The Origins of the PC; 30 Years Ago

Most people in the Western world walk around with a powerful computer in their pocket or purse, otherwise known as a smartphone. It’s not unusual to see someone clutching a legal pad-size gadget on aeroplane flights, such as an iPad, to read books. It’s nearly impossible to walk into a coffee shop without finding someone pecking away at a trim notebook computer, checking email and surfing the web.

Desktop computer with Dot-matrix printer

The lineage of all those devices, in one way or another, flows directly back to a press conference some 30 years ago. On 12 August 1981, IBM rented out a ballroom at the elegant Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York and introduced its landmark 5150 personal computer.

That first 5150 — made up of a system unit, a keyboard and colour graphics capability – cost $1,565 USD. Consumers needed to shell out more money for options, such as a display, a printer, diskette drives and extra memory. The 5150 originally weighed 9.5 kg without the diskette drives, 12.7 kg with two of them. It contained 40 kilobytes of read-only memory and 16 kilobytes of user memory, before adding the diskette drives. Compare that to the new, sleek Samsung Series 9 notebook, which weighs 1.3 kg and comes with a 128 GB hard drive and 4 GB of system memory.

Looking at the beige box today, nothing seems particularly remarkable. The rectangular CPU, with two black bays for floppy disks, isn’t a marvel of design brilliance. There’s nothing striking about the lines, the graphics or the colour palette. The 5150 wasn’t even the first PC. Apple, Atari and Commodore produced so-called microcomputers that preceded it. And IBM’s creation was inferior in some ways to those rivals.

How far we’ve come…

One of the first Personal Computers

IBM Personal Computer Advertisement

Apple II personal computer

A collection of personal computers

Microsoft MS-DOS early advertisment

Credit: ZDNet