- Inventing the PC: The MCM/70 Story
There is much to be learned from Zbigniew Stachniak’s account of Micro Computer Machines, Incorporated (MCM), an Ontario microcomputer startup that ran from 1971 to 1982. Between 1974 and 1976, MCM manufactured and sold the MCM/70, a microcomputer built around Intel’s 8008 microprocessor with an integrated display, keyboard, and cassette-tape storage drive. As Stachniak rightly notes, this was very early production for such a system, perhaps the first. Well-known microcomputers of this stripe—the Apple, the Commodore PET, and the Tandy TRS-80—first came to market in 1977.
Inventing the PC is a detailed reconstruction of the history of MCM, drawing on a collection of documents and objects at the York University Computer Museum—for which Stachniak is curator in addition to his duties as a professor in York’s computer science department—and interviews with MCM alumni, as well as extensive interviews with and the personal papers of Merslau Kutt, MCM’s founder. In this, it is a significant expansion of Stachniak’s 2003 article on the MCM/70 in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, which garnered international press attention for Kutt. Stachniak should be commended for the difficult work of preserving and creating the historical materials on which his book rests. As a focused case study that does not shy away from technical content, Inventing the PC will most likely find its readership among those with a strong interest in the history of computing or electronics.
Stachniak’s detailed account of the development of the MCM/70 reveals the importance of a significant transition in computing across the 1970s, in which engineers within the semiconductor industry increasingly took responsibility for the design of computer system functions—CPU architecture, main memory—from engineers in the computer industry. As semiconductor engineers designed microchips to take on ever-larger computing functions, fundamental computing system decisions fell to them. As a result, the creation of the MCM/70 and other early microcomputer systems became to a large degree a matter of what I have called elsewhere “orchestration as innovation” (Patterning the World, 2009).
Stachniak’s study nicely displays the range of possibilities for what a microcomputer could be: a microprocessor development system like those made by Intel, a process and instrument control system like R2E’s Micral computers, educational or hobbyist devices like RCA’s FRED or the Altair 8800, or personal computers like the MCM/70, Apple, Commodore PET, or TRS-80. Stachniak tantalizingly raises the issue of the fuzzy boundary between programmable calculators and microcomputers in the early 1970s, but does not delve into the matter at length. [End Page 518]
While not clearly articulated by Stachniak, the most striking difference between the MCM/70 and the personal computers that soon followed was that the MCM/70 was envisioned as a personal mainframe instead of a new breed of small computer for individual use. That the MCM/70 was a personal or micro-mainframe is clear in that the machine ran a popular mainframe language and incorporated virtual memory, a feature found almost exclusively in mainframes. Kutt and the other engineers at MCM were, first and foremost, enthusiastic devotees of APL, a wonderfully formal symbolic programming language developed by Kenneth Iverson and others at IBM in the early 1960s that was used on large mainframe computers in the later 1960s. The motivation for Kutt and his colleagues was to create an APL-capable computer for individual use. Indeed, as Stachniak reveals, they were exclusively focused to the APL user community, marketing the MCM/ 70 primarily through demonstrations for and interactions with this particularly cohesive programming community. This primary devotion to APL, Stachniak concludes, was largely responsible for MCM’s collapse by 1982. This reader was left wanting to know more about the APL community and how it compared to other programming-language groups in this period.
It is for the entrepreneurial story of MCM as a start-up that the reader really craves more information...