Early September press date. The trip was in early August 1975.
Update from 2006
|We have a lot of buzz words these days, and one phrase we hear a lot is about
companies being "real". Being the publisher of BYTE, it seemed to me that it
would be worthwhile if I were to make a trip to visit the major microcomputer
systems companies and talk with them ... possibly making them more real to our
My first stop was in Denver - a short layover between planes on my way to Salt Lake. I tried to locate the Digital Group there, but had no luck. Sorry about that. I know they are real because I recently sent them a check for their video display generator and received one a few days later in the mail. I was disappointed not to have a chance to talk with them at greater length.
In Salt Lake I was met by Doug Hancey of Sphere and driven out to their new plant in Bountiful, a suburb. It's a small building and I have a feeling that they will quickly be outgrowing the facilities ... I don't think they realize what a demand there is going to be for their system
They had a prototype up and running and it looked good. There were a couple of glitches, of course, but they seemed to have these well in hand and were expecting to be able to set up a production department very soon. The system is based upon the Motorola M6800 chip and features a PROM loader. They plan to have another PROM with Basic in it, which would be quite a step ahead for it would free all of the RAM memory for use and would permit instant use of Basic without the usual loading process.
I gather that Motorola has been extremely helpful in supplying information and support for the effort. This may have a lot to do with some of the other 6800 based computer systems which are coming out ... more on that later.
The plans were to setup a production facility in the back part of the building and have the first kits available in October. This will take some doing, but I wouldn't be surprised if they come close for they are a very determined group.
They have an interesting set of peripherals in the works, including some medium cost floppy disk systems, and a possible revolutionary tape system. We'll try to bring you up to date on Sphere as things progress.
Next, in talking with Ed Roberts, the president of MITS, I found that the rumors of a new MITS system based upon the M6800 was much more than a rumor. The dates of release weren't firmed up yet, but it was definitely coming down the pike. Ed said that MITS would give good support to both the Intel 8080 and Motorola M6800 systems. With both Sphere and MITS producing 6800 systems Motorola was doing well and their solid backup of their chips was paying off. This would also mean a big plus to users since this would allow a lot more swapping of programs and would simplify interfacing of memory and peripherals.
We'll have a lot more info on just what MITS is doing and their plans in the near future.
From New Mexico I flew to San Antonio and a short visit to Southwest Technical Products, Dan Meyer proprietor. SWTP has long been well known for their excellent hi-fi kits. Readers of The Audio Amateur (Peterborough NH 03458) have been reading the SWTP ads for some time and seen the rave reviews of the equipment.
Dan has a good sized plant and is doing a substantial business in audio kits. I went there to just say hello and tell him how much I enjoyed putting his television typewriter kit together ... and to see what he might have up his sleeve for the future. To my amazement he had an M6800 CPU up and going, hooked to one of his TVT units. Those Motorola boys sure do get around. The plans are to have systems available in kit form by November . . . more support for 6800 systems ... more users, more programs.
This is an exciting time in the microprocessor business with systems getting going just about every month. The Sphere, MITS and SWTP systems are just the vanguard of what is coming. There are outfits talking about some slower systems ... probably 8008 based ... which will come in under $200 for the CPU ... and maybe even one for $100!
All of the firms are working hard to develop accessories, memories and programs. Look out 1976.
One flake is selling imitation Southwest Tech circuit boards (the television typewriter circuit). Good luck if you fall for this one. SW Tech is a substantial firm with a long history of good products and service to back them up - I've built their TV typewriter and it is splendid. Said flake is getting ready to put out imitation microprocessor boards ... and kits. Undoubtedly he will give all of the support to his boards and system that one might expect from someone operating out of a cellar.
The July 1976 issue of BYTE had an article "Assembling a Sphere" (pages18 - 20). Bruce Anderson describes seeing the ads for the Sphere in July 1975 and ordering the SYS/2 kit for $750. He got a conformation in mid August for a delivery date in the second week of October. The first package arrived on October 30, and the rest the next day. A few parts were backordered.
He had it assembled in about 2 weeks. It did not work, after troubleshooting he determined the PROM was bad. He returned the PROM (with $5 for shipping and handling) and Sphere determined they forgot to program it. In two weeks he had a new PROM.
The video display had several bad locations. The video memory use four MCM6810 chips (128 byte RAM). The bought replacements and found that half of these were bad. He called Sphere and found out that the timing specifications for MCM6810 were too slow but most chips worked.
Bruce Anderson was a very early customer and had to put up with poor documentation and had to help debug the design for Sphere.
Wayne Green did a follow-up trip in August 1976 and wrote
about it in the December 1976 issue of 73 magazine.
In October 1976, Wayne wrote this, "When I visited Sphere back in August 1975 they were expected to ship hardware in a few weeks and were certain they would have BASIC available for it in the same time slot. I think the hardware finally got out in about 4 months (complete systems, I mean) and to my knowledge they have not yet shipped BASIC in any good usable form."
Michael Wise, the president of Sphere, spoke at VCF 3.0 (October
The Altair 680 was the cover story on the November 1975 issue of
Popular Electronics. The December issues of BYTE and Popular Electronics
have full page ads for the Altair 680.
March 1976, Ed Roberts column. "The 680 program is pressing ahead, but the hardware phase is behind schedule. We now have a full up 8K BASIC operational in the 680 which is essentially identical to the 8K Altair 8800 BASIC."
March 1976, 680 Software Developments by Mark Chamberlin. "Paul Allen and I have spent many long hours applying the shoe horn to the 680 PROM Monitor in an effort to pack as many features as possible into the 256 byte PROM"
April 1976, 680-b ready for production by Steve Pollini. "MITS is now ready to begin full production of the Altair 680-B."
The October 1975 cover of BYTE magazine has two photos of the SWTPC 6800 CPU board. The November issues of BYTE and Popular Electronics have full page ads for the SWTPC 6800 computer.
The October 1975 issue of 73 Magazine has photos of the SWTPC 6800 prototype taken in early August. Wayne Green says that the computer is expected to ship in mid November.
Robert Uiterwyk orders and receives a SWTPC 6800 in November 1975, has it working before Christmas 1975.
The first issue of the SWTPC computer newsletter (June 1975) says that they have been shipping systems for over 5 months and have run across no problems on the system.
BYTE magazine (September 1976, page 102) has a comment from Sol Libes of the ACGN from May 1st pointing out that systems purchased New Jersey club members have been assembled in short order and worked on power-up.
The SWTPC 6800 was produced until 1979 when it was replaced by a 6809 version.