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Who Really Invented The Personal Computer?

By       Message Al Rodbell       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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The passing of Steve Jobs has us thinking about the early days of personal computing, but this focus on the success of Apple could distort our understanding of the process of developments that has led to the connectivity that everyone who is reading this takes as just part of life. The New York Times series on the history of the personal computer had this to say in an article on August 19, 2001 "How the Computer Became Personal":

In the pantheon of personal computing, the LINC, in a sense, came first--more than a decade before Ed Roberts made PC's affordable for ordinary people. Work started on the Linc, the brainchild of the M.I.T. physicist Wesley A. Clark, in May 1961, and the machine was used for the first time at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD, the next year to analyze a cat's neural responses.

Each Linc had a tiny screen and keyboard and comprised four metal modules, which together were about as big as two television sets, set side by side and tilted back slightly. The machine, a 12-bit computer, included a one-half megahertz processor. Lincs sold for about $43,000--a bargain at the time--and were ultimately made commercially by Digital Equipment, the first minicomputer company. Fifty Lincs of the original design were built.

LINC, and thus Clark, is seen as competing with others for the title of first personal computer in this description of his 1981 award by the IEEE Computer Society.
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Wesley A. Clark ( not to be confused with General Wesley K Clark) and his wife happened to live just across the hall from us on the West Side of Manhattan for ten years. Not only did I not know of his importance in this field, but neither did anyone else in the building. He was this quirky guy, who always barked at our door when he came home to get a conversation going with our little Westie. His relationship with him may have been deeper than he had with me.

His story is too complex, so the best I can do is provide a few verbal snapshots. In the 1960s when he was doing his work that earned him the title in the Times article, he lived in the world of technology development, government grants, and academic politics, all the while creating his inventions that would have immediate use in medical research and national defense along with transforming the world in ways he could have only imagined. I don't think he ever thought about the potential wealth that could be realized, as few did at that time. No one had ever gotten rich on these small computers

Unlike those who have made vast fortune in the world of computer-internet such as Gates, Jobs and others, who jumped into it without the any advanced eduction, Clark earned degrees from UC Berkeley and MIT. He was located in academic settings, but brought his own funding from two main sources, NIH, National Institute of Health, and DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. (I will include some interview transcripts that can be found-with a bit of digging at this valuable web site,

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Here are some observations on the funding process

NIH funding v. DARPA

O'NEILL: Well, I am interested from someone who is actually involved in getting money from both of these organizations - how you viewed them.

CLARK: Well, you must remember, that was in the 1960s. It was kind of a heyday of government funding. NIH and DARPA had budgets that were growing. I almost felt as though I was called up from time to time to see if I wouldn't be willing to take another quarter of million dollars off their hands. You see, it wasn't quite the same sort of thing.

The DARPA work was on contract, the contract mechanism and the NIH funding was through the grant mechanism, and those are quite different kinds of things. The NIH has considerably more paperwork associated with the grant mechanism than it does from its own contract mechanism, which it also has or did have, but we did not use. And ARPA operated only on the contract mechanism. On the other hand, in the ARPA system once you were in you were a member of a club, a stable of supportees by the IPT, with the early meetings in exotic places (preferably, but not always), and a pretty good sense of community with other people who were receiving support from that office. And of course, IPT also had a sense of mission that the NIH people generally did not manifest, although they may have had.

This was an open source culture. One man started to write a book about Clark's involvement with LINC, but he abandoned it, and gave all the interview material eventually to this museum that sponsors the website linked above.

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Here's a part of the interview that describes one of Clark's greatest contribution, his seeing that the then current model of multi million dollar computers that were shared by multiple users could never provide the full potential for visual graphics and interactivity that he saw as so valuable. This was a conceptual insight that, while perhaps shared by other, he was in a position based on his successful work in the field to advance. Here's a snippet of the relevant interview on this subject:

O'NEILL: In the early 1960s there started to be a lot of talk about time-sharing. What were your views on timesharing? Do you recall?

CLARK: Yes. I'm one of the oldest continuous floating (?) objectors in the business. I still think it's a bad idea. (Diarist's note- Clark was making an illusion to a song from Guys and Dolls, that the transcriber wasn't familiar with , thus the question mark)
Time-sharing, I assume, in your question means capital T, capital S - Time-Sharing, as defined by Project Mac (nothing to do with the Apple Mac, of course
The term "time-sharing" came out of the early work with WHIRLWIND and the SAGE system where it meant something far less grand. The SAGE system was built around a pair of computers - one of them serving pretty much as a backup. The SAGE system per node... I mean a network of computer nodes around the country built
around a pair of computers - one primarily a backup, and yet accessed by hundreds of operators through display consoles in dark rooms looking at radar pictures and computer re-representations of the important parts of radar pictures and tracks of airplanes and the military hardware at hand to defend, and all sorts of other things that went into the air defense problem.

This intellectual insight of Clark, was when the technology based on massive mainframes with time sharing not only the norm, but the expectation of this being continued. This describes his planting the seed of the idea, that was not at first received with applause.

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Retired Commercial Printing Executive, developer of I.T. systems for the industry. Advanced degrees in Social Psychology, now living in Southern California

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