Searching for The First Personal Computer
Early Personal Computer Competition:
In the Spring of 1985, Boston's Computer Museum realized they had a problem. They were arguably the largest computer museum, profiting from Boston's status at the time as a center of the computer industry due to titans like "Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC)," "Data General," "MASSCOMP," and the development of huge early computers like Harvard's "Mark-1", MIT's "Whirlwind" and the "SAGE" computer systems. However, they were missing out on the new revolution of "Personal Computers" which had taken off over the prior 15 years.
They sought to remedy that failure by seeking donations of early "personal computers" through a contest to find early personal computers, whatever that may be. They advertised the contest in several sources, asking people to submit their entry, and then had a panel of judges pick the best "finds." This wasn't specifically just to find the "first" personal computer, but all sorts of important artifacts and memorabilia. They left this broad, which lead to a very broad range of submissions. One advertisement from InfoWorld is pictured to the right.
The response was incredible. They received 320 offers of entries from 13 countries, and selected 137 into the competition. These computers arrived from all parts of the world. Then the difficulty began, the process of defining what was a "personal computer" in light of examining the many submissions.
This may sound like a clever way to free computers, but the museum didn't require people to donate their computers. They would just have to pay return shipping if they wanted the computers back after the competition.
It was only after the many computers arrived that they could really understand the problem. Defining a "Personal Computer" was not easy. If the definition is too broad, it would include plastic or cardboard educational and toy kit 'computers' (such as CARDIAC, BRANIAC and GENIAC), as well as programmable calculators. They questioned if they should consider only commercially available computers vs the "kit-form" computers like the Mark-8 introduced in 1974. In the end, they felt the Kenbak-1 met their best idea of a true personal computer and awarded it the first place prize.
"We awarded the first prize to the 1971 Kenbak-l.
submitted by its creator John Blankenbaker.
This small machine contained an eight-bit processor built up
from medium-scale and small-scale integrated circuits,
and qualified as the earliest personal computer known to the judges."
John won a free trip to Boston for the award ceremony, and gave a brief speech about the Kenbak-1 development. The photo below is him with his Kenbak-1, as well as the other winners.
Details of the contest, the winners, and the museum's holdings as of Fall 1986 is available at The Computer Museum Report, Fall 1986.
John Blankenbaker on left, with his Kenbak-1, with other winners.
More photos in the full report.
How does this "First PC" title stand up today?
In the last 35+ years since this competition, the "First Personal Computer" title has been debated, there are as many opinions as there are early computers. Some feel the "Personal Computer" started only with the microprocessor. Some feel anything called a personal computer should have an integrated display and keyboard, which disqualifies even the influential Altair computers. Some feel the refrigerator sized PDP-8 of 1965, or at least the PDP-8/S of 1966 which broke the under $10,000 barrier should hold the title. Some feel that a certain price-point makes a computer "personal", as opposed to a research or educational institution needing to buy it. All of these conditions/criteria are reasonable, and the debate continues.
Some advocate for the Datapoint 2200, originally made as a smart terminal, but usable as a general purpose computer, created in San Antonio Texas. A vocal proponent is Lamont Wood, a San Antonio based writer, who worked in marketing for Datapoint in the 1980's and has written eBooks and newspaper articles promoting San Antonio, rather than Silicon Valley, as the birthplace of the personal computer. He tells the story of a salesperson selling the terminals to Pillsbury in Minneapolis in 1971, and supporting Pillsbury to write their own application, a stand-alone payroll program, for large chicken farms. This proves the 2200 was being used in 1971 as a real computer, not just a terminal. Lamont Wood, feels that this use as a computer makes it deserve the title "the first personal computer." Unfortunately, Woods story only proves that the Datapoint is worthy of the title "computer" instead of just a "terminal." It's starting price of over $5000 ($40,000 in 2022 dollars) kept the Datapoint limited to large companies, not by individuals in their "home" or in a "personal computer" capacity. This high price was about the same as the PDP-8/E and Data General Nova computers which proceeded it many years earlier. The real innovation of the Datapoint 2200 was that the processor, display, keyboard, and tape storage were all in one cabinet, while the other two required separate components for similar functionality. But that doesn't make it "personal" by any definition. Perhaps Lamont thought "personal computer" means it would be used by only one person at a time. But many mini-computers at that time were predominantly used by a single user at a time.
Datapoint 2200, which could be programmed by the user, but was far from a "home" or "personal" computer affordable by individuals in 1971.
The Datapoint 2200 was definitely an impressive and important machine. It was clearly explained in 1971 advertisements that it could be programmed just like a minicomputer. Regardless, it seemed to be limited to professionals working for large companies in 1971, and was far too expensive for "home" or "personal" use by an individual. However, many years later, old Datapoint 2200's fell onto the surplus market, and were bought by individuals who used them as "Home" or "Personal" computers. But this occurred years later.
If anyone can locate any independent documentation of individuals using the Datapoint 2200 for personal use, outside of a professional capacity in a large company, prior to 1975, please contact us. We have searched long and hard through countless newsletters and archives, and have found nothing.
For more about the difficulty in selecting any computer as "the first personal computer," see our FAQ "Was the Kenbak-1 really the First Personal Computer?"
What do "Experts" Say Today?
The "First Personal Computer" title has seemed to stick over the last 35+ years.
The Computer Museum of America in Roswell, Georgia continues to describe the Kenbak-1 the first personal computer (see Link - History of the PC.)
The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, continues to describe the Kenbak-1 the first personal computer.
The Deutsches Museum (Museum of Arts and Sciences) in Munich, Germany, consider the Kenbak-1 the "First Commercially Available Personal Computer for Teaching Issues" as an weak attempt to restrict the title.
The American Computer and Robotics Museum in Bozeman Montana describes the Kenbak-1 the first personal computer.
But the question will continue to be debated, as it should.
The enduring influence of the Kenbak-1 is still evident today. Even today, people all over the world are still buying and building reproductions and emulators, and groups of people still write software for the Kenbak-1. For some reason, there's as much enthusiasm for the Kenbak-1 as any 1970's computer, including the Apple-1 and the Altair 8800.