An Exidy Sorcerer
The Sorcerer is one of the early home computer systems, released in 1978 by the videogame company, Exidy. It was comparatively advanced when released, especially when compared to the contemporary more commercially successful Commodore PET and TRS-80, but due to a number of problems including a lack of marketing, the machine remained relatively unknown. Exidy eventually pulled it from the market in 1980, and today they are a coveted collector's item.
Having recently sold his share of the personal computer stores, the Byte Shop, Paul Terrell started looking for new ventures. He eventually convinced the founders of Exidy, H.R. "Pete" Kauffman and Howell Ivy, that a truly simple computer with reasonable performance still wasn't available. At the time, the PET and TRS-80 offered the out-of-the-box experience he felt was necessary, but these lacked the graphics he felt would be needed, and required the use of a computer monitor which drove up the price. The Apple II offered both graphics and color, but required at least some user assembling to get operational. His dream machine would combine these features.
The result was the Sorcerer. It was powered by a Zilog Z80 running at 2.106 MHz with 4 to 48 kilobytes of RAM, giving it performance parity with the TRS-80. In its basic form it consisted of a single chassis containing the computing hardware with the keyboard on top, a layout that became common with machines like the Atari 800 and Commodore VIC-20. In this form it could be attached to a 3rd party computer monitor and used with software loaded from the "ROM-PAC" cartridges and a cassette tape drive as a low-cost offering. For larger systems, the base unit could be attached to an external S-100 expansion chassis that sat behind the console, allowing cards to expand the system as well as offering floppy disk support.
Launch in the US
The Sorcerer made its debut at the Long Beach Computer Show in April 1978.
Pete Kauffman and Howell Ivy owned one of the leading coin-operated video game companies at the time and as Paul Terrell would put it “Their graphic designs with a computer were so good they would take quarters out of my pocket.” The personal computer marketplace was in dire need of a PC that exhibited good graphics capabilities, and no one knew that better than Paul Terrell, who had just sold his chain of 58 Byte Shop computer stores to John Peers of Logical Machine Corporation.
Paul convinced his friends Pete and Howell to design and build “The Computer of his dreams”, The Exidy Sorcerer. “Computers are like magic to people”, says Paul, “So lets give them computer magic with the Sorcerer computer” and hence the name. Paul also wanted a “consumer computer” that was user friendly beyond anything currently in the marketplace. Early home computers, hobby computers, and personal computers were designed and manufactured for the technically savvy. Consumer electronics had not yet recognized home computing as a viable market and were only offering calculators and video game console to its marketplace.
As the VP of Engineering and partner in Exidy Inc. Howell was a natural computer enthusiast with a wealth of knowledge in computer graphic design and what excited consumers in computer graphics. He was also astute enough to realize that the current marketplace was principally made up of technical engineers, programmers and technicians that wanted more than just a video game in their home computer. With that, Howell set out to design the Exidy Sorcerer to be the most innovative Personal Computer in the marketplace. At the time Exidy would be competing with the Apple II, Commodore Pet, and Tandy TRS 80, computers already in the marketplace.
The wish list of design improvements over the existing designs in the marketplace went like this:
- A keyboard computer that could plug into a television set like the Apple II and TRS 80 but also plug into a computer monitor to display high resolution graphics.
- An easily programmable graphics character set like the Commodore Pet, so a novice programmer wannabe could write BASIC language programs that would dazzle their friends. The Sorcerer design was eloquent with the highest resolution in the marketplace and innovative because the graphic characters could be reprogrammed to represent any kind of 8x8 character the programmer wanted and was not fixed like the graphic characters on the Commodore Pet. Howell did such a good job in this area of the design that it was to achieve a “Most Innovative” award at the Consumer Electronics Show after its introduction.
- The fastest microcomputer chip with the most software compatibility in the marketplace. The Exidy Sorcerer used the Z80 Processor from Zilog Corp. ( the same as the TRS 80 from Tandy, but the Apple II and Commodore Pet used the 6502 Processor from MOS Technology) which allowed it to run the same BASIC language software that was becoming one of the first standards in the personal computer industry, Microsoft Basic. Exidy was one of the first companies to license software from Microsoft after they parted ways from MITS, Inc. and before they moved from New Mexico to Seattle.
- Plug-In software cartridges so the Computer User could immediately begin using the computer at power-on. The user would not have to load a program from tape or disk to start operating the computer. Exidy would provide three program cartridges under license—Microsoft 8K Basic, Word Processor Cartridge (which was the “Killer App“ for PCs at the time), and an Assembler Cartridge (for programmers to write their own custom software for proprietary applications). Blank cartridges were provided for custom applications and the most popular application was customer generated foreign language character sets, which made the Exidy Sorcerer the most popular international PC .
- An expansion unit designed to the Industry Standard S-100 bus so that all of the low cost peripheral products presently in the marketplace could be attached to configure a computer system.
The standard plug-in attachments to the keyboard case (included in the base price of the unit) were a printer port for hard copy devices, cassette port for mass storage, and serial port for communications. Some of these were included with the competing products and some were add-on.
The Exidy Sorcerer was competitively priced at $895 and went to market in Long Beach California in April 1978 and generated a 4,000 unit back-log on introduction.
Shipments did not start until later that summer.
Exidy sold the rights to the design of the Exidy Sorcerer to Dynasty Computer Corp. of Dallas, Texas. They made minor updates and re-released it as the "Dynasty smart-ALEC".
Successes outside the US
Personal Computers sold outside the United States required approval from the State Department of the US Government and business was usually transacted on a Letter of Credit Basis versus Net 30 Day Terms of payment in the United States. This made exporting of personal computers a more complicated process than selling to retail stores domestically but that extra effort was offset by more favorable payment on a letter of credit on shipment rather than the Net 30 payment 30 days after delivery to domestic re-sellers and the export price was twice the domestic price for the same product. The result of increased profit in every unit sold and guaranteed payment by letter of credit rather than hope of payment by under financed computer store retailers let Exidy to concentrate on the International Marketplace rather than the domestic US market. However, it was important to have a US presence for development and marketing purposes.
Exidy even took this business savvy to another level when it licensed the production of its design both domestically and Internationally because this practice required no cash flow requirements from the company for increased production and market penetration world wide and with the unique programmable character set for foreign language characters, the Exidy Sorcerer was in a league of its own. Advanced Royalty payments and license fees made this business a priority for Exidy, Inc.
The first Sorcerers sold in the UK were imported direct from the US by a small company based in Cornwall called Liveport Ltd. Liveport also eventually designed and built extra plug-in ROM-PAC cartridges and eventually an add-on floppy disk drive (based on Micropolis units) that did not require the S-100 chassis. Sorcerer Sales in Europe were fairly strong, via their distributor, CompuData Systems. The machine had its biggest brush with success in 1979 when the Dutch broadcasting company TELEAC decided to introduce their own home computer. The Belgian company DAI was originally contracted to design their machines, but when they couldn't deliver, CompuData delivered several thousand Sorcerers instead.
Sales in Europe were strong and when the Dutch Government endorsed computer for small business CompuData decided to license the design for local construction in the Netherlands with government support. They built the machine for several years before developing their own 16-bit Intel 8088–based machine called the Tulip, which replaced the Sorcerer in 1983. One of the largest groups in The Netherlands was the ESGG (Exidy Sorcerer Gebruikers Groep) which published a monthly newsletter in two editions, Dutch and English. They were the largest group for a while in the HCC (Hobby Computer Club) federation. The Dutch company De Broeders Montfort was a major firmware manufacturer.
The Sorcerer also had a strong following in Australia. This is most likely due to Dick Smith Electronics, being a leading electronics and hobbyist retailer at the time, pushing the Sorcerer quite heavily. The Sorcerer Computer Users group of Australia (or SCUA) actively supported the Sorcerer long after Exidy discontinued it, with RAM upgrades, speed boosts, the "80 column card", and even a replacement monitor program, SCUAMON.
The history of the Sorcerer has some parallels with Exidy's competitor Bally's attempts to build a home computer based on the Astrocade. While the Astrocade (and Datamax UV-1) had limited text capabilities but excellent graphics, the Sorcerer instead had excellent text and only limited graphical capability.
The Sorcerer was a combination of parts from a standard S-100 bus machine, combined with their custom display circuitry. The machine included the Zilog Z80 and various bus features needed to run the CP/M operating system, but placed them inside a "closed" box with a built-in keyboard similar to machines like the Commodore PET, the Commodore 64, and the Atari 8-bit family. Unlike those machines, the Sorcerer's keyboard was a high quality unit with full "throw". The keyboard included a custom "Graphics" key, which allowed easy entry of the extended character set, without having to overload the Control key, the more common solution on other machines. Somewhat ahead of its peers, the Sorcerer included lower case characters as a standard feature.
Unlike most S-100 CP/M machines of its era, the Sorcerer did not have any internal expansion slots, and everything that was needed for basic computing was built-in. A standard video monitor was required for display, and optionally a standard audio cassette deck was needed for data storage. The Sorcerer included a small ROM containing a simple monitor program which allowed the machine to be controlled at the machine language level, as well as load programs from cassette tape or cartridges. The cartridges, known as "ROM PAC"s in Exidy-speak, were built by replacing the internal tape in an eight-track tape case with a circuit board and edge connector to interface with the Sorcerer.
The machine was usable without any expansion, but if the user wished to use S-100 cards they could do so with an external expansion chassis. This was connected to the back of the machine through a 50-pin connector. Using the expansion chassis the user could directly support floppy disks, and boot from them into CP/M (without which the disks were not operable). Another expansion option was a large external cage which included a full set of S-100 slots, allowing the Sorcerer to be used like a "full" S-100 machine. Still another option combined the floppies, expansion chassis and a small monitor into a single large-ish box.
Graphics on the Sorcerer sound impressive, with a resolution of 512×240, when most machines of the era supported a maximum of 320×200. These lower resolutions were a side effect of the inability of the video hardware to read the screen data from RAM fast enough; given the slow speed of the machines they would end up spending all of their time driving the display. The key to building a usable system was to reduce the total amount of data, either by reducing the resolution, or by reducing the number of colors.
The Sorcerer instead chose another method entirely, which was to use definable character graphics. There were 256 characters possible for each screen location. The lower half was fixed in ROM, and contained the usual ASCII character set. The upper half was defined in RAM. This area would be loaded with a default set of graphics at reset, but could be re-defined and used in lieu of pixel-addressable graphics. In fact the machine was actually drawing a 64×30 display (8×8 characters) which was well within the capabilities of the hardware. However this meant that all graphics had to lie within a checkerboard pattern on the screen, and the system was generally less flexible than machines with "real" graphics. In addition, the high resolution was well beyond the capability of the average color TV, a problem they solved by not supporting color. In this respect the Sorcerer was similar to the PET and TRS-80 in that it had only "graphics characters" to draw with, but at least on the Sorcerer one could define a custom set. It was also possible to provide animation by character replacement or by redefining the character bitmap.
Given these limitations, the quality of the graphics on the Sorcerer was otherwise excellent. Clever use of several characters for each graphic allowed programmers to create smooth motion on the screen, regardless of the character-cell boundaries. A more surprising limitation, given the machine's genesis, is the lack of sound output. Enterprising developers then standardized on use of two pins of the parallel port, to which users were expected to attach a speaker.
A Standard BASIC cartridge was included with the machine. This cartridge was essentially the common Microsoft BASIC already widely used in the CP/M world. One modification was the addition of single-stroke replacements for common BASIC commands, pressing GRAPHICS-P would insert the word
The Montfort Brothers made an EPROM PAC with a rechargeable battery inside and 16 kB RAM with an external write-protect switch. Thus bootable software could be uploaded to the pack and kept for a longer period.
Many CP/M machines were designed to allow the full 16-bit address space of 64 kB to be populated by memory. This was problematic on the Exidy Sorcerer. 32 kB could easily be populated. Another 16 kB was the ROM cartridge address space. This could be populated, but required disabling the ROM cartridge capability. The last 16 kB was required by the system for I/O, particularly for the video, and would have required extensive system modification.
- CPU: Zilog Z80, 2.106 MHz (later 4 MHz)
- RAM: 4 kB, expandable to 48 kB. larger sizes came standard in later runs
- ROM: 4 kB, cartridges could include 4 to 16 kB
- Video: 64×30 character display, monochrome
- Sound: none (external additions possible)
- Ports: composite video, Centronics parallel, RS-232, sound in/out for cassette use, 50 pin ribbon connector including the S-100 bus.
- Ken Barbier, "The Boredom Destroyer: Exidy's Sorcerer", Creative Computing, January 1979
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Exidy Sorcerer.|
- Trailing Edge's Exidy Sorcerer Pages
- Obsolete Technology website
- Evil Exidy's Sorcerer Page
- Exidy Sorcer Emulator
- Digibarn Systems: Exidy Sorcerer
- Exidy Sorcerer at Vintage Computers
- Exidy Sorcerer at computer-museum.nl
- OLD-COMPUTERS.COM's Exidy Sorcerer pages
- Exidy Sorcerer in Terry Stewart's collection