Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Short History of the Personal Computer

While celebrating their 100th birthday last week, IBM raised something of  a stink when they claimed they'd gone and invented the personal computer.

Mr. Cringely pointed out the ludicrousness of IBM's claim in one of his articles. The only problem is Mr. Cringely didn't give all of the details he should have in his article. The truth of the matter is far more nuanced than either IBM or Cringely care to acknowledge.

The simple graphic to the left is my hopeful attempt to put into some kind of chronological order all the interesting 8- and 16-bit microprocessors that were introduced and the personal computers that were built using them, very successful personal computers introduced before the IBM PC.

I chose to limit the timeline's span from the introduction of the Intel 8080 microprocessor to the introduction of the Commodore 64. Missing in this timeline is the introduction, in 1979, of the Motorola 68000. That processor wouldn't be used in personal computers until the original Mac, Atari ST, and the Commodore Amiga starting around 1984 and moving forward from there. These are the microprocessors and the resultant systems that played notable roles in the personal computer revolution from 1975 to 1982.

I've tried to use color to designate which CPU's were used with which personal computers. Blue and light blue designate the Intel 8080 and the Altair 8800, which Cringely designates as the first personal computer. Red is for the 6502 and all the computers that were built using it (or one of it's derivatives, such as the 6510 in the Commodore 64). Green is for the TI 16-bit chip and it's one use, the TI-99/4A. Gray is for the Z80 and the personal computers built using it. The dark blue is for Intel's 8086 CPU and the IBM PC.

Many want to pay homage to Ed Roberts and his Altair 8800. I remember the 8800, especially the kit I received way back when. I eventually got it up and running, but I was not impressed, either with the design or the final product. I eventually sold it off to another geek who was more interested in it than I was and moved on to the 6502 via the KIM 1.

Later I acquired the TI-99/4A and then the Commodore 64. I touched my first Apple II at a friend's house in 1977, and my first IBM PC at the First National Bank of Atlanta in 1982, right before I left for DCA.

All of the computers I acquired or worked with after the 8800 were full-fledged personal computers. They all came bundled with software that allowed the owner to begin working immediately with hardware. Ed Roberts might have technically been the first, but the first practical personal computers had to wait until two years later when in 1977 (a "golden year") the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the TRS-80 were introduced to the world.

I included the Commodore 64 because it eventually became the best selling personal computer of all time. And I should point out to IBM and others that IBM eventually lost out to the other PC makers, selling what was left of their PC division to Lenovo in December 2004.

The history of the personal computer is a lot more complicated than either IBM or Cringely attempts to tell. A lot more complicated.

Update

It's Cringely, not Cringley. Per the Man Himself.

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