In the early days of the 1970s, the word “computer” wasn’t a normal household word. In the scientific world, however, computers had been around for decades.
Scientists started tinkering with electronics and making “computers” as early as the 1930s and 1940s, though they certainly had little in common with the home computer everyone now has on their desk.
Many businesses had computers in the 50s and 60s, and by the 70s, large corporations had been using them for quite some time.
However, the first mass marketed personal computer wasn’t released until 1968 by Hewlett-Packard, though the term personal computer hadn’t really been coined yet.
In 1970, Intel Corporation introduced the Intel 1103 computer memory, the world’s first dynamic RAM chip, and then the first microprocessor in November 1971, dubbed the Intel 4004. Both of these inventions would change the world of computing forever. The first floppy disk, invented by Alan Shugart at IBM, would follow shortly thereafter.
Though manufacturers were peddling computer kits in the back of early 1970s science-oriented magazines, aimed at early techies who wanted to build their own, the first true personal home computer wasn’t released until the mid 1970s.
The first one that really gained popularity was the Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems Altair, introduced on the cover of Popular Electronics in January 1975. Also a kit of sorts, it sold for $400 and included an 8080 CPU and a 256 Byte RAM card. Shortly thereafter, Harvard freshman Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen had developed the BASIC software program for the Altair.
More computer firsts happened in 1976 and 1977 when the Apple I and II were produced and introduced to the public, designed primarily by Steve Wozniak. Steve Jobs was responsible for the selling end of the deal and the two put Apple on the map.
Also hitting the stores in the late 70s was Tandy Corporation’s TRS-80, which was sold in 3,000 Radio Shack stores throughout the country. People ordered the first units sight unseen, though the computers were on display by December of 1977. The computer helped launch Radio Shack into a different category of retail sales, with 15,000 calls about the TRS-80 coming in to Tandy within the first few weeks of introducing the computer.
The “other” computer company of the decade was Commodore, who had introduced their PET computer a few months before Tandy’s big introduction. The Personal Electronic Transactor was the first of the company’s 8-bit line and was a huge seller throughout the U.S. and Canada. Primitive compared to today’s computers, it was one of the biggest hits of the 70s in the realm of personal computers, and though Commodore is no longer in the business, the PET made them a multi-billion dollar company.