Eagle Computer


Eagle Computer

Eagle Computer of Los Gatos, California was an early microcomputer manufacturing company. Spun off from Audio-Visual Laboratories (AVL), it first sold a line of popular CP/M computers which were highly praised in the computer magazines of the day. After the IBM PC was launched, Eagle produced the Eagle 1600 series, which ran MS-DOS but were not true clones. When it became evident that the buying public wanted actual clones of the IBM PC, even if a non-clone had better features, Eagle responded with a line of clones, including a portable. The Eagle PCs were always rated highly in computer magazines.

On June 8, 1983, the day of Eagle's initial public offering, its president, Dennis Barnhart, was killed in a crash of his new Ferrari, leaving the company suddenly leaderless. (He had just taken a yacht salesman to lunch.) As news of Barnhart's death spread, the underwriters reversed the IPO, refunding the money that investors had paid for the stock, and held another IPO a few months later, which raised less capital. This dramatic timing has led people to suppose that this event caused the end of Eagle. In fact, the company continued to lead PC sales until IBM launched a multi-party lawsuit against every company that made PC clones, claiming copyright infringement of the BIOS in its machines. Unable to match IBM's resources, all the companies named settled out of court. This led to the founding of third-party companies that sold BIOSes to computer manufacturers.

Eagle rewrote its BIOS, but it never recovered its lost sales. A final attempt to create a new market by selling Eagles to China fell through. The company was out of business by 1986.

CP/M models

The AVL Eagle I and II had audio-visual connectors on the back. As a separate company, Eagle sold the Eagle I, II, III, IV, and V computer models, and external SCSI/SASI hard-disk boxes called the File 10 and the File 40.

Basic design

All CP/M Eagles had the same basic design, except for the storage devices. An attractive off-white case held the entire computer. The top section held a green monochrome monitor on the left, and one or two full-height storage devices, stacked one above the other, on the right. An anti-glare screen was held in place against the front of the monitor, and the front of the top section shut, by a black plastic bezel. This bezel snapped into place. The back of this section held a fan right behind the drive enclosure, and a silver label behind the monitor with the company logo and address, the model number, serial number, voltage, frequency, and current.

The bottom section projected forward and had the keyboard in its top, and the system logo. Inside this "clamshell" was the main circuit board, connected to the monitor, drives, keyboard and ports by cables. Underneath the main board and connected to it by cables was a Xebec hard-disk controller card. On the back of the clamshell was the reset button, two RS-232 serial ports labeled "Serial A" and "Serial B", a Centronics parallel port labeled "Parallel A", a SASI port labeled "Parallel B", the brightness knob for the monitor, and the on/off switch.

The keyboard was well-designed. The keys were black with white lettering. Besides a full typewriter keyboard, there was a complete ten-key number pad on the right, uncommon at that time. Labels on the "front" of the number keys of the typewriter keyboard, and all the keys of the number pad, denoted what function those keys performed in the command mode of the bundled Spellbinder software.

The CPU of the whole line was a 4-MHz Zilog Z-80A, the standard microprocessor of the day. Memory was 64K, which was all the RAM that the standard CP/M 2.2 operating system could address with an 8-bit chip.

Storage options

If an Eagle booted from a File 10, File 40, or "File 20" (a File 10 or File 40 box with a 20-Mb hard disk inside), the drive-letter assignments of the hard-disk BIOS prevailed. The external hard disk's partitions would be A and B for a File 10; A, B, and C for a "File 20", and A, B, C, and D for a File 40. The top floppy would be E and I and the bottom one F and J, unless they were single-sided floppies, which could only be I and J.

Since the hard-disk BIOS only addressed four hard-disk partitions, an Eagle IV with a File 10 attached would address the two partitions of the File 10 as A and B, and the two in the Eagle as C and D. With a "File 20" attached, the external partitions would be A, B, and C, the 8 MB internal partition would be D, and the other internal partition couldn't be used at all. Similarly, with a File 40 attached, no partitions of a hard disk in the Eagle could be read from or written to, because all available hard-disk partitions were assigned to the File 40.

Utilities: All the standard CP/M utilities were included: PIP to copy files, etc. DRI's sophisticated compiled BASIC programming language, CBASIC, was also included.

Eagle utilities

Every CP/M computer manufacturer supplied additional software utilities, in much the same way that Linux distributions add their own installer, etc. to the standard kernel and libraries. On Eagles, they were:

  1. HELLO: In CP/M there is a memory address which holds 8 bytes, normally blank. If this location is patched with a word like "HELLO ", then the operating system, after booting will look for a HELLO.COM or HELLO.BAT, and if it finds one, will run it. All the Eagle software disks except the system disk, and all Eagle hard-disk systems, ran a menu program on booting. The bundled software appears on this menu, so the user doesn't have to type the names of the programs at all, just type a number from the menu. A utilities sub-menu even includes things like "Copy from the top floppy to the bottom floppy" and "Turn off the computer safely" so that the customer doesn't have to learn PIP or remember to park the hard disk. More experienced users could exit from the menu program, rename HELLO.COM to something else to prevent it running, or even patch CP/M to remove the "HELLO " entry.
  2. FORMAT and HDFORMAT: These are the floppy-disk and hard-disk formatting programs, described above under the CP/M BIOS.
  3. BACKUP: This program let the user specify what files he wanted to back up from a hard disk and save on floppies; and he could save the specification list in a file. With a floppy-disk format of about 3/4 of a megabyte, it only took 12 or 13 floppies to back up an Eagle IV, even if the hard disk was completely full. When the user ran BACKUP, it asked for a name for the set and a comment to identify it; this information was stored on each floppy disk of the set. It didn't matter what size the files were because of BACKUP's intelligent design. If it ran out of disk space in the middle of a file, BACKUP asked its owner to insert the next disk, and continued backing up the file onto the next disk.
  4. RESTORE: Like BACKUP, RESTORE allowed an Eagle user to specify the file(s) to work on, in a specification file. If a file to be restored had been divided across two or more disks, RESTORE would ask for disks as it needed them, and tell its user if he put in the wrong disk. Of course, if a file weren't divided, and the user knew what disk it was on, he could also restore it with PIP or some regular copy program.
  5. PWRDWN: When Eagles were made, hard-disk read/write heads would come down on the platter when turned off, and data could be lost unless they were first moved to a special location. The PWRDWN command parked the head so an Eagle with a hard disk could be turned off safely.

Spellbinder word processor

Spellbinder, from Lexisoft, was a powerful word processor which was highly configurable and even had a built-in programming language for automating tasks. Eagle computers came with a version of Spellbinder already configured, with many functions already assigned to keys (the keys had labels on their fronts to show their Spellbinder functions). The only configuration needed, then, was to set it up for a given printer; and for most printers, that just meant choosing the printer off a list.

The combination of Spellbinder software, the Eagle keyboard, and the large storage capacity of Eagle floppies, made a word-processing machine so powerful for its day that many Eagle owners never realized how much more their computers were capable of.

Accounting Plus or Ultracalc

Eagles were marketed as business machines, so financial software had to be part of the package. Originally this was Accounting Plus, a professional bookkeeping system so large that it took six Eagle double-sided 784 kB floppy disks to hold it all, and required constant disk swapping on an Eagle without a hard disk.

Constant protests, questions, and requests for customer support led Eagle to stop bundling Accounting Plus with its computers. Most users simply didn't need all that. Ultracalc, a spreadsheet program from Sorcim, was substituted in later machines.

Manuals

Eagles early enough to come with Accounting Plus, whether made by AVL or Eagle, had two black binders of documentation. One, labeled "Accounting", was the Accounting Plus manual. The binder labeled "Users Guide" contained everything else.

ProCall was an early modem program for dialing up bulletin boards or exchanging files with other computers remotely.

Later Eagles had a single white binder with the Eagle logo across the top of the spine and "Eagle Software Manual" down along it. This was a manual written by Eagle which told how to use the computer, including Spellbinder and Ultracalc, without distinguishing Eagle's software from Lexisoft's or Sorcim's. Mentors at Eagle Computer User Group meetings would often have to explain, in fact, that there were separate programs on the computer, written by separate companies; between the manual and the menu system, it looked like one big program to the new computer user.

The only other thing in the documentation binder was a thin spiral-bound book called "CP/M Primer," which gave a very superficial idea of what an operating system was, why you had to format disks before using them, and so forth. Vendors would often throw in the Digital Research "CP/M 2.2 User Guide," the "CBASIC User Guide", or a good book on CP/M such as "Mastering CP/M" or "The CP/M Handbook with MP/M." But they weren't part of the standard Eagle documentation.

IIE or not IIE

A confusing marketing move that Eagle made at about the same time it introduced its first "16-bit" computers was to rename its CP/M line. Before, the logo on the keyboard announced the computer's model: Eagle I, II, III, IV, or V.

Now Eagle renamed the entire line the Eagle IIE series, perhaps in an attempt to confuse buyers with the popular Apple IIe computer (but note IIe for the Apple and IIE for the Eagle). Now every 8-bit Eagle computer had a keyboard label that looked like this:

If the prospective buyer looked at the silver label on the "back" of the machine, he would find the model described as IIE-1, IIE-2, IIE-3, IIE-4, or IIE-5, corresponding to the I, II, III, IV, and V.

Old Eagles Today

A computer collector or hobbyist who finds a computer in storage since the 1980s should not get his hopes up until he sees whether the computer runs when it's turned on, whether the software is also present, and whether the monitor works.

Some causes of failure may be expected in any computer built the same way. If chips are attached to the boards in sockets, rather than soldered on, they may be loose because they expanded from heat whenever the computer was on for a long time, then contracted whenever the computer was turned off. A computer that was used a great deal, and for a long time, may require a new owner to open it up and gently press the chips down before it will run.

Another problem sometimes found in old Eagles with hard disks is stiction. Hard disk read/write heads from that era rested on the platter when turned off, and may adhere to where they've been sitting with greater force than the drive motor can exert on starting. An experienced technician may be able to coax the head free without destroying the hard disk or losing data.

The most common problem peculiar to CP/M Eagles involves the character generator chip on the main board. It tends to fail with age, so that a line of text will have the dots of its letters scattered unreadably all over the screen. When this problem became apparent, the chip was no longer made, but they were still available in parts warehouses. Now they may be unavailable.

1600 series

The Eagle 1600 series of computers ran MS-DOS but were not clones. They were the first PCs to be based on the fully 16-bit Intel 8086 processor, rather than the Intel 8088, which used 16 bits internally, but only had an 8-bit external interface. Eagle attempted to create a niche for itself in the brand-new "16-bit" market by building machines that were as easy to use as their CP/M models, but had an Intel CPU and 640 kB of RAM (which was more memory than almost any other PC at that time had to offer).

These computers came with MS-DOS, the PC version of Spellbinder, a PC spreadsheet program, and documentation. They would run many PC programs, but at that time most PC programs were recent ports from CP/M and there was little agreement about standards. The fact that the 1600s were not IBM clones meant that games that expected exactly the same video hardware as an IBM PC, or that called PC hardware or the PC ROM BIOS directly for the sake of speed, wouldn't run or ran very poorly.

The 1600 line were also the first computers with MS-DOS to have hard disks. Eagle achieved this by using the same hard-disk subsystem (Xebec hard-disk controller card, Eagle SASI card, and hard disk) as in the CP/M models. Subdirectories were not yet supported in the MS-DOS version that the Eagles used, just as in CP/M. MS-DOS didn't offer CP/M's 16 numbered "user zones" either, which somewhat limited the usefulness of the hard disks.

Eagle PCs

Eagle was also one of the first manufacturers of clones of the IBM PC. The Eagle PC was introduced in 1982. It had enhanced 752 x 352 graphics compared to the IBM PC's 640 x 200 resolution, and it was quieter because it did not need a cooling fan. The PC 2 followed, but the screen resolution was downgraded to match that of the IBM PC. Later the Eagle Spirit portable came out, and the Eagle Turbo.

Spellbinder was renamed Eaglewriter on the Eagle PCs, and the spreadsheet program was called Eaglecalc. No actual changes were made to either program.

User groups

The Eagle Computer User Group in San Jose, California, was the primary Eagle user group. It drew attendees from all over the San Francisco Bay Area for its monthly meetings, and Eagle users all over the United States paid dues and got its newsletter. Meetings generally consisted of more experienced Eagle owners showing others how to use the advanced features of the bundled software, or configuring printers. Actual presentations were rare but welcome.

Another user group was called The Screaming Eagles and the two groups sent each other their newsletters every month.

ee also

*List of machines running CP/M


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