The ECHO IV Home Computer: 50 Years Later
The Future is Already Here
Science fiction writer William Gibson famously stated, “the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” Past events in the history of technology bear this out: Doug Engelbart, for example, blew the world away in 1969 with his demonstration of a futuristic working prototype of hypertext, windows, the mouse, word processing, videoconferencing and more. It took another 30 or 40 years for the ideas Engelbart showed to a stunned 60s audience to become mainstream. Similar ahead-of-the-curve experiments took place with email, the German WW II V-2 rocket program, and semiconductors, among many other technical and scientific disciplines.
People “ahead of their time” is a common trope in Western culture. From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, certain people have been able to see farther than anyone else. In fact, Edison and Jobs share something remarkable: they were ecosystem builders. Edison, as important as perfecting the electric light bulb, also created an infrastructure for the bulb to live in—power plants, massive amounts of wiring – and he built his first power station on Pearl Street in NYC, right near his Wall Street investors. Jobs, with Apple’s series of “i” devices, defined a software ecosystem of digital content as important as the devices themselves.
A house is a machine for living in. Le Corbusier
This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a home computer built and operated more than a decade before ‘official’ home computers arrived on the scene. Yes, before the ‘trinity’ of the Apple II, the Commodore PET and the Radio Shack TRS-80–all introduced in 1977—Jim Sutherland, a quiet engineer and family man in Pittsburgh, was building a computer system on his own for his family. Sutherland configured this new computer system to control many aspects of his home with his wife and children as active users. It truly was a home computer—that is, the house itself was part of the computer and its use was integrated into the family’s daily routines.
Sutherland’s computer was called the ECHO IV – the Electronic Computing Home Operator.
ECHO IV comprised four large (6’ x 2’ x 6’) cabinets weighing approximately 800 lbs and included a central processing unit (CPU) constructed from surplus circuit modules from a Westinghouse Prodac-IV industrial process control computer; magnetic core memory, I/O circuitry and power supplies. With the permission of his employer, Westinghouse, Sutherland took these modules home and designed and built the ECHO IV in less than a year.
Several keypads and terminals around the house allowed for interaction by Mrs. Sutherland and the family’s three children. The system was operational on April 16, 1966.
Programming and interacting with ECHO IV was accomplished by several means: front-panel switches on the main cabinet, a programmer’s keypad (for octal) near the main cabinet, a paper tape reader and punch, and the kitchen console, which was based on an IBM 735 Selectric typewriter and was used for word processing. This latter ability deserves a closer look. With ECHO IV, documents typed on the Selectric keyboard could be stored in ECHO IV’s memory, to be reprinted later. Formatting changes and page numbers could be automatically added to printed documents and, in 1975, ECHO IV was used to format a 516-page scholarly book on post-Revolutionary War land grant surveys. Here again is Gibson’s ‘unevenly distributed’ future – it would be decades before people would be doing word processing at home on their own computer.
ECHO IV and Popular Culture
ECHO IV caught the attention of the media fairly quickly, with dozens of publications covering it from its initial start-up in 1966 until the 1970s. Much of this coverage is ironic in tone, with playful nods to the sanctity of the domestic sphere and how a computer may interfere with traditional roles in the household. Because it is so evocative of the era, below are Ruth Sutherland’s thoughts on “Living with ECHO IV,” which I excerpt here in full:
IMPRESSIONS OF A HOMEMAKER WITH A COMPUTER IN HER BASEMENT
At first, I thought it might really replace me! From the cartoons and jokes we see and hear about computers, isn’t this the general impression that most homemakers at present would have if they suddenly found out they had a computer in their home?
Jim started talking about the availability of parts of an obsolete Westinghouse computer that could be made into a computer for home use. It wasn’t long until one wall of the dining room began to fill up with stack after stack of meaningless parts which I called junk.
As each portion was finished, the family; which includes Ann, now eleven; Sally; seven, and Jay; two, would run to the basement to view the latest accomplishment. The biggest day was when the power was turned on and nothing blew up!
One day during the early testing stages a neighbor child pressed a keyboard switch and turned the computer on. It was then that I realized I didn’t know how to switch it off, short of turning the power off at the main circuit breaker of the house.
I’m sure the fellows in Jim’s office thought I had gone kooky when I asked them to leave this message for him, “Please call home! The computer is running. How do I turn it off? ”
Last week we needed some address labels for the tape recorder cartridges that we mail as letters back and forth to our parents. It wasn’t long until we got a call from Jim to come see what the printer was doing. There it was typing out the address and return addresses on sheets of gummed labels. This program is now stored in the memory unit so anytime these labels are needed, a certain code typed into the keyboard will cause the printer to type it again.
I’m excited NOW about a computer in my home. What a sense of accomplishment it will be to me to answer, “I wrote a new menu and shopping list program today”, when Jim asks the question that every man asks his wife when getting home from work, “And what did you do today?
Second, I’m excited about a computer in my home to relieve me of some of the more menial tasks so that I will have time to do three things that are pure recreation to me: continue to make all of the clothes for the family, time to carry out ideas for home decorating, and to work outside with flowers and garden. I also feel a need to have time to work with youth groups.
And thirdly, I’m excited about a computer in my home because it is something that our whole family can use and has already enjoyed. With proper instruction, any school age child will be able to use it as a tool, for games, or actual mental exercise.
Even if they were available for home use at a reasonable cost, the word COMPUTER is a little frightening to the average homemaker because she has had no experience or personal contact with one.
Homemakers must know that a computer only does what it is told to do through a program that has been written in a form that the machine can understand. It is almost like teaching a child how to do a specific chore or task. The child knows how to do it after he has been instructed. One important difference is that the computer always does it exactly as programmed.
Therefore, one source of frustration to the homemaker is relieved because she is working with a device that is always precisely predictable.
At this point, I cannot say or even comprehend all the things that a computer someday will be doing for our homes, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could provide more time for parents to spend with their children, therefore, making every home a happier one?
Ruth Sutherland, Pittsburgh, Pa June 2, 1967 (Exerts from a paper presented in Dallas, TX to the American Home Economics Association convention)
As part of Ruth Sutherland’s presentation, she also conducted a survey of conference attendees to gauge what people thought of computers in the home and how they might help them in their daily lives. Here are the results:
Some Home Computer Ideas from AHEA Conference – Dallas, TX
(Home Economics teachers’ responses to questionnaire – 1967)
- Handle family accounting.
- Keep a record of stocks and advise on good investments.
- Keep party menus and shopping lists handy.
- Control temperature, humidity, and burglar alarm.
- Turn the TV off when someone falls asleep.
- Turn the lights on when you’re gone.
- Carry out the rubbish.
- Do major cleaning of floors, windows, carpets, draperies, and woodwork.
- Balance my checkbook.
- Keep track of tax-deductible expenditures.
- Figure out income tax at end of year.
- Keep track of foods in the freezer.
- Alert us when items (i.e. car) need servicing.
- Alert us when prescriptions need filling.
- Lock all doors at night.
- Close windows when it rains.
- Sound alarm for break-ins.
- Water the lawn.
- Answer phone when away.
- Record who was calling without allowing phone to ring at night.
- Feed baby at night.
- Automatic sprinkler system.
- Reminder to put cars and bikes away.
- Make a grocery list.
- Floor scrubbing.
- Wash the car.
- Baby sitting.
- Feed the pets.
These desiderata are fascinating and, except for the tasks requiring a robotic/android interface – tasks like taking out the trash or feeding a baby at night – they have almost all come to pass. What this shows is both the persistence of an unchanging domestic hierarchy of needs and the prescience of Jim Sutherland whose unique computer stimulated such thinking about the future role of a computer in the home. It’s important to calibrate our thinking about how large a leap this was for the people living in this era: having a computer in the home in 1965 was akin in most people’s minds to having a personal aircraft carrier or a home cyclotron. It took the technical ability and personal family motivation of Jim Sutherland to show us what might be coming, fifty years ago.
ECHO IV – By the Numbers
- Power consumption: 3 kW
- Real-time clock
- Magnetic core memory: 8,192 15-bit words
- Clock speed: 160 kHz
- Number of circuit modules: 120
- Number of circuit module types: 16
- Add time: 216 uS
- I/O: alphanumeric keyboard; 6 x numeric keypads; paper tape reader, 15 x interrupts; 75 x relay contact closures
- -2 x printers
- BCD Clock Driver
- Alarm Clock
- Stereo system power
- TV control
- Music/tone generator
- Math and educational programs
Donated by Jim Sutherland to the Computer History Museum in 1984. (CHM #X509.84)
To learn more:
Electronic Computer for Home Operation (ECHO): The First Home Computer, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 16, No. 3, 1994 pages 59 – 61.