The first of this three-part documentary film about the history of personal computing and the inventors and businessmen who made it possible, hosted by Robert Cringely.

This part focuses on the early history of personal computing and the first innovators of the industry. Cringely notes that the personal computing industry was created "by accident," heralded by young people who became interested simply as a way of impressing their peers. Cringely talks about Silicon Valley just south of San Francisco, California, where the modern computing industry was born. It is there that he works as a computer news columnist, always seeking new information and news about the industry. He talks about the current generation of computer companies such as Architext Software, which has a laid-back and casual working atmosphere, eschewing the usual elements of a professional office such as business attire or standard working hours. Such an office model is common amongst small computer companies. Cringely posits that the appeal of computers and computer programming is that the logic of a computer is internally consistent and comprehensible.

Cringely then discusses the history of computer technology, starting with large room-sized mainframe computers from the 1940's and 1950's. Each one was given a specific series of instructions, i.e. a program, to process numerical data. Programming such machines was laborious and tedious, as each individual unit responded to a different "language," or series of commands. This problem was addressed by U.S. Navy Captain Grace Hopper, who invented COBOL, the first programming language, designed to translate typed commands into numerical sequences on a computer. The advent of personal computing was not feasible until the company Intel invented the microprocessor in the early 1970's, designed to do the work of thousands of transistors in a mainframe computer, greatly miniaturizing the process. Intel was founded in 1968 and operated under the principle that those in the company with knowledge and understanding of the product would have a say in decisions. At first they doubted the feasibility of personal computing, instead applying their microprocessor to devices such as adding machines or traffic lights.

The first personal computer, the Altair 8800, would not be invented until 1975. The Altair was the brainchild of ex-Air Force engineer Ed Roberts, who originally built the device merely for enjoyment. Roberts ran the calculator company MITS outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and once the Altair began selling, the company was saved from bankruptcy. MITS far outsold Roberts's expectations despite the fact that it was actually only a computer kit which required assembly. In addition, there was very little actual functionality to the Altair. In response to this, the Homebrew Computer Club was formed in Stanford University where computer enthusiasts banded together partially out of a desire to create a practical function for the Altair. The regular operation of the device was long and tedious, and so members of the Homebrew Club would experiment with the device to find new uses and improved functionality. The problem was that the Altair could not accept commands in BASIC, the simplest of computing languages, without a BASIC Interpreter program, which did not exist.

Such a problem was addressed by a pair of young Harvard students, Paul Allen and Bill Gates. They wrote a BASIC Interpreter for the Altair, and Allen flew out to Albuquerque in order to demonstrate their work to MITS. MITS was impressed and Gates dropped out of college in order to join Allen, and together they founded the computer company Microsoft. They invited many of their friends to join them as employees, and all lived together in an apartment, maintaining a highly informal and casual work style. Their work allowed the Altair to expand its functionality, incorporating monitors and programming games, word processors, and accounting programs for the device. By the end of 1975, there was a thriving market for home computers amongst enthusiasts, and there were soon conventions and a myriad of other computer companies to get in on the craze.

As the personal computer started seeing widespread availability, a pair of Californian hippie teenagers, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, decided to make their mark on the computer industry. Both were regular attendees of the Homebrew Computer Club; Wozniak worked on the technical side of computing and Jobs was interested in the business and marketing aspects. Wozniak had already invented a device called a "blue box," designed to trick telephone companies into giving him free long-distance calls. Both he and Jobs became fascinated with the idea that such a small device could manipulate something as massive as telephone infrastructure, inspiring them in their work with computers. The first of the computers which would be known as the Apple I was built by Wozniak to impress the other members of the Homebrew Club, where he would demonstrate its functions. Jobs had the idea to market the computer, and the two of them started the company Apple in their garage. The Apple I was little more than a circuit board without any other assembly, but they managed to sell fifty units.

Jobs realized that there was a potential market for people interested in programming their computers instead of working with the hardware, and he and Wozniak began work on a mass-market pre-assembled computer, something thought to be impossible at the time. Wozniak was able to consolidate and miniaturize the complex circuitry necessary for such a compact device, to the point where it ran far more efficiently than he could have imagined, allowing for color monitors and more complex games. Jobs sought funding for the new computer from venture capitalists, who were impressed with Jobs's "articulate" sales pitch. With the proper funding, Jobs and Wozniak released the Apple II computer by premiering it at the 1978 West Coast Computer Faire, at that time the largest computer show in the world. The Apple II was the star attraction of the Faire and became an instant success. Part of its appeal was in its design, appearing more palatable and consumer-friendly than the earlier Altair 8800.

The success of the Apple II surprised Jobs and Wozniak, and for the next two years Apple became the sensation of the computer world. They soon realized that they would need a "killer application," a program so useful that people would buy the computer simply to run it. That program came in the form of VisiCalc, the first digital spreadsheet, created by Harvard Business School grad students Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. Frustrated by the tedious and time-consuming process of calculating business figures and projections on a blackboard, Bricklin conceived of the idea of a "digital blackboard" of sorts to make the process faster and easier. VisiCalc was released in 1979 and proved to be a very popular item for accountants, businessmen, and people calculating their personal finances. Such a program fit in perfectly with the upcoming economic landscape of the 1980's, and the Apple II had found their killer application.

By 1980, much had changed since the inception of the Altair 8800. The personal computer served as the focal point of a multi-million dollar industry. Bricklin and Frankston neglected to patent VisiCalc, although they feel that their mark on the industry via inventing the spreadsheet program was worthwhile. Roberts sold MITS and returned to his native Georgia, where he became a medical doctor. Apple went public in 1980, making both Jobs and Wozniak extremely wealthy. However, they seemed not to be interested in the money, as they both entered the computer business for fun. Cringely says that while Apple was dominating the computer market in the early 1980's, the company IBM was about to irrevocably change the landscape of the industry.

This selection from the Alan Gerry Cable Collection has been made available by the Gerry Foundation, Inc.


  • DATE: June 12, 1996 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:55:12
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: B:74384
  • GENRE: Public Affairs/Documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: Public affairs/Documentaries
  • SERIES RUN: PBS - TV, 1996


  • John Gau … Executive Producer
  • Stephen Segaller … Executive Producer
  • Cheryl Downes … Associate Producer
  • Paul Sen … Director
  • Cyndee Readdean … Researcher
  • Robert X. Cringely … Writer, Based on the book "Accidental Empires" by
  • Nitin Sawhney … Music by
  • Robert X. Cringely … Host
  • Paul Allen … Guest
  • Steve Jobs … Guest
  • Steve Wozniak … Guest
  • Bill Gates … Guest
  • Steve Ballmer … Guest
  • Edwin Chin (audio id only) … Guest
  • Douglas Adams … Guest
  • Christine Comaford … Guest
  • Graham Spencer … Guest
  • Mark A. Van Haren … Guest
  • Mat Hostetter … Guest
  • Doug Muise … Guest
  • Joe Kraus … Guest
  • Gordon Moore … Guest
  • Ed Roberts … Guest
  • Eddie Currie … Guest
  • David Bunnell … Guest
  • Lee Felsenstein … Guest
  • Roger Melen … Guest
  • Harry Garland … Guest
  • Jim Warren … Guest
  • Arthur Rock … Guest
  • Andy Hertzfeld … Guest
  • Chris Espinosa … Guest
  • Dan Bricklin … Guest
  • Bob Frankston … Guest
  • Marv Goldschmitt … Guest
  • Grace Hopper