Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 1 — The HP-150 Touchscreen

The Computer Chronicles debuted as a national television program in the United States in the fall of 1983. The series was the brainchild of Stewart Cheifet, then the general manager at KCSM-TV, a public television station based in San Mateo, California, located in the heart of Silicon Valley. Cheifet originally launched Chronicles as a live, local program in 1981, which was hosted by Jim Warren, the co-founder of the West Coast Computer Faire, an annual computer convention based in San Francisco.

Cheifet told host Leo Laporte in a 2013 episode of the podcast Triangulation that Warren’s local show–essentially a televised computer user group–went viral before the term “viral” existed. Other PBS stations around the country started calling Cheifet asking if they could carry the show. Eventually, Cheifet decided to relaunch The Computer Chronicles as a taped program with himself as the host and went looking for underwriters.

One potential sponsor Cheifet spoke with was Gary Kildall, the founder of Digital Research, Inc., which developed the popular CP/M operating system. Not only was Kildall “totally supportive” of the idea, Cheifet told Laporte, but he offered to co-host the program. Cheifet noted that Kildall was an experienced pilot and often flew his private plane up to San Mateo each Saturday to record.

The Computer Chronicles went on to run for approximately two decades, from 1984 until 2003. Cheifet served as principal host for the entire run and later created a companion program, Net Cafe, which focused on the growth of the Internet during the 1990s. Kildall would continue as co-host of Chronicles, with intermittent absences, until around 1990.

What Was The Computer Chronicles?

The Computer Chronicles was essentially a newsmagazine-style program. Each show typically began with a brief host segment where Cheifet and Kildall would discuss the subject for the week. This led into a pre-recorded feature narrated by Cheifet or another contributor. There would then be one or two segments involving product demonstrations. A manager or developer from a given company would talk to Cheifet and Kildall in-studio and show off their latest project, which related back to the subject of the week.

After the first season, broadcast during 1984, Chronicles would follow the product demo segment with a brief roundup of technology-related headlines called “Random Access,” again presented by either Cheifet or a journalist affiliated with WITF-TV in Harrisburg, which co-produced the program nationally for PBS. This segment sometimes featured a brief, one- or two-minute software review.

A Nostalgic Look Back at Computing History…in 1983

The subject of the first nationally broadcast episode was “Mainframes to Minis to Micros.” Cheifet opened the host segment by asking Kildall, presumably with tongue firmly planted in cheek, if he thought we were “at the end of the line” with respect to the evolution of computers. Obviously, Kildall replied no, pointing to the new trend of using microprocessors as general purpose computers. He said eventually, computers would get so small you would “lose them like your keys.” He even saw microprocessors being used as controllers for non-computing devices such as wheelchairs.

This led into the episode’s pre-recorded feature, where Cheifet narrated an introduction to the Computer Museum of Boston, a nonprofit organization that housed a collection of many early computers and calculating devices, such as the TX-0, the Pascaline, the Illiac IV, and the Whirlwind I.

The feature continued into a second segment, which included snippets from an interview with C. Gordon Bell, a member of the Museum’s board of directors and a former vice president at Digital Equipment Corporation, where he worked on the TX-0. The segment then transitioned back to the studio, where Cheifet and Kildall spoke with Herbert Lechner, vice president for information systems and administration at SRI International, a nonprofit scientific research institute originally founded by Stanford University. Cheiefet asked Lechner if he believed that micro computers–i.e., personal computers–would take over from the mini computers produced during the 1970s. Lechner replied that he expected to see a wide range of high-end and low-end computers on the market. He pointed out that software would play a key role in the ongoing evolution of hardware. Kildall noted that smaller systems would emphasize “real-time control” by the user rather than the time-sharing that was common with larger mainframes.

Lechner and Kildall also commiserated over the rapid changes seen in the computer industry during the preceding 30 years. Lechner said he was part of the team that developed the IBM 702 mainframe back in the 1950s. At the time, Lechner said it took a team of 17 people working for nearly a year to install a machine like the 702–and they wondered then if they could even sell 30 such systems in the entire United States.

It’s Like a Rolodex…But on a Computer!

The final segment of this first episode was also the first-ever product demonstration. Cyril Yansouni joined Cheifet, Kildall, and Lechner to show off the HP-150 personal computer. Yansouni was then general manager of HP’s personal computer group. The main selling point of the HP-150 was its interactive touchscreen. As Yansouni noted, touchscreens were not entirely new technology, even in 1984. They had been used on terminals. But what HP offered was a machine that embedded the touchscreen’s functionality with software applications.

The specific demo Yansouni presented was for an “electronic Rolodex” program where the user could use the touchscreen to manually scroll through virtual contact cards. He showed how the user could print out an individual card using a built-in printer. Alternatively, if a modem was attached, the user could touch a phone number to call their chosen contact.

Kildall noted that one criticism of touchscreen-based interfaces was that holding up a finger all the time can be tiring for the user. He joked that HP might want to offer an armrest attachment. Yansouni acknowledged that the “ideal” user interface had not yet been developed. He said further experimentation was necessary, and that in the future we would likely see a combination of things, including mouse-based input and voice, that could be used with a specific application.

Cheifet then pointed to yet another “new” feature of the HP-150–disk drives that supported micro-floppies, i.e., 3.5-inch diskettes as opposed to the industry standard 5.25-inch disks. Yansouni said HP’s micro-floppies had the same density and storage capacity as 5.25-inch disks, and over the next several months he anticipated an improvement in capacity up to 1 MB.

The segment, and the show, ended with a brief colloquy between over the likely “next step” in computer evolution. Lechner said one trend to keep an eye on was networking computers together, both in the form of local area networks (LANs) and over telephone lines. Kildall said he expected most of the advancement in this area would involve the latter, as LANs were expensive and had a lot of problems, while telephone-based networking could rely on existing infrastructure. Yansouni agreed with Kildall, adding that telephone-based computer networking could help promote the use of voice interfaces.

The Press Reviews of the HP-150

Hewlett-Packard clearly saw the HP-150 as their ticket to success in the still-developing personal computer market. An October 1983 cover spread in Byte magazine went into much greater detail about the computer–which had the internal code name “Magical”–and its touchscreen capabilities. HP actually trademarked the technology under the name HPTouch. It was actually an optical touchscreen that relied on infrared beams to detect finger placement. There were 24 holes drilled into each side of the screen’s bezel, and 40 holes drilled into the top and bottom, which created a grid for the infrared beams.

Picture of the HP-150 computer.

The HP-150 was also an “all-in-one” PC like the Macintosh, with the computer and monitor functioning as a single integrated unit. Unlike the Macintosh, however, the disk drives had to be attached and connected separately. But as Yansouni pointed out during the on-air demo, it was possible to attach an integrated thermal printer into the base unit.

That said, another review, published in the March 1984 issue of New Zealand’s Bits & Bytes magazine, noted that “there are no extras” included with the HP-150 and that everything, including the internal printer, had to be purchased as a separate option.

And these options added up to a very expensive machine even for the time. Bits & Bytes reported the base cost as NZ$8,460. The dual 3.5-inch drives that Younsani showed in the Chronicles demo would then run you an additional NZ$2,885 (or NZ$2,054 for just a single drive). The Personal Card software–i.e., the Rolodex program–was also sold separately for NZ$262.

To make things more difficult, the Bits & Bytes review noted, the HP-150 only worked with Microsoft’s MS-DOS. It did not offer any alternative operating systems, notably Kildall’s CP/M, which was then the standard for many business computers. The HP-150’s operating system would allow users to copy data from CP/M machines, but not the actual programs. As a result, an existing CP/M user who purchased the HP-150 would also need to replace all of their existing software library.

Additionally, even though the HP-150 used MS-DOS, it was not 100 percent IBM PC-compatible. Jim Sutton, one of the lead designers on the HP-150, explained to Byte that software written for the IBM was “transportable” to the HP-150, so long as the program did not depend on “special hardware features of an IBM device” and only relied upon “vanilla MS-DOS calls.”

Within a couple of years, HP would indeed move away from the HP-150 and its touchscreen interface to produce more mainstream IBM compatibles, notably the HP Vectra line. The original HP-150 demonstrated on Chronicles was also quickly supplanted by the HP-150 II later in 1984, which only kept the touchscreen as an option.

Cyril Yansouni’s Disk Drive Adventures

Cheifet and Yansouni’s exchange regarding the implementation of 3.5-inch floppy disk drives on the HP-150 turned out to be an interesting bit of unintentional foreshadowing regarding Yansouni’s own post-HP career. Yansouni originally joined HP in 1967 and remained there until 1986, when he moved on to a succession of corporate jobs in the tech industry, culminating in his 1991 appointment as chairman and chief executive officer of of Read-Rite Corporation, which was a top supplier of thin-film recording heads used in disk drives.

During Yansouni’s first year as CEO, Read-Rite’s market share rose to nearly 50 percent. But in the mid-1990s, the company stumbled when it pissed off its biggest customer, Western Digital. According to a 1997 report from the San Francisco Chronicle, Yansouni decided to pursue the next generation of disk-drive heads rather than expanding the capacity of its existing models. Western Digital, which favored the latter approach, quickly shifted its orders to Read-Rite’s competitors. This in turn prompted Yansouni to reverse course and admit he made a mistake, but not before the company posted a $43 million loss and had to fend off a hostile takeover bid.

Read-Rite rebounded from these events and continued in business for a few more years before succumbing to bankruptcy in 2003, as described in The Register:

Read-Rite ran into trouble early in 2002 when the company’s heads proved not to work to well in 40GB-per-platter drives. Hard drive makers turned away from the company, and its cash quickly began to drain away. Its 2002 fiscal year saw a 63 per cent drop in revenue from which the company never recovered.

As it turned out, Western Digital acquired the remaining assets of Read-Rite for $95.4 million. After his company’s demise, Yansouni went on to serve on a number of corporate boards. As far as I can ascertain, Yansouni is still alive as of this writing at the age of 78.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode was recorded at KCSM-TV on October 31, 1983, and broadcast two months later on February 5, 1984.
  • You can watch this episode at the Internet Archive.
  • If you would like to see a full demonstration and tear-down of the HP-150, Adrian Black of the YouTube channel Adrian’s Digital Basement posted just such a video in September 2020.
  • During their podcast interview, Leo Laporte mentioned he actually worked with Stewart Cheifet at Hewlett-Packard “a long time ago.”
  • SRI’s Herbert Lechner will be a recurring guest (and occasional host) on The Computer Chronicles going forward.
  • KCSM-TV, where Cheifet produced Chronicles as general manager, was originally established by the College of San Mateo in the 1960s as a student broadcast training facility. In 2017, Sonoma County public television (KRCB) acquired KCSM and changed its call letters to KPJK. The KCSM call sign is still used for an FM radio station that specializes in jazz programming.
  • During this first season, the presenting sponsor for The Computer Chronicles was Micro Focus, an enterprise software company that is still in business today.
  • The Computer Museum of Boston, the subject of the first feature segment, continued in operation until 2000, when most of its collection was re-homed at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
  • As you can probably tell, I intend this to be the first in a series of blogs that, ideally, will cover every episode of The Computer Chronicles. This might take awhile.