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A Brief History of the Personal Computer

This month we celebrate the dawn of the personal computer.

Prior to 1970, there was nothing resembling the portable personal computers we have today. Computers were called mainframes, and they took up entire floors of office buildings. They were very expensive and could only be used by experts.

Early Computer Technology

Burroughs B5500 mainframe computer

The above pictured Burroughs B5500 at the University of Virginia cost $5 million. It was considered cutting edge technology when it was installed in July 1964. Each of those cabinets represents just a portion of the mainframe: processors, memory modules, input/output units, and more. Compared to today’s computers, the difference in size is as vast as the difference in processing power and memory. Your phone has thousands of times more computing power than the earliest computers.

Commodore PET 2001

Forty years ago, in October of 1977, Commodore was the first computer company to bring computers into the home. The PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) sold for about $795, which would feel more like $2000 today.

Commodore PET 2001

The Commodore PET 2001 had 1 MHz processor speed and 4 KB RAM. The monitor was a 9” screen. Comparing those specs to modern computers, your home computer is probably ten thousand times superior.

Apple LISA

In 1982 Apple introduced the LISA, named after Steve Jobs’ daughter and also standing for Local Integrated Software Architecture.  The LISA introduced the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and the mouse. GUI is what you’re used to using today—icons and pictures and buttons. Apple LISA advertisement

Although the LISA took Apple four years and $50 million to produce, it was a flop. Its failure was due in part to its $10k price tag (about $24k today) and the snail’s pace at which it ran. Although the Lisa computer was short-lived, GUI and the mouse were landmark achievements for Apple.

The LISA computer had 1 MB memory, 5 MHz processor speed, and a 12” monochrome monitor. It also had an external 5 megabyte hard drive.

1956 version of a 5 MB kard drive
This is a 5 megabyte hard drive in 1956.

IBM Personal Computer (PC)

IBM contributed more to the computer industry than perhaps anything else. The IBM Personal Computer, later shortened to IBM PC, sold half a million units in the first two years of its release.

IBM PC 5150

One of the most popular IBM PC models, the IBM PC 5150, was released in September 1981. Its processor had a speed of 4.77 MHz, 16 KB memory that could be expanded to a maximum of 640 KB, dual 5.25” disk drives, and ports for peripherals like a keyboard or tape drive. A tape drive, descended from old reel-to-reel data storage, was a removable permanent storage option.

When software developers got wind of the financial power of IBM, known as the Big Blue, they wrote programs to drive the computer, which led to the computer programming revolution.

Compaq computers

Compaq Computer Corporation was founded in 1982 and was the first company to reverse engineer the IBM PC.

Compaq’s first computer, the Compaq Portable, was the progenitor of the laptop. It was portable, though it was the size and weight of a sewing machine.

Compaq Portable

Microsoft Windows Operating System

Microsoft developed one of the first widely popular graphical operating systems, starting with the introduction of Microsoft Windows 1.0 in 1985. Windows was created to meet the demand for graphical user interface. Today, the Windows OS is used by over 90% of personal computer.

Notebook Computers

The NEC UltraLite was the first notebook computer that resembled what we know as laptops today. The Japanese company NEC launched the notebook in 1988.

NEC UltraLite

The personal computer has had many innovations and transformations, and it started 40 years ago with a company that most readers probably never heard of.

I had a commodore 64 when I was 10 years old, and I’ve been enamored with and amazed by computers ever since. I think people of my age group have a special perspective. We remember life without computers and cell phones, but we’re young and adaptable enough to grow up with them. So I think we can appreciate them fully and still appreciate how wondrous every forward leap of the technology has been. Thank you, Commodore.



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