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PERQ Conservation

In the early 1980s, the Three Rivers Computer Corporation developed the world's first commercial workstations (unlike the single-cabinet computers of the previous decade, such as the PDP11 and GEC2050, which counted as minicomputers). The main cabinet of the PERQ-1 measured about 0.67x0.37x0.67 metres in size, containing a 14-inch hard disk, an integral 8-inch floppy-disk drive, and a graphics processor board, plus the keyboard, graphics tablet, and a monochrome graphics screen (with an unusual portrait-mode aspect ratio). It was marketed as delivering 3M performance (1MIPS processing, 1Mbyte of live memory, 1Mbit/second input/output).

It was so impressive, at the time, that the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), the government grant-awarding body in Great Britain, adopted the PERQ-1A as the standard computer for all research proposals, and it thus became a major part of the computing landscape of the 1980s. This was a similar machine, with production licensed to ICL near Manchester, and running the PNX operating system instead of the normal Perq Operating System, POS. Rather bizarrely, this yielded Pascal-based software running under a Unix-based operating system running on Pascal-Evaluation-Real-Quick (PERQ) hardware.

There are many aspects of the machine that have entered into computing folklore: the way that it consumes three-quarters of a kilowatt, and hence supplies room heating as a by-product; the way that the five cooling fans, themselves, contribute 90 watts to the cooling budget; the noise of those five cooling fans, plus the 14-inch hard disk (giving the spine-tingling sensation of a jet-engine firing up whenever someone turns on the machine to do some computing); the way that the user becomes habituated to having to strip off the side panels from time to time to put the rubber drive-belt, from the hard disk, back on to its pulleys.

By the 1990s, it was possible to pick up old and discarded PERQs at token prices. In this way, the PERQ computer really took off as a hobby, and as a passion for certain computer conservationists.

PERQ software and data files are now archived at the Bit Saver's page. The following Usenet groups are also useful resources: alt.sys.perq and alt.folklore.computers.

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