Priceless barn find: World's first microcomputers discovered by cleaners

Priceless barn find: World's first microcomputers discovered by cleaners
The Q1 computer
The Q1 computer
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The Q1 computer
The Q1 computer

Two of the first-ever desktop computers have been found in storage boxes at Kingston University in London. A milestone in human achievement, the Q1 microprocessor computer was released more than half a century ago, and only one other is known to exist.

The history of computers, and especially of what became the personal computer, is one of those topics that is extremely complicated to nail down. With the development of the silicon chip, the already fast-developing field of computers exploded as the technology jumped from major universities and corporations like IBM into the hands of small firms, hobbyists, and a new generation of young engineers.

It's a story that makes for fascinating reading, but it's also more than a little frustrating because when it comes to the question of what was the first true desktop computer as we know it today, the answer has to be qualified with "it depends" and "even then, it's hard to nail down."

Part of the problem is that the answer depends on how you define such a computer and what features it has to have. The other is that there are so many obscure computers from the 1970s that there's always another contender that's been overlooked.

This is why unearthing the Q1 is such a surprise. Dating back to 1972, it's a fairly obscure machine with very few surviving examples and was rarely exported from the United States, so seeing one show up at Kingston in Britain is a bit of a shock. It wasn't even found tucked away in a dusty exhibit case; it was turned up by the environmental clean-up company Just Clear when it was doing routine work at the school and found the two computers in a couple of old boxes.

Built by the Q1 Corporation in New York, the Q1 was arguably the first complete, standalone microcomputer with a built-in orange screen and keyboard, as was the later and similar Q1 Lite. It was capable of working with other Q1s as part of a network, interface with printers and hard drive memories, and was capable of such functions as acting as a computer terminal, word processing, and guided data entry.

That's fairly impressive for such an early machine, which owed its flexibility and compact size to its Intel 8008 processor CPU instead of discrete TTL logic based on wired transistors. Even then, its performance was tiny by today's standards with only 16 kilobytes of memory and a processing speed of 800 kilohertz. There are car-key fobs that can outdo that now. However, that processor gives the Q1 the claim to being the world's first true microcomputer two years before the better known MITS Altair 8800.

"It is a real bonus being able to feature two Q1s – the world’s earliest microcomputers – at Kingston University," said Paul Neve, senior lecturer and course leader of the undergraduate computer science program. "The early pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s laid the foundation for today’s everything device – the modern computer now so ubiquitous in everyday life. We rely on computers for our work, communication, productivity and entertainment, but without the early trailblazers none of these would exist. There would be no PCs, no Macs and no Apple or Android phones without Q1 Corporation, Sinclair, and Acorn."

Source: Kingston University

Brian M
The comment the
'answer has to be qualified with "it depends" and "even then, it's hard to nail down."

Is so true.
There were so many 'man and their dog' outfits utilising the power of the 8008 its hard to say who produced the first real standalone computer and of course the earlier Intel 4004 has a few contenders, although arguable they were just calculators.

The real break through was the Intel technology of building a chip large enough to build a portable computer rather than those cobbling a system together to utilise it. But it really depended on so many other components, display, memory, hard drive technology. Like most things it was a a combination of different companies and technologies.

Sometimes history comes down to marketing, Did Apple invent the smart phone, answer a very definite no! Others such as the IBM Simon or the more popular HP iPAQ perhaps?

But it took Apples marketing to make it a thing, they even nicked the 'i' prefix. iPad and iPhone seems very close to IPaq, plagiarism at its best!
' There would be no PCs, no Macs and no Apple or Android phones without Q1 Corporation, Sinclair, and Acorn."' or Xerox?
loudon owen
One who deserves to be remembered is Mers Kutt, former Queens' Professor, who received serious recognition by IEEE -
What a find! I was involved in the very early 70s with designing and building personal computer systems, before the Altair 8800 and even before the Intel 8008. I was also a consultant who helped other companies integrate the 8008 into their products from the beginning of that product introduction. I thought I knew all the players. However, the Q1 is even news to me! Back then reviews and ads in magazines and trade shows were how I learned about new products in the industry. So different today. How different things are today with the internet handing us more information than we can handle!
No, it was the time for PCs to arise, so they would have even without Q1 Corp, Sinclair or Acorn, and we would have had desktop computers and video sites and first-person shooters without IBM, Apple or Microsoft. The computers would have different labels on them, and the ports, and positions of icons on the screen, and the bugs we gripe about would be different, but we'd still be reading interesting tech news on them.

I think the discovery is most important to collectors, for their game of "who owns the rarest items".
Captain Danger
16 K of Ram ? in 1972 ?
I would have killed for that on my TRS-80 in 1982.
Looks like a cross between the Kaypro I nearly bought in '84 and the VT-100 that was still ubiquitous in '86 when I started doing business programming and network admin while I finished my Computer Science degree program.
I remember we lived in Raymond Alberta (small town Canada) back from 1976 to 1978 and my dad worked for a real estate brokerage, and they had access to a computerized database system.
One time we got to visit the office and my dad showed us how the database worked, he accessed it using a teletype terminal. It was programmed so that if you made a mistake on the query it would slowly respond back ! $ ^ * # ... (basically, cussing at you).