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IBM PC is 35 – let’s all go back to the 80s!

It didn't look like a home computer, but that meant it was easier to get one at work, so you could....could...heck, because you could!

The IBM PC came out on 12 August 1981, so it celebrates its 35th birthday today.

(That’s 0x23 in hex, 043 in octal, 100011 in binary, and good old # in ASCII.)

It had 16KB of RAM; it could be connected to a TV set, just like the other home computers of the day; it had a cassette port for saving programs and data to magnetic tape; it had GWBASIC in ROM; it had an unburstable keyboard that sounded like a suppressed AR-15 popping caps; it was reassuringly huge, with the sort of recessed red power switch you’d expect on industrial machinery; and it would set you back a shade over $1500.

What’s not to like?

If you wanted a proper monitor, a memory boost to 64KB, and a single-sided, double-density 5¼” floppy disk drive, you’d be shelling out just over $3000.

You could squeeze in up to 256KB of RAM, and you could get a 10MB hard disk, but the disk drive wouldn’t fit into the PC itself, so you had to buy an Expansion Unit, with its own industrial-grade power switch and 130W power supply.

Power management was critical: if you wanted the PC to see the hard disk at all, you had to be sure to fire up the Expansion Unit first, and only then turn on the PC itself. (Been there, failed to do it.)

The business world loved it.

There wasn’t a killer application at the start – indeed, there weren’t really any applications at all – but there was a killer concept: it was a personal computer for the workplace.

In other words, senior executives could have all the fun of a home computer, but with the all the price, presence and presentability of a 3270 Display Terminal.

If that sounds back-to-front, it probably was (and this was the 1980s, so who can say?), but here’s how it worked.

You’d get laughed out of town by the bean-counters for suggesting an Apple II home computer for work purposes, even at half the price of a PC; but you’d be taken seriously for insisting on an IBM PC business computer for…well, because you could!

(We were about to say, “For playing Leisure Suit Larry, of course,” but he wasn’t invented for another six years.)

It was like BYOD, only the other way about, if that makes sense.

Ironically, perhaps, given that IBM-compatible PCs were soon to become well-known for computer viruses, the first threat that we’d identify as “malware” in the contemporary sense was Elk Cloner on the Apple II.

In another irony, given IBM’s reputation as a vendor of large, expensive, a hyper-proprietary, closed-source, cloaked-in-confidentiality products and services, the other killer factor behind the PC’s success was just how easily and how much you could find out about how it worked.

Indeed, IBM published the entire assembler source code of the firmware (called the BIOS, short for Basic Input Output System), deliberately making it widely available, replete with copyright messages.

You knew you wanted a copy of the source code (I did! It wasn’t cheap, but I bought one!), because it was full of cool secrets that let you pull off wacky programming tricks.

But as soon as you looked at it, you were assimilated into “those who could not claim to have been uninfluenced by it,” just in case you ever thought of writing your own “improved BIOS” and selling it as a replacement.

Of course, many [time flies, methinks you mean ‘most’Ed.] of the programmers busily coding today weren’t even alive when the IBM PC came out, and many of those who’d like to see a real PC out of historical duty probably never will.

Original IBM PC 5150s are pretty scarce now – the “must upgrade to the new model” treadmill has been with us since the start.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

So, to help us reminisce about the computers of yore….

what was the first computer you had at home?

And – here’s the $64,000 question – where did it live?


IBM PC Jr, bought by my parents in 1982? *checks Wikipedia* 1984!

It lived in the guest bedroom with a dot matrix printer. My brother and I used it for writing papers, playing games, and most importantly, writing programs in BASIC. A subscription to PC Magazine (I think) completed the picture, and its programs that you could type in yourself acted as an early coding tutorial. With various hardware upgrades bought at the local computer store and installed by us, it lasted into the early 1990’s. Good times!


Oh gosh! The memories! I was an IBM employee at the time (middle of a 45-year span) and got on the employees’ queue on the announcement day. Mine trickled out several months later.

Things were expensive indeed. Most of us employees ordered 16K machines with one diskette drive, opting to buy less-expensive RAM on the open market and waiting for cheaper diskette drives.

There were sections of the video BIOS and printing BIOS I practically knew by heart. I had friends who had bought printers from other sources. Not all were compatible or standardized and some interpreted CR as CR+LF. I wrote an assembler TSR to catch the stream and filter out all LFs not preceded by an LF so everything didn’t come out double-spaced.

Not only was the BIOS open, but the same Hardware Reference Manual (only $25 for us employees) included complete circuit diagrams of the hardware. I published an article in PC magazine on how to add an IC module in an open spot on the color video card and get some interesting new modes not otherwise provided. Also another article, same venue, on how to use the spare space on the joystick card (IBM called it “analog input card”) to add components for a real-time clock so you didn’t have to set time and date every time you started the computer.

And there was the project I placed into the public domain for the hearing-impaired. Their chief outlet was conversing on overloaded BBSs which charged by the minute, The users would set the computer to keep dialing into the BBS until a successful connection was made–and then the computer would uselessly beep. In the meantime, the users would have concerned themselves with other things. They wouldn’t notice that they were connected and racking up big charges while monopolizing a remote access port. The project showed how to make a safe and simple device which attached to the PC and flashed a 100-watt light bulb when the connection was made. Light bouncing off the walls made caught the user’s attention, even if he were in another room.

Hundreds more stories–let me know if you’re ever near Research Triangle Park.


Check your dates. According to your article, the PC isn’t 35 years old, it’s zero years old:
“The IBM PC came out on 12 August 2016”


Hi Paul. Your Tardis has developed a major fault.


I went offline for the past couple of hours to eat my tea and so I only just fixed it. I wondered why there were so many comments when I logged back in. Found out pretty quickly, hahahaha.


Our first home computer was a Commodore Amiga, with an XP card (may have been called “Sidecar”), and partitioned hard drive, so we could run DOS programs too. DOS programs always looked pretty sad, beside the Amiga’s full colour GUI. It lived in our home office.
PS; Check the date of introduction, in your first line of text.


I think you have a couple of details wrong:
The number 35 is 0x23 in hex.
In 1980, no one dreamed of a megabyte of RAM in their PC. Perhaps you meant 256KB instead of 256MB?


My first computer at home was a Packard Bell 486DX, 25MHz, 4MB RAM, 250MB HDD. It lived in my bedroom because no one in the house knew how to work it except me. All in, computer, monitor, and printer cost me just under $3,000. I just recently purchased my top of the line, all bells and whistles, laptop for half that price.


Some corrections: The IBM PC didn’t come out in 2016, of course; it was 1981. You could not get 256MB of memory into it. As I recall, the maximum was 640KB. I never saw one with a cassette drive, so I question whether that was a standard feature, but I don’t know for sure.

My first home computer? A Tandy 1000.


The 8088 uses 20-bit physical addresses, for a technical max of 1MB. At 640KB the PC started mapping hardware like ROM and the graphics cards, leaving the bottom 640KB for RAM.

IIRC the original PC could have 16KB or 64KB on the main memory board, plus 3 add-on memory boards of 64KB each, for a practical maximum of 256KB out of the theoretical 640KB maximum.

But given my accuracy on 1981, 0x23 and 256KB in the first draft I am ready to be wrong.


Wow, if only I’d known my original IBM PC could be upgraded to 256 MB of RAM I would have kept it for much longer!


My original 5150 IBM PC is tucked away on a shelf in the garage and it still works. Over the years it had numerous upgrades, 640k of memory, math coprocessor, V20 processor, 8 bit VGA card, 30mb RLL hard drive, half high 1.44 and 1.2 mb diskette drives, a 16550 AFN based serial card. I even had an expansion unit when I used the PC as a BBS, running RBBS-PC. There were even unreleased to the public “driver” code you could add to config.sys that would allow you to support up to 1mb of RAM and a whole bunch of other stuff that never got out the front door. The original pre release 5150 did not have a cooling fan in the power supply (ever notice the covered over cooling vents in the lower front of the case?) , it tended to quickly overheat and the fan was quickly added before being released to the public.


At home? A RML 380Z borrowed from my dad’s college. (He was a lecturer!) Or a Sinclair ZX80, ditto but considerably easier to get home. But the first I owned myself was a ZX81, built from the kit. I’ve had many many others since, including a 5150, in that period after they became obsolete junk, and before they became collectable..

Somewhere I might still have some period stickers thrown around by the IBM Marketing bods. They say “Pending the day I have an IBM PC of my own.” The aforementioned ZX80 ended up with one stuck to it :-)


In terms of general computing, in that it could take programs and generate output, I would have to say my first was a 1983 Commodore 64, and it lived with me in my room as primarily a gaming computer (albeit, mostly text adventure games). You could program BASIC programs on it. Yeah, it had a game cartridge slot, but you haven’t lived until you have very…slowly…loaded…a…program via either the PET tape deck or the 5.25-in floppy drive.
If we are talking about strictly IBM PC, it was a 1989 8088 with monochrome hercules graphics and a 20 MB HDD that lived in my parents’ bedroom that would see several upgrades over the coming years.


Not one at home until I was an adult. But in high school we had the new Tandy PCs (Basic programming). Class work was math formulas. For fun I wrote a Ouija Board program (preprogramed short answerers based on expected input of key words), and one I called Ghost. Random generating map that produced blocks that you couldn’t go through but the ghost (bot) could. You were slightly faster, but not by much, when it caught you it was game over. Didn’t touch computers again for almost 10 years. Now I can’t get away from them…..


The good old days when you used a modem to connect to BBS’s. Gopher and Pine, all text. My IB had two 5 inch floppy drives and an 8088 chip.


Not sure if this counts, but the very first was an old Hitachi prgramable calculator which used rectangular magnetic cards which were read by a internal card reader. You could program up to 100 steps from memory and it had a orange 12 flurecent tube display. This was back in 1975 or so. I was given it as a project to get working. If I could fix it then I could keep it. It was uber flash for the day.

My first real computer was however the Sinclair ZX-80 with its whopping 1KB of ram. Laughable now, but was unique at the time. After thst, too many to recall, but basically it went zx81, Hitachi Peach, Hitachi S1, Amiga 1000, Amiga 2000, Amiga 3000, and ebentually to non descript x86 clone pc.


That Hitachi calculator counts, for sure.

I was in love with the HP 67 (also had magnetic cards, 112 steps each side if memory serves, so you could run it through twice for a whopping 224 key presses) but is was way out of my price range. I did manage to get an HP 29C. 98 steps of continuous memory. It was great.


Commodore 64 which sat in a corner of my living room. Next to my dot matrix printer. Ahhh, fond memories of DOS, Edlin and Basic (and no onboard HD).


Kind of difficult to say when I first had a home computer; my father, as part of his job, got to bring home different computer models to test in a home environment; I think the first one was an Apple ][ Plus — that would have been around May 1981. I wasn’t very interested at that point.

The computer sat on a desk in the basement, in the exact place where a computer sits today.

The first computer to stay in the house for any length of time came in 1990, a Mac Plus. Same location. I can’t recall where the testers ended up at that point.

My first personal (to me) computer was a Mac Color Classic 1993, and lived in my bedroom. It had a blazing fast 1200 baud modem that connected to local BBSes or to the university Internet.


Does a tv pong player in the living room count as a computer?

If not, my first computer was a Commodore 64 in my bedroom.

Though it had word processor and spreadsheet programs, I mostly used it for colorful games because it had standard RCA and VGA jacks. I hooked it up to my house wired stereo and video system so I could hear and see whatever the PC was playing from any room in my house with speakers and a tv.


We’ll allow Pong.


Whoa! I also had an original Pong game. But I bought the first Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 sold at the Beltsville, Maryland Radio Shack store. I got the 16K Level 2 Basic model, and less than two months later got 32K expansion interface. By the time they were banned on Jan 1, 1981, I had added Percom triple drive floppies, a 20mb (yes MEGAbyte) hard drive, Scitronics X10 remote controller interface with real-time clock, Alphanetics Tape Digitizer, and the BigMem DIY kit from MicroHatch to increase RAM to 96K by replacing the 16K keyboard RAM with 64K chips. My friend Joe Moran had to patch Visicalc to recognize the extra RAM and show 55K free instead of the usual 23k free. I had also wired in a 9-pin D-connector ($2.95) to the memory mapped row & columns for the four arrow keys and space bar so the Atari joystick I got at the Waxie Maxie’s record shop ($15) could control the Robot Attack game (first voice output game, would say “That was pure luck!” when you won.) I also had a wide carriage Anadex brand dot-matrics printer that could print through 6-part carbon copy paper. That printer cost $1,800. The 20MB hard drive cost $999. The Percom triple drive cost $990. The Alpanetics tape digitizer cost $69.99. I forget what I paid for the Scitronics interface and the BigMem memory mod kit (21 soldered wire connections to its control board and I dunno how many trace cuts – it took me 3 days, but passed the smoke test with flying colors).
Here is a photo taken back around 1998:
I still have that Model 1, plus another less modified one. Both still boot up for BASIC and loading programs from tape cassettes, but I fear the floppy drives have aged beyond keeping stable rotation speeds. I remember I had to edit and resave the original Backgammon, because if you got the other player on the bar and had their landing lines blocked with 2 each of your own markers, the game did not realize that player could not move and it would not switch players. I added an option to force player turn switching when that happened.
Where it lived: When I first got it, I used 2″x4″x 6′ and 2′ x 4′ plywood and made a 6 foot tall, 4 foot wide, two foot deep computer desk with an overhead shelf above the work surface.
When my first son was in elementary school, I also built a “traveling case” with built-in fan and outlet box for the expansion interface and keyboard, that the monitor could be set on top of.
He had it at school to enter the science fair in the 3rd grade and got honorable mention for all his crayoned descriptions of how to insert floppy disks correctly. At the fair, he demonstrated educational programs that taught arithmetic, spelling, and typing. He had been born in May 1977 and was less than a year older than the TRS-80. When he first learned to crawl and climb, and before I built the workstation for the TRS-80, he climbed up on the sofa, and then the armrest and could reach the keyboard that he then proceeded to chew on the corner of while he was still teething. He quite literally “cut his teeth” on the TRS-80 model 1. I still have both my TRS-80’s and that one still shows the teeth marks. As Time Marches On, he is now 39, and he and his 9 year old son both play World of Warcraft, although Jr’s favorite game is Bloons on Steam.


First computer at home was one I built myself, based on Signetics 2650 CPU with 1KB static RAM. (Around $1 per byte IIRC!) Later, I picked up a TRS80 and started Uni working with VAX/VMS. Didnt bother with a computer at home again until I picked up Mac Classic in the mid 1990s, and have stayed with Mac (and VMS!) ever since.


BBC B. £399.99 plus television plus tape deck plus Twin Kingdom Valley. Forked out on a floppy disc drive a few years later to play Elite.

On an incidental note, my first – and I think only – virus infection was on the Atari ST a few years later.


My first computer was an Amstrad CPC464 with Green screen monitor, had a built in Cassette drive and as in the name 64mb ram. Sat in my bedroom and mainly used for Games and trying small programs in BASIC. I also attempted fractals but never had the staying power back then. That was back in the late eighties/early nineties I think. My best mate had a Toshiba MSX which I thought was better while another friend had a Commodore 64 and then an Amiga.


I had a ZX81 …ah the sweet simple joy of waiting for tapes to load up for 15 minutes (or more usually not and having to rewind and start again) . We progressed to a ZXSpectrum…actual colour screen! Imagine!


Oh, how I have enjoyed reading all these memories! I got a ZX81, complete with 16K RAM Pack and thermal printer thing, all for my ninth birthday, back in ’81 (spoilt kid, I guess!)
Thought I would be able to have conversations with the computer through the keyboard. Was a bit confused when I tried to type “Hello” and got “GOSUB ELLO” :P
Quickly learnt that the computer needed to be PROGRAMMED to do stuff. IIRC, the ZX81 manual was basically (no pun intended) an introduction to the BASIC programming language. So, at just 9 years old, I started learning how to program.
It saddens me that the children of this generation will never know the pure exhilaration of coding it, if you want it to do it! These days, if it doesn’t do it, you just Google some freeware to download :/
Went on to own a Commodore 64, Atari 400, and then, when my Dad bought an Amstrad PC1512(?) upgraded to 640Kb, I quickly took that over, too! (Bless him .. Couldn’t have any technology for himself!) Oh, and an Atari ST at some point around that time – my memory isn’t what it used to be! :D


It was a Sharp MZ80B running CP/M. It sat in my home office and I do remember the early version of MS Flight Simulator. It need a lot of imagination as well to join up all these green vector lines! I wonder where it is now as it was built to last a very long time.


I purchased my TRS-80 Model 1 in February 1978. I have two and they still boot up in 2019. One is unmodified. The other has been upgraded with 64k replacing the 16k on the motherboard (which was under/inside the keyboard), and a speed mod allowing it to run at 5.3 MHz instead of the stock 1.78 MHz. For comparison, the IBM XT ran at 4.78 MHz. Shown here, is my TRS-80 Model 1, back in late 1996:
The big metal box at the bottom of the stack under the triple floppy drive, was a Tandon 20MB hard drive. I had to partition it as eight 2.5 MB partitions, addressed as drives 0 thru 7 after it booted up from a floppy disk. That drive cost USD$999 back in 1980. In 1981, I ran a BBS on it for 6 months – using one phone line for dial-in access. I had it rigged so I could play any of a dozen games on it from work, where I worked midnight to 8am as a computer operator for the phone company. I had a SciTronics X10 interface with RTC and one of the programs in the game list was to control the X10 remotes. One of my not-so-bright friends called the PC around 2 AM one night and saw the program with “All lights on” and “All lights off” and was disappointed when it didn’t turn all his lights on or off. And even more disappointed when a few minutes later, my disgruntled wife unplugged the TRS-80 after being awakened at 2 AM by all the house lights going on and off at our house (while i was away at work, actually working and not playing with my TRS-80 by remote.)

The TRS-80 Models II and III had better RF shielding in them, but Radio Shack was banned from selling the TRS-80 Model 1’s in January 1981 because they put out so much RF interference:

But you could still use them if you owned one. So long as you didn’t want to watch TV channels 2, 4 or 5 within about 15 feet of one. I did have a BASIC program written to play musical tunes (coded with timing loops) on an AM radio placed next to the keyboard. Not Bluetooth, but I guess that qualifies it as the “first wireless speaker for music from a PC” and it predated even the very first IBM PC.

Anyone who played on their TRS-80 probably also recalls the game Robot Attack that had some stored speech that when you beat all the attacking robots, it would SAY “That was pure luck!”. But you had to have wired a speaker to the cassette output port on your TRS-80 Model 1 because they didn’t come with built-in speakers.

They also didn’t come with joysticks, but I drilled and soldered and installed a 9-pin D connector socket in the keyboard, wired to the memory address lines on the keyboard for the 4 arrows and the space bar and plugged in an Atari joystick and it worked fine with most games with no added software.

I did write a little “Paint” program in BASIC that would use the arrow keys and space bar, or the just mentioned joystick, and you could move the cursor around and use the fire button to paint or un-paint the pixels on the screen.

Ah the memories. My TRS-80’s now sleep, carefully packed in steel cabinets out in the garage.and have not been booted up yet this year.


p.s. – I just now took one of them out and it DOES still boot up to the Ready prompt… in July 2019. Sadly, the floppy drives electronics are too old and don’t boot the few floppies i have left. I could still load the tape programs I have though. The original tapes had a Message Minder program and a Backgammon program. I had to edit the Backgammon program to add an escape break out for situations where one player has the other player blocked on the bar with two markers in all 6 of the first spaces off. The program did not realize the blocked player had no way to take their turn – ever, until the blocking player was forced to move some of his pieces out of the way.


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