Columbia University Computing History   

The Intertec Superbrain Microcomputer

Intertec Superbrain 1981
Intertec Superbrain 1981, in the public terminal room at 272A Engineering Terrace (Mudd)
Construction:          Single unit
Microprocessors:       Two Zilog Z80s (CPU, I/O)
Word size:             8 bits
Execution time:        1.0 msec register to register
Machine instructions:  158
Interrupt mode:        Vectored and reserved
Disk drives:           Two 5.25" 180KB floppy drives
Memory:                32KB + 1K static RAM + 2K ROM
Screen:                12" diagonal 24x80 chars
Characters:            5x7 character matrix
Serial interface:      Two RS-232 max speed = 9600bps 
Character set:         ASCII (128 characters)
Software:              CP/M 2.2, 8080 assembler,
                        debugger, text editor, PIP
Weight:                45 pounds
Dimensions:            14.6" x 21.4" x 23.1"

Superbrain manual Date: 1981. Columbia's first microcomputer, maybe, if you don't count some others that never went anywhere like the IBM 5100. Options (that we didn't have) included memory expansion to 64K, a parallel port, an S100 expansion bus adapter, Microsoft Basic-80, and Microsoft Fortran-80. This is the user end of the first Kermit connection (1981): Superbrains were deployed in public areas, connected to the Computer Center through the Gandalf PACX RS-232 serial switch, allowing users to archive their DEC-20 and IBM mainframe files to floppy disks and upload them again at a later time, using Columbia's Kermit protocol on each end of the connection; the Superbrain Kermit program also served as a VT52 terminal emulator. Reference: Intertec Data Systems Inc, SUPERBRAIN Users Manual, Columbia SC, September 1980.

CLICK HERE for some offsite color photos.

30th Anniversary of First Kermit File Transfer 29 April 2011

Intertec Superbrain Microcomputer 30 years later Kermit started out as a project to make this microcomputer, an Intertec "Superbrain" CP/M-80 system with two 5¼-inch floppy diskettes and 32K of memory, act as a terminal to, and transfer files with, Columbia University's central DEC and IBM mainframe computers. The first successful file transfer took place on April 29, 1981. Shortly thereafter, Columbia students had access to Superbrains for getting their files off the mainframes and onto floppies, and from the floppies back to the mainframes. The reason this was necessary is described here. After the Superbrains were retired some years later, two of them were put in the Watson Lab basement, which is not exactly a "clean room". One of them was brought back to life in 1991 for the final release of CP/M-80 Kermit, and then returned. In the ensuing 20 years it has partially disintegrated, even though it was wrapped in plastic. The other was in much worse shape and was discarded several years ago. The one shown here is the same as the one at the top of the page, you can tell by the stickers over the numeric keypad. Click for a larger view.

July 2011 Picture Gallery

Mid-July 2011 I dug the Superbrain out of the filthy rat-infested basement where it had been for 20 years since it was last used in 1991 and cleaned it up. It turns out that it only looked rotted, really it was just very dirty. Click on images to enlarge:
superbrain02 superbrain03 superbrain04 superbrain05 superbrain06 superbrain07 superbrain08 superbrain09 superbrain10 superbrain11 superbrain12 superbrain13 superbrain14 superbrain15

The first image shows it after vacuuming; the rest after a more thorough cleaning inside and out. The fifth picture (rear view) shows the custom-wired serial cable that was required to make it work with our PACX switch boxes. The final picture shows, evidently, that this unit (#4009?) was assembled by "I.P." on 5/27/81. We didn't order the Superbrains until we had already developed and tested a Kermit prototype on the DEC-20, so the Superbrains arrived about 4 weeks later. Bill Catchings did the programming, and that's "Bill's Disk" shown in the 9th picture.

Does it still work? Almost. I plugged it in, flipped the power switch, the Disk A light came on, Disk drive A made some noises, and then nothing. Probably a fuse blew. It seems, against all odds, to be in pretty good shape and might be fixable. And we do have some boot disks, Kermit disks, and other software disks for it, including the original Intertec disks.

In August 2011, the cleaned-up and almost-working Superbrain pictured above was shipped to the Computer History Museum, together with its system and Kermit floppy disks.

Columbia University Computing History Frank da Cruz / This page created: August 2011 Last update: 7 April 2021