Can you imagine a world where our computers, phones, tablets, televisions, and even something as simple as our car’s digital display didn’t come equipped with a full range of colors? It sounds unfathomable, but this was the reality until 1973 when an electrical engineer dared to think beyond the monochrome displays of the present and imagine a future in living color.
This, in effect, is how the Compucolor 8001 came to be. But what is the history behind this technology? And how exactly did it work? Read on to find the answers to these questions and more.
- Created in 1973, released in 1976
- Charles A. Muench
- Original Use
- Microcomputer with built-in color graphics and floppy data storage
Three Facts about the Compucolor 8001
- While it was released as the Compucolor 8001, the revolutionary microcomputer was actually referred to as Compucolor I during its development. Eventually, it was changed to Compucolor 8001 to link it to the pre-existing Intecolor 8001.
- Unlike rival microcomputers at the time, the Compucolor 8001 had a special feature called Vector Graphics, which was hardware that allowed users to draw straight lines. Users could also use a light pen with the computer.
- The Compucolor 8001 allowed users to play previously unseen color computer games such as chess, Pong, Hangman, and even an official Star Trek game.
Compucolor 8001: History
Charles A. Muench, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, started his second company — Intelligent Systems Corp. (ISC) — in his basement in Duluth, Georgia in 1972. The initial goal of the company was to design an intelligent and cheap CRT (cathode ray tube)-based terminal with color graphics. While it might not sound like it, this was a revolutionary idea. Up until this time, a computer terminal was either a mechanical Teletype or dumb (a word used to describe text-only) electronic device. Not to mention, its display was always monochrome — either black and white, green, or amber. In short, color graphics were unheard of, but Muench wanted to make it happen.
ISC’s first product was completed in 1973 but wasn’t advertised until February 1976 under the umbrella of the Compucolor Corporation. It was called the Intecolor 8001 Professional Intelligent CRT Terminal, and it was a $1,395 upgrade kit to be assembled by the purchaser. It featured a huge 19-inch CRT and was based on an Intel 8080 CPU combined with additional integrated circuit chips from Texas Instruments. Compucolor Corporation’s new upgrade kit was a breakthrough in color terminal technology: it offered an 8-color graphics display with both text and visual capabilities.
Later, in December of 1976, the Compucolor Corporation decided to take it one step further past a color graphics upgrade kit: a microcomputer with a true color terminal. Here, the Intecolor 8001 terminal was expanded from a computer interface device into a complete stand-alone computer with a built-in BASIC programming language called the Compucolor 8001. The Compucolor 8001 is often regarded as the first desktop color graphics microcomputer. For $1,295, those with the Intecolor 8001 could upgrade to the Compucolor 8001.
Compucolor 8001: How It Worked
The Compucolor 8001 was housed in a single cabinet with all its CPU and monitor electronics in the same housing. It was powered by an Intel 8080 CPU running at 2MHz. Its RAM memory was 4K to 32K. The 19-inch color CRT display worked at 2 modes: 80 x 48 text or 192 x 160 graphics, both eight foreground, and background colors. There were one or two RS-232 communication ports, depending on the version, with external storage via a floppy tape (a predecessor to the floppy disk, this tape was an external 8-track fed through a continuous-loop tape drive running at a rate of 4800 Baud, storing up to 1024 KB of data per tape). The floppy tape drive was short-lived due to poor performance, and by 1978, 8-inch standard Shugart devices were supported instead. These had a formatted capacity of 110 KB each.
The Compucolor had up to four modes of operation:
- CRT Mode
- Compucolor BASIC Mode
- CPU Operating System Mode (optional)
- File Control System Mode
When initially turned on or reset, the Compucolor 8001 booted in CRT Mode, featuring only two-way communication with another computer via the RS-232 serial port. This is how most standard computer terminals of the day operated, but it was below what the minicomputer’s color terminal was truly capable of. Pressing the keys “ESC”+”W” on the keyboard switched the computer into Compucolor BASIC Mode, which allowed the user to write, edit, and run programs in the Compucolor BASIC programming language.
If so-called Option 34 had been installed, pressing keys “ESC”+”P” on the keyboard switched the computer into CPU Operating System mode. This allowed the user to manipulate the contents of the system memory, read and write magnetic tapes, and execute programs on the Compucolor 8001. The fourth mode of operation was added to the system in 1978 to facilitate the newly-introduced floppy disk. Pressing “ESC”+”D” on the keyboard switched the system into File Control System Mode, which worked sort of like a disk operating system (DOS). File Control System Mode allowed the user to access and manipulate the external data storage devices — such as the floppy disk drive — to load and save data and programs.
The Compucolor 8001 keyboard was just as unique as the microcomputer itself. It lacked any and all mechanical contacts or switches, and its keys were instead all optically-encoded. This meant that its keys had light-emitting diodes (LEDs) at one end of the keyboard with a slew of photo-diodes at the other.
Compucolor 8001: Historical Significance
All in all, the Compucolor 8001 was an enormous and heavy device. Weighing in at 85 pounds and requiring external storage devices to truly be useful as a microcomputer, the Compucolor 8001 wasn’t the most efficient device of its time, but it was undoubtedly the first of its kind. In 1978, the Compucolor Corporation released the Compucolor II: a more affordable, more functional personal computer made with the general public in mind. This upgrade effectively underlined the historical significance of the Compucolor 8001: It was the first intelligent and cheap CRT-based terminal with color graphics, just like its inventor Charles Muench intended.