Early Personal Computers

The Technology Collection of Museum Victoria holds six early personal computers that trace important developments in the history of this remarkable area. There are three computers with separate components (an Altair 8800, a Microbee and an Atari 800) and three early portable computers (a Kaypro, an IBM ‘Cubie’ and an Osborne II).

The personal computer (PC) has revolutionised business and personal activities, and even the way people talk and think about using information. But it is worth pointing out that computers still range in size from very big supercomputers, used for example to model weather and climate change, to incredibly small computers that can fit on smartcards.

In the early 1970s the idea of a computer for personal use was considered by many to be a ridiculous notion. Even so, computer professionals and hobbyists remained committed to developing a personal computer for home and business that was relatively small and cheap.

Altair 8800

In 1975 the Altair 8800 sparked the phenomenon of the personal computer. The machine was built by a small company, MITS, and was designed to be assembled by hobbyists and professionals and used in homes or at work.

At $US 395 the Altair 8800 computer kit was relatively cheap to buy but required considerable work and skill to assemble. Once complete, the Altair 8800 looked very different to the present day desktop and laptop PCs. It came without a monitor, keyboard, disk drive or programs (software). Instead, users had to write their own programs in binary code by flipping switches on the front panel of the machine, one at a time for every binary digit. The output was read in binary on the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) on the front panel.

The Altair 8800 was powered by an Intel 8080 processor and had only 256 bytes of random access memory (RAM) – about enough to store one paragraph of text. But users remained tolerant. Their enthusiasm spawned computer clubs, stores, newsletters, magazines and conventions.

Photo of a 1975 Altair 8800

This 1975 Altair 8800 is widely considered to be the world's first personal computer
Photographer: Jon Augier / Source: Museum Victoria

Atari 800

In 1978 the computer video game company Atari entered the personal computer market with the Atari 400 and 800. Both machines looked very similar to a standard home typewriter. The computer systems were a series of components that, when connected to a television set, functioned as a single system. Other components included a tape deck that functioned as a program recorder, and pre-recorded programs on tape cartridges.

The Atari 800 provided graphics and sound quality never before seen in a personal computer system. It was capable of producing up to 256 colours with built-in player and missile graphics and was compatible with all of the Atari 2600 joysticks, paddles and keypads. The console contained the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and memory bank – 10 000 bytes of read-only memory (ROM) and 8000 bytes of RAM. Software included word processing, financial packages, games and educational titles. Despite its age, the Atari 800 is still one of the most powerful, useful and versatile home computers ever produced.

Microbee

The Microbee was released by the Australian company Applied Technology in 1982. It was one of the first computers introduced into Australian schools, and was a popular training tool for the country’s young computer users. Several thousand Microbees were made in the 1980s and sold to users as far away as Sweden.

The Microbee was sold in kit form, and when assembled had the general appearance of a modern-day desktop PC. Its CPU was built into a typewriter keyboard unit, which could be connected to a monochrome monitor for display.  Museum Victoria’s 256TC model is a more advanced Microbee with larger memory (256K bytes Ram) and includes better graphics, a full size keyboard and numeric keypad along with built in disk drives. The 256TC used the CP/M-80 disk operating system or Microbees' proprietry graphical 'Shell' and was shipped with a bundle of software which included a word processor, disk utilities, serial terminal and the Microworld Basic interpreter. There was a later model which was originally called the 640TC during development and then renamed 'The Matilda' after a naming competition was held. The Matilda was an IBM PC XT compatible design based on an NEC V40 processor and housed in the same case as the 256TC. It ran MS-DOS with EGA level graphics. The Matilda also included special hardware to enable it to run the software that was designed for the Z80 based microbees, such as the 256TC, offering backward compatibility.

Osborne 1

The Osborne 1 was the world’s first truly portable computer. It was released in 1980 by computer book publisher Adam Osborne. The computer weighed a substantial eight kilograms and was contained in a large box with a handle.

The Osborne 1 used a Zilog Z-80 microprocessor chip, which was a faster and better clone of the Intel 8080 chip. The tiny 13-centimetre black-and-white screen could display only 52 characters across, but special arrow keys moved the display left and right across a wider ‘virtual’ screen. The Osborne 1 was plagued with operational problems, but tens of thousands were sold.

Kaypro

The Kaypro II portable computer was released soon after the Osborne and became an instant success. Its appeal lay in its large 23-centimetre monitor and the reliable operating system called CP/M (Control Program for Microprocessors). It had two 5<1/2>-inch disk drives and an impressive 64 000 bytes of RAM. The Kaypro was the first portable to be packaged in a durable metal case.

Visitor Information

The early personal computers held by Museum Victoria may be viewed by appointment with the Collections Management Department.

Further Reading

Freed, L. 1995. The History of Computers. Ziff Davis Press.

Comments (15)

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daniel 9 August, 2009 12:58
atari australia
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terence hotston 1 September, 2009 08:08
purchase of memory was very expensive 4mb of memory cost several thousand dollars
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Ewan Wordsworth 27 December, 2009 23:49
I would like to correct your info on the Microbee 256TC. "Museum Victoria’s 256TC model is a more advanced Microbee with an 8088... " In Fact the 256TC was the last in the line of Z80 based microbee computers, running the microbee shell, CP/M 2.2 etc. There was a later model which was originally called the 640TC during development and then renamed 'The Matilda' after a naming competition was held. The Matilda was a IBM PC XT compatible design based on an NEC V40 processor which was housed in the same case as the 256TC. The Matilda included special hardware to enable it to run the software that was designed for the Z80 based microbees, offering backward compatibility.
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Ewan Wordsworth 27 December, 2009 23:56
Re earlier comment on corrections to the Microbee information: I forgot to add that I was a microbee employee for many years and can be contacted by Museum Victoria should there be interest in any more information on the Microbee.
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Discovery Centre 28 December, 2009 10:16

Thanks for your feedback, Evan. We've passed your information on to one of our History & Technology curators. He'll be in contact if he requires any further information.

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Travis Lindsey 9 November, 2010 19:40
I am taking an elementary Computer Information Systems course at my local community college. I really enjoyed reading about the early models of personal computers and what many would call the begining of what would be one of the greatest technological revolutions of our era. It was aswell intriguing to find a post from an actuall employee of one of those companies. I just want those responsible for this page and the comments made here to know that I appreciate there efforts that aiding me in expaning my knoweledge of the subject.
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Mark 22 November, 2010 16:52
In my final year of private primary school in South Australia I saw th first computers ever intorduled into schools. They were "Commodore 64". The 64 referred to the 64 Megabites of storeage capability it had. It was 1986
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Discovery Centre 26 May, 2011 10:29
Thanks Ewan for visiting Melbourne Museum and sharing your knowledge, we have updated the information in the infosheet
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Marcus 16 October, 2011 14:12
i have a microbee 128k disk system with screen and printer thats looking for a new home
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Graeme Phillip 18 February, 2012 12:08
I was wondering if your microbee was for sale (128 k disk system with screen and printer)and if so how much it would cost to buy i have intrest in this area because i have just been given a pc85 microbee computer with 32k of memory ,although it came with no monitor power supply or cables. iam intrested in getting it working and am also intrested in your 128k system perhaps you could help me with these items (monitor ,power supply cables) and or your complete 128k system.
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Discovery Centre 18 February, 2012 12:58
Hi Graeme, the Museum doesn't sell objects from its collections so unfortunately we can't assist you with building up your collections.  
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Graeme Morley 24 October, 2012 20:57
I have an HP 110 portable computer with printer and external hard drive. It would be great to find a home for it. ca 1984 with lotus 123 in memory. Would the Museum be willing to adopt me?
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Discovery Centre 25 October, 2012 11:04
Hi Graeme, thanks for your comment. All donation offers need to be made in writing through our Ask the experts Donations page on the website with appropriate documentation.
Discovery Centre 31 October, 2012 09:43
Hi Graeme, thank you for your dontation offer, but sadly we must decline.  Perhaps try the Monash Museum of Computing.
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Harvey Kong Tin 23 March, 2013 08:44
It is good that you featur an Atari 800 home computer in your display - as I chose this computer at that time to spend my time with. Such that at about 4 years into using it, that I worked on 2 computer videogames that a friend - Andrew Bradfield programmed - we live in Dunedin, New Zealand. Our two games were sold in England, titled "Laser Hawk" and "Hawkquest". You could run these on that Atar 800, or run them via emulation on a PC, or display a video of them running - I designed the graphics, so they are of a decent standard. You can look up details about these computer videogames on the Internet or see them running on Youtube. The local Otago Settlers Museum does have Laser Hawk running under emulation - which visitors can play, amongst it's early computing display. I can provide info, to help setting up a display? Unfortuntely the programmer of these two computer videogames is no longer with us. We were the first team to produce such quality computer videogames at this time 1985-1989 in New Zealand. I don't know what was happening in Australia with enthusiasts/hobbyists there...
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