Big as a closet, expensive as a house: in 1972, the computer was a rare and inaccessible machine. However, everything changes in a decade with the emergence of models resembling the desktop PC we know today. Several pioneering machines show the way, such as the American Apple II released in 1977, or the French Micral, delivered to its first customer on January 15, 1973 (half a century ago already).

The Micral would not have seen the light of day without a key innovation: the microprocessor. This small piece of silicon will be the beating heart of the nascent computer, single-handedly replacing dozens of components. The first models were marketed in 1971 but it was the Intel 8008, released in 1972, which was noticed by a handful of computer engineers sensing the revolution to come. Among them, a 28-year-old Frenchman, François Gernelle, who sees in it the possibility of a cheaper, more compact, less energy-consuming and more reliable computer.

At first, the engineer struggled to convince his hierarchy to embark on the adventure, he will tell in a colloquium, two decades later. He then tried a gamble: the National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) was looking for a machine capable of measuring temperature and humidity in the middle of the fields. During an appointment, François Gernelle suggests using, not the very popular PDP-8 mini-computer, but a brand new machine designed around the 8008 processor, half the price.

Celebrated in the USA

The market signed, a race begins. François Gernelle has only six months and three men to honor him. “We worked in a cellar in Châtenay-Malabry [Hauts-de-Seine] about eighteen hours a dayhe says in retrospect. For three months, I practically never saw the light of day. » It opts for an open design that allows accessories to be connected to the Micral. A choice focused on versatility contrasting with the ultra-specialized machines designed at the time. No software can drive the Intel 8008: they have to be invented, which another team member, Maurice Benchétrit, takes care of.

The efforts of the four accomplices result in a metal box the size of a suitcase, measuring about fifty centimeters wide

The efforts of the four accomplices result in a metal box the size of a suitcase, measuring about fifty centimeters wide. It is “the least powerful computer [mais] the most reliable” of the market, will judge François Gernelle retrospectively. The Micral is finally marketed at a fifth of the price of the PDP-8, for 8,500 francs, or about 10,000 euros today. The first chapter of a revolution.

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