Early computers in France

A collection of text translated and compiled by Emmanuel Roche on early computer development in France. These text appeared first at the comp.os.cmp newsgroup in August 2020.

Was the First Microcomputer Built in France?

Richard L. Hudson of the "Wall Street Journal" reported in the paper's 18 September 1985 edition that the first microcomputer marketed was the "Micral" built by Truong Trong Thi's company Réalisation d'Etudes Electroniques S.A., also known as R2E. Truong shipped the initial production machine on 15 January 1973, about two years prior to the Altair, currently (1988) considered the first commercially available microcomputer. R2E got into the computer business by trying to deliver an environment control system for France's agricultural research laboratory (INRIA). By adapting an Intel chip (8008) originally intended for calculator use, R2E's Francois Gernelle designed a small machine with a lot of I/O channels as a controller. Early versions had to be programmed in binary using paper tape or switches, and sold for $1900. Within months, an expanded memory, keyboard, and video display unit became available. Disappointing sales led the company to file for bankrupcy in late 1975, and it was sold to what is now (1988) Companie des Machines Bull in 1978.

Micral was a great adventure

Engineer at R2E then Bull Micral, Jacky Dubois followed the adventure of the Micral, the first microcomputer made in France in 1973. Present during the fourth stage of the "IT Tour" in Reims on November 9, 2016, he returns, for the 35 years anniversary issue of "Le Monde Informatique", on this adventure which he considers extraordinary.

"The years I spent at R2E, before the merger with Bull, were the most extraordinary of my life," recalls Jacky Dubois. Joining the company in 1979, the engineer followed the adventure of the Micral, the first microcomputer of all time manufactured in France in 1973. "François Gernelle, its creator, who is now a friend, had already had the idea of this technology when he discovered the Intel 8008 processors when he worked at "Intertechnique", at the end of the 60s. But his leaders remained deaf to his requests and did not believe in the project", says Jacky Dubois. François Gernelle then resigned in 1972 to join the R2E company, where he hoped to be able to implement his ideas.

He then manufactured the Micral N in 1973 to respond to a call for tenders from INRA and implemented the architecture that we find today in all our machines. At the time, it was based around an 8-bit Intel 8008 processor clocked at 500 kHz and MOS memory cards allowing 2 KB of RAM to be deployed. "It was huge at the time for a transportable machine that cost only a few thousand francs (Editor> 8.500 F)", remembers Jacky Dubois. Then followed many other machines. "When I arrived at R2E, we were at the Micral 80-30 which had a screen and an integrated keyboard. It was a great time. We were a small company of 200 people motivated by the sole desire for innovation and were the European leaders in microcomputers", says the engineer.

A breakthrough innovation

He remembers that every product launch, always presented in person by François Gernelle, was a party. "We were proud of what we were doing", he recalls. Among these products, he remembers in particular the CCMC which was part of the first laptops or even the P2, which was based on an 8-bit Zilog Z-80 microprocessor, clocked at 5-MHz supported by 64 KB of RAM. "We weren't aware of having revolutionized IT for the next 40 years, that would have been a bit presumptuous. On the other hand, we all knew, including François Gernelle, that we were on a breakthrough innovation and that we were embarking on a very beautiful adventure.", says Jacky Dubois.

Then, R2E became "Bull Micral" in 1983, following its integration into the French giant of the time. "This operation had good and bad sides," said Jacky Dubois. On the positive side, Bull Micral initially remained a full-fledged entity within the Bull group, retaining relative independence with additional resources. "However, we had lost our small business momentum", regrets Jacky Dubois. However, he has fond memories of that time. "I was an engineer in charge of programming, it was a very interesting position", he tempers. Wanting to keep his independence, François Gernelle had however left "Bull Micral" in 1983 to found "Forum".

Unfortunate choices

"Then, there were some unfortunate strategic choices that gradually drowned Bull Micral. The brand ended up disappearing in 1989 when it joined Zenith, another manufacturer bought by Bull", deplores Jacky Dubois. But "Micral" is now reborn in IoT, thanks to AJT / Absomod, which has chosen it to market its range of nanoservers. "It's a great initiative", comments Jacky Dubois. However, he retains a great nostalgia for the R2E era. This is why he has accumulated a collection of more than 150 Micral objects, including a large number of machines that are still functional and compatible ones such as keyboards, floppy drives or Micral N screens. He will also be present during the fourth stage of the "IT Tour" organized by "Le Monde Informatique" on November 9, 2016, in Reims to rediscover certain pieces including the historic Micral N, now 43 years old.

Online Comment

Visiteur11021 • 11/11/2017 à 12h47 (Translated by Emmanuel ROCHE.)

It was a great adventure with extraordinary projects and personalities.

We were a "START UP" at the time. I returned to R2E in September 1973 and left it at the end of 1981 after its takeover and absorption by "BULL" (1978) and its president, Mr. BRULE. My first job was to build a measurement unit (more than 150 channels) controlled by the MICRAL N CPU board (based on Intel 8008).

We did not have a real-time monitor and even less an assembler.

The programs were written in machine language (44 20 05 = JUMP at address 0520) on commercial TELEX Teletypes (110 bauds) output on perforated paper tape (only storage memory, backup or for entering programs into the MICRAL CPU).

There was neither floppy (8-inch flexible arrived in 1975) nor hard disk (the first hard disks were "WINCHESTER" of 5 Mega bytes in 5 inch size).

R2E connected AMPEX disks (5-MBytes fixed and a 5-MByte removable cartridge).

My most notable people from R2E were; MM. TRUONG TRONG THY (founding president), François GERNELLE (Director of Studies and designer of MICRAL N -- based on Intel 8008, then MICRAL S -- based on Intel 8080, then MICRAL M, ..., etc.

I started as an application studies engineer, then I joined the "micro" team, then I took the position of "hardware R&D manager" under the direction of F. GERNELLE. My counterpart "software R&D manager" was Michel Joubert who had succeeded the deceased Mr. BENCHETRIT.

(See photo MICRAL C or MICRAL V.)

The MICRAL V was the world's first portable: Integrated in a "ZERO" aluminum case (for photographic equipment), it had a MICRAL S complete with an AZERTY keyboard, a BURROUGHT plasma screen of 8 lines of 40 characters, a 5-inch floppy, a thermal printer of 40 alphanumeric characters by line, and operated on a (incorporated) ASTEC 110/220 volt AC power supply and/or a 12-volt DC car or truck cigarette lighter.

After absorption by BULL, we (the R2E study team and Jean GOUBI, our mechanical designer -- DYSRACK company) carried out the integration of MICRAL S into the BULL (QUESTAR) aesthetic of the time for the SICOB computer show.

Micral dates

from: "Un mini-ordinateur pour moins de 8500FF"

1973: Micral N Intel 8008
1974: Micral G Intel 8008 at 1 MHz, 16 KB of RAM
1974: Micral S Intel 8080
(1975: MITS Altair in the USA)
1976: Micral M Intel 8080
1977: Micral C Intel 8080, 24 KB of RAM, 2 5-1/4" floppy disk drives
1978: Micral V *PORTABLE* Intel 8080, 32 KB of RAM
(1981: Osborne 1 in the USA)


Last updated: 2020-08-18

Email: fjkraan@electrickery.nl