Singer System 10

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The Singer System Ten was a small-business computer manufactured by the Singer Corporation. The System Ten, introduced in 1970, featured an early form of logical partitioning.[1] The System Ten was a character-oriented computer, using 6-bit BCD characters and decimal arithmetic.

The System Ten Computer: Business Background

This edition is from memory, written by the founding Director of the Advanced Systems Division for Singer Business Machines in the UK. Corrections and additions are welcome.

There were two quite different computer systems called The System Ten. One didn’t last long: but the other went through four names, was launched throughout US, Canada and Western Europe on April 2, 1970, and lasted for about twelve years.

In the early 60s The Singer Sewing Machine Company had a dominant share of the world market in domestic and small industrial sewing machines. By 1962 its chain of retail stores were selling their machines, fabrics, haberdashery and patterns – everything for the housewife who made clothes and furnishings. There were 175 retail stores in the US, and many in Europe as well.

Like many chains of small retail stores with a wide product range, stock control and stock swapping were critical to cash flow and profits. Under the leadership of its CEO, Donald P Kircher, Singer therefore approached several computer manufacturers, inviting them to bid for the design and manufacture of computers which could connect to the several tills in each store, and act as the central point for collecting real-time information on stocks and sales. IBM and NCR, then the world’s largest computer companies, rejected the offer to bid, and so did some others. The only company to take up the challenge was Friden, an American company based in Oakland, CA which made accounting machines based on punched paper tape. Singer accepted Friden’s bid.

In 1965 Singer bought out Friden, setting it up as Singer Business Machines. It then designed a computer, originally called the Business Data Processor (BDP) and soon renamed the Singer System Ten. The design was revolutionary, because of the special requirements of what are now called “point of sale” systems. The System Ten would have no operating system: instead, it would have small, fixed partitions of memory, each handling up to ten slow peripherals which would themselves control their input to their partition by hardware interrupt. In essence, the computer would switch on each partition in turn, once every 20 msec. The partition would cycle round its small group of ten peripherals, waiting to see if any peripheral was ready to input a character. When this cycle had finished, the computer would move onto the next partition, and so on. Input speeds, mainly from the keyboards on the tills, was so slow that the computer had no problem in handling this input rate.

In 1969, Singer Business Machines created a subsidiary, the Advanced Systems Division, in each Western European country to launch and market the Singer System Ten. Newly appointed Managers and Directors were trained in the technology and the marketing strategy, and the Singer System Ten was launched throughout Europe on April 2, 1970.

The system was called “The System Ten” because in the original design there were ten partitions, each with ten peripheral ports and 10K of memory. Strictly speaking it was not 10K, but 10,000 characters per partition: the System Ten’s memory used Binary Coded Decimal, where each 6-bit location stores one character. (It was never called “System 10”, with or without a hyphen, although many countries tried to rename it. In Spain, the complaint was that “System Ten” means “Hold the system!”).

The instruction set was extremely small, simple and powerful. There were only 13 instructions, including one which converted pence into sterling (MCE, Move Characters and Edit) and another which swapped the contents of two locations (EX, exchange).

At a late development stage, an eleventh partition, Common Storage, was added to the design, to allow the fixed partitions to exchange, assemble and process data. Initially, the Common Storage partition (like all the others) had 10,000 characters: later, it was expanded to 20,000, to meet the demand from commercial customers for more complex processing and local sales accounting.

The system had a simple Assembler. The marketing strategy was that customers would be trained in this language, and would write their own programmes. This was the only serious strategic error Singer made. Some European Singer Business Machines companies ignored this strategy, and set up small internal software houses to write customers’ applications. Within two years, some of these software houses were independent of Singer, and specialised in supporting their national System Ten customers.

By this point, the original positioning of the System Ten as a point of sale system had evolved. In England, Welwyn Department Store in Welwyn Garden City (now a branch of John Lewis) was the first to implement the System Ten as originally planned, and this became a flagship installation. But many customers used the System Ten as a straightforward commercial computer, using keyboards, punched cards, printers and, later, disc storage for sales, stock and accounting applications.

When ICL took over the computing business of Singer, it renamed the system the ICL System Ten.

These computers were generally programmed in Assembler, however a version of RPGII was also offered. There were also tools called lpgc and Super Opus (from Safe Computers). These used a data layout from the ICL tool for updating the files to define the layout of the data. LPGC was a report tool mostly though you could accept data at the start or if you patched the machine code you could do it in flight.

The computer operations of Singer were bought by ICL in 1976. At the time of the sale ICL estimated that there were 8,000 System Tens in use around the world.[1] ICL continued to market the system as the ICL System 10, and later introduced the System 25 as an upgrade.


  1. ^ a b "A New Lease of Life for Singer's System 10". The Sidney Morning Herald. September 18, 1979. Retrieved June 3, 2012. 

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