The PC Turns 25, for Better or Worse

The new IBM Personal Computer system for home and school use is shown in Aug. 1981. The expandable system includes a monitor screen, printer and disk drives. (AP Photo)

The groans that accompany computer malfunctions were heard in unison 25 years ago this week.

Aug. 12 marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of IBM's first personal computer (PC), a landmark system that would spawn generations of clones and make IBM a household name.

[Read the Original Press Release]

Ironically, few observers in the computer world would have expected IBM—a company known for its snail-pace development—to even conceive a workable PC by 1981. Just ask company officials.

"IBM bringing out a personal computer would be like teaching an elephant to tap dance," the company, in its online history, admittedly quotes an expert as saying.

Personal computers—or systems that people could both fit and afford in their own homes—had been around for at least 10 years before IBM unveiled its model. Apple popularized the concept in 1977 with the release of the Apple II, which went on to enjoy phenomenal sales. IBM had a few rudimentary versions of its own, including the widely-panned, 50-pound 5100 "portable," but none had enough applications to justify widespread use.

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In 1980, a motley crew of IBM experts was given the task to assemble the PC prototype. They did so by sourcing ideas and material from all over the place, including a then little-known outfit called Microsoft.

As the company puts it: "In sum, the development team broke all the rules. They went outside the traditional boundaries of product development within IBM. They went to outside vendors for most of the parts, went to outside software developers for the operating system and application software, and acted as an independent business unit. Those tactics enabled them to develop and announce the IBM PC in 12 months—at that time faster than any other hardware product in IBM's history."

The PC was an instant commercial success, establishing the company's firm foothold in the home computer market and prompting Time Magazine to dub the machine its 1982 "Man of the Year."

"It was a huge event," said Paul Ceruzzi, a curator of computer technologies at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and author of "A History of Modern Computing" (MIT Press, 2003).

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Workplaces snapped up the convenient machines and changed the face of American offices, Ceruzzi said.

"It's hard to imagine a time when people didn't have these computers sitting on their desks," he told LiveScience, noting that traditional secretaries employed for typing essentially went extinct as a result. "The personal computer was a kind of leveling thing, letting you do all kinds of things at your own desk, like word processing."

Retailing at $1,565—about $3,500 in 2006 dollars—the system was not cheap, but still within grasp of many people.

"Two decades earlier, an IBM computer often cost as much as $9 million and required an air-conditioned quarter-acre of space and a staff of 60 people to keep it fully loaded with instructions," according to company documents. "The new IBM PC could not only process information faster than those earlier machines but it could hook up to the home TV set, play games, process text and harbor more words than a fat cookbook."

Though it offered just 56 kilobytes of memory—versus about 512 megabytes in today's basic desktops—the IBM PC was unlike anything 1981 consumers had ever seen.

"One dealer had 22 customers come in and put down $1,000 deposits on the machines for which he could not promise a delivery date," according to an IBM statement.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.