Remembering the IBM PC
C:\> cd \memories\ibm\1981
This Old Box It's time again to rewind that fleshy cassette storage device in your head to yesteryear.
This week, we're headed back to August 12, 1981 — the date IBM introduced its Personal Computer, a system that would shape the industry and make the term "PC" synonymous with home computers.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We enter the stage of history when PCs are still called "microcomputers," and nobody is quite sure how much profit there is to be made selling the damn things.
IBM Personal Computer (IBM 5150)
OS: MS-DOS, USCD Pascal, CP/M-86
Processor: 4.77MHz Intel 8088
Memory: 65KB (first shipped with 16KB)
Storage: One or two 160KB 5.25" disk drives
In the early '80s, IBM had built a stellar reputation for itself selling mainframe computers to big businesses. But the back rooms of conglomerates weren't enough for Big Blue — or as it was known back then, Medium-Sized Teal (no, not really).
Despite their previous failure to sell an affordable microcomputer with the IBM 5100, the company decided to try again after seeing the success of the Commodore PET, Apple II, Tandy's TRS-80s and the Atari 8-bit computers.
IBM assembled a 12-person team with the goal of bringing a product to market as quickly as possible, dubbed "Project Chess." At first, they considered buying Atari to assimilate its fledgling line of computers. But IBM instead decided to pursue its own offering — while saving money and time by building the machine with parts bought from a variety of OEMs. The company had previously developed its own components in-house.
IBM also decided to create an open architecture for the system (now known internally as project "Acorn"). Other manufacturers would be allowed to build and sell peripherals and software, thus creating the "IBM-compatible" legacy of PC equipment.
Project Chess was juggling between using the 16-bit Intel 8086 processor, Motorola MC68000 and the Intel 8088. The latter was eventually chosen because the others were determined to be too powerful.
For the operating system, IBM first went to Digital Research, the creators of CP/M. Digital Research, however, showed little interest in the project. IBM then turned to a small company called Microsoft, which had built some fame for itself as the creator of a BASIC interpreter for the Altair 8800.
Bill Gates accepted IBM's offer, but Microsoft wasn't up to the challenge of writing an operating system itself. Microsoft instead bought the rights to QDOS (the "Quick and Dirty Operating System") for $50,000, written by Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products. QDOS itself was based heavily on the CP/M operating system. Paterson had bought a CP/M manual and used it as a basis to write QDOS in six weeks — with just enough changes to fly on the upside of legal.
Gates managed to convince IBM to let Microsoft retain the rights to the operating system, all the while keeping the Seattle Computer Products purchase secret from IBM. Microsoft would later go on to do very well indeed with licensing MS-DOS, thank you very much.
(There's more on the OS history bit here.)
The original IBM Personal Computer came with a version of Microsoft BASIC in ROM. The system was offered with either a CGA or MDA graphic card. The CGA graphics card could plug into a standard television, while the MDA plugged into a monochrome display.
Standard cassette tapes were used to load and store programs. A floppy disk drive was offered as an optional extra.
The IBM PC was still very expensive for the average home user, but found plenty success with businesses. In 1983, an IBM PC XT was launched with the business market in mind, offering more expansion slots and a 10 megabyte hard disk.
IBM's machine would become a standard for the industry, and Big Blue was able to own the personal computer market until the end of the '80s.
Thanks again to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA for letting us ogle your hardware.
To our dear readers, begin reminiscing if it strikes you. ®
WD MFM & RLL cards
Amstrad Histroy ?
did they drift off into making hardcards ? (harddrive with a isa controller card).
Then bought Sinclair and died?
Nearly forgot the word processor things; sometime around then also.
BTW I nearly bought a MK14,then ZX80,nearly a ZX81 but bought a motorbike instead who knows what could of been. :)
Pokes at 256
Ermmmmm. Got me there :) You are 100% correct (or 99%, if starting from 0).
@ Andrew - "Big Blue"
Yes Mr Sugar (later to be Sir Sugar) did introduce the 1512 and 1640 models in the early 80's, but like a lot of other AMS devices they weren't very well thought out and failed in the market.
In NZ my dad bought us a 1512, which sported twin 5-1/2" floppy drives (hard drives weren't yet readily available for PCs) and a very fancy graphics chip, which if I remember correctly could reach the (at the time) almost unprecedented range of 512 colours. Quite a step forward from 16-colour CGA.
Still, no software we ever came across apart from Amstrads own demos could drive the custom chip, and shortly after Amstrads PCs dissapeared from the shelves never to be heard from again.
A little personal history about the IBM PC
IBM was trying to market to schools, with the hard drive before they released it to the general public. In the spring of 1981, when I was in eighth grade, the "exceptional students" were allowed to go to a local vocational school and "play" with these "cutting edge" microcomputers. I was in Heaven when I arrived as I had been previously programming on a TRS-80 Model I.
They had a sweet setup. The 10+ computers were networked to the hard drive and had the two 5 1/4" floppy slots.
The principal of the vocational school gave some speech with the IBM suit and blathered on about the need to be careful and how gracious IBM was to allow our school to be on their tour. My attention lasted about 10 seconds. In 15 minutes I was hacking away writing some simple BASIC. I started messing with the DOS and lo and behold, I was able to access the hard drive. After another 15 minutes or so of tinkering, I made a BIG mistake. I asked the suit about the hard drive and showed him my screen. I wanted to know what some of the files did. He blanched, whispered to the principal, and my computer time ended abruptly.
Ah! Those were the days. Sadly, even though I've spent nearly 29 years working with computers, I've never learned how to program efficiently. I then made the bad decision to get art and English teaching degrees in college. Finally, I'm returning to my roots and working on my BS in Computer Science.
I should have realized my IBM experience at that moment in 1981 was an epiphany, because working in the architectural field (buildings--not software) sucks.
SIDE NOTE: I've been reading the REG since it started, but this is the first time I've ever posted anything. Great site, and I roll with laughter when the Brits bash us Americans--sometimes the truth hurts (ha-ha). FWIW, I'm one of the gun-toting ones and am federally licensed to sell machineguns, silencer's and various other goodies to law enforcement and certain civilians.