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Happy Anniversary, PC!

Yesterday, Sunday the 12th of August 2018, marked the 37th anniversary of the IBM Personal Computer 5150, the mother of those modern personal computers we still use today in the Windows ecosystem (original press release dated 12-AUG-1981). It was not the first computer intended for personal use — the Apple II had been released a few years earlier, and the Macintosh was already under development. Commodore released its VIC-20 a year earlier, plus Atari, Amstrad and Sinclair machines were already available.

But the IBM PC changed the market quite fast and very clearly. Compared to today’s technology, the specs make you younger geeks laugh: 4.77 MHz processor, 16 or 64 kB RAM (expandable to 512 kB), one 5.25″ floppy drive (disk max capacity 180 kB), five 8 bit ISA slots for expansion cards. The original OS was PC-DOS 1.0. The price in the USA was “as little as” $1,565 on August 12th 1981, which is equivalent in value and buying power with $4,500 today.

The IBM PC 5150 started life in 1980 as Project Chess, a secret and small development team with only 12 members and unusually high funding tasked to create a truly personal computer within a year. Project Chess had permission to use parts and components from other manufacturers which at that time was almost unheard of at IBM. That enabled the team to test processors from other manufacturers, finally choosing Intel. For the OS they selected PC-DOS, a product developed by Seattle Computer Products for which young Microsoft had got a license before finally buying the OS. The original license permitted Microsoft to sell and develop this OS for third parties. Later they renamed it MS-DOS, the Microsoft Disk Operating System.

IBM opened its doors more and more to third parties. Software development in addition to the OS was almost entirely done by third party developers. Quite soon, thanks to clever and visible marketing, the IBM PC did what it was designed to do. It took the market from Commodore, Atari and Apple. Naturally it didn’t take long before so called “clones” emerged. Back then it was either an original IBM or a clone, a PC not made by IBM but compatible with it. Already in 1982, a year after the launch of IBM PC, Compaq launched the first real “portable” PC clone which weighted “only” 28 pounds, almost 13 kilograms.

By the late 80’s, clones were sold more than original IBM personal computers. IBM made a few tries to get back its lead, the most remarkable (and sad when you look at it now) manifestation being the release of their own OS/2 operating system in the late 80’s. The last version of OS/2 was released only 17 years ago, in 2001, and soon thereafter IBM finally gave up and sold its personal computer business to Chinese Lenovo. In a sense, you can call Lenovo computers true descendants of the IBM PC 5150.

Anyway, back in my native Finland, a few days after I heard about the initial announcement, I opened an additional savings account and started to save money for  my own PC. The information I had back then was that a PC would cost about $1,600 in USA which meant it would cost me in Finland at least double that. When the IBM PC finally became available in my home country in April 1983, almost two years after its release in US, the price was about 20,000 Finnish Marks (that was long before the EURO!). One US dollar was then about 4 Finnish marks: back then it was around 4 Marks to one USD, about $5,000. Much more I had anticipated.

I found the following image in my archives  showing specs and prices in Finland for the IBM PC and XT (both released in Finland 04/1983) and IBM AT (12/1984). Prices in Finnish Marks in September 1984 (highlighted yellow) without VAT. Sorry for the Finnish language, didn’t find same kind of fact sheet from those days in English:

Click to open enlarged in a new tab. According to my notes screenshot is made and originally published by a Finnish PC enthusiast Niila Rautanen on his personal site at http://www.ntrautanen.fi/computers/

Notice that XT and AT base price was without hard disks.

Anyway, I got mine in August 1983. I went straight for the PC XT. My monthly salary back then, working in my father’s hotel was about 3,000 Marks. Thus, the price of an XT and my first 10 MB hard disk + VAT (over 30,000 Marks) took 10 month’s worth of gross income. I can still remember a half joking title of an article in a Scandinavian PC magazine “Your choice: get a car, or an IBM PC”. According to the Central Bank of Finland, that’s the same as €11,000 ($12,500) today. Think what a monster rig (or two) you would get with that money now!

I feel privileged that I have had the possibility to follow the evolution of personal computers and their operating systems from the early 80’s. I am still as thrilled when reading about the next steps in technical evolution as I was back in Finland reading that press release in the early 80’s.

Happy 37th Anniversary, PC. Thanks for coming into my life, you for sure have enriched it 🙂


Featured image: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51833

Author: Kari Finn

A former Windows Insider MVP, Kari started in computing in the mid 80’s writing code for VAX / VMS systems. Since then, he’s worked in a variety of IT positions. He specializes in Windows image capture, customization, repair and deployment as well as Hyper-V virtualization. Kari is a proud Team Member at number #1 Windows site TenForums.com.

2 Responses “Happy Anniversary, PC!”

  1. CountMike
    August 14, 2018 at 10:55

    You hit a nerve with this one. My first “real” computer. I was working at a disk brake manufacturer and beside other duties like making, repairing and setting up machinery, I was also tasked with planing and managing production for about 150 people. At that time I had everything running with help of Timex Sinclair Z81 computer upgrade to 16MB of RAM, Everything was on audio tapes of course.
    One day my boss called me to the office to show me new “office toy” as he said over intercom.
    There he proudly showed me about 7 boxes all over the floor with IBM logo on them. For a brief moment I wondered why would they need so many typewriters and why would that interest me but that I sow a picture on one of the boxes and a light lit up in my head, just few days before I have seen one like that on a computer-electronics show. The wanted me to put it together right a way but when I started to open boxes I have seen that it’s almost all in parts. One of the boxes was full of books so as it was almost end of the work day I took them home to study them. Added impetus to check books out was that I was informed it cost more than 2000 bucks and my super-duper, tricked out TS Z81 cost me about 75 bucks.
    Next day I put it together, put inside a DOS disk and was greeted by little harts running around the screen to the great amusement of bosses and lone secretary which did all office work. (nice girl, cheap company). Other floppy disks contained some programs like Word, spreadsheet etc. Took me a while to figure all that and even longer to show (blond) secretary to do some things on it. (press any button was a great enigma for her). Bosses were not versed in computers at all so I was really close to secretary for quite a while but I did not complain obviously.
    Took another year or so until they got me a PC for my own use but that was already an 8086 IBM clone made by (surprise, surprise IBM !!).
    By that time computer controlled machines and rudimentary robotic machines started coming in but that also meant Unix so I had to get close and personal with it too. Boy, I still hate Unix and because of it console on Linux !!!
    I didn’t get a PC like that until 386 because my Atari 1040 was better and faster than any 80286.

  2. Rocket_Scientist
    August 15, 2018 at 21:30

    Project Chess was located near me, Boca Raton, Florida. Remnants of the original manufacturing plant are still there. IBM archives don’t refer to the project as Chess. I never worked there, but knew some that did.

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