30 Years Ago, A Revolution in Computing

Geek Culture


Photo by Ruben de Rijcke; used under Creative Commons Attribution license.

Even if you’re a Mac addict with a bumper sticker reading “I hate Bill Gates,” you have to tip your hat to the IBM PC, which debuted 30 years ago today. You may scoff, and point out that the Apple II, or Apple ][ if you must, had been out for over four years when the IBM PC first went on sale. But the PC was more powerful and, because it used off-the-shelf parts, cheaper, and so was really the first genuine personal computer that garnered interest from the general public.

The technical specs for the original IBM PC seem laughable today, of course: its 16k of standard memory, upgradable to 256k; its two 160k floppy drives (and of course no hard drive); its optional color monitor; and of course its $1,565 base price tag, which accounting for inflation would be over $3,600 today. But it really was a revolution, first in the business world and then later in people’s homes.

It wasn’t in 1981 when my family got an IBM PC — I think it was ’82, but I honestly don’t remember the date. It seems a little ridiculous to write this on a machine that, roughly, is to that PC as a Lamborghini is to a Model T — only with better gas mileage — but that PC changed my life. I was already a fan of Star Trek (at the time you didn’t need to specify which series you meant) and Star Wars, and I was nine, so having a computer in my house was just about the coolest thing ever. It had CGA graphics, which meant it could have up to four colors on screen at a time, one of which was black, and there were two palettes for what they advertised as a total of eight colors, but since black was in both it was really seven. The important thing is that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time.

I was already learning to program in BASIC at school on the Atari 400 and 800, and having a PC at home opened the world of programming up for me. Turbo Pascal was like a godsend, giving me programming capabilities I’d only dreamed of. And so began a career that lasts to this day. Yes, I’m your friendly neighborhood Managing Editor, but I’m also a mild-mannered programming geek by day.

So lift a glass in toast to the original IBM PC tonight! It may be utterly obsolete and fit only for museum displays, but it’s pretty likely that whatever you’re reading these words on would be very different if it hadn’t come around when it did.

Note: A version of this article was published on GeekDad on August 12, 2010.

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