Where were you 40 years ago?

When did you get your first PC?

Jon Peddie

IBM released its first Personal Computer (model 5150) on August 12, 1981, created by a team of engineers and designers directed by Don Estridge in Boca Raton, Florida. It changed the world and spawned a trillion-dollar industry. Today millions of people work in the PC industry, and almost everyone on earth uses one or more.

There had been microcomputers before it, The first microcomputer was the Micral, released in 1973 by Réalisation d'Études Électroniques (R2E). Based on the Intel 8008, it was the first non-kit computer. MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) announced a computer kit called the Altair in January 1975; it inspired Bill Gates and Paul Allen and laid the foundation for the IBM PC.

In IBM’s version of the story, the rise of the early computer systems inspired a meeting between William C. Lowe who was systems managers for the IBM’s “entry-level” division, and CEO Frank Cary. Lowe and Cary both believed that IBM could no longer ignore the challenge and Lowe said he believed he could come up with a true personal computer—small, easy to use, and low cost. They set a goal of $1500. Cary challenged Lowe to come back with a prototype in one month and thus Project Chess was born.

In July 1980, before IBM’s Project Chess was formally approved, the company sent a team led to meet with Microsoft to discuss the PC market.

In just about every account of the meeting, IBM asked Microsoft about operating systems, and Bill Gates referred IBM to Digital Research (DR), even getting DRI founder Gary Kildall on the phone to arrange a meeting for the following day. Kildall had the CP/M operating system that Microsoft wanted to use and that almost all other micro-computers of the day were using including the Osborne 1 and Kaypro II.

There are various tellings of how and why Kildall didn’t get the IBM deal in Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer, by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swain, and Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire. Kildall says he was on a business trip and couldn’t make it in time. Stories also have it that IBM met with Kildall’s wife Dorothy McEwan and presented her with a one-sided NDA.

IBM laid the problem at Microsoft’s door and Paul Allen pointed to Seattle Computer Products which was using what they considered a temporary operating system as they waited for DR to finish a system suitable for their system. It was QDOS and Allen licensed it. That’s a very abbreviated version of a story that has become an origin story of the computer and has fueled simmering feuds and the mythology of several companies. Kildall went on to release DR DOS as a challenger in the market.

The true genius of the first IBM PC was that it was a quasi-open architecture. Other computers could be built on the same model and many were. The explosion of IBM clones propelled the nascent PC market and IBM nurtured this growing landscape by introducing standards that continue to define the machine even today. The ISA bus that grew to AGP, the CGA display standard that evolved to VGA and XGA (and still lurks in the heart of today’s GPUs). The original BIOS and its concepts which are still found in today’s version, and the physical layout of desktop machines and the motherboard—all 40-year-old designs with a few modifications and updates.

IBM’s brand and backing legitimized and stabilized the small computer. The clone makers put it in millions of offices and homes.

You could say the IBM PC was the model-T or the Kitty hawk of small computers. However, you choose to describe and honor it, today is the day to be grateful IBM did it.