The First Computer Sold Exclusively As A Consumer Product Was The?
Answer: Honeywell Kitchen Computer
The history of the first commercial computer intended for consumer use is rather curious. It would be very easy to assume that the first intended-for-home computer on the market was one of the early hobby computers produced by Altair or the later personal computers produced by the likes of IBM, Timex, and Commodore. The original home computer’s story, however, is far more interesting.
An intersection of two companies, a PR campaign run a little amok, and a surprising consumer response let to the first computer sold exclusively as a consumer product. In 1969, luxury retailer Neiman-Marcus was looking for the next extravagent thing to put in their catalog to further cement their status as the place people went to get the most exotic, high-tech, and over-the-top goods. At the same time Honeywell was looking to do a little brand sprucing and position themselves as a more forward and modern company. The two of them got together and cooked up an outlandish idea for the day: a kitchen computer.
The Honeywell Kitchen Computer, as it was called, was an absolute curiosity in a day and age when nobody had a home computer at all, let alone a computer designed to sit in the kitchen and help with recipes, balance checkbooks, and other domestic tasks. Now that sounds all well and good (after all in the 21st century we use home computers, smartphones, and tablets to do just that: organize recipes, manage our finances, and more), but the device itself was absurd on every level.
The computer was simply a Honeywell 316 computer wrapped in a pretty red/white/black case. It still had an arcane interface. It still required sophisticated programming skills and computer know-how to operate. It had no keyboard (you had to program it using toggle switches) and no display (it had a binary light output). Operating it was so difficult for a layman that the computer actually came bundled with a 2-week crash course as it well should have given that the unit cost $10,000 (approximately $64,000 when adjusted for inflation).
What’s more absurd than the computer itself is that what was intended to be a complete PR ruse turned into an actual operation when the public responded with more interest than anyone at Honeywell or Neiman-Marcus could have predicted. Because interest was so high, Honeywell was actually forced to produce 20 units to serve as floor models and be available for potential purchase. Whether or not that public interest every translated into even one of those units actually ending up in a 1970s kitchen is unclear but, PR stunt or not, it makes the Honeywell Kitchen Computer the first exclusively consumer-oriented computer.
Image courtesy of Honeywell/Neiman Marcus.