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September 26th, 2003 at 12:11 am

30th Anniversary of the Microcomputer

in: Uncategorized

Thirty years ago today, Canada secured a place in computing history.



A small Toronto company, Micro Computer Machines Inc., announced a rather remarkable new machine: the MCM/70.



Small and powerful, the MCM/70 was one of the first portable, personal computers. It was also one of the first computers to use a microprocessor.

Experts say it deserves a place in digital history because it brought computers to a wider audience.



“The engineering was really something,” MCM founding president Mers Kutt said in an interview yesterday.



Kutt did an awful lot with very little, computer historians say, given the state of technology back then.



“It was just amazing what they were able to do,” said Lee Courtney, an artifact co-ordinator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. “They built an incredible system with very primitive hardware.”



The MCM/70 looks a bit like an old-fashioned answering machine with a built-in keyboard. Designed in a time before floppy disks, the MCM/70 used automated tape drives to store information and had only a small fraction of the computer memory used on a standard computer today. But it was coveted by computer programmers, accountants and insurance agents for its power, small size and reasonable price tag.



Kutt came up with the concept for the MCM/70 while working at Queen’s University. Part of his job was to get more of the professors using computers. At the time, people would have to line up with punch cards and wait to use one of the university’s large mainframes.



Long before the famous Apple 1 PC, which debuted in 1976, Kutt saw the value of a smaller, personal system. He wanted to make a computer for each person, small enough to fit in a regular office.



“I thought, `What if each person had their own computer with their own processor? They wouldn’t have to share the processing power’,” Kutt said.



To do this, Kutt knew he’d need a microprocessor. This might seem obvious today — all modern computers have microprocessors for brains — but in 1973 microprocessors were rather novel. Most computers were still using scores of computer chips to do what would be done on a single microchip and, consequently, these machines could take up whole rooms.



Kutt wanted something that could fit in a suitcase, so he built around Intel Corp.’s 8008 microprocessor. Weighing 20 pounds, the MCM/70 wasn’t as light as today’s laptops.



“I got tennis elbow from lugging the thing around from one country to another,” Kutt recalled.



But it was much more portable than other minicomputers of the period, which often had to be wheeled around on carts.



It packed a fair bit of power for such a small computer. It could solve complex mathematical problems and, when the work was done, run simple video games.



Computer collector Stan Sieler of Cupertino, Calif., wants to add an MCM/70 to his collection because he considers it “an incredible achievement” for the time. He remembers seeing one in 1975 and was impressed by the power and the price of the machine that ran the complex programming language APL.



“I was using a million-dollar machine to do APL, and this was a $4,500 machine that could do the same thing,” Sieler said.



Kutt said thousands were sold worldwide. But MCM never did achieve the status of such competitors as International Business Machines Corp. and Apple Computer Inc.



In fact, the MCM/70 could be described as the Avro Arrow of computing history. It was truly ahead of its time and showed lots of promise, but never quite took off because, at least in part, it was made in Canada — far from computing’s heartland.



Courtney said that in the 1970s, the “ecosystem” needed to support a high-tech company likely couldn’t be found outside California. Kutt agrees, adding few Canadians in finance and management could wrap their head around the idea.



Kutt had contacts in Silicon Valley, but said it just wasn’t the same as being there. After several generations of MCM computers, the company went out of business in the early 1980s.
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