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What was the first desktop computing system that satisfied the following features:

  • It fully fit on desktop

  • It included the full alpha-numeric keyboard

  • It included a full text display, terminal or printer

  • Was capable of long-term memory, like a disk drive or magnetic tape

For reference, let's take Soviet Elektronika-60 from 1978, which was a PDP-11 16-bit clone but was fitting in a normal desktop case. It needed a text terminal, but the whole system fit on a desktop quite well. But since the USSR lagged behind, I think, the West had earlier designs that satisfy the definition.

Can one say that the first desktop computer was a Datapoint 2200 from 1970? Were there custom applications for it, games, programming languages?

enter image description here

Datapoint 2200 was quite compact and included two tape drives in the single case. It also included up to 16K memory.

Given these characteristics, I wonder whether there were less compact and integrated devices before, but with similar capabilities, for instance, with discrete terminal, keyboard and storage?

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  • 1
    The last paragraph renders that question inappropriate as it no longer asks for the titular desktop computer.
    – Raffzahn
    Oct 21, 2023 at 10:34
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    As soon as a terminal is needed anything goes. One can place any 1970s mini on a table and a terminal beside.
    – Raffzahn
    Oct 21, 2023 at 10:41
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    @Raffzahn hardly they would fit well. Also, since DataPoint 2200 was released in 1970/1971, later computers definitely will not win even if counted.
    – Anixx
    Oct 21, 2023 at 14:12
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    What is the purpose of a computer without I/O devices? Nothing.
    – RonJohn
    Oct 21, 2023 at 14:16
  • 8
    "What was the first..." questions are highly subjective. You think that a computer is not "fully functional" if it does not have a "full" alpha-numeric keyboard. Somebody else might disagree with you about whether or not a certain keyboard is "full." Another person might argue that a computer could be "fully functional" even with no alphabetic characters at all. I once had a copy* of a list that somebody made of computers that one author or another had called "the world's first computer." There were more than thirty different machines on the list. [*Lost it! 🙁] Oct 21, 2023 at 22:00

5 Answers 5

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DEC GT40 - 1972 enter image description here

Refer to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DEC_GT40

What was the first desktop computing system that satisfied the following features:

It fully fits on a desktop

  • Refer to Wikipedia photo.

It included the full alpha-numeric keyboard

  • Refer LK40 keyboard on top of system in Wikipedia photo.

It included a full text display, terminal or printer

  • Refer to the integrated video display that was capable of graphics and text in Wikipedia photo. Also included a light pen

Was capable of long-term memory, like a disk drive or magnetic tape

  • Mass storage was an option.

GT40 Lunar lander game. Refer to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4lPE5Nytfc

A very late edit... The PDP-8 was initially sold in a configuration for the desktop. They termed it the tabletop model. You could attach a CRT display and a light pen and you basically have the GT40 configuration on a desktop capable of running applications, games and languages.It would probably have required a papertape reader or DECTape.

A much later edit:. Deleted reference to core memory and added mass storage. The booklet '''Ninteen fifty-severn to the present''', published by DEC, GT40 entry, Page 31 included: "... the GT40 incorporated an 11/10 minicomputer, making the system expandable with mass storage as well as with other I/O options." http://www.bitsavers.org/pdf/dec/_Books/DEC_1957_To_The_Present_1978.pdf

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Retrocomputing Meta, or in Retrocomputing Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Chenmunka
    Oct 28, 2023 at 9:07
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    GT40 seems an odd choice, since it's a PDP-11/10 (in a standard 11/10 box) with extra stuff. An 11/10 with a VT05 would presumably have been available a few months before the GT40. Also, while I understand that core is non-volatile, 'core for long-term storage' is a stretch.
    – dave
    Oct 30, 2023 at 2:00
  • See chat for discussion regarding data storage options.
    – PDP11
    Oct 30, 2023 at 15:03
  • @another-dave I wonder whether GT 40 was the first PDP-11/10 shipped in its own cabinet (case) instead of being intended to be mounted into a rack.
    – Anixx
    Nov 8, 2023 at 17:13
  • PDP-8/e from 1970 or PDP-8/s from 1966 might be even a better candidate. Can you identify boxes in this picture (at least the blue box seems to be completely unrelated): reddit.com/r/retrobattlestations/comments/e91klp/… ?
    – Anixx
    Nov 8, 2023 at 17:45
40

TL;DR: It's the Olivetti P6060, introduced in April of 1975.

IMHO that's the first machine ticking all boxes while operating mostly like we would expect it from today's PoV


Definition

Desktop computer is a bit of a vague definition, even today as one may have his desktop box mounted beside a desk. Likewise including terminal based systems, as that would enable any pile of tech that fits on top of a desk as 'desktop'(*1). The mentioned Electronika 60 being one of them, as it's a rack mount mini (*2), not a desktop.

Also, anyone remember all those desk-mounted S100 boxes (*3). Plus all those machines that could be ordered with a desk dedicated to hold those components (*4).

Bottom line, the early computer world was way more colourful than a single term can distinguish. For a reasonable answer two additional restrictions may be helpful:

  • The machine must fit at whole on top of a desk
  • It must be intended to be placed that way
  • Monitor and Keyboard are the only components that may be discrete and movable

The Candidates

With that we can see several distinct answers. All of the following systems have been called 'first desktop' and/or 'first personal computer' at some point:

Calculator Like Computers

Here foremost the 1965 Olivetti P101, eventually the first desktop computer. It included all components (keyboard, printer, magnetic card storage), although text capabilities as well as RAM were rather limited.

enter image description here

(Taken from Wikipedia)

The follow up 1967 P203 included an Editor 4ST typewriter-terminal, making it its own desk. Text manipulation was still rather limited. Usage was more about integrating calculatory results when needed.

enter image description here

(Taken from Wikipedia)

Desktop But Not Really

If mini computers are to be included (*5), then DEC's 1965 PDP-8 could make an interesting contender as it was clearly designed to be put on a table or sideboard (*6):

PDP-8

(Picture taken from the fine Computermuseum der Stuttgarter Informatik)

The size of the partially shown TTY does tell a story how 'practical' putting that beast on your desktop would have been. Also, it's only the CPU, so any storage also had to be placed somewhere.

Terminals That Could Be Computers

This is where the mentioned 1970 Datapoint 2200 and others, like the 1971 Cogar 4 (*7), fit. Those systems were all in one desktop units featuring some long term storage, a full card punch compatible keyboard and a CRT of limited size. Their purpose wasn't to act as stand alone desktop systems but replace Remote Job Entry (RJE *8) stations at lower price while offering more flexibility.

Use as stand alone systems only developed over time.

While third party software was available, it was at first mostly applications and mostly written in assembly, although both companies soon offered a COBOL alike development systems. The smallest possible configuration to run any development was 4 KiB and cassettes using CTOS and Databus, although only a cut down version. Any usable development environment would need at least 8 KiB to run DOS and an external (19" rack sized) 2,5 MiB Diabolo Disk system. In reality anyone developing would need the full 16 KiB of a 2200 Version 2

Datapoint with 2.5 MiB Disk Drive

Such a development setup would end up past 25,000 USD - or the equivalent of 14 1972 model VW cars.

The Cogar 4 might be in addition noteworthy as its character set was fully ram based and redefinable, allowing bitmap graphics as well, a feature CTC only provided with the later 5500 model.

Almost There

While HP still marketed 1972 HP 9830A as 'calculator', they did integrate a full keyboard, a 32 character display and a cassette unit with CPU and 4 KiB of RAM. in a single desktop case. With the optional full size HP 9866 thermal printer the hardware setup might fit the required definition.

enter image description here

(Taken from Computermuseum der Stuttgarter Informatik)

The picture shows nicely how unreal that tower get with disk drive and printer added.

Software wise it was all to be programmed in BASIC, though, a version 'optimized' for calculatory application. To handle text an optional ROM called 'String Variables' (HP 11274) had to be installed. It added string variables and functions to handle text to the build in BASIC. Further ROMS (Advanced Programming 1&2) added further basic functionality, like keyboard operation as with a typewriter and more string/database functions.

The late 1974 MCM/70 was not only the second micro processor (8008) based computer to be marketed (*9), but also the first desktop unit. It featured a single line display, up to two cassette drives and a typewriter style keyboard. Its APL environment was quite advanced for its time, but not exactly what one would use for text processing. Not that it wouldn't work (ignoring limited memory for a moment), it was just ... unusual.

(The Inbetweens)

The 1973 Wang 2200s are a remarkable intermediate. While early 2200 still had a CPU box mounted in/under a table their terminal did also contain its mass storage cassette drive.

All-In-One and All-On-Top

The 1975 Olivetti P6060 might eventually be the first desktop computer from today's point of view. It included a full keyboard, an LED display (CRT optional) and a full width printer together with the computer in a quite stylish 1970s (*10) case.

enter image description here

(Picture taken from this very detailed dissection of a P6060)

Most notable here is the very early use of floppy drives for data storage.

The Rest is History

In September 1975, Half a year after the P6060 IBM introduced the IBM 5100 desktop (*11). It featured a small CRT, a typewriter keyboard and a QIC tape drive (*12). APL and BASIC version were available. It wasn't until the 1978 5110 that a (fridge sized) floppy drive was added.

IBM 5100

(Taken from Wikipedia)

By March 1976 Wang as well managed to fit the CPU into the terminal case, creating their first all in one desktop system, the 2200 PCS.

1976 will also be the year that all-in-one desktop micros like TRS-80 or PET became the prototypical desktop units.


*1 - Anyone remember North Star systems? With their wooden top cover they were marketed to fit 1970s office desks, but I've never seen one placed that way. Usually below or in a separate shelf.

*2 - By 1978 western rack mount systems of similar size could already have included mass storage as well as graphics output, marginally qualifying as desktop ... except, at that time real desktop were already standard devices.

*3 - Vector offered mounting sets for their boxes so they could be hung below the table or at the side (like a tower).

*4 - Wang (and others) had nice tables holding the CPU in some cabinet while the board had a hole to lower the terminal part, so the keyboard comes out levelled.

*5 - That is beside gluing rubber feet under an otherwise rack mount box to stay put on a table.

*6 - Though, more serious I'd say a pedestal (or sideboard) is rather what they had in mind for their new beauty :)

*7 - Or Singer 1500 or ICL 1500 as Cogar's company was the same year bought by Singer Business Machines just to be sold five years later to ICL. While Cogar developed it as stand allone system, it was as well associated with the remarkable System Ten.

*8 - RJE is in some way the first kind of terminal application as it allowed to locate all user interaction away from the computer by adding limited local processing capability. No wonder that the cross over between RJE and early terminals produced the first Desktop-PC like devices :))

*9 - The first would be the French Micral-N.

*10 - European Stylish that is, the US design was still stuck in pre-war round forms and fake wood.

*11 - Well, they called it IBM 5100 Portable Computer - which its 25 kg may only be considered when compared with their mainframes :))

*12 - Which gave it an enormous 20 MiB of Storage - slow but huge.

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    @Anixx You may want to look for 'Singer 1500' or 'ICL 1500' instead as mentioned in footnote *5. The company got sold short after the terminal was introduced to Singer and later ICL, so it's more known under the later names.
    – Raffzahn
    Oct 21, 2023 at 13:43
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    Why is it that every time an "answer" just drives the whole topic into the ground, it's always signed by this "Raffzahn?" +1 if only just for that beautiful photo of a Straight 8 sitting on a desk top. Oct 21, 2023 at 22:05
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    @Anixx 16 KiB was maximum RAM expansion. By default it had only 2 KiB of RAM. Expanding it to 16 KiB was incredible expensive. It tripled the price from $5000 to $14000. That's the same as 7 factory new VW cars in 1970. The BK0010 had 16/32 KiB plus 32 KiB ROM with OS and language tools. The 2200 had no language in ROM. Everything had to be loaded into RAM. It's not useful to have OS, Assembler and screen memory in just 2 KiB - not to mention any more complex language. And especially no room for source text. it was barely good to exit a few lines of text and store them right away on tape
    – Raffzahn
    Oct 21, 2023 at 22:08
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    @Anixx Correction, I just looked up my manuals, the original Datapoint 2200 came with 2 KiB of RAM and could be ordered with an extension of 2,4 or 6 KiB for a maximum total of 8 KiB RAM. It wasn't until the 1973 Version II that it could be expanded from 2 KiB to a maximum of 16 KiB. The version II was a greatly enhanced machien with different structure (about 50 times faster)
    – Raffzahn
    Oct 22, 2023 at 0:44
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    Everything can be put on a desk, given a sufficiently large desk and a forklift. Oct 22, 2023 at 10:33
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http://www.cedmagic.com/history/dec-pdp-8.html

It's a real stretch to call this a desktop computer, but that claim was made. It's one model of the DEC PDP-8 computer, from the 1960s. I would never put this thing on my desk.

But it is fair to say that DEC (Digital Equipement Corporation) introduced the minicomputer to the world, and that the PDP-8 was the earliest entry. The PDP-11 dominated the minicomputer industry for almost a decade.

Once you have grasped the mnicomputer concept, the next obvious step is the microcomputer, and the microcomputer belongs on the desktop. This was obvious to everyone, except DEC. DEC was slow in entering the microcomputer derby, and its entries didn't look all that attractive to consumers, either for the office or the home. That's a long, complicated story, and it's central to the decline and fall of DEC.

At one time, DEC was the number two computer vendor in the world, after IBM. Fifteen years later, only the old-timers remembered DEC.

If you want to see other early desktop computers from DEC, look up the DECmate II, the Rainbow 100, and the Pro-350. They reentered the desktop market later on with the VAXmate and a few other entries. But they were never able to gain the marketshare needed to make it profitable.

BTW, the first computer I owned ws a DEC Rainbow, purchased through the employee program.

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  • The photos show that it did not have a text keyboard and display: pbs.twimg.com/media/FRW24tEXIAImfxJ?format=jpg&name=small
    – Anixx
    Oct 21, 2023 at 14:09
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    @Anixx: Your question allows using a separate terminal on the same desk, which the PDP-8 certainly supported.
    – Dave Tweed
    Oct 21, 2023 at 19:43
  • Indeed, PDP-8 is a contender, although the design of the 1960s is so diffrerent that it is difficult to relate it to the design of 1970s and 1980s.
    – Anixx
    Oct 22, 2023 at 3:21
  • @Anixx FWIW modern desktop PCs don't have keyboard or display unless you don't consider modern PCs to be desktops (which is fair because most people have them on the floor)
    – slebetman
    Oct 24, 2023 at 4:20
  • @slebetman modern PCs with keyboard and monotor fit on a sesktop well. Also, there are laptops, etc.
    – Anixx
    Oct 24, 2023 at 7:21
3

The IEEE proclaimed the Datapoint 2200 the first: The IEEE awarded the Datapoint 2200 this award, in 2022, proclaiming it the first desktop personal computer

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  • Was it introduced in 1969 though?
    – Anixx
    Dec 28, 2023 at 7:17
  • Well, I agree that this was probably the first. Although, I think, one could compose a desktop system from DEC components earlier, for instance, based on PDP-8/S.
    – Anixx
    Dec 28, 2023 at 7:27
  • The first glass terminal compatible with PDP-8 though was DataPoint 3300.
    – Anixx
    Dec 28, 2023 at 7:45
0

Honorable mention -- The Altair 8800. This is the computer that moved Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard, in order to avoid being too late to start a company. The computer was featured ina magazine of January 1975, and when Paul Allen showed it to Bill Gates, he decided that the time to start offering software for microcomputers had arrived.

https://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/history-of-computers,4518-22.html

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    It had no keyboard or display. That's why keyboard and display are explicitely mentioned in the question.
    – Anixx
    Oct 24, 2023 at 12:19

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