Garrett Fuller

The (IBM) PC

IBM was a huge company which, over the past 100 years it has existed, has developed many technological breakthroughs which have (or at least for a large chunk of them) become important to our society. The hard drive, the automated teller machine (ATM), and even RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) - a form of processor architecture type which is commonly found in modern microprocessors - were all IBM creations. However, their next creation was one which made the computer widely accessible to home users, and set the standards which many follow today. The creation? The IBM PC.

The IBM PC, or Personal Computer, started an entire era for IBM, which lasted until 2005 before they handed over the reigns to Lenovo. I wrote another article about the complete history of the Personal Computer, in this article I'm going to cover the PC, PC-XT, PC-AT, PCjr, and PC Convertible. It not only started an era for IBM, but set many of the standards found today. I'll discuss all of this.

A Quick Computer History Lesson

In order to understand the significance of the IBM PC and IBM altogether, we'll have to go back far. We're actually going to go back to before IBM was even founded, in the year 1891. Click here to read about the complete history of IBM.

The Hollerith Years and the Tabulating Machine

Herman HollerithAs we all know, the United States performs a census every 10 years. This is done to reconfigure taxes, and redraw legislature district lines. However, the 1890 census presented a daunting issue. Since each form had to be hand-counted, it was predicted that it would take the census office nearly 13 years to count each form, thanks to a growing population and incoming immigrants.

Herman Hollerith, however, had a solution in mind. He constructed a tabulating machine which would count the forms and gather the necessary information. This cut the time to go through the forms in almost half.

The tabulating machine was the primary form of computing, and the primary product of IBM, for at least 40 years. However, computers were taking over.

The Computers take Over

In 1945, two Japanese cities - Hiroshima and Nagasaki - were both decimated by two nuclear weapons. It was a surprise invention which ended the war once Japan surrendered only days after the event. Nearly 5 years later, a fear started amongst Americans that the USSR had their hands on a nuclear weapon, and everything was done to prevent them from using it. This war was called the "Cold War" and lasted through 1992.

The SAGE computer, which consisted of multiple supercomputers networked together, was installed in 1955 to track enemy and friendly planes, and run simple trajectory programs to find an intercept point to shoot down enemy aircraft or missiles.

In 1959, a more friendly use of computers was developed by IBM. The IBM 1401, known as the "Model T Ford of computers", was released. There were more 1401 computers sold than computers which existed before its introduction. The 1401 was replaced by the System/360 in 1964, and the System/370 in 1972. A reason for the 1401 being more popular was its affordable price tag, and being more reliable. The 1401 was the first transistorized computer made by IBM, and transistors replaced the unreliable, bulky, inefficient vacuum tubes. The System/360 introduced the idea of having a line of compatible computers with different hardware specifications.

Microcomputer Mania!

In 1977, several companies released their own microcomputers. Apple Computer released their Apple ][ (II), Tandy (Radioshack) with their TRS-80, and Commodore with their PET. IBM was already loosing market share to DEC, but now lost even more market share to these companies. These three companies had successful products, but others wanted to claim a piece of the pie, including Texas Instruments and others.

IBM did have some PCs, but they failed to compete in these markets. They were large and bulky, and expensive. The 5100, the first "PC" released by IBM (and possibly the first portable made), was released in 1975, and the 5120 was released in 1980.

IBM, however, waited a couple years to start work on something which would allow them to have a piece of that pie. IBM's division in Boca Raton, Florida was responsible for creating an IBM microcomputer, and one Don Estridge was put in charge of said division. Their task was to create a minicomputer which, unlike the 5100 and 5120, was much more cheaper, and more friendly for novice computer users.

Bringing it alive

The IBM division in Boca Raton, however, did face some issues. It was predicted "that it would take at least 9 months to ship an empty box." IBM had to find a way to quickly bring its computer to fruition, to compete with others who were young and small and could quickly produce a product.

Another obstacle that stood in their way was the bad reputation with many which IBM had. Since IBM was a huge company, many did not want them entering an industry ran by adults younger than 25, and were composed of mostly small companies. IBM, on the other hand, was huge and had a strict employee life. Whereas other microcomputer manufacturers, such as Apple Computer, were "fun" places to work (embraced the happiness of their employees), IBM was very much ordered and structured to be "grayscale" whereas other companies, such as Apple, was brightly colored. IBM employees had to follow a strict dress code, and even an employee songbook.

However, IBM was a very well known brand. IBM was a brand associated with computers, and often people felt IBM would bring an advanced product to the marketplace which was rugged and robust, much like their mainframe systems. There was even a saying - "Nobody got fired for buying IBM!" - by most people at the time, stating that IBM held a good reputation amongst businesses and consumers.

IBM was able to bring the PC to fruition in such little time by using simple, off-the-shelf componentry sourced from other manufacturers. The processor was an Intel 8088/8086, rather than IBM making their own. This later made the PC simple to clone. However, IBM entirely developed one thing by themselves, the contents of a simple ROM chip. The contents of this ROM was in reality one of the most important pieces of code inside of the computer: the BIOS. The Basic Input/Output System was what "organized" the hardware inside and connected to the computer, and ran simple diagnostics tests such as POST.

It's Alive!

IBM PCOn August 12, 1981, IBM released the PC (Personal Computer.) The IBM PC was nearly an instant success, so much so that by 1982 third-party companies started to clone the IBM PC. Thus, the IBM-PC Clone industry started, and many of the companies which make computers today started out as IBM-PC clones, such as PCs-Limited (now Dell.) Compaq was one of the earliest PC clone manufactuers, and later beat IBM to the finish line with a working luggable PC-compatible machine.

The clone industry was fueled primarily by people reverse engineering and developing their own BIOS chips. Later, entire companies, such as Award Software (1984) and American Megatrends (1985) were founded after someone reverse engineered the PC BIOS, wrote their own, and decided to market it for a profit. The IBM PC BIOS was one of the fundamentals found in most PCs today, laying the foundation for modern BIOS and even UEFI.

In 1983, IBM released the IBM PC-XT, or PC-Xtended Technology. The PC-XT was the first personal computer offered by IBM which featured a hard disk drive as standard equipment. It also was more expandable than the standard PC released in 1981.

In March 1984, IBM released the PCjr. The PCjr was manufactured by Teledyne in Lewisburg, Tennessee. The PCjr was aimed for educational and home users, and could be configured to use a television set as a display via built-in RF modulator. The PCjr was easily expandable, and used a chiclet-style wireless keyboard, known as the "Freeboard", which used an infrared beam to communicate with the system (though, the keyboard could be connected to the computer system by means of a cable.) The PCjr also featured cartridge loading, in addition to floppy diskettes. Despite the features, the PCjr was a flop in the commercial marketplace. The PCjr has been noted as "one of the biggest flops in the history of computing," whereas Time magazine noted that it "sold as sluggishly as Ford Edsels in the late 1950s."

On August 14, 1984, nearly three years after the introduction of the original PC, IBM released the PC-AT (Advanced Technology.) The PC-AT featured several new features, including more memory, a real-time clock with battery backup to support keep-alive power, and several other features. The PC-AT, however, did have its fair share of issues. For example, an unreliable hard drive and floppy drive.

The PC Convertible was the first laptop introduced by Big Blue, and the last model under the original PC series. The PC Convertible was a stark contrast from the luggables and portables produced before, as it could be powered by batteries, much like modern laptops. However, once again, it sold poorly, due to its nearly un-readable LCD screen, and the competition which was already selling out quickly (i.e. Compaq and Zenith SupersPort.)

In 1987, IBM decided to scrap the entire PC line, and introduce something new. This new line would give them the ability to break away from the Clones. IBM's new PS/2 had a variety of models, which introduced new standards. In 1989, IBM released a portable under the PS/2 lineup, which was easier to read, and sold better in comparison to the PC Convertible. For home computing, IBM released the PS/1, or Personal System/1, in 1990.

Marketing the PC

Charlie ChaplinIBM decided to use Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp", a silent-film era star, in the advertisements for the IBM PC line. Chaplin was played by Billy Scudder, and, according to Time Magazine, gave the PC "a face." Others used Chaplin, with his trademark bowler hat and cane to represent or even satirize the company. The use of Chaplin was somewhat ironic, given that Chaplin (with his "Little Tramp" character) starred in Modern Times, a movie which expressed the star's opposition to big business and technological efficiency, whereas the PC was produced by one of the world's largest companies. The "Little Tramp" became a "warm cuddly" - according to Creative Computing - mascot for IBM and the PC line, much like how Tux the penguin became a mascot for Linux-based operating systems, and how Clippy, the paperclip which was found as an assistant in Microsoft Office 97-2003), was a mascot for the Microsoft Office suite.

"I Think We're a Clone Now"

Almost a year after the introduction of the PC 5150, clones started appearing. Since IBM used mostly off-the-shelf componentry (contrary to standard IBM practice), the PC was easy to clone. Apple and other manufacturers had issues with clones as well.

Several huge computer companies, now well known, were started by manufacturing PC clones. Compaq and Dell (then PCs-Limited) were some of the biggest, while Hewlett-Packard (HP) started making their own PC clones, or IBM-compatibles. Asian companies started to hop on the bandwagon, such as Acer and Asus.

(Click here to read about the history of the PC, even after IBM introduced the PS/2.)


These are the specifications which were standard; they do not include add-ons and expansions which could be done by the owner.

IBM PC (5150) - August 1981

Processor (with clock speed) Intel 8088 (clocked @ 4.77 MHz
Standard RAM 16kb - 64kb
Floppy Disk Drives 2 (5.25" floppy diskette drives)
Hard Disk Drives 0 (standard)
Display Output CGA / MDA Monochromatic (used with display #5151 or #5153, color)
Other unique features Cassette tape port on rear
Cost (1981 - 2016 with inflation)*
[cheapest configuration: 0 floppy diskette drives, 16kb RAM, no monitor]
$1,565 ($4,143.15 in 2016)

IBM PC-XT (5160) - March 1983

Processor (with clock speed) Intel 8088 (clocked @ 4.77 MHz)
Standard RAM 128kb
Floppy Disk Drives 1 (5.25" floppy diskette drive)
Hard Disk Drive 1 (10 MB Seagate ST-412 MFM)
Display Output MDA Monochromatic, CGA, EGA, PGC
Other unique features 130-watt power supply, socket for optional 8087 math coprocessor/FPU
Cost (1983 - 2016 with inflation)* ???

IBM PCjr (4860) - March 1984

Processor (with clock speed) Intel 8088 (clocked @ 4.77 MHz)
Standard RAM 64kb
Floppy Disk Drives 1 (5.25" floppy diskette drive)
Hard Disk Drive 0
Display Output Video Gate Array/Tandy Graphics Adapter (TGA) - not modern Video Graphics Array (VGA)
Other unique features Wireless chiclet-style keyboard "Freeboard"; manufactured by Teledyne in Lewisburg, TN for IBM
Cost (1984 - 2016 with inflation)*
[cheapest config.: 64kb RAM]
$669 ($1,549.50 in 2016)

IBM PC-AT (5170) - August 1984

Processor (with clock speed) Intel 80286 @ 6 MHz
Standard RAM 256kb - 16 MB
Floppy Disk Drives 2 (5.25" floppy diskette drive)
Hard Disk Drives 1 (20 MB)
(30 MB model introduced in 1986)
Display Output CGA, MDA, EGA, PGA
Other unique features Real-time clock with battery backup
Price (1984 - 2016 with inflation) * $6000 ($13,896.84 in 2016 with inflation)

IBM PC Convertible - April 1986

Processor (with clock speed) Intel 80c88 (CMOS version of 8088) @ 4.77 MHz
Standard RAM 256kb - 640kb
Floppy Disk Drives 2 (3.5" floppy diskette drives - first computer by IBM to use 3.5" floppy disk drives)
Hard Disk Drives 0
Display Output Built-in monochromatic LCD
Other unique features Featured a "docking station" with a full-size monitor, to overcome the horrible (nearly unreadable) LCD screen built into the computer. Replaced by the PS/2 L40 SX (laptop) in 1989.
Price (1986 - 2016 with inflation) $2,000 ($4,391.37 in 2016, with inflation)

*cheapest configuration

PS/2 (1987)>

Last updated 10/14/2017 ; T420 (created 8/21/2016)

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