At one time, computers were thought to be large brains too complex for the average person to understand, never mind use or own for their personal use, says York Professor Zbigniew Stachniak, standing in a cramped room on the second floor of the Lassonde Building surrounded by tall shelves of outdated computers and computer remnants.
That small room with its window display of ancient computers is easy to miss, but it boasts one of the world’s first personal computers, the MCM/70 microcomputer, as one of its artifacts. Stachniak, as the York University Computer Museum’s curator, possesses a mental encyclopedia of fascinating historical and computer details.
Zbigniew Stachniak shows off the MCM/70 microcomputer
“In April 1965, Time magazine ran ‘The Computer in Society’ story with a picture of a computer drawn as a big brain on the cover. At that time, computers were mostly hidden from us and we, the society, were most ignorant about them,” says Stachniak, a professor in York’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering in the Faculty of Science & Engineering.
All that changed in 1973 when Toronto- and Kingston-based company Micro Computer Machines Inc., with Mers Kutt at the helm, designed and manufactured a computer for personal use. With its tiny built-in screen and keyboard, the MCM/70 challenged the computing status quo around the world.
The history of that early personal computer, the vision behind it and the innovations it brought to the world, can be found in Stachniak’s recent book, Inventing the PC: The MCM/70 Story (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011). It looks not only at the history, politics, business and social issues surrounding the invention of the MCM/70, but at its Canadian, as well as York University connection.
This 1965 Time magazine cover illustrates an early depiction of computers as big brains
“This is the world’s first personal computer,” says Stachniak, pointing a finger at the MCM/70 sitting incongruously on a shelf on one of the many tall racks lining the walls of the computer museum. It looks more like a typewriter with a built-in cassette deck than a computer. Not surprisingly, it was designed for things like letter writing, not for entertainment. But Stachniak says, “Technologically speaking, it was quite ahead of its time. Before the MCM/70, computers were all switches and lights with no screens, and were not designed for personal use either, but to support computational needs of corporations, governmental agencies, academia or military.”
The built-in screen of the MCM/70 was a plasma display, unheard of at the time and which would take another decade to take off. The MCM/70 had ten times the amount of memory as a typical mini-computer at that time and used two audio cassettes for data and program storage. It had battery back-up in case of a power failure, and if both energy supplies failed, the MCM/70 would back-up current data before shutting down. Many of these features didn’t come into existence on other systems until the 1980s and 1990s, says Stachniak. “This little thing was loaded with features no one had ever heard of.”
Zbigniew Stachniak in front of the York University Computer Museum
It was a computing marvel that captured the interest and curiosity of Stachniak, especially because it received so much international press when it was first introduced, but has now been mostly forgotten. The Canadian connection has also been lost in the shuffle of high-profile computer companies, such as IBM and Apple. In fact, most people believe the Apple II, which came out four years later, was the first personal computer, says Stachniak, who would like to see Canada’s integral role in developing personal computers recognized.
That connection includes York University’s Gordon Ramer, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s was assistant director of York’s Computing Centre, and was also one of the main software engineers working on the operating system and programming for the MCM/70. While at York, he implemented the York APL (A Programming Language), a dialect of Kenneth Iverson’s APL. The York APL was portable, worked on small mainframe computers and was popular in many corners of the world. Later, Ramer adapted his York APL to allow users to communicate with the MCM/70 computer. Ramer was assisted in his work by another former York employee, Don Genner.
“The simplicity of the APL language allowed users to learn it quickly and easily. Making such a novel language available to the first microcomputers was, perhaps, Ramer’s biggest contribution to personal computing,” says Stachniak.
These Canadian and York connections to the earliest days of personal computing are at risk of being lost to history. However, Stachniak hopes his book, as well as the York University Computer Museum he established, will help change that. “It’s such a fascinating Canadian story and no one knew anything about it,” says Stachniak. At least, not until now.
For more information or for a virtual tour, visit the York University Computer Museum website.
By Sandra McLean, YFile writer