HISTORY OF THE IBM PC: 40 YEARS AGO
40 years ago this week, the IBM PC was released.
August 12, 1981, IBM announced its first “personal computer,” though it had previously been famous for its IBM System/370 mainframe computer. I operated one of these mainframes in a raised-floor data center back in the early ’80s.
The PC was officially called the IBM Model 5150 and sported a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 microprocessor. It had been in development for a year in a secret “skunkworks” lab in Boca Raton, FL, under the direction of Bill Lowe.
It cost $1,565 and was targeted at both consumers and professional users, especially students (who could afford it) and business users. In today’s dollars, it would have cost $4,455.
Back in the day, I watched someone who knew how to use a VisiCalc spreadsheet built out a pricing forecast for me on the “green screen.” It was amazing.
Did it catch on? It exceeded IBM’s expectations by over 800%! IBM was shipping 40,000 PCs a month, which was a lot at that time, with over half going into homes. IBM licensed Charlie Chaplin‘s “The Little Tramp” character for their advertising campaign.
IBM PC Operating System
Microsoft worked with IBM to produce the PC DOS operating system; a variant was later called Microsoft’s MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) operating system. The first IBM system could also run two other operating systems: the CP/M-86 and the UCSD p-System (Pascal) operating systems, but because CP/M was unavailable for 6 months it was rarely ordered. The PC included the IBM BASIC programming language, similarly licensed from Microsoft.
Thanks for the Memory
It had 16 KB (kilobytes) of memory but could be expanded to 640KB. Who could need more? By comparison, today’s Apple Watch has at least 2GB or roughly 6 orders of magnitude more memory.
IBM PC ROM
Read-Only Memory (ROM) for the system motherboard had four chips to hold the Cassette BASIC and one chip to hold the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System).
Diskettes or Floppies?
Though the first IBM PC came with up to two 5.25″ diskette drives, in 1981, Sony introduced the first 3.5″ diskette and drive. The name “floppies” soon displaced it. Hewlett-Packard first adopted it for general use in 1982 and built momentum for the format, and helped it beat out other “microfloppy” standards like the 3″, 3.25″, and 3.9″ formats.
Not the First PC
Apple released in 1977 its Apple II — spelled out as apple ][. This personal computer competed with the Commodore PET and the TRS-80 (sold through RadioShack), but Apple had the distinction of supporting color (via an RCA connector that supported NTSC video.) Apple also had a newly redesigned color logo at the time.
But the IBM PC was different. I recall mentioning at the time that IBM’s entry into the market
“legitimized the desktop microcomputer market”
in a way that the other players had not. Though the other PCs were indeed “personal computers,” they were often used by hobbyists. The IBM PC was used in business and in the home.
However, it had a character-based interface and screen. It would not be until the Apple Lisa (that few bought in 1983 at $10K) and the more popular Apple Macintosh released in 1984 that a bit-mapped screen with a Graphical User Interface (GUI) would become popular.
Mice, windows, menus, icons, and “direct manipulation” of objects onscreen via a mouse pointer were now possible for the mass market. I brought my first Mac home in 1985. I still have one.
Admittedly, Steve Jobs may have “innovated” on some of these ideas he got from seeing the Xerox STAR workstation at their Palo Alto Research Center (PARC,) but he popularized and commercialized these ideas. See my article on the history of Macintosh for more details.
IBM PC Monitor(s)
IBM did support a color display via CGA, but that monitor was not available for another two years. Instead, most people used the MDA monochrome display, which was the green-on-black screen.
Why was the monitor 80-characters wide? What’s the history behind that?
The so-called IBM punch card was 80-characters wide and 12-rows long. Early programmers (like yours truly) would type on a punch card machine keyboard (keypunch) the characters of a line of computer programming code, like FORTRAN. The machine would punch holes in the card that would be fed into a “card reader” and transferred to a computer.
I say “so-called” because it was patterned after the Hollerith card. Herman Hollerith was a Civil War veteran who worked at the US Census Bureau and filed a patent on his card, similar in design to those used in the Jacquard mechanical loom first demonstrated in 1804.
The loom was driven by Semyon Korsakov‘s punched card announced in 1832.
Hollerith’s card was used in the 1890 census, reducing the time to collect information from 8 years to 6 years since the previous census effort in 1880. Data were entered by punching circular holes in a card and reading them with electromechanical tabulators. The card size matched that of American currency at the time so that that card would fit nicely into a wallet.
Nerd trivia: Unix and Linux “terminal” windows are 80 characters wide by 24 (or 25) rows long.
The IBM PC “Clone Wars”
Because IBM chose to use retail computer dealers for the first time, they insisted that IBM use standard off-the-shelf commodity parts rather than proprietary IBM-designed ones; this proved both a boon and a bane. IBM had been using the 64-bit Intel 8088 processors; in 1986, Compaq computer beat IBM to the punch and introduced the world’s first 80386-based PC, using an Intel processor which had the power and design to run a GUI-based operating system. By this time, IBM’s PC sales were taken over by clone PC sales.
Additionally, no one calls them IBM PC Compatible anymore; now they’re called (Microsoft) Windows computers. And as software is built to the operating system, the amount of software for the platform a year after its release was four times that of the amount of software for Macintosh available a year after its release.
In contrast, the Motorola 68000 family of microprocessors, which was not volume production-ready in 1981, became the favorite CPU of workstation companies like Sun Microsystems and Apple‘s initial line of computers.
Impact of the IBM PC on Computing
While mainframes, supermini computers, and workstations are still with us, their day in the sun has passed. The computer that most people are familiar with (and have) is the desktop or laptop computer. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, had stated many years ago that his vision was to have
“a computer on every desktop.”
It seemed unheard of at the time, but it wasn’t quite visionary enough. Now, most people have a “computer on their palmtop”; a smartphone.
IBM’s original Press Release from August 12, 1981, is here.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian