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U > UNISYS > Icon   


The ICON workstation and LEXICON file server were originally designed by Cemcorp, the Canadian Educational Microprocessor Corporation, specifically for use in Canadian schools. They were first produced by Burroughs then took the name of Unisys when Burrough and Sperry merged to form Unisys.

Up to about 20 diskless workstations got everything off of the central file-server. They ran QNX, a flavour of Unix operating system with optional GUI shell. The workstations offered a graphical interface including windows, pick-areas, and a tracker/cursor that responded to the user through manipulation of a trackball located onto the keyboard. Two versions of the GUI interface were available, called Ambience and ICONLook, as well as a file manager called House.

The Lexicon were 80186-based servers. They contained 1 or 2 8-inch floppy drives and a 70 MB hard disk. Standard programming languages (Basic, Pascal, Fortran, C) came from Watcom. A word processor and a spreadsheet were also available.

However, the LEXICON-ICON systems were very expensive and suffered from a lack of educational software. They were replaced with IBM PC and AT systems and were quickly forgotten.

There were also Icon II and Icon III computers, see the link section for more information.


More information from John Bridgman:
The ICON was originally designed as a courseware authoring and delivery tool intended to let teachers implement their own lessons and share them with other schools and classes, using a hypertext model similar to the (future) WWW but based on NAPLPS (Telidon) graphics rather than HTML and embedded bitmaps.
The "any teacher can create lessons" model was rejected by the Ontario MOE in favour of courseware they funded and controlled, and the hypertext project was cancelled before the ICON shipped, leaving only the Watcom language interpreters, the native QNX command-line interface, and the Cemcorp-developed text editor.

The fileserver originally had a 10 MB hard disk and a single 5-1/4" floppy. The Ministry requested a 5 MB hard drive but we felt that was too small. As soon as larger drives became available (70 MB unformatted, 64 MB formatted) we switched to the larger drive.

About half way through the original ICON production a floppy option was added to the workstation to meet a "checklist" requirement somewhere (in the US, I think) but very few were actually purchased.

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We used the colour version of the ICON computers at Woodbridge High School back in the early-mid 90s. My main memory was of how incredibly slow they were, while at the same time having a cool GUI with which to select and load programs. We used these in a programming class where they taught Turing language using an MS-DOS application for the text editor and compiler. Compiling even the simplest Turing program seemed to take forever, and the entire excersize was pointless considering Turing wasn't useful outside the classroom in any professional setting, least of all on ICON computers. This was the first time I ever had contact with an ICON, and the only other time I ever saw one was in the later part of the 80s, where an Ontario Place science exhibit had an ICON hooked up to a large LED character display that any passerby could program messages into using simple commands on the ICON to control colour and how it was displayed.

Wednesday 11th October 2006
Eric March (Ontario, Canada)

We had these things at our high school. They where strictly for the use of the students taking computer programming classes. One lab of Icon I's, 1 of II's, and 1 of III's with the built-in x86 hardware modules.

Don't really remember playing any games on them, but I do remmember making a sport of spinning the trackball forcefully enough to get it to jump out of it's socket and fling accross the room. That and shoulder-surfing the Teachers SuperUser password so we could create our own SuperUser accounts on it.

There was a cool little animation program on it too that you could draw sort-of frame-by-fram line graphics with which we inevitably used to make dirty animations and add them to students .login files so when they logged in the teacher would give them crap. That and adding 'logoff' to other students .login script so when they logged in they'd get logged right out again.

I remember when the teacher found out that some of us had a SuperUser account on the machine the only thing he did was tell us to never type 'frel .bitmap' at the root prompt since that would erase the entire file allocation table of the hard drive. Good times.

Friday 16th December 2005
Mnem (Canada)

The Unisys/ Burroughs Icon computers were actually quite neat for their time and I remember using them from when I was in Kindergarten in one school in 1990 up to eighth grade in 1999. Ours was a lab that continued to run alongside the Pentium PC clones at our one elementary school up until the early 2000s (I was in high school at that point but occasionally visited my teachers in this school) when the machines were probably discarded. They used a form of early Ethernet networking, I believe as the computers used 50 ohm coaxial cable that daisy-chained from the server to each workstation. The server wasn''t just a file server but also acted as a print server with a single Panasonic dot matrix printer to print documents and other things from the workstations. Our server had the capability of multiple users that could log in and use them as well as storing data on the machines. The workstations varied in appearance, some were of the example image at the top, with a bay for an optional 5 1/4 inch floppy drive while others looked like an early version of the iMac being an all-in-one machine with a fancy separate integrated keyboard and trackball. I remember as a kid getting one of the old keyboards and connecting it to an IBM clone and finding the keyboard part being able to type in Windows, but the trackball wasn''t really recognized. The Icon computers are the main reason why I use a trackball to this day on my computer systems as I find it easier to use than a mouse or trackpad. The way you $ed objects in the GUI with the trackball required the use of a special key, the "Action" key as a rudimentary "left click" The lab I used in Kindergarten was next to a small lab of Commodore Amigas and the school also used Commodore Pets, Vic 20s and Commodore 64s besides the Icon computers.

Sunday 29th August 2021
Will (Ontario, Canada)


NAME  Icon
TYPE  Professional Computer
ORIGIN  Canada
YEAR  1983
KEYBOARD  Full stroke keyboard with function keys and numeric keypad
CPU  Intel 80186
SPEED  Unknown
RAM  384 KB - 1 MB in ICON-II second version
ROM  Unknown
COLORS  Monochrome blue and white or 8 colours (at least) display
SOUND  Speech synthesis system
SIZE / WEIGHT  Unknown
I/O PORTS  Parallel printer connector, video port
BUILT IN MEDIA  None in the ICON workstation.
5.25'' floppy disk drive + 10 MB hard disk in the file server
PRICE  About C$2.500 (ICON workstation)

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