Based on a lively discussion over at AtariAge, I finally have what appears to be independent confirmation of what and when the first recognizable modern day personal computer with the BASIC programming language was. For purposes of definition, "first recognizable modern day personal computer" means a pre-assembled (non-kit) computer with a built-in display output (typically to a monitor early on and later to a TV) and full keyboard. The BASIC part means having some type of operating system with BASIC commands, preferably (though not required to be) in ROM. Now, we all know the holy trinity of 1977, the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80, which were released (meaning not just announced, but actually available to buy and, more importantly, use) in that magical year, in that order, and each of which set the standard for all others to follow. Logic would dictate then that the first computer to fit our definition would be the Apple II. However, as the French would say au contraire mon frere. After some total misses were brought up, one computer in particular began to generate some legitimate consideration, the Processor Technology SOL-20 (SOL 20; NOTE: Though apparently far less popular, the reduced feature-set SOL 10 was also available). Unfortunately, there is a criminal lack of historical information related to both the company and the computer, so pinning down a release date for the pre-assembled version was difficult (as was customary for the time, kit versions were available--even the Apple II could be bought as a kit, though the Commodore PET and TRS-80 could not). While I've been able to briefly handle a fully operational SOL-20 in the past, due to its high cost on today's open market (easily north of $400 with often questionable functionality), I've been unable to acquire one, so my first-hand knowledge of the system is decidedly limited.
AtariAge user "desiv", was the first to find this article, which is a report from a gentleman who had a computer store at the time and pretty much pegged a general availability of 1976 for the SOL-20. Not satisfied with this single account (for one thing, there were a few mis-remembrances in there, like saying the SOL-20 was never sold as a kit), I decided to end the debate (if only primarily with myself) once and for all by checking my personal library's materials for another contemporary perspective. Luckily, I found one.
According to my copy of Owning Your Home Computer (The Complete Illustrated Guide) (1980) by Robert L. Perry, on page 49, "About the same time [mid-1975], Robert Marsh, a computer engineer, founded Processor Technology, which marketed the first computer complete with keyboard and video screen--SOL, the first personal computer deserving the name." and "Except for the first version of the Processor Technology personal computer, called SOL, there was no complete home computer at the beginning of 1977." Then he goes on to talk about the usual suspects, Commodore PET, Apple II, TRS-80, Exidy Sorcerer and Ohio Scientific Challenger, as being introduced that year (of course actual availability is a different issue).
He mentions another challenger a bit later, the Polymorphic 8800, which was introduced in 1976, which contained connections for a video monitor and a cassette recorder (as well as BASIC in ROM). Unfortunately, you had to add your own keyboard, which disqualifies it. He then talks a bit more about the SOL 20, "The first computer a hobbyist could simply turn on and use was the Processor Technology SOL 20. It had its own keyboard, an audio cassette interface, a complete video processor that used numbers and letters (in upper and lower case...), both kinds of input/output ports (serial and parallel), and an internal power supply. It had neither switches nor blinking lights on a complicated-looking front panel. It did have an internal operating system fixed in its memory, which allowed a user to simply plug it to a video monitor and use it. [description of an operating system] Yet the SOL, too, was too complicated for the average user. A buyer still had to know computer programming to use it." So, while BASIC was not in ROM (just a "simple" operating system was), it was apparently readily available on paper tape and cassette (see more info, here, here, and here (the latter of which points to BASIC availability no later than circa January 1977, still well before the Apple II's actual release)).
Perry then devotes some time to the second generation of kit computers, like the RCA Cosmac Elf II, and Heathkit H-8. Then, towards the end of page 54, he starts in with the TRS-80, leads into the PET, talks about the Apple I and II, the Ohio Scientific Challenger, the Compucolor 8001, and the Exidy Sorcerer (which he says, correctly, was introduced in the Spring of 1978).
On another note, he devotes Chapter 5 to "The Newest Home Computers", which, given sufficient publishing lead time for this 1980 book, would have placed most of these releases between 1978 - 1979, which falls in line with what we already know well (of course, some, like the Mattel Keyboard Component, were only ANNOUNCED at this time and would still be some time away). These systems include: Sinclair ZX80, APF Imagination Machine, Interact Model One, Mattel Intellivision (with Keyboard Component), TI-99/4 (not the 4A), Bally Professional Arcade, and HP-85.
On a final note, in Chapter 6, "The Handiest Home Computers", he discusses the TRS-80, Commodore PET, Apple II/III, Ohio Scientific Challenger series, Compucolor II, Exidy Sorcerer, and the Atari 400/800. Definitely a good book, and definitely an end to the "mystery". Nevertheless, if you want all of the usual qualifiers above and BASIC to reside in ROM, you're still looking at the Apple II, which was released in June 1977.
Any thoughts out there to the contrary?
A notable absence from the book is the VideoBrain: http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/1458 . It probably came and went too quickly to bother mentioning, though its status as the first cartridge-based computer IS important (it probably came out just before the Exidy Sorcerer, which is the only other contender).
That book you've found sounds invaluable, Bill. I'll have to get a copy.
That book you've found sounds invaluable, Bill. I'll have to get a copy.
It's certainly not perfect, and there are definitely omissions, but it's definitely helpful for shedding additional light on some of today's obscurer historical systems.
Of all those systems mentioned, the only ones I'm missing from my collection are the Polymorphic 8800, SOL, RCA Cosmac Elf II, Compucolor, and Mattel Keyboard Component. You can throw a TI-99/4 in there as well, though technically I won one on eBay several years ago and it got lost in the mail, so in theory I do own one. ;-)
By the way, of ALL of the systems mentioned that I don't have the that I'd really LOVE to have (me and probably a hundred other hardcore collectors), is the Compucolor II, considered the first complete color personal computer: http://www.old-computers.com/museum/photos.asp?t=1&c=560&st=1 . Amazing technology for the time, and rare as heck today. Probably in second place would be the Mattel Keyboard Component (though I'd want it with some software), which readers of AA will know regularly sells for $3,000+, when available.
There's a book that's essentially a collection of old Computer Shopper articles out there that has a pretty extensive history of old systems like the SOL.
A few interesting things I found on Google Books:
iWoz this page talks about the SOL-20 in the context of the Apple I/II.
Infoworld article about the early history. Lots of mentions of these systems.
Secret guide to Computers. Not much here that you're allowed to see, but looks like a history of the period.
The Personal Electronics Buyer's Guide some more good info, but again sadly limited.
The iWoz reference is particularly interesting, because it again talks about how well they sold (the guy who ran the computer store referenced in my blog post said the same thing). The bottom must have dropped out of SOL's business REALLY fast then to go from selling so briskly (for the time) to becoming a footnote... (your InfoWorld link claims 20,000 in a single year for SOL and "dealership restrictions" as the reason why they lost out by 1978 (I think a lot of companies must have felt the crunch when Radio Shack began selling their own computers from the relative ubiquity of their stores alone)).
The Secret Guide to Computers link tries to lump the SOL into the 1977 trinity of Apple, Commodore and Tandy. That appears a bit off based on what we now know (1976 and into 1977 before the release of the Apple II, the first in the trinity), though they were certainly contemporary competition.
By the way, another contender for the "crown" includes IBM's 5100 from 1975, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_5100, which was priced way too high for consumer adoption (and was not targeted to them anyway), though was amazing technology and a form factor that HP would replicate with their HP-85 series. The IBM 5100 offered both BASIC and APL language options. Interestingly, APL was available as the ONLY language for the aforementioned VideoBrain, and is a very difficult cartridge to find today (in fact, I'm still looking).
Other contenders include the AIM-65, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AIM-65, but again, you're talking a very limited display and a computer that was really meant as a type of microprocessor trainer, rather than a general purpose computing device.
A hint here from Britain of a fully-fledged system with BASIC for $3000: New Scientist.
Not really a personal computer, but not as expensive as I'd thought something like that would be at the time.