A Love Letter To The Sphere Computer

[Ben Z] loves the Sphere computer, a very early entry in the personal computer boom of the mid 1970s. The 6800 CPU was unique in its day that it was a full system — at least in theory. If you could afford the whole system, you got a nice case with a keyboard and a memory-mapped display board. You can see a great video tour of the system below the break.

The Sphere suffered from a few problems, none of which were easily foreseeable by its designer. First, the 6800 didn’t get the traction that the 8080-derived CPUs did. Second, the S-100 bus would prove to be popular but that nearly always meant an 8080-type processor in practice. Third, while an all-in-one system was the right idea, it was pricey at the time, and many people would opt for something less expensive even if it had less capability. People also wanted to leverage hardware they may have already had. It was easier to imagine hooking up a surplus TeleType, for example, to a more conventional computer than to a Sphere that expected its own display hardware and keyboard.

A Love Letter To The Sphere ComputerA CPU board for the Sphere was $522 in kit form; the entire computer was $860 or $1,400 if you wanted it assembled. If you wanted a modem and cassette interface, you’d spend about $100 more. For $2,250 you could get assembled computer with 20K of memory along with the modem/cassette. A floppy disk and printer system cost $8,000 and, for some reason, the company’s ads mentioned you could spend up $11,300, but it doesn’t say for what.

Unlike many similar computers that used a card edge connector, the Sphere used ribbon cables to connect boards. According to the video, this was a common point of failure for the Sphere. The mini assembler was quite strange, doubtlessly so it would fit in the cramped ROM. It used hex codes but was able to manage labels and addresses to make writing machine code a bit easier.

The computer was more or less contemporary with the SOL 20, another somewhat similar all-in-one. While the Sphere was a bit earlier, it was done by 1977. The SOL 20 appeared shortly thereafter but continued until 1979. The 12,000 SOL-20s sold dwarf the Sphere’s sales which might have been around 1,300 units. However, the IBM PC would appear and wipe out all these machines. If you want to see more about the Sphere, there’s an hour video from the Vintage Computer Federation featuring [Ben Z] talking about the computer. You can watch that video, below.

Everyone “knew” the workstation was coming, but we didn’t know exactly how. While the SOL-20 might have been a few months behind the Sphere, there were earlier commercial all-in-one machines like the MCM/70 that cost nearly $10,000 and the IBM 5100 ($9,000).

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