Skip to main content

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.


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


Popular posts from this blog

cat-in-a-box channels greta garbo

So I'm sitting at my computer, when I start to notice a racket in back. I ignore it for a while until I hear a load "thump!", as if something had been dropped on the floor, followed by a lot of loud rattling. I turn around and see Lucy in the box just having a grand old time, rolling around and rattling that box a good one. I grab the GX1 and snap a few shots before she notices me and the camera, then leaps out and back into her chair (which used to be my chair before she decided it was her chair).

Just like caring for Katie my black Lab taught me about dogs, caring for Lucy is teaching me about cats. She finds me fascinating, as I do her. And she expresses great affection and love toward me without coaxing. I try to return the affection and love, but she is a cat, and she takes a bat at me on occasion, although I think that's just her being playful. She always has her claws in when she does that.

She sits next to me during the evening in her chair while I sit in mi…

vm networking problem fixed

Over the weekend I upgraded to Windows 8.1, then discovered that networking for the virtual machines wouldn't work. Then I tried something incredibly simple and fixed the problem.

Checking the system I noticed that three VMware Windows services weren't running; VMnetDHCP, VMUSBArbService, and VMwareNatService. VMware Player allows you to install, remove, or fix an existing installation. I chose to try fixing the installation, and that fixed the problem. The services were re-installed/restarted, and the virtual machines had networking again.

Once network connectivity was established there was exactly one updated file for Ubuntu 13.10, a data file. This underscores how solid and finished the release was this time. Every other version of every other Linux installation I've ever dealt with has always been succeeded by boatloads of updates after the initial installation. But not this time.

Everything is working properly on my notebook. All's right with the world.

sony's pivotal mirrorless move

I'm a died-in-the-wool technologist, even when it comes to photography. I have always been fascinated with the technology that goes into manufacturing any camera, from the lenses (optics) through the mechanical construction, the electronics involved, and especially the chemistry of the film and the sophistication of the digital sensor. It's amazing that the camera can do all it's asked of it, regardless of manufacturer.

Of all the types of cameras that I've really taken an interest in, contemporary mirrorless (again, regardless of manufacturer) are the most interesting because of the challenging problems the scientists and engineers have had to solve in order to build a compact but highly functional camera. In particular I've followed the sensor advances over the years and watched image quality climb (especially with μ4:3rds) to exceed film and rival one another such that there's very little difference any more as you move from the smaller sensors such as 4:3r…