Franconian (so called people from a German region in upper Bavaria) are rather reserved and quiet people. They prefer the cozy social gathering over a glass of beer or wine and the greatest praise of a Franconian is: “Bassd scho!”
Today I would like to present you a PC from 1984 of a former computer manufacturer from Franconia – more precisely from Nuremberg, the metropolis of Middle Franconia. It is the TA alphatronic PC from the company Triumph-Adler, a Z80 based 8-bit computer with 64 kB RAM, 32 kB ROM and integrated Microsoft Basic.
You can definitely compare the computer with the features of the Franconian: The PC has a simple, straight-lined case shape and it comes across rather inconspicuous and reserved. On the other hand, it impresses with its workmanship and inner values. A Franconian would say: “Bassd scho!”.
The traditional company Triumph Adler from Nuremberg was already building electronic billing machines and transistor-based computers at the end of the 1960s. With the so-called “Volkscomputer” TA10, TA built a workplace computer as early as the beginning of the 1970s. A successor and the first von Neumann system was the 8-bit TA1000. It was used by Deutsche Bahn from 1973 as the extended version 1069. Later, so-called small computers became more and more fashionable in Germany, and even medium-sized companies could afford them. Due to the advancing miniaturization and falling chip prices, personal computers finally became more and more popular. Triumph-Adler also recognized this trend.
Company history until the 1980s
The company was originally founded in 1896 by Siegried Bettmann as a subsidiary of the “Triumph Cycle Company” from Coventry (England) and produced exclusively bicycles and briefly motorcycles until 1909. From 1909, the company finally entered the typewriter business by purchasing a bankruptcy estate. In 1911, the company was split off from the parent company and two years later renamed “Triumph Werke Nürnberg AG”.
Adlerwerke in Frankfurt was also a renowned German company with a long tradition, founded by Heinrich Kleyer from Darmstadt as early as 1880. Adler first developed and produced bicycles and later motorcycles and cars. In 1896, Kleyer was the first German to buy patents for typewriters from the USA and finally launched his own first typewriter in 1898. For a time in the 1930s, Adlerwerke was also the third largest car manufacturer in Germany. After the Second World War, however, the company fell into difficulties.
In 1957, Max Grundig (German business pioneer and founder of Grundig AG, an electronics group for radio and television technology) bought both the share capital of Triumph-Werke, as well as a stake in Adlerwerke, merged the two companies to form Triumph-Adler, and transformed the company into a pure office machine manufacturer.
By the end of the 1960s, the company had become the fifth-largest office machine manufacturer in the world. At the end of the 1960s, however, Grundig sold the company to the Litton Group (USA) (including Royal Typewriter), before returning to Germany in 1979, when the Volkswagen Group secured 55% of the shares in Triumph-Adler and thus also in Royal Typewriter.
By the end of the 1960s, TA was already producing electronic billing machines and transistor-based computers (FA 402 or TA 100). From 1971, TA then launched the so-called “Volkscomputer” TA 10, a briefcase-sized workstation computer for invoicing, billing and accounting tasks.
In 1978, Triumph Adler took over Diehl Datensysteme, also based in Nuremberg, and marketed its text systems DDS-1, DDS-2, DDS-3 Diehl Bildschirmtextsystem Bitsy under the designation Bitsy-10, -20 and -30.
By the way, if you want to know more about the history of Triumph-Adler and their computers, I recommend the following page: http://horniger.de/computer/ta/index_d.html.
Initially, the company acquired further computer expertise through the takeover of Diehl Datensysteme GmbH, and initially also marketed their computers. In 1979, Triumph-Adler then purchased the KISS system from sks (Steinmetz Krischke Systemtechnik) and brought it to production maturity as the Alphatronic. The Alphatronic series was finally launched in 1980 with the introduction of the P1 and P2 models based on the 8-bit Intel 8085 CPU with 48 kB RAM (expandable to 64 kB) and the proprietary MOS (Micro Operating System) operating system, which was also developed entirely by sks (Steinmetz Krischke Systemtechnik). Optionally, the system could also run with an adapted version of CP/M 2.2. The Alphatronic series was continued in 1982 with the improved versions P3 and P4 also with Intel 8085. In 1984 P30/40 followed as hybrid computers with two CPU’s: 8085 ( 8 bit, 3 MHz) and 8088 (16 bit, 5 MHz).
The TA keyboard computer
Beside the mentioned PCs, which came in the desktop case design of the late 70s (similar to Commodore PET), it was decided to bring an even more compact so-called keyboard computer on the market, which was obviously intended as an entry-level and learning PC for home, or small offices, such as law firms or medical practices. This is how my computer came into being, which I would like to introduce to you here.
The simply called “Alphatronic PC” got a completely new design and a CPU incompatible with the other models: Zilog Z80A. In addition, probably for cost reasons, both its development and production were outsourced to Japan. Keyboard computers were very popular in the 80’s: Apple II, Tandy TRS-80 Model I, Commodore VIC 20, C64, ATARI 400/800(XL), Amiga, Atari ST are just a few examples. By the integration of all important components in a compact housing including keyboard, one could save costs with the production. For extensions simply interfaces were led to the outside, to which one could connect then cartridge or disk drives, printer, modem etc..
The Alphatronic PC fit right into the fashion of the 80s: The computer’s case is compact and relatively flat. It only contains the motherboard, which houses the Z80A CPU (from NEC) and all other important components. Additionally, the power supply is already integrated into the computer. The German keyboard completes the system. It also offers a variety of connection options for screen output: TV (via adapter), monochrome composite video (BAS), or RGB video.
After switching on, the Microsoft BASIC V5.11 integrated on ROM reports immediately and you can start programming directly. By the way, this was common for most other computers at that time. The integrated BASIC however only offered the access to the cassette drive (CLOAD/CSAVE) as storage medium. With this, however, the Alphatronic with a selling price of 1495 DM at that time, offered a favorable entrance into the world of computers.
Better use floppy disk
Since storage on datasette is considered to be quite cumbersome and unreliable, there is no way around a floppy disk drive for more professional work with the computer.
My system even comes with two 5.25″ floppy drives with a capacity of 320 kB each. They have different model names (F1 and F2), because only the first floppy drive, which cost 1800 DM at that time, contains the necessary floppy controller. The second, cheaper drive, is then connected to the first drive and controlled by its controller. With such a “modular” design, it was up to the customer’s wallet or requirements whether he wanted to get by with the inexpensive but slow cassette drive, or invest the money for relatively expensive floppy drives for professional work. In any case, the floppy disk drive comes with Microsoft Disk BASIC, which is booted from floppy disk when the computer is switched on. Furthermore, there is an adapted CP/M 2.2 operating system for the Alphatronic, a predecessor of MS-DOS, which was THE operating system standard for personal computers in the 80s. For CP/M many widely used application programs like WordStar, dBASE, Turbo-Pascal or Multiplan were developed at that time. Also for this you need at least one or better two floppy drives.
Distinction from home computer
I wouldn’t call the Alphatronic PC a typical home computer, because it simply lacks the special graphics and sound features that made e.g. Commodore and ATARI so successful in this area as game computers in the mid 80s. The Alphatronic has only simple block graphics (4×4 pixels) and in graphics mode a resolution of a meager 160×72 pixels with 16 colors and the simple sound generator is only good for beeps. On the other hand, the text mode already supports 80 characters per line, which was enormously important for professional applications, such as word processing. I think, the people from Nuremberg didn’t want to develop a typical game computer anyway (although game modules were also advertised), but they focused on the “serious” users in home use or in small companies. So maybe the company manager could take his calculation data on floppy disk from the office to his home to revise them there. The Alphatronic was not built with the latest computer technology, because the computer is more like a Tandy TRS-80 Model I, which was on the market from 1977 to 1981. The aim was rather to provide small companies with an inexpensive entry into the computer age. What was needed here was stable technology and easy-to-use office software, such as word processing, spreadsheets or customer/card management – an inconspicuous Franconian computer, in other words.
The technical data are as follows:
- CPU: Z80 A, 4 MHz
- 64 kB RAM
- 32 kB ROM
- Video outputs for color monitor, monochrome monitor and TV
- 40×24 / 80×36 characters in text mode
- 160×72 pixels in graphic mode (640×288 in 4×4 blocks) 16 colors
- Sound generator
- Output for cassette recorder (Kansas City standard)
- output for 5¼-inch floppy disk drives
- built-in power supply
- Typewriter keyboard with separate numeric and cursor blocks and six function keys
- ROM slot for games and application programs
- serial interface (V.24) for printer or acoustic coupler/modem
- parallel interface (Centronics)
- bus I/O
- dimensions (W × D × H): 405 mm × 255 mm × 73 mm
- weight: 3500 gram
Trip across the big pond
With the acquisition of the majority shares of the American Royal Typewriter Company, the computer market also opened up for TA in the USA. Thus Alphatronic systems were also sold under the brand ROYAL alphatronic in America. Unfortunately, this proved to be a loss-making business and later brought TA itself into difficulties, which in turn resulted in a takeover by Olivetti.
By the way, there is a nice little video about the ROYAL alphatronic by a vintage computer enthusiast and electronics hobbyist friend of mine who lives in the USA and with whom I exchange ideas about our common hobby from time to time.
What the computer means to me
Since my collecting focus is keyboard computers from the 80s anyway and moreover Triumph-Adler is a company from my home region, I wanted to have one of these for a long time. Unfortunately, they are not easy to get nowadays, because they were mainly sold in Germany and obviously the sales figures were not very high here either. So I am very happy that I could get hold of a complete system with Sanyo screen, two floppy drives, floppy disks and manuals. I had to travel quite a few miles to pick it up, but the seller was a very friendly young family man who had gotten the computer from his uncle (I think) as a first owner. He was looking for a worthy collector who would continue to care for the computer and keep it in good working order.
Accordingly, I received the computer in top condition. It did not even need a basic cleaning or major dust removal action, as is so often the case. The computer and the peripherals all still work perfectly. Even the floppy disks can still be read without any problems. This is not a matter of course, since the computer is almost 40 years old. With the enclosed text program and my EPSON FX-80, I was able to print out a text directly.
Nevertheless, I opened the device to inspect it. Thereby I noticed the RIFA capacitors of the power supply, which already seem quite borderline. So this will be my first maintenance action, to replace the suppressor capacitors before they burst and cause a bigger mess.
I’m also trying to get some more software for it. Mostly they are available as floppy disk images and it is not so easy to get them in the right format on 5,25″ floppy disks. Furthermore it is my goal to show the computer on a vintage computer fair or exhibition. It will be exciting to see what you can get out of the box nowadays. In any case, I will continue to report about it.
The 8-bit Alphatronic PC had a successor in 1985, the Alphatronic PC16, with which TA once again attempted a compact entry-level computer. This time, however, the computer was equipped with a 16 bit Intel CPU (8088) and had MS-DOS 2.11 integrated in ROM. Besides, CP/M could still be used. Unfortunately there were again no expansion possibilities by means of ISA plug-in cards, which belonged at that time with the competition systems already to the standard and 64 kB RAM were at that time also no longer up-to-date. Thus the success of this system remained very modest.
How you can still successfully bring an IBM compatible keyboard computer to the market was proven by the also German computer company “Schneider Rundfunkwerke AG” in 1988 with the Euro-PC, which also has an Intel 8088 CPU and which I have already presented here in a separate report.
The further history of Triumph-Adler
In 1985, the company was renamed TA Triumph-Adler AG. In 1986, TA was then taken over by the Italian office machine manufacturer Olivetti. This was a spectacular move, as Olivetti was the second largest PC supplier in Europe in the 1980s, directly behind IBM, and was also a major player on the global market. Early in the 1960s, Olivetti even supplied NASA with the first freely programmable calculators Olivetti Programma 101 at a unit price of over DM 15000, which was used, among other things, to calculate the radio traffic for the Apollo mission.
Under the Olivetti brand, only MS-DOS compatible systems were introduced to the market. This started with the 80186 systems Alphatronic P50/60 and was later continued with a new desktop series called “Dario” and the laptop series “Walkstation”, which were however developed by Olivetti. These were also to be the last personal computers distributed by TA. Unfortunately, the cheap alternative from Asia became too big in the meantime, so that the computer business brought high losses and Olivetti broke up the computer division of TA thereupon and also retired from the computer market itself.
In the 1990s, Triumph-Adler was then bought by a consortium of shareholders and transformed into a medium-sized holding company. Own computer systems were now no longer an issue. Instead, a copier and fax specialist was added to the portfolio with the purchase of UTAX GmbH. From 2003, the company was also able to enter into a strategic partnership with Kyocera, which enabled it to sell its printer, fax and copier systems. Since 2011, Triumph-Adler GmbH has been a 100% subsidiary of the Kyocera Group.
Today, Triumph-Adler understands itself as a service provider of holistic office solutions and as a specialist for document management.
Sources and links:
Interesting private website of the former head of the development department at the company sks (Steinmetz-Krischke-Systemtechnik), which developed the operating system MOS (Micro Operating System) for the first alphatronic P1/P2: https://waltroper-aufbruch.de/Archiv/AlphatronicP2.php
Interesting page about the history of Triumph-Adler and a lot of information about TA Computer: http://horniger.de/computer/ta/index_d.html