IBM Oddities: 30 Years of Change

From primitive storage to games and education and work, IBM products have filled -- and attempted to fill -- many roles through the years.

IBM's Milestone -- And Ours

Thirty years ago last week, IBM announced its very first Personal Computer, the 5150. The tech press, in a rare unified act of prescience, immediately recognized a new computing standard taking shape before its eyes.

For three decades, the platform created by the IBM PC has served as the bedrock for computing progress and innovation. Most of us use still PCs that retain some compatibility with the first PC. That’s amazing.

The true tale of the IBM PC is too complex to convey with a mere historical narrative. You need to see the hidden world of back-alleys, dead-ends, and detours that is . . . IBM PC Oddities.

BASIC on Board

Imagine that your current PC has no fixed or removable storage. You turn it on, and up pops Microsoft BASIC.

A built-in programming language seems strange these days, but the first PC contained BASIC in ROM chips plugged into the motherboard. Many home computers of the day shipped with BASIC in ROM, and IBM followed the trend.

IBM retained BASIC in ROM into the PS/2 era for backwards compatibility. Microsoft GW-BASIC obviated that requirement.

The PC’s (Really) Big Brother

When IBM designed its first PC, it called upon Florida-based engineers who’d built the System/23 Datamaster. IBM intended the Datamaster, introduced a month before the 5150, to be an easy word processing and BASIC machine, but it weighed 95 pounds and cost $9,830 (about $24,409 today).

The PC team borrowed several Datamaster elements. The first was its noisy keyboard. The second was its internal expansion bus, similar to the PC’s ISA. And the third was its use of the 8085 and 8-bit support chips: IBM chose the 8088, a 16-bit CPU with an 8-bit bus, in part because of its familiarity with the Datamaster’s 8-bit chipset.

(Photo: Steven Stengel)

The Very First PC Game

In the beginning of PC gaming, game designers only had text mode or a 4-color CGA graphics mode (2 colors in hi-res) to work with. The PC speaker bleated like a tone-deaf lamb, and a joystick port cost extra.

In that environment, it makes sense that the PC’s first commercial game utilized text and the player’s imagination for its display. Microsoft Adventure, an interactive fiction title based on “Colossal Cave Adventure” for mainframes, was part of the machine’s initial software lineup in 1981.

(Photos: IBM, MobyGames)

IBM 5161 Expansion Unit

The PC didn’t ship with an internal hard drive. But IBM did offer an expansion box (seen here to the right of the PC) that provided room for two hard disks and seven extra internal ISA slots.

Extra slots were a precious commodity: the five on the PC tended to fill up quickly in an era when nearly every I/O port required its own peripheral card. For reasons of girth and expense (a 10MB hard drive cost as much as a new car), these expansion units rarely graced the desks of PC users. That makes them rare today.

(Photo: IBM)

Tape Time

IBM saw two main roles for its system: as a low-cost home PC, and as a powerful business machine. On the low end, it shipped a bare-bones system with no cards and 16K RAM for $1,265 (equivalent to $3,140 today). Owners of this model used its ROM BASIC as their operating environment and an audio cassette recorder for storage.

In 1981, a 5.25″ floppy drive and its card cost $790 (equivalent to $1,960 today). In contrast, a typical cassette recorder cost $19.95. Few used it, though: the PC’s strength lay in business apps, and for serious work, you needed a floppy. The 1983 PC XT also had a cassette port, but it disappeared in 1984′s AT.

Donkey Magic

When I said Microsoft Adventure was the “very first PC game” earlier, I was only half correct. Sure, it was the first one you could buy in a store. But the first game many new IBM PC owners played was DONKEY.BAS.

With the help of Microsoft employee Neil Konzen, Bill Gates himself coded this whimsical donkey-avoidance game in a late-night session on an PC prototype. It came as a demo program with disk BASIC, which shipped with PC DOS in the early years. Nibbles and Gorillas, both BASIC programs themselves, took the place of DONKEY.BAS in 1991′s MS-DOS 5.0.

(Image: Microsoft)

New Power for Your PC

When I opened up my 5150 recently, I discovered that one of its previous owners had replaced the Intel 8088 CPU with a Zilog V20 CPU. The V20, originally designed by NEC, could run certain programs 30 percent faster than the 8088– even at the same 4.77 MHz clock speed. It became a popular and easy upgrade.

The empty socket you see in this photo next to the V20 is for an Intel 8087 numeric co-processor. IBM included the empty socket even though the 8087 had not yet entered production at the time of the PC’s launch.

The PC That Taught a Generation to Read

In the 1980s, IBM launched a grand social experiment. With the help of an education specialist, it decided to teach reading and writing simultaneously with a program called Writing to Read.

Kids completed workbooks to learn basic spelling. At the end of each workbook, PC software tested knowledge of the material. IBM’s education guru designed the process to eliminate variations in teaching, thus industrializing the learning process. When you realize that possibly hundreds of thousands of children learned to read using this uniform program, it casts IBM’s education initiative in a sort of bizarre, dystopian light. To learn more about Writing to Read, check out my full write-up.

IBM Game Control Adapter

The PC shipped without a joystick or paddle port, but IBM’s Game Control Adapter was available for $55 (about $135 in today’s dollars) and supported a pair of two-button analog joysticks or four Pong-style paddles.

The game port held on as the standard for PC game controllers up until the USB era. They were found as a bonus on internal sound cards like the Sound Blaster. The port’s analog nature — and the lack of high-quality, low-cost joysticks or control pads for the PC — held back PC action gaming for the first 15 years, until the mouse/keyboard control scheme, and then USB controllers, relieved some of those deficiencies.

(Photo: jenesaispas1f)

A Mac in Drag

As the IBM PC became the standard to beat, many companies created adapters for non-IBM platforms that would allow them to run PC software. Even the proud Mac couldn’t avoid this trend, as evidenced by the Dayna MacCharlie (1985).

The result is like a 1980s version of Apple’s Boot Camp. MacCharlie, essentially a headless PC clone, used the Mac as a glorified terminal. It brought the ability to run text-based PC software (and use PC peripherals) in a Mac window, along with the capability to transfer files between platforms. It also had a keyboard extender that added the PC’s function keys and numeric keypad to the Mac keyboard.

Judging by the rarity of MacCharlie today, I’d say that very few of them sold. At $1,195, users could buy a more powerful, stand-alone PC compatible machine for a similar price.

(Photo: Dayna Communications)

The PC Before the PC

Six years before the 5150, IBM released its first PC — a “Portable Computer,” that is. The 5100 was its first small, easy-to-use computer designed for one user at a time. That may sound a lot like a personal computer, but the 5100 sold for a whopping $8,975 to $19,975 in 1975, equivalent to $37,650 to $83,800 today. Insanely expensive.

That same year, MITS debuted its built-it-yourself Altair 8800 for $395. That price comparison should tell you why the personal computer, as a product category, became so popular — and why IBM decided to produce its own PC in 1981.

(Photos: Steven Stengel, IBM)

A Keyboard Fix

While most PC users respected the PC keyboard for its durability and now-famous clicky feel, critics took issue with the nonstandard placement of some keys, including the left shift and return. Many keys also sport an odd “peak” design, as if IBM wanted users to mistype or miss keys all together.

To fix that last problem, Vertex Systems introduced the $19.95 Keyfixer. It included plastic collars that fit over the PC’s return, shift, and tab keys, increasing their surface area. IBM remedied this problem with the AT keyboard in 1984.

(Photos: Vertex Systems, Benj Edwards)

A Living Room Computer?

As we’ve learned, IBM initially envisioned the 5150 as a possible TV-based living room computer — a vision which resulted in this rare and interesting publicity photo. After the market voted with its dollars (almost all PCs sold with a disk drive and a monitor), the PC’s image shifted firmly to business territory. Seeing this, IBM designed the IBM PCjr (1984).

We’ll save that tale for another time. Happy Birthday, IBM PC!

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