The Orb computer was designed and made by ABS Computers Ltd (Allied Business Systems) in the early 1980's. ABS was situated in Portslade (near Brighton) Sussex England. It was a multi-user system running the multi-user version of CPM.
The main processor unit was housed in the rectangular box along with the monitor logic card and two 800K 51/4 floppy drives. Sitting on top in the ball part was the monitor which was a rehoused mono Tatung RS232 terminal. There were Orb satellite units which again were rehoused Tatung RS232 terminals which had a flat base containing the Tatung logic card and a ball on top containing the screen, raster card and its PSU. All the housings were made of metal so you could have it sprayed any colour of your choice (The London Fire Brigade had bright red).
The idea was to have the main CPU unit with up to seven RS232 serial satellite terminals scattered around the office with a parallel printer. Serial printers could be used in place of two of the serial terminals.
The keyboards were made by Rafi in Italy and they were very flat with keycaps which flew off if you typed too fast!
I believe up to 1 MB of memory could be fitted along with a SASI (early SCSI) board to run initially either a 10 MB or 20 MB external Rodime drive, fitted with a SASI-ST506 converter board or later versions could run an 85 MB Fujitsu Drive or an Arapaho cartridge drive. A Kennedy 1/4 Cartridge tape drive could also run externally off the SASI bus. An external 8" floppy drive was also available.
I think that ABS held the rights to the name "Multi-Buss" which Intel wanted to use so they did a deal which meant that ABS got the first batches of 8086 CPUs and Intel got the name. Unfortunately these early CPUs had a number of bugs in them, the 80186 was then used. When all the bugs were sorted out they ran ok and it was one of the first, if not the first, multi-user user microprocessor systems. In true British tradition it was very badly marketed and not many were sold and they usually ended up being used as single user systems "PC's" running WordStar. Sales were better when the ball monitor was removed from the top and it was just a rectangular box which we called a "Flat top". Another version was in a tower case which was called a "Torb".
The development costs were high and a large number of components were bought in for the expected sales which never materialised. As the company was owned by the Trafalgar House Group (they also owned the Cunard shipping line and John Brown Engineering) they survived the losses. ABS were taken over by a company called Datapro Computers in 1994 and then they in turn were taken over by the 4Front Group, an American financed company, in 1997.
The main designer was a clever chap named Dave Goddard.
We need more info about this computer ! If you designed, used, or have more info about this system,
please send us pictures or anything you might find useful.
I worked for ABS for a period in 1984, and quite a bit of my time was supporting the Orb.
Slight correction on the above - there was a choice of eight colours, and yes the fire brigade did apparently buy one because nobody else produced a fire-engine-red computer.
The Orb had one major failure: the more terminals connected, and the more those terminals were doing, the worse the chance of an "Uninitialised Interrupt" which would freeze the whole box. I don''t believe an 8-terminal rig ever worked - we had a 4-terminal setup in our office and that was about the limit. During the summer of 84 I was sent off on a long tour of dealers to upgrade the firmware of their Orbs. Along with this was a set of release notes, and no I don''t still have a copy of these, but the notes contained the following magnificent paragraph:
"Uninitialised Interrupts: The Orb no longer suffers from Uninitialised Interrupts. In future they will be referred to as "Unexpected Interrupts".
To be fair, these now only froze one screen, so you could shout out for everyone in the office to save their work before rebooting the machine, but still...
The Orb was the eventual downfall of ABS. Dealers around the country signed up as dealers on the basis of receiving telephone calls form people saying that they would like to buy an Orb, and were they a dealer? Eventually it emerged that these calls had actually come from people in the sales department of ABS.... I only discovered this during a later interview (I didn''t get the job, but they suggested that having ABS on my cv was probably a limiting move).
Oh, and the hook line for the Orb? "The All-round Personal Computer". *Sigh*.
Monday 16th May 2011
Andy Holyer (UK)
I''ve found theese pics of ABS Computer''s facilities: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sussexphotography/sets/72157619122283003. Someone could check this?
Tuesday 16th June 2015
Seba Rho (Argentina)
I''m nursing feelings of nostalgia for the ABS MX mini, the first computer I worked on. I''d be interested to hear from anyone who built or used this machine.
In January 1986, I joined TC Coombs $ Co., a London stockbroker. The business depended on a pair of MXs - lovingly named System A and System B - running the "Simple 7" combined operating system and programming language, and an equity trade accounting package written by ABS.
ABS had ceased supporting the machines, and there was no documentation on either the hardware or the software other than on-screen prompts, a directory of reports (cryptically titled Z1 to about Z100), and source code listings for the handful of modules that were run regularly.
Initially my job was to disassemble the main trade data capture and contract note printing module, working forward from the eighty pages of source code and backward from the contract note.
Once I''d got the hang of Simple 7, I extended the application by coding an aged debtors module, which made me popular with the Finance Director and earned me a big pay raise.
The ABS systems were replaced between June and December 1986 with a MicroVAX cluster running the Ingres RDBMS under VMS. Over the succeeding eighteen months, we developed a custom accounting and settlement application on the new platform.
I left the firm in January 1990 and it went bust a year later. The ABS MXs and Simple 7 were already a distant memory then and I''ve always wondered what became of my first computer love.