finances. With programs such as Financial Analysis, Loan Amortization, Budget and Decision Maker, something as simple as balancing a checking account is a breeze.

1977 PET computer PC

Besides entertaining kids with such games as Chase, Blockade, and Battleship, the computer can be programmed to be the dealer in Blackjack, Spades and Acey Deucy.

The computer is also an able educator. There are programs to teach children to tell time, and programs for math games, decimal division, history quizzes and to tutor morse code.

Lindsay said computers are perfect for kids who need a high level of motivation, because computers can be programmed to offer any type of reward from words of praise flashed on the screen to shooting stars.

The interest in home computers is growing and the type of people who are interested is changing, Lindsay said. “Until about a year ago, they were all these computer types. Now they’re people coming in who don’t have the faintest idea what a computer is.”

He said the people purchasing computers right now are usually people with advanced educations because they’re reading the magazines and are aware of home computers.

But, Lindsay said, “as soon as regular people know about it, they’re the people who will probably benefit most.” A computer is undoubtedly a very simple way to keep track of financial records, he explained.

Once you get your computer home, you can add accessories. According to Lindsay, a lot of people in Madison are adding sound. It only takes two wires and costs about $10.

Anyone who comes into the store and tinkers with the machines for half an hour wants to have one, Lindsay said. “It’s a time saver,” he said. “It’ll do all the hard things for you plus, as a side benefit, you can sit and play games for free.”

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One Response

  1. One of the articles (presumably from the 1970s) mentioned using a computer to control a thermostat. Fifty years later, we’re just getting to the point where that’s typical for many homeowners. 😂

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