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Things Nobody Cares About: Kitchen Fiction: A better-organized bill of particulars in case anyone wants to do more research.

It's not in dispute that the Honeywell H316 "Kitchen Computer" is a really stupid idea. But I do think that the pedestal version of the H316 was not designed or seriously intended to be used in a kitchen. I propose that the pedestal H316 was originally designed as a desk, something you'd sit at, using the "cutting board"/"counter" as a workspace, and that the kitchen usage was dreamed up for the Niemen Marcus catalogue as a way to sell other things--or, less likely, was a desperate gamble to sell a computer in a form factor that didn't make sense. It's possible that some pillar H316s were sold, even if no "Kitchen Computers" were.

The first microcomputer, the Altair, was programmed with switches and had no user interface other than its lights. To us it seems barely plausible that in the appliance-crazed 60s, Honeywell would stupidly try to sell that kind of interface to the home. But in a minicomputer those switches and lights are just the control panel. They're used to load in the operating system, so you can use a teletype or tape reader for your real work. A teletype next to the actual computer was a common sight in contemporaneous advertising.

The H316 worked that way. No one would do all their work through the switches, which is why building the H316 into a desk was a bad idea. But putting a teletype next to the H316 in the Nieman Marcus photo shoot--a setup that might actually have worked--would have spoiled the 2001-esque aesthetic Honeywell and Nieman Marcus were projecting. Today you could build a real computer with that form factor and no teletype, so we look at the ad and think they were trying to use the control panel as the user interface.

So: not only did the Kitchen Computer sell no units, it had no existence outside the Nieman-Marcus catalogue. The point of the catalogue entry was to make executives puff on their stereotypical pipes thoughtfully and then buy an H316 for the office. Everyone else would shudder at the cost of the computer and just buy that dorky flower apron.

Here's some questions I don't know the answer to that could confirm or disprove my hypothesis. First, I suspect that the "counter" of the pillar H316 is much lower than a kitchen counter would be; more in line with something you could scoot an office chair under. This is born out by the N-M photo, Val Henson's hilarious photos, and my subjective remembered experience, but I don't know for sure. Here's a picture of a chair beneath the computer. My point is that no matter how stupid an idea a Kitchen Computer is, if you were designing the casing for one and you decided to give it a "counter", you'd put the counter at the height of a kitchen counter, not the height of an office desk.

Second, I don't know what's in the back of the pillar H316. In the continuing saga of me not looking closely enough at things that I later realize are problematic, I didn't look at the back. Is there a place to connect a teletype and other peripherals?

Third: what did the H316 cost through regular channels? I've seen it described as "the first under-$10,000 16-bit machine". Does the $10,600 cost in the Niemen-Marcus catalogue include a cheap teletype to go with the two-week programming course?

Fourth, are there any manuals for the pillar H316? Any idea of how all those alleged recipes were stored? Paper tape? They sure wouldn't fit in the H316's core memory.

Bonus clearing-up: it has been alleged that the Kitchen Computer had a compiler for a language called BACK. There is no such programming language. Which itself is suspicious, because most short words have been used as the name of a programming language. At some point someone made a joke about FORTH (the first FORTH implementation happened on the H316) and the factoid was passed along by someone who didn't get the joke.

An interesting coda: the H316 was also used to build the Interface Message Processor, first machines on the ARPAnet. Check out the lower IMP control panel: it's got the same controls as the Kitchen Computer.

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