Although it is a moving target, every collector has a Holy Grail. And if it is a true Grail, it will stay on top of your list forever. Mine is the Ampère WS-1 by Ampère incorporated based in Tokyo. Workspace Computer Inc based in Torrance, California, distributed the WS-1 in the US. And you could get one from Sofremi in Puteaux in France after dropping ~40,000 FF. That was in 1985.
The WS-1 was an utter commercial failure. Nonetheless, the marketing promise read: “The Dream, Knee-top PC with APL Productivity and Voice Networking too!” If you are not familiar with APL, don’t worry, we’ll come back to it shortly. But let’s first take a quick peek at the high-level specs of my Grail.
At its heart, there is a Motorola 68000 processor clocked at 8MHz. Plenty and expandable RAM – at least plenty according to Bill Gates’ memorable prediction –, a graphic LCD of 25 x 80 characters, a modem, and a microcassette recorder for mass storage. Besides the processor, these specs are nothing other computers of the time couldn’t offer. For example, another rarity, the SORD IS-11, has microcassettes, a complete software suite in ROM, graphic LCD, etc.
No, what hits you in the face when you first stare at a –picture of the – WS-1 is its look. Says the guy who thinks the In-Data DAI is beautiful. Ok, the DAI is ugly, I concede. But the WS-1 was described as an airfoil, coupé, futuristic, etc. And indeed, it is. Kumeo Tamura designed the WS-1. He was a former assistant of Fumio Yoshida, and both were the exterior designers working on the iconic 60’s Datsun 240Z.
But the real magic of this laptop is in its software. It is functioned by a so-called multitasking Big.DOS operating system. Big.DOS is likely using a cooperative multitasking approach or simply allowing to switch between apps seamlessly. The Jewel of The Crown is Big.APL, a subset of APL.68000. In a time where BASIC was the de-facto built-in programming language, APL is the revolution here!
To make you wait, let me, for now, say that APL stands for A Programming Language incepted by the 1979’s Turing Award winner Dr. Kenneth Iverson. I wrote incepted because APL started as a – mathematical – notation in 1966, not as a programming language. Iverson described it as a Tool of Thought. The concise and systematic notation extends naturally from scalars to vectors and arrays. This is why APL is also described as a matrix manipulation language. APL became a programming language years later, mainly when Iverson joined IBM, and a team of talented implementers created APL\360 for IBM’s mainframes. This Team was formed by Dick Lathwell, Roger Moore, Adin Falkoff, Dr. Phil Abrams, Larry Breed, and Iverson. You can watch a video from 1974 posted by Lathwell’s daughter on The Origins of APL and hosted by David Clements here. It is worth an hour of your time.
According to Jon McGrew, the WS-1 failed its FCC certification in the US, and therefore not a single one was sold in America. I really doubt any WS-1 was sold outside of Japan. Consequently, I think it will forever remain my collector’s Holy Grail. If you have one sitting in your basement, feel free to contact me 😊. I am only aware of Yuri Leskovec‘s – Vintage Laptops Museum – gorgeous model visible here.
That’s when I remembered the late Paul John Friedl‘s “Wouldn’t that be something?” This sentence was the motto of his design team at the Palo Alto Scientific Center, where he was a manager in 1972. In the ’70s, IBM was all about mainframes and mainframe terminals. Friedl laid down his vision for arguably the first Personal Computer – the Special Computer APL Machine (SCAMP). You can watch his recollection demoing SCAMP to John R. Opel, President of IBM at the time, here. The SCAMP is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Check it out here.
Wouldn’t it be great to build a laptop dedicated to APL programming? Maybe even a WS-1 replica? Today’s technology would allow anyone to put a prototype together in even less than the record six months of Friedl’s Team. And at a small cost! One design pattern I noticed in personal APL computers is that they are all luggable machines. The WS-1, the SCAMP, the Micro Computer Machines MCM/70, and the IBM 5100 Model A or C (the ones using APL instead or in addition to BASIC) are luggable and have their display and mass storage. If the IBM 5100 is iconic, you may want to watch the MCM/70 operate here. Interestingly, McGrew claims in his paper Forgotten APL Influences that the Canadian MCM/70 was the first exposure of the CCCP to APL (APL – Journal 1/2/2016).
APL has several remarkable characteristics. A unified syntax and evaluation rule – contrary to classic Math. The use of matrices as a fundamental data structure. No branches or loops – at least in its original form – and is most of the time interpreted, allowing immediate user feedback like FORTH, HASKELL, or LISP. Some call APL a functional language. From an implementation point of view, let me mention that it flies on SIMD-capable processors because of APL’s natural propension to leverage data-level parallelism. If you want an APL primer, have a watch this video here. In half an hour, Pr. Bob Spence from the London Imperial College gives us a brief guided tour. I would agree that you should try it, and one way to do it for free, go to https://tryapl.org/. The website gives you access to Dyalog Limited‘s APL. You can also download the desktop version of the toolchain and use it for free in non-commercial projects.
Today, embedded PC hardware is cheap, and excellent implementations of APL are readily available. So, what would drive the price of such a project? Besides the apparent case design, one of the cost drivers of such a project is the keyboard. Really? Yeah, and it brings us back to APL. APL is a notation first and therefore uses glyphs. Unfortunately, these glyphs – or squiggling characters described by detractors – can’t be found on today’s keycaps. Regrettably, you cannot skip this detail, as many of the fantastic array and vector APL operators are these glyphs. To have a cherry switch-compatible APL keycaps made, you need $800-$1000. However, since many IBMers used APL throughout the ’60s and ’70s, a few IBM keyboards have such keycaps. One could argue that a good working model M, F, or M122 is not cheap and doesn’t have APL keycaps.
That’s where Unicomp, the classic IBM keyboard manufacturer, gets into the picture. If you don’t know about Unicomp, it is a company based in Lexington, Kentucky, producing traditional IBM keyboards using the original molds and equipment. Guess what? They have an Ultra Classic US APL Black Buckling Spring 104 Key USB Keyboard, and even better, a US APL Keyset (here). I bought a kit and converted one of my M122 almost seamlessly. After the fact, I should have used a Model M. The only other option – besides using stickers – is the Cherry MX Black-based Dyalog’s keyboard (here).
If you wish to use a classic IBM keyboard in your APL journey, here are a few closing bits of advice. First, you will need an adapter to use a DIN or RJ connector with modern USB-only systems. The one I use is a Soarer’s Converter. These converters exist for all IBM terminal keyboards and use a microcontroller to remap your keyboard inputs. The Soarer SC tools and hid_listen make it simple to write maps and macros. The rest consists in devising a custom mapping file, which targets what the Dyalog’s IDE expects for the APL glyphs. Simple!
Z. Stachniak, “The Making of the MCM/70 Microcomputer” in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 25, no. 02, pp. 62-75, 2003.
Nash Gordon, Matt Kieffer, Sandstein
Paul J. Friedl, “SCAMP: The Missing Link in the PC’s Past?” PC Mag: The Independent Guide to IBM Personal Computers, November 1983, vol. 2 no.6, pp. 190-197.
Jonathan Littman, “The First Portable Computer: The Genesis of SCAMP, Grandfather of the Personal Computer,” PC World, October 1983, pp. 294-300.
Nissan, IBM, and others quoted in this post.