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A Short History of Computalker

During the summer of 1976, the Los Angeles area, like many other parts of the country, was alive with the excitement of microcomputers. Radio Electronics had just published the January 1976 article on the MITS Altair kit.

I was working as a programmer at the Phonetics Laboratory at UCLA. My office mate at the job was the lab's electronics technician, Ron Carlson. During 1975, Ron had been following the developments at Intel more closely than I had and was well along in building his own computer, based on an Intel 8008. He had also, by the Spring of 1976, inspired me to start building my own computer.

I chose a design based on the MOS Technologies 6502, the chip destined for fame in the Apple II. Lacking Steve Wosniak's insights that moved much of the interface functionality from hardware into software, I had included a hardware switch panel with debouncing logic and data latches connected to the system bus. As a clue to the real nature of my interests, I spent more time finishing a polished aluminum and plastic console unit than I spent on the electronics circuitry.

Sometime in the early summer of 1976, before I got the 6502 system up and running, I was introduced to Jim Cooper, who was doing electronics design for the Music Department at UCLA and at Oberheim Electronics.

Jim's skills were strong in analog circuit design. Some of his projects at that time included the synthesis of various musical sounds, which were to play a large part in the design of the Oberheim music synthesizer. Jim was also interested in the sound of the human voice.

Shortly after that initial meeting, we got together one day for lunch. Jim asked me how a voice synthesizer would be organized and proposed building such a circuit using op-amp chips. The original layout for the CT-1 Synthesizer was sketched on a napkin that day.

By late summer, Jim had finished a breadboard of the synthesizer and he needed a computer to control it. Since the 6502 system was making no progress by that time, I put it on the shelf and bought an IMSAI kit. That kit was quickly assembled and became the first computer for use in the Computalker office and laboratory.

In August 1976, Byte Magazine published my article on speech synthesis. By November, the synthesizer was very nearly working and our first advertisement appeared in the November 1976 issue of Byte Magazine. During early 1977, Jim and I formed a partnership under the name Computalker and rented a small office from Ron Carlson's father in Santa Monica, California.

The first CT-1 unit was shipped sometime in early 1977 and over the next 4 years, we sold approximately 1000 of those units. During that time, company employees included Ron Anderson, Electronics Technician, and Maria Tapia, Circuit Assembler. Ron Anderson helped Jim with circuit layout, parts purchasing and general management of the manufacturing. During that period, Ron also designed and built a telephone interface board for the S-100 bus, the Compufone board. Approximately 500 of the Compufone boards were sold during the early 1980's.

In the mid 1980's, Jim bowed out of company affairs and started his own company, manufacturing music circuitry. His original company was HiTech Electronics, which later became JLCooper Electronics, now widely known in the music electronics industry. Our partnership had evolved into a corporation primarily concerned with various consulting projects. Those activities gave me a better background in signal processing design.

During that time, I joined with George Papcun to produce a course on Computer Voice I/O techniques. That course was presented approximately 20 times in various cities across the U.S. and Europe. In 1988, the corporation, Computalker Consultants, was officially disbanded.

I started working full time for Speech Systems, Inc., a Tarzana, Calif. manufacturer of speech recognition equipment, a job I held until my retirement in 1999.

Lloyd Rice
Lafayette, Colorado
March 2001

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