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Engineers Week in history: the first personal computer store in Texas

February 18, 2010

Two Sugars, Cream, and an Extra Napkin with That: Portia Isaacson and the First Computer Store By Martha Cornog

The bar napkin and the airline napkin have long served to record innovation before the keyboard. And thus flying home from the First World Altair Convention, Portia Isaacson used a napkin to pencil in her business plan for a computer store. Her Micro Store opened in March 1976 right across the freeway from Texas Instruments, part of a transition in computing that was far from micro in scope or impact. Isaacson had opened one of the first personal computer stores in the world. Ultimately earning a PhD in computer science on top of her physics and mathematics undergraduate degree, Isaacson was an early personal computer enthusiast and bought one of the first MITS Altair mail-order kits, which were originally projected to sell to a few hundred hobbyists. But thousands of orders arrived in the first month they were offered. A new market was born, and Isaacson wanted in on it. Isaacson chaired the 1977 National Computer Conference, adding a special PC sub-show so industry could better understand the enormous opportunities offered by a product commonly viewed as a toy. Some 300 then-tiny companies, including Apple and Commodore, exhibited on tabletops. Isaacson continues to put forward her vision in many subsequent leadership roles within the industry.

In the mid-1980s she started Future Computing, which grew to be a leading market tracking and consulting firm. Today, she is CEO of Bass Economics (she married the late Frank Bass, a pioneer in marketing), which provides training, consulting, and software tools for market and technology forecasting. She is also adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Dallas. Perhaps Isaacson framed her airline napkin, which as a micro-sized object itself could stand as a paradoxical symbol for the enormous reach achieved by a relatively small piece of equipment. In 1979, Drexel honored her with its Science and Engineering Award as part of the thirtieth annual Drexel Engineer's Day.

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