Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The First PC?

Some months ago I wrote about my start in computing (see I'm Counting On You, ending that entry with my move to Belgium in 1971.

My first job in Belgium was just an excuse to get a work-permit, visa and whatever else I needed to come to the country (remember, the UK was not part what was then the EEC at that time), but after a few months I found a place in Gent (Ghent) as a programmer for a company that, as well as using an IBM 360/30 for its own purposes, also acted as a sort of computer service bureau for other companies, writing and running their programs. One of my tasks was to write a series of programs for the luggage manufacturer, Samsonite, the European headquarters of which were in Oudenaarde. This went very well and some time later, when Samsonite decided to get their own computer, I was asked to go to work for them.

I had written the original series of programmes in RPG for the IBM, but Samsonite had selected a Honeywell Bull GE 58 machine, so the programmes had to be rewritten in COBOL. Gradually, the set was expanded to form a complete Order and Billing system, handling not only the sales and stock of Samsonite Belgium, but also those of the other sales offices in Europe: France, Germany and the UK. Sales data and other relevant information (production, customer updates, etc.) were still handled in batch, the data being collected on forms, transferred to punch-card and processed during the evening for production of invoices, stock sheets, customs documents, and so on. When Samsonite upgraded from the GE 58 to an HB 64 in about 1976, everything had to be converted because of the very different operating systems and we took the opportunity to radically alter the O&B system, to include real-time sales entry in Belgium and data capture in the sales-points outside Belgium through DataPoint 2200 "workstations."

The DataPoint 2200 was a strange creature and really represented the first personal computer: it sat on top of the desk (a desktop, in other words), it had a screen, a keyboard, a means of storing programs and data, a processing unit, and it could drive peripheral devices, such as a printer. It really was a PC ahead of its time, for nobody at that time had heard of a "personal computer". Still, with the CTOS operating system (Cassette Tape Operating System), a means of designing on-screen forms and a Basic-like programming language, I was able to allow the users in the countries outside Belgium to capture sales information and customer updates during the day onto cassette tape and to send that data using a telecommunications link (first with an acoustic coupler at 300bps, and later with a "real" modem at 1200bps) with the HB 64 in Belgium, for processing during the night. The next morning, sales results, invoices, stock reports and other information for printing were transmitted back, again capturing these on cassette tape for printing at will.

It was primitive, but it worked very well and was still working when I left Samsonite in 1981. By that time, Apple had become well known with its Apple ][ personal computer and IBM had finally realised that people really could make use of PCs and had unwittingly fallen into the clutches of one Bill Gates in a desperate attempt to stop Apple's growth. But it's nice to have used the machine that represented the very start of the personal computer revolution, a start which is generally overlooked.

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