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HP's first computer was developed as a controller for HP's programmable instruments. The 2116A was the largest single mechanical package HP had ever built to date, and it marked HP's first use of integrated circuits. At the time, most computers had to be pampered in air-conditioned rooms on spring-loaded floors. HP assumed that the 2116A, an instrumentation computer, should pass the same environmental tests as the instruments it would team with, and be rugged and reliable. This approach transformed the 2116A into the first go-anywhere, do-anything computer.
Introduced in 1966, the first 2116A was sold to Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution, which used it aboard a research vessel in a salt-air environment for over 10 years. With 4K of magnetic core memory (minimum system configuration) expandable to 32K, the 2116A cost $25,000 to $50,000, depending on options.
In late 1966, the research vessel "Chain" departed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts with a little extra weight on board. Along with its customary cadre of scientists, marine experts, technical staff and sea crew, the vessel carried some unusual cargo - HP's first computer, the 2116A.
In the mid-1960s, customers needed a machine to computerize instrument systems - at a price range most users could afford. However, the consensus in the industry at the time was that computers were not broadly compatible with instruments and required significant additional hardware and software support to boot.
HP rose to the challenge. The collaboration of several divisions, including former Data Systems engineers and HP Labs and Dymec employees, resulted in the HP 2116A's public unveiling at the 1966 Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco.
The 2116A was the largest single mechanical package HP had ever built. It marked HP's first use of the integrated circuit and the development of a FORTRAN compiler and associated software. In addition, a number of standard laboratory instruments could interface with the HP 2116A such as electronic counters, nuclear scalers, electronic thermometers, digital voltmeters and input scanners.
"What is really different about the HP computer," said Noel Eldred in 1966, then HP marketing vice president, "is that it will save thousands of dollars and months of time for the user who wants to computerize his instrument system."
As the company's MEASURE magazine reported in 1967, two other aspects of the 2116A were considered ahead of its time. First, the hardware was developed much more rapidly than the industry average for similarly complex systems. Second, the software was made available simultaneously with the hardware - a rare accomplishment at the time.
Through the tireless efforts of HP employees Kay Magleby, Ed Holland, Arne Bergh, Willie Austin and many others, ruggedness and reliability became hallmarks of the 2116A. HP's "go-anywhere, do-anything" computer was eventually discontinued as new technologies rendered the 2116A obsolete. However, for nearly a decade, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute successfully used the HP workhorse to record data under harsh sea conditions.
The 2116B, shown above, is a later model of the 2116A, which was HP's first computer.