(The following Article was featured for the September '00 edition of this page)
History of Computing in Mexico (revisited)
The following article was submitted to Glenside's Cup of CoCo Newsletter quite a few years ago. I have transcribed it here almost intact, except for some revisions in grammar and to include current developments. If any given fact looks like something being pulled out of my sleeve, get in contact with me and I'll correct it.
Almost everyone has at one time read about the development of computers, so, repeating here that story would be somewhat of overkill, there is plenty of that on schools, public libraries and the 'net. So, Iíll start right on with the theme outlined above:
It was around the month of July1958, when the first electronic computing device to be operating in Mexico was installed in the most important university of this country (UNAM, Universidad Autonoma de Mexico which means Autonomous University of Mexico). It was the first in Latin America also.
This "Electronic Brain", as it was named then, was a IBM-650 , the first to be produced by that firm and used electron tubes as its logic components and a magnetic drum as memory. As its physical dimensions were big, though not impressive, its computation and storage capacity was well below the average Color Computer 2, it had to be on par with Commodore's VIC20 or Timex's Sinclair, which were very basic machines. The 650 processor could do about 10,000 operations per second.
Being machine language the principal form of communication, if not the only one, that technicians and scientists could use around it, the access to the machine was restricted to a small elite of researchers, building lots of interest between the students of Physics and Mathematics whom in the upcoming years would constitute the first generation of "Computerologysts" Mexico would have.
Thanks to the courage and vision of UNAMís founder and director, Mr. Sergio F. Beltran, a second equipment, the Bendix G-15 , a small machine that included a compiler that kind of resembled a language like Algol, was acquired by the University Computing Center in 1960. This unit allowed a larger circle of users as students and teachers of Engineering and Chemistry used it.
This machine was then utilized to give some courses to the state universities of the country, and under the idea of Mr. Beltran was called Mobil Computing Center. This experiment ended when the G-15 caught fire as it was being transported from Monterrey to Mexico City. Despite this setback, a great deal of interest in computers was developed in several cities. The computer was replaced with another G-15 and by 1964 a Bull GAMA30 equipped with magnetic tapes and Fortran made its entrance to the Computing Center of UNAM.
While all this was happening the National Polytechnic Institute was getting ready to install a IBM-709 starting the National Computing Center, known also as CENAC where a lot of students completed their studies. These people later ran the computing centers of the government and of several industries.
A few months later, the Technology Institute of Monterrey joined the rest of institutions installing a IBM1620 and sending some of its best students to study in the United States and in Europe. The influence of the TIM greatly transformed Monterrey into a center of technology development and its students quickly began to be requested to work in industries and in the government.
By 1970, a good number of superior education institutions had their own computing centers, among them, along the ones already mentioned, where most of the Regional Technology Institutes, the University of Chapingo, the University of Nuevo Leon and the one in Veracruz. The role of leadership that these schools represented motivated an important competition of the several manufacturing firms at attracting the attention of the Universities. Here we can cite the efforts of Control Data, IBM and specially Burroughs, which managed to install several super computers at UNAM.
With the entrance to the market of minicomputers, computing was being made accessible to smaller institutions, so the teaching of computer related sciences started to spread all over the country and, around 1973, a conference about use of computers organized by the Regional Technology Institute of Veracruz, attracted an important number of schools, which were discussing problems related to teaching computer science and with the use of computers within the administration of their offices.
The fast development rate of mini and microcomputers affected notably the institutions of superior education, that were forced to develop programs and include several courses no this theme. By the end of the seventies the acceleration of the process left these schools behind; leadership was lost. The teachers moved to the industry and the government; without possibilities of replacements, and without making those all important changes in the "ways of thinking" that the evolution of technology demands, the computing area entered a state of crisis in all schools.
As bad as a lack of vision when the needed steps were not taken to replace the teachers and researchers that were in demand, the lack of technical insight to determine the importance of microcomputers in education also made its dent in this crisis. This looks worst taking in account that the newer machines in the market were more powerful that the ones installed just 15 or 20 years ago.
In a great effort to get ahead of the pack, the T.I. of Monterrey oriented all its resources to the use of mini and microcomputers, installing a network of more than 300 micros from Apple (Apple II to be exact), which brought enhanced facilities to the students, accomplishing stunning results when responding to the great need of forming specialized personnel on computer systems.
Since then, the computing sciences had had a great impulse on all levels of schooling, from high school to engineering studies. At one time there was even a dedicated TV show that featured 100% computers in its airings, which ranged from education to games, they reviewed new software packages each week and had tournaments live with the people who attended the studios. The featured computer: Commodore 64.
The institutes that had a technical advantage were the ones located no the northern border of Mexico because of the closeness with the thriving market of the USA. Several schools had TRS-80 Model I's and III's that were used to teach BASIC and Z-80 assembly language. Some even used the Model II to handle their administration.
It was around 1987 when the Latin American Institute of Educative Communication (ILCE) along with the Public Education Secretary (SEP) started a project called COEEBA-SEP which would bring microcomputers to all public schools. The basic equipment provided consisted of:
- One microcomputer
- The color monitor
- A cassette recorder
- and 2 or 3 program cartridges
This was the particular issue I wanted to address with this article, since it is of interest to the CoCo community. The reason, the microcomputer had a 6809 "heart" beating in it. The model with which this system was touted was Micro-SEP 1600.
The system IS compatible with the famous Color Computers 1 and 2 from TANDY, upon closer examination, the motherboard and the casing of the computer resemble a 64K "F" board CoCo 1 sans the RF modulator, because the 1600 provides direct composite video and line level audio to the monitor via RCA phono jacks like the ones in the back of the CoCo 3.¬ You can also find jacks for the RS232 serial port, cassette port, mouse (it is labeled as mouse, though any joystick can do) and two others that do not have any technical explanation whatsoever (and no application that I know off) but bear the labels A&D Outputs and A&D Inputs. The A&D means Analog-Digital.
An analysis of the motherboard reveals familiar components found on earlier CoCo's. One notices right up front the absence of the RF Modulator unit, the presence of two relays (instead of one) and the two ROMS above the MC6809EP with the legends TANDY (C) 1982. Below are the 8 MCM6665BP RAM chips and a big 40 pin SN74LS783N besides them.
SEP provided program cartridges to be used with the 1600. These paks actually contained ECB programs stored in ROMs. The programs were geared to general courses from math to chemistry at the high school level, and you could plug these big paks (about twice as large as the original CoCo Disk controllers... the earliest) in a CoCo1 or a CoCo 2¬ and get good results, but in any CoCo you had to have Extended Color Basic because all the programs used graphics commands throughout. One thing to note here is the way the educational programs were written; all used the graphic screens and machine language routines, which accounted for their speed and presentation.
A year later, the programs began to be provided on disk, so a disk system was needed. Some schools ordered complete drive units from companies in the USA because SEP was lagging with the delivery of the systems. Once again, history started to repeat itself with this project. Schools were left with the economic burden of building appropriate rooms for the systems with little or no help from government agencies. The Micro-SEP 1600 started to fade away into obscurity as the "industry standard" IBM PC Compatible started to make its way into the educational arena. More information on the 1600 will need be studied on a separate article dedicated in its entirety to this "CoCo relative".
The later period for the 6809 based MicroSEPs found a complete clone of the CoCo 3 introduced by SEP as the MicroSEP Model 3. This is an exact copy of the CoCo 3 bit by bit except of the boot legend that includes a color character banner along with some text on ILCE. The copyright still points to Microsoft. This was the last computer in the MicroSEP line that used the 6809 and also marked a change in SEP's way of identifying these computers as the 1600 was renamed either the MicroSEP Model 1 (same as 1600) and the Model 2, a 64k CoCo 2 clone rarely seen because the Model 3 was already shipping.
A company in Mexico, linked to Radio Shack, called Texatron was responsible of the "introduction" of these CoCo clones into Mexico; seemingly the computers were brought unassembled and workers in Mexico built the final units. The software was programmed by students of the IPN, and as stated above, it was entirely graphics based except for some initial menu screens; no software produced for this line of computers ever used the enhanced capabilities of the MicroSEP Model 3 (CoCo 3 clone) except for the speedup poke.
The one personal computer that did had a more widespread market was the Commodore 64. Several clubs and private institutes, like the Galileo Institute offered courses on math, science and Basic programming and had quite a response from the average person. Meanwhile, in the USA the 80XX and 80XXX¬ based PCs were standard, a thing that couldn't be replicated in Mexico because of Customs and government restrictions on equipment importation. As soon as the outdated laws started to get changed, the PC slowly started to set aside all the "smaller" systems currently in use.
Since 1990 fewer restrictions and less taxing on new equipment have helped to pave the way to the latest Intel and Macintosh computers. Now, the North America Free Trade agreement (NAFTA) seriously encourages the entrance of computer systems to Mexico. More and more schools, privately owned business, government offices and in general all the industries, use Intel platforms and in a lesser measure, Macintosh computers.
One practice that didn't found its way to every user in Mexico, is the modem-to-modem connection. BBS's where and are very scarce as not to say inexistent, and if there are some, they are used within campus in the bigger universities. The Internet began to be introduced as a commercial medium in the mid 90's; in the beginning several small ISPs appeared but lately the big phone companies have started to provide high speed (v.90 upward) services and the numbers of internet connected individuals and businesses are growing.
The latest information I have gathered on the longly forgotten early MicroSEP project is that the machines are still in the school's inventory. Some time ago the PTAs were awarded the right to dispose of "old" technology found in schools - they could, after some analysis, determine if the equipment was to be sold to recoup something or given away. Lately things have changed; there seems to be some kind of "agreement" between schools and the penitentiary services of Mexico which outlines the intention of sending to the penitentiary workshops the machines and devices that need to be repaired... this is kind of farfetched since with items like computers hardly they could be repaired and put to useable service. As I write the update on this article (Feb 2000) I am still trying to get for keeps one of the first MicroSEP machines for further study.
Hope to start working on part two of this story. Stay tuned!