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Happy birthday, 5150

Today is the 40th birthday of the IBM 5150—better known as the IBM PC:

It wasn't that long before the August 1981 debut of the IBM PC that an IBM computer often cost as much as $9 million and required an air-conditioned quarter-acre of space and 60 people to run and keep it loaded with instructions.

The IBM PC changed all that. It was a very small machine that could not only process information faster than those ponderous mainframes of the 1960s but also hook up to the home TV set, process text and store more words than a huge cookbook -- all for a price tag of less than $1,600.

Well, sure, $1600 for a 16k model with no peripherals. The one my dad bought in 1981 and handed down to me in 1986 had a whopping 64k of RAM and two 360k 5¼" floppy drives. That specimen, with software and a printer, cost about $9,000, or about $27,000 today.

IBM has more:

Don Estridge, acting lab director at the time, volunteered to head the project. Joe Bauman, plant manager for the Boca Raton site, offered manufacturing help. Mel Hallerman, who was working on the IBM Series/1, stepped forward with his software knowledge and was brought in as chief programmer. And so it went. As word spread about what was going on, talent and expertise were drawn in.

Estridge decided early that to be successful and to meet deadlines, the group had to stick to the plan: using tested vendor technology; a standardized, one-model product; open architecture; and outside sales channels for quick consumer market saturation.

About a dozen people made up the first development team, recalls Dave Bradley, who wrote the interface code for the new product. "For a month, we met every morning to hash out what it was this machine had to do and then in the afternoons worked on the morning's decisions. We started to build a prototype to take — by the end of the year — to a then little-known company called Microsoft." The team beat that deadline. The engineers were virtually finished with the machine by April 1981, when the manufacturing team took over.

The $1,565 price bought a system unit, a keyboard and a color/graphics capability. Options included a display, a printer, two diskette drives, extra memory, communications, game adapter and application packages — including one for text processing. The development team referred to their creation as a mini-compact, at a mini-price, with IBM engineering under the hood.

Sure, the Apple ][ gave families an inexpensive computer to play with, but the IBM 5150 gave businesses an inexpensive computer to play with, and that made all the difference. I'm writing this on a Microsoft- and Intel-based computer whose architecture goes straight back to the 5150 I have in my museum.

Comments (1) -

  • David Harper

    8/13/2021 7:28:39 PM +00:00 |

    The applied maths department at Liverpool University had one of these when I was a Ph.D. student in the mid 1980s.  It mostly served as an IBM 3270 terminal emulator connected to the central IBM 3081 mainframe.  There was also a BBC Micro, which was a 6502-based computer that was a fraction of the price of the IBM PC.  It also mostly served as a terminal emulator, and unlike the IBM PC, it had a colour graphics driver.

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