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Tracing the History of the Computer - Unisys ICON Computer


The Unisys ICON was a computer built specifically for use in schools, to fill a standard created by the Ontario education ministry. They were widely used, mostly in high schools in the mid- to late 1980s, but disappeared after that time with the widespread introduction of PCs and Apple Macintoshes. They were also known as the CEMCorp ICON, Burroughs ICON, and finally Unisys ICON when Burroughs and Sperry Corporation merged to form Unisys in 1986. To its users, the machine was known as the bionic beaver.


By the mid-1980s most high schools had computer labs of one sort or another, typically using Apple IIs or Commodore PETs. The Apple was chosen primarily due to its color graphics and wide availability of educational software, while the PET's all-in-one metal construction and "networkable" floppy disk system had obvious advantages in a classroom setting. However it was not too uncommon to find a whole range of other machines in the business classrooms, including various CP/M boxes.

At about this time the Ontario ministry of education decided to attempt to standardize their recommended machine in order to reduce maintenance costs. They eventually settled on a selection of features that they felt would be the minimum required of a classroom computer. The design required a PET-like all-in-one box, color graphics (at least as an option), a "real" networked drive system (including a hard drive), and a trackball for mouse-like pointing support.

In response, Robert Arn set up CEMCORP, the Canadian Educational Microprocessor Corporation, to deliver such a machine. The basic ICON design had reached "beta quality" after just over a year, using off the shelf parts, the hardware manufactured by Microtel and operating system from Quantum Software Systems. The original Microtel machines were first introduced to Ontario schools in 1984 in small numbers. At this point Burroughs Canada was brought in to sell and support them. It wasn't long after this that Sperry and Burroughs merged to form Unisys in 1986.

As a school machine it was almost ideal, but the software suite available for it was never up to desired standards. Some programming classes disregarded the ICON due to its "odd" Unix-like nature; machines like the PET booted directly into the BASIC programming language, which is where most instructors wanted to end up anyway. Other teachers used its Pascal programming language implementation (by Watcom), while the more adventurous took advantage of the included C compiler. The ICON found a wider following in the newly evolving "computer use" classes, where they were used to teach word processing and spreadsheets; this was frequently via the "QDOS" that allowed ICONs to run MS-DOS while making use of available networked storage.


Around 1985 the ICON became the focus of a huge political debate in Ontario. In order to be able to afford what was a very advanced machine for its era, the Ministry had to give out huge subsidies; they paid $2,500 for them, and sold them back to the schools for $900. Hosts of computer-illiterate politicians and reporters complained loudly about how other machines could be bought for half the cost, and later that IBM's new 286-based PC-AT could replace them outright. Eventually even the most ardent supporters of the system gave up the fight. Around this time other platforms, such as the Waterloo PORT networking system, gained approval for the government support that had originally been the province of the ICON.

Several generations of ICON machines were produced, evolving steadily to become more and more PC-like. They were built into the early 1990s, but by this point were used almost entirely for DOS and Windows programs.


The ICON system was based on a workstation/file server model, with no storage local to the workstations. Both the workstations and the servers were similar internally, based on Intel 80186 microprocessors, and connected to each other using ARCNET. Several upgrades were introduced into the ICON line over time. The ICON2 sported a redesigned case, a detached keyboard with integrated trackball, expanded RAM, and facilities for an internal hard disk. The CPU was upgraded to the 386 in the Series III, while an "ICON-on-a-card" for PCs also appeared.

The original ICON workstations were housed in a large wedge-shaped steel case, with a full-sized keyboard mounted slightly left-of-center and a trackball mounted to the right. A rubber bumper-strip ran along the front edge, a precaution against a particular type of cut users sometimes got from the PET's sharp case. The EGA monitor was mounted on top of a tilt-and-swivel mount, a welcome improvement on the PET. It also included TI's TMS 5220 speech chip, originally designed for the TI-99, and would speak the rather confusing phrase "dhtick" when starting up. Early Microtel machines were dark brown, but the vast majority of examples in the classroom were a more nondescript beige.

Unisys ICON Computer

Unisys ICON Computer

The fileserver, sometimes referred to as the LexICON, was a simple box with an internal 10MB hard drive and a 5.25" floppy drive opening to the front. Later Lexicons included a 64MB hard disk, divided into two partitions. Unlike the PET's floppy system, however, users of the ICON needed to employ what were considered rather "arcane" Unix commands to copy data to their personal floppy disks from its "natural" location in the user's home directory on the hard drive.

Both the client and server ran the Unix-like QNX as their operating system with the addition of network file-sharing, the basic portions of it embedded in ROM. To this they added a NAPLPS/Telidon-based graphics system, which was intended to be used with the trackball to make interactive programs. The system did not include a usable GUI, although there were several attempts to produce one. QNX 2.0.1 included a modest one called "House", and another was built at least to the prototype stage by Helicon Systems in Toronto and appeared in one form as Ambience, though its capabilities were limited. A later upgrade called ICONLook improved upon this greatly, but it was apparently too slow to use realistically. Helicon Systems also produced a MIDI interface for the original ICON.

The biggest problem for the machine was a lack of software. The ICON was originally designed to let teachers create and share their own lessonware, using a simple hypertext-based system where pages could either link to other pages or run programs written in "C". The "anyone can create lessonware" model was rejected by the Ministry of Education before the ICON shipped (in favour of a model where the Ministry funded and controlled all lessonware), leaving the ICON with only the QNX command line interface and the Cemcorp-developed text editor application.

The various Watcom programming languages were quickly ported to the system, but beyond that, the educational software teachers expected was few and far between. The Ministry contracted for a number of applications, but the small target market and the sometimes-difficult procedure required to secure such contracts were significant obstacles for realistic commercial development.


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