We look at the grandfather of the modern desktop computer
Mention a HP product today and most users will likely point out one of the company’s range of printers. However, if you were to travel back to the early 70s, that response would have been radically different.
Founded in 1935, Hewlett- Packard already had a rich history with electronics enthusiasts and businesses long before it ever took to making desktop computers, printers or servers. Back in its youth, the company manufactured electronic test equipment and signal generators. But 1968 saw it launch one of the most important advances in consumer technology: the HP- 9100A, a desktop calculator that was/ wasn’t a desktop computer.
Despite being able to be programmed and work as a computer, the HP- 9100A wasn’t labelled as a computer. As Bill Hewlett once said, “If we had called it a computer, it would have been rejected by our customers’ computer gurus because it didn’t look like an IBM. We therefore decided to call it a calculator and all such nonsense disappeared.”
The HP- 9100A was hugely successful, so in 1971 the company launched a new model: the HP- 9810A. This new generation, the HP- 9800 Series, was a quantum leap ahead of anything else of the time. Incorporating such technology as magnetic cards, an LED display, BASIC interpreter, a built- in cassette drive and a huge 4KB of memory – upgradeable to 8KB – the HP- 9800 Series was the obvious choice for both professionals and home users.
Indeed, the modern desktop computer owes a lot to the HP- 9800 Series. In fact, many pundits state that the HP- 9800 Series is the ancestor of the modern personal computer.
The HP- 9100A lasted a surprisingly long time, in terms of emerging technology. The excellent engineering process and reasonably low price of $ 5,000 meant that this, being the world’s first scientific calculator, was the go- to product for businesses across America.
Toward the end of its life, though, HP was ordered to pay Olivetti the substantial sum of $ 900,000 after the company copied much of the technology from Olivetti’s Programma 101. The fine hit HP hard, and work was accelerated to get the next generation of ‘ calculators’ into the hands of the users.
The HP- 9810A was launched in 1971 and was an instant success. A year later, the HP- 9820A appeared, offering more
memory and HPL ( High Performance Language). Within a few months, the modified HP- 9821A was released, which was identical to the previous model, but instead of magnetic cards, HP opted for cassettes as the storage medium.
Finally, early in 1973, HP launched the last model of the 9800 Series. The HP- 9830A was an impressive machine, boasting up to 8KB of memory, four CPU boards that totalled 8MHz, a 32- character LED, built- in cassette drive ( with a five- cassette storage panel to one side) and an optional thermal printer.
The HP- 9830A was a breakthrough machine. With 16 circuit boards within its 20kg chassis, this monstrous ‘ calculator’ was the poster child of the scientific and business communities. Later re- released models could even be upgraded to a huge 32KB.
Despite being described by the community and HP as calculators, the HP- 9800 Series eventually evolved into the HP Series 80 computers, which were then used as the benchmark for IBM and Apple- based personal computers.
The 1971 HP-9810A, looking more calculator than desktop computer
By 1973, the HP-9830A became the ancestor of the modern PC