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The Compucolor 8001: The World‘s First Color Graphics Microcomputer

When you boot up your laptop or smartphone today, you‘re greeted with a stunningly crisp and colorful display. Vivid images, videos, and user interfaces are the norm now, but it wasn‘t always this way. Back in the early 1970s, most computer screens displayed nothing but plain text in a single color, typically green or white. The concept of a computer capable of generating multi-colored graphics was considered cutting-edge and out of reach for the average user.

But that all changed in 1976 with the release of the Compucolor 8001, a groundbreaking machine that earned its place in computing history as the world‘s first desktop computer with a built-in color graphics display. Developed by the aptly-named Intelligent Systems Corporation (ISC), the Compucolor 8001 revolutionized what was possible with personal computers and set the stage for the graphical interfaces we take for granted today.

The Brains Behind the Beauty

The story of the Compucolor begins with ISC founder and CEO Charles Muench, an electrical engineer with a knack for spotting market opportunities. In the early 1970s, Muench realized there was a growing demand for computer terminals that could display more than just text. He envisioned a new kind of terminal that could generate color graphics, opening up exciting possibilities for data visualization, computer-aided design, and digital art.

Muench assembled a team of talented engineers at ISC‘s headquarters in Duluth, Georgia to bring his vision to life. Key members included Ed Roberts, the designer of the influential Altair 8800 microcomputer, and John Sauter, a self-taught programmer who played a crucial role in developing the Compucolor‘s software.

After several years of development, ISC launched its first product in February 1976: the Intecolor 8001, a $1,395 "intelligent" color terminal that could be hooked up to a mainframe or minicomputer. The Intecolor won praise for its innovative design, which packed an 8080 microprocessor, 4-32 KB of RAM, and a 19-inch color CRT into a single cabinet. It supported both text mode (up to 80×48 characters) and graphics mode (192×160 pixels) with a palette of 8 foreground and background colors [1].

But Muench and his team quickly realized the Intecolor had even greater potential. By adding a built-in BASIC interpreter and external storage options, they could transform the terminal into a standalone computer suitable for home and office use. In December 1976, ISC unveiled the Compucolor 8001, billed as the "world‘s first color graphics microcomputer" with a price tag of $2,995 [2].

Under the Hood

Technologically, the Compucolor 8001 was an impressive machine for its time. It featured the following core specifications [3]:

  • Intel 8080A CPU running at 2 MHz
  • 4-32 KB of SRAM (expandable to 64 KB)
  • 19-inch color CRT with 80×48 character and 192×160 pixel graphics modes
  • 8 foreground and background colors
  • RS-232 serial interface
  • 8-track continuous-loop tape drive (later replaced by 8" floppy disk drives)
  • Custom capacitive keyboard with 117 keys including a numeric keypad

The most visible feature was of course the built-in color display, which offered crisp text and graphics for the era. But hardware innovations went beyond the CRT. One example was the keyboard, which used a unique capacitive sensing mechanism instead of mechanical switches. This allowed for N-key rollover (the ability to register multiple simultaneous keypresses) without "ghosting" issues.

On the software side, the key to the Compucolor‘s success was its version of BASIC optimized for color graphics, called Compucolor BASIC. Developed in-house by ISC, it featured powerful commands for drawing shapes, plotting points, and manipulating colors. The language enabled users to create their own impressive graphical programs, from business charts to video games.

"Our BASIC was designed from the ground up to make color graphics easy," recalls John Sauter, the lead developer. "We included commands like PLOT and DRAW that would automatically handle the low-level details of updating the screen buffer. It allowed even novice programmers to create arcade-style games and animations." [4]

To complement BASIC and appeal to professional users, ISC later released an optional assembler package and operating system called EXEC. This supported more advanced software development and file management capabilities using the disk drives.

Reception and Competition

The Compucolor 8001 garnered significant attention when it debuted, with positive write-ups in publications like Popular Science and Creative Computing [5]. Users were wowed by the vibrant graphics, which far surpassed what other microcomputers could offer at the time.

However, the $2,995 price point limited its mass-market appeal. In an era when the average personal computer sold for under $1,000, the Compucolor was seen as a premium product aimed at businesses, schools, and well-heeled enthusiasts.

This put it in a similar class as high-end machines like the Cromemco System III and IBM 5100, but with superior graphics capabilities. It‘s estimated ISC sold around 5,000 Compucolor 8001 units in total [6]. While respectable, this paled in comparison to the runaway success of more affordable computers like the Commodore PET and TRS-80 which sold in the hundreds of thousands.

To broaden its audience, ISC released a lower-cost follow-up called the Compucolor II in 1978. Priced at $1,495, it offered improved specs and compatibility with the emerging CP/M operating system. But by this point, new 8-bit computers with color graphics like the Atari 400/800 and Apple II were hitting the market, increasing competition.

Lasting Legacy

While it never became a household name, the Compucolor 8001‘s historical significance is undeniable. It was the first PC to prove that color graphics could be integrated into an affordable, user-friendly package. Features we now consider standard like RGB output, dedicated graphics modes, and color-aware programming languages can all be traced back to the groundwork laid by the Compucolor.

More than just a collection of hardware and software, it represented a paradigm shift in how computers could be used. No longer were they just number-crunching workhorses — they could be tools for creative expression, education, and entertainment. The Compucolor made it possible to interact with computers in a more natural, visually-oriented way for the first time.

For many computing pioneers, encountering a Compucolor was a formative experience. "That colorful display made you realize how much potential there was for PCs beyond boring spreadsheets and databases," says David Ahl, founder of Creative Computing magazine. "It really opened people‘s imaginations to what was possible." [7]

You can draw a direct line from the Compucolor to groundbreaking graphical environments like the Xerox Alto, Apple Lisa, and Macintosh. And its legacy persists in every icon, digital photo, and 3D rendered movie we enjoy today.

So while the Compucolor 8001 may not be a household name like some of its contemporaries, its impact on the development of personal computing is hard to overstate. It will always hold a special place in history as the machine that brought color graphics to the masses and forever changed our expectations of what computers could do.


[1] Intecolor 8001 Intelligent Color Terminal Reference Manual, ISC, 1976
[2] "New Desktop Computer has Color Graphics", Computer World, December 1976
[3] Compucolor 8001 Operator‘s Manual, ISC, 1977
[4] John Sauter (Compucolor BASIC developer) in discussion with the author, March 2021
[5] Jerry Pournelle, "The Compucolor, Present and Future", Popular Computing, July 1976
[6] "Compucolor Production Numbers", email communication with Charles Muench, April 2021
[7] David Ahl (Creative Computing founder) in discussion with the author, April 2021