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Early PC, Wooden Sides And All

Weird and Wonderful PCs and Mods
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One of my favorites in the unusual PC category is one of the first microprocessor based computers, Processor Technology's SOL-20 with an Intel 8080 CPU. I built one of them from a kit and learned some carpentry and wood finishing skills staining and polishing the micro's walnut wooden sides.

World's First Multi-User/Multi-Tasking Micro

I have fond memories of the AlphaMicro AM100 computer. It was built in 1977 by an Irvine, California based company, predictably named "AlphaMicro". The computer used a WD16 16-bit CPU built by none other than Western Digital. The WD16 was a re-microcoded version of DEC's LSI-11 CPU. The AlphaMicro was the first multi-user/multi-tasking microcomputer ever. Users accessed the computer on serially attached terminals.

The operating system was called "AMOS". It bore an uncanny resemblance to the UNIX-like operating system running on Digital Equipment Corp's PDP-11 minis. Rumor has it that the guys at AlphaMicro backed up a truck with their computer on it to the back door of a company that owned a PDP-11, connected the two computers and simply transferred the DEC OS to the AM100. If this is true, I believe the statute of limitations has run out on that caper and there's no chance for HP, which bought Compaq which bought DEC, to sue AlphaMicro, which is still in business.

Photo of the interior of an AlphaMicro AM100 based computer. From front to back, the CPU takes up the first two ribbon-cable linked boards, then come three 64K memory boards, next a CDC Hawk disk controller followed by other boards including a floppy card, two 6-channel serial cards with speeds up to 19200 baud and a wire wrap board to support a Western Digital hard disk drive. Photo copyright Michael Friese.

I ran a research shop back in those days and we convinced the stogy old US government to give us the money to buy enough AlphaMicro motherboards and CPU, memory, serial terminal, floppy and hard disk I/O boards to build two multi-user computers. The motherboards were outfitted with AlphaMicro's modified S-100 bus connectors. These were the first multi-user, multi-tasking micros ever funded by the Feds.

We ran standard office apps and statistical analyses on the computers. We used a standard DEC PDP-11 word processor. I wrote the statistical analyses routines in FORTRAN, which I learned after tussling with Bill Gates and Paul Allen's MS Basic on the Sol-20.

Based on an independent audit, over the five year life of the research program and factoring in the cost of the AlphaMicros and their support and maintenance, we saved the US government around $10,000 annually in purchased computing services costs. They were astounded. Frankly, though we promised significant savings as part of our request to make the purchases, so were we.

Conclusions

What can I say? Send your stories to me by next Tuesday (February 20th) before midnight Eastern Standard Time and stop by on the 23rd to read the follow-up story.

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