A piece of computing science history arrives in the Faculty of Applied Sciences

February 16, 2017

A special delivery arrived in the Applied Sciences Building last week. And as everyone stared at the item in awe, one thing was certain: computer technology has come a long way.

The delivery was a SOL-20 Terminal Computer. Introduced by Processor Technology Corp. in 1976, it quickly became a hit, leading the way in building user-friendly personal computers. The SOL-20 is believed to be the first computer to have a keyboard, video driver and memory storage all in one portable unit—a combination we take for granted today.

“This was my first computer ever, consequently it is very important in my life,” says SFU alumnus Neil Sundstrom (B.A.Sc., ’80), who has spent more than 37 years working in the data communications and networking industry. Last Thursday, Sundstrom generously donated his personal SOL-20 to the Faculty of Applied Sciences.

“We bought it brand new from a computer shop in Vancouver,” he says as he recalls purchasing the SOL-20 in 1979 with his business partner, Alistair Bruce, and using it to help with their gravel-mining business.

“We wrote a program to hook it up to our ground scales that measured the weight of the dump trucks as they came in and out of the mine. We would tally the grade of rock and the weight in order to send a detailed invoice to the trucking companies.”

At first glance, the computer may not seem impressive to the modern user. It has a processing speed of two megahertz, can handle 65 kilobytes of memory and uses cassette tapes for external storage. Visually, the unit is beautiful: it has a bright blue metal exterior with wooden sides. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs saw the SOL-20 in 1976 and, as noted in his biography, felt that “the SOL-20 was better looking” than his Apple I. Many speculate that the SOL-20 inspired Jobs’ later model, the Apple II, which would go on to dominate the market.

Today, most SOL-20 units can be found in computer museums or personal collections. Thanks to Sundstrom’s donation, the SOL-20 will be put on display in a museum being planned for SFU’s Water Tower data centre. Sundstrom sees historical pieces like the SOL-20 as a source of inspiration for students.

“I hope that people starting out in the industry look back and see the birthplace of our modern machines through the museum and can put into perspective how fast this machinery changes.”

“Computing advances will only accelerate and attaining a perspective on the past may help someone see further into the future.”



If you would like to donate an item to the Faculty of Applied Sciences’ museum, please email fasgen@sfu.ca.