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Try This at Home: An Early Machine Brought Computing to the Masses

Joan Killough-Miller

When Jon Titus' Mach-8 minicomputer hit the market in 1974, it featured a revolutionary 16 kilobytes of memory. Titus recently paid a visit to the new home of WPI's Network Operations office in Morgan Hall. From here, NetOps connects 27 academic buildings, four satellite campuses, and 36 dorms and fraternities--with a memory capacity of 512 gigabytes.

Jon Titus '67 didn't invent the personal computer. It's hard to say who did, since no one agrees on which machine first qualified for that designation. What Titus did do--in an era before anyone envisioned a PC in every home or an electronics superstore in every mall--was to put the plans and parts for a do-it-yourself computer into the hands of hobbyists throughout the world.

His invention--the Mark-8 Minicomputer--is now part of the permanent Information Age exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

"My claim to fame was creating the first generally available computer to use a microprocessor chip, which put it in a price range that the home hobbyist could afford," Titus explains. Last fall, he was honored with the 2002 George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award, along with the inventors of the cell phone and the compact disc. Previous recipients include Apple founder Steve Wozniak and Internet architect Vincent G. Cerf.

In 1967, when Titus earned his B.S. in chemistry at WPI, computer science was yet to become a discipline, and only hobbyists were drawn to the clumsy new machines. Titus recalls learning a few simple programming exercises during an ROTC course taught by a captain who stayed a few lessons ahead of his students. The idea of having a computer at home was as ridiculous as owning your own satellite, he says. Apart from the size and the expense, there wasn't much the average person would want to do with it.

Titus had no grand aspirations for the Mark-8. "I just wanted my own computer to fool around with," he says. As a chemistry graduate student at Virginia Tech, he challenged himself to build a computer around Intel's new 8-bit 8008 microprocessor chip. His modifications successfully expanded its memory capacity to a revolutionary 16 kilobytes.

Titus likens his achievement to inventing the egg beater before anyone knew that eggs were edible and good for you.

A cover story and a mail-in offer in the July 1974 issue of Radio-Electronics made the Mark-8 famous. For $5 you could get a detailed instructional booklet; a set of circuit boards for the project was available for $50. Suddenly, anyone with a bit of electrical know-how could own a functional computer for a total cost of about $350. Noth-ing else came close, in price, size or computing power.

Sales were modest, totaling about 400 board sets and 7,500 booklets. Titus likens his achievement to inventing the egg beater before anyone knew that eggs were edible and good for you. The common reaction was "Well, that's interesting. But what can you do with it?" Not much, he had to admit.

"Computers had their place, doing rapid and complex calculations," says Titus, "but I don't think anybody at that time had any idea that information technology would be as pervasive as it is now."

With the royalties, plus the payment for the magazine article, Titus bought an IBM Selectric correcting typewriter to keep up with the correspondence. (Word processors and personal printers were still on the horizon.)

He didn't get rich, but he did go down in history. Titus still hears regularly from hobbyists who want to recreate or tinker with the original design. Devotees remember the Mark-8 with affection, as a hardworking machine that proved home computers for the masses were possible.

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