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The Pioneering Micral Microcomputers: Paving the Path for the Digital Era

Imagine an era where computers occupied entire rooms. Massive mainframes with spinning tapes and blinking lights required teams to operate and program them. The idea of a computer small and affordable enough for regular people was still the stuff of science fiction.

But in 1973, a tiny team tucked away in a hut near Paris would shatter these notions. They created the world’s first commercial microcomputer that demonstrated the feasibility of personal computing years before the likes of Apple and Microsoft.

This trailblazing invention was the Micral series of microcomputers, pioneered over the 1970s and 1980s by legendary French inventor François Gernelle. Let’s explore the Micral‘s history and its profound impact in paving the path towards today’s digital world.

Section 1: The Dawn of Microcomputing

During the 1960s and early 1970s, companies and research institutions wanting to process large datasets depended on room-sized mainframe computers. These massive machines used punch cards for input and spinning tape drives for data storage and output.

For example, the CDC 6600 mainframe released in 1964 could perform up to 3 million instructions per second. But it weighed over 1.5 tons, took up the floorspace of a small apartment, and cost over $7 million in today‘s dollars! Clearly out of reach for personal use.

The Integrated Circuit Revolution

What allowed the concept of a "microcomputer" to become feasible was the rapid advancement of integrated circuits. Instead of individual transistors and wiring, computational devices could now be miniaturized onto single silicon chips.

For instance, Intel‘s first commercially available IC was the 4004 chip with 2,300 transistors for mathematical and logical functions. Released in 1971, it powered calculators and simple computer terminals.

Then came the 8008 microprocessor in 1972, which could execute more complex instructions – allowing the creation of true programmable computers.

Turning the Fantasy into Reality

Seeing this revolution inminiaturized computing, French electronics engineer François Gernelle envisioned an affordable "microcomputer" for personal use and process control systems. He partnered with business associate André Truong to turn this fantasy into reality.

Forming the company R2E, they assembled a small team and worked intensely to develop a compact computer using cutting-edge integrated circuits. This group of pioneers created the world‘s first microcomputer stored on multiple silicon chips – called the Micral.

Section 2: The Making of the Micral N

Remarkably, Gernelle and his collaborators developed the pioneering Micral computer not in a fully-equipped lab but a small gardening shed in the Parisian suburb of Chatenay-Malabry!

Beginning in mid-1972, this modest hut housed their intensive efforts to craft a fully-functional microcomputer within the seemingly impossible deadline of six months. Let‘s look at the challenges they overcame:

The Hardware

Leveraging his expertise in digital electronics, Gernelle designed the overall system architecture. Limited by space and budget constraints, custom printed circuit boards were not feasible at the time.

So Gernelle‘s team manually soldered together hundreds of individual components on generic boards – including the Intel 8008 processor, memory chips, resistors, capacitors, and wiring.

Mechanical engineer Jean-Claude Beckmann ingeniously crafted a sheet metal casing to enclose the fragile electronics. The end result resembled a boxy typewriter with switches and blinking lights.

The Software

With no operating systems or programming languages available for microcomputers, software engineer Benchetrit faces an even more daunting task. He had to write critical low-level code entirely in assembly language to handle functions like memory allocation, flow control, user input, and program loading.

This was an era before monitors and disks, so programs were entered painstakingly via rows of switches. Data was saved to cassette tapes similar to early 8-track music cartridges.

Section 3: January 1973 – The Micral N Is Born

Against all odds, by January 1973, the device was ready. Christened the Micral N, it was delivered to French National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) by the promised deadline.

Though dubbed a "microcomputer", the Micral N was hardly microscopic by today‘s standards. It consisted of multiple circuit boards housed in a bulky metal frame weighing over 20 kgs!

But make no mistake – this bulky behemoth was revolutionary, representing monumental firsts:

First Commercial Computer Using a Microprocessor

The Intel 8008 8-bit chip enabled programmable digital logic in a tiny footprint. This paved the path to modern computing as we know it today.

First Commercial Non-Kit Personal Computer

Until then, computers were either room-sized or available only as build-it-yourself kits for hobbyists. The pre-assembled Micral N could be simply plugged in and used immediately – no complex wiring needed!

First Usage of the Term "Microcomputer"

Yes, this pioneering invention gave us the name itself! The May 1973 edition of Computerworld referred specifically to the Micral N as a "Microcomputer" in what was likely the first printed usage of that seminal term.

So while far from a slick home computer, this 20-kg amalgamation of manually-soldered chips represented a giant leap into the era of microcomputers.

Section 4: Impressive Capabilities for Its Time

We may chuckle at the specs today, but the Micral N delivered astonishing capabilities compared to room-sized mainframes of that era. Let‘s quantify the numbers:

Processing Speed

  • Intel 8008 microprocessor
  • 8-bit data bus
  • 500 kHz clock speed
  • 30,000 instructions per second

To put this in perspective, the Micral N could execute instructions 2,700 times faster than early Apollo spacecraft computers!


  • 768 bytes RAM
  • 3 kb ROM

Tiny by modern standards – but enormous compared to early programmable calculators with under 100 bytes memory! The Micral could handle far more complex computational tasks.


  • Audio cassette interface
  • 90 kb capacity

Mass storage for an entire room‘s worth of punch cards! Programs and data could be easily loaded from portable cassettes.


  • Hexadecimal keypad
  • LED display
  • Thermal printer output
  • RS-232 serial connection

A handy keypad for input, lights to show system status, printer to output hardcopy – already implementing interfaces that were taken for granted on later computers.

So while basic today, these specs were absolutely groundbreaking just 50 years ago – enabling applications far beyond simple number-crunching.

Section 5: Commercializing the Micral – Niche Success

With an operating prototype in hand, the next phase was bringing the Micral N to market. The founders incorporated a company called R2E (Realisation d’Etudes Electroniques) for manufacturing and sales.

Strategic Partnerships

A key milestone was partnering with established technology firms. An agreement with Honeywell-Bull brought industrial design assistance and manufacturing capability.

The global giant General Electric also invested in R2E, providing the credibility and distribution reach to pitch the Micral globally.

Sales Performance

The Micral N began sales in February 1973, priced around 8,500 Francs (approx $1,700). But uptake was slow in the early years, with an estimated few hundred units produced initially.

As revolutionary as it was, most businesses and consumers did not yet see applications for a personal computer. Continued innovation was imperative for commercial success.

Finding Niche Markets

By the late 1970s, enhanced Micral models found adoption in niche use-cases:

Process Control

Micral systems excelled at collecting data from sensors and controlling electrical and mechanical equipment. Their low cost brought digital automation within reach of small/medium factories.

Retail and Branch Offices

Banks deployed Micrals in remote branches to connect back to centralized mainframes – replacing cumbersome ledger books and mechanical calculators.

Department stores used Micrals for inventory control and point-of-sale purchases – tracking stock levels in real-time.

Toll Booths / Transportation

Highway toll booths, ports, and logistic hubs installed Micrals for ticket processing and traffic management – improving billing accuracy and optimizing cargo flows.

While not a blockbuster consumer product, Micrals delivered immense value to these niche industrial segments – with over 90,000 units sold during its lifetime until 1989.

Section 6: Evolution of the Micral Series

While the original Micral N pioneered personal computing in 1973, it was soon eclipsed as microprocessor technology advanced rapidly.

François Gernelle and the R2E team continued enhancing the Micral series with new versions featuring upgraded internals:

Micral G (1974)

  • Faster 1 MHz 8008 CPU
  • 16 kb RAM

Micral S (1974)

  • Intel 8080 processor (predecessor of 8086)

Micral C (1977)

  • Floppy disk storage
  • 24 kb RAM
  • 8080 CPU

Later Bull-Micral models leveraged newer 16-bit and then 32-bit microprocessors. RAM and hard drives grew progressively into the megabytes as silicon fabrication improved:

Bull Micral 30 (1985)

  • 8088 processor
  • IBM PC compatible

Bull Micral 90 (1989)

  • 80386 processor
  • 25 MHz Clock Speed
  • 640 kb RAM standard

From cassette drives to high-density storage, the Micral series kept pace to stay on the bleeding edge.

Over 23 different models were produced until the last Micral in 1989. From 8 to 32-bit architecture, kilobytes to megabytes of memory, audio tapes to hard drives – the brand demonstrated the tremendous pace of advancement in computing.

The final tally – an estimated 90,000 Micral microcomputers sold over 15+ years and 23 models. Immensely successful for such an early computer.

Section 7: Pioneering Impact on Personal Computing

While it did not radically transform society overnight, the trailblazing Micral series demonstrated the feasibility of personal computers nearly a decade before Apple, Commodore, or IBM released their mass-market products.

Let‘s explore some key ways it paved the path for the computing world we live in today:

Inspiring Early PC Entrepreneurs

Many industry pioneers directly cited the Micral‘s influence in making them believe affordable computers were possible.

For instance, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak ordered one of the first Micral brochures. It inspired their vision for Apple some 5 years later.

Ed Roberts, creator of the Altair 8800 kit computer saw a Micral while traveling in Europe. This galvanized him to build what became known as the first personal computer in the United States.

Proving Commercial Viability

90,000 units sold across vertical niches demonstrated a market demand for reasonably-priced computers. It gave assurance to subsequent startups that profits could be made in personal computing.

Opening Eyes to Microcomputer Potential

Seeing Micrals in use, many skeptics finally realized the tangible benefits even of early machines. This significantly expanded the base of early adopters eager for the next generation of small computers as component technology advanced.

So while it did not make an explosive dent like later Apple or IBM machines, the pioneering Micral played a pivotal role in cultivating the fertile ground from which personal computing burst forth.

Section 8: Preserving Computing History

Given its monumental historical significance in the genesis of personal computing, François Gernelle’s pioneering Micral has become a sought-after icon for computer museums around the world.

In June 2017, legendary technologist Paul Allen added one of the exceptionally rare original Micral N computers to his treasured collection, housed at the Living Computers museum in Seattle. He purchased the unit in France for a hefty $15,000!

Allen co-founded a little company called Microsoft – which rode the revolution sparked by microcomputer trailblazers to software dominance. So it is wonderfully symbolic of the French invention‘s legacy that this tech titan now proudly hosts a Micral as a crown jewel of early computing.

The Smithsonian‘s National Museum of American History also displays a Micral in its computer chronicles section, alongside pioneering machines like the Apple I, IBM 5150, and Cray supercomputers that transformed entire industries.

So should you have the chance to visit Seattle or Washington DC, be sure pay your respects to the Micral N! This 20-kg collection of metal and silicon kickstarted the microcomputer revolution that led to the phenomenally interconnected world we inhabit today.

Sources / Citations
  • François Gernelle Micral Patents – FR2216883, DE2404886 etc.
  • Computerworld Magazine – May 1973 print edition
  • Online Micral Computer Museum –
  • R2E Company History –
  • Computer History Museum (California) – Mainframe and Microprocessor exhibits

Article authored by James Baker. James has been a computer enthusiast for over 30 years. He runs the popular YouTube channel RetroBytes, exploring the history of personal computing.