S-100 Systems


Altair 8800


     So I tell you that the IBM PC started it all in it's description, but the Altair 8800 started the IBM PC in a way! This is considered by some to be the spark that ignited the microcomputer revolution. The reason it is so monumental is because it introduced the S-100 bus and that became the common data bus until the IBM PC and it's ISA bus. When the Altair 8800 was being developed, technology to make a truly useful computer had not been released yet, so Altair decided to put everything on removable cards. The benefit of doing this is that when these useful technologies did come out, users could just swap out a couple cards and have a more modern computer. Everything being on cards also made the motherboard very simple. It was not much more than a connector between cards.

      The reason that I told you the Altair 8800 started the PC is that it started Microsoft. What happened was Bill Gates, who was currently running a two-person business with Paul Allen called Traf-o-data, saw an ad for the Altair 8800 in the Popular Electronics magazine. He instantly knew it was the future of computers, so he called up Altair and told them he had a programming language for the 8800. This was not entirely true. He had an idea for one, but didn't have any actual programming language. You see, the problem with the Altair was that in order to program it, you needed to flip all of the switches on the front panel in a certain way that inputs 8080 instructional code. This was a long,  annoying job to do. That's where Gates came in. He developed a programming language called BASIC that lets you type in code to get the Altair 8800 to do what you want. The funniest part was that he did this without an Altair 8800! He wrote a simple 8800 emulator on his PDP-10. Once he finished BASIC, he rushed it to Altair on paper tape for testing. It came up with the words "Altair BASIC" and crashed. That was enough for Altair, though! Gates and Allen then proceeded to form Micro-Soft, and yes, there was originally a hyphen. 

     Nobody really knows what the first microcomputer was. It all depends on how you define microcomputer. Some think it was the Mark-8, some think it was the PDP-11, and some think it was the Altair 8800. Whatever you believe it is, you cannot argue the significance of the Altair 8800. It had a new bus, a new programming language, and it was perfect for hobbyists like Bill Gates. The Altair 8800 was the first S-100 computer ever.

Altair 8800

 Apple Computers

1976 and On

 Apple ][


     Now, I could spend hours arguing about whether the Mark-8, the Altair 8800, or the PDP-11 was the first personal computer. However, it is inarguable that the Apple ][ was the first of it's kind. What is it's kind, you might ask? Well, it was the first mass produced, successful microcomputer ever, it was the first computer ever directed at the consumer, and it was the first successful Apple computer ever. It was yet another reason for the creation of the PC. The Apple ]['s popularity put pressure on IBM to come up with something in the microcomputer department. 
     Back to the ][ its self, it had some very revolutionary hardware and software. For starters, it was one of the first computers to make use of color graphics. This is actually was the reason for the old apple logo being a rainbow apple. It showed off the color capabilities of the Apple ][. You could purchase it for $1,298 with 4k of RAM. In 1977, that was an average amount of RAM for a computer. You also had the option of getting 48k for $2,638. That was amazing for it's time.
     To see it's real improvement, you have to compare the Apple][ to the Apple I. The Apple I is a single board. You had to provide a case, a monitor, a form of storage media, and a keyboard. The reason of this was that it was meant for mainly hobbyists. The Apple ][ had a fancy case, a built in keyboard, and came with a monitor. It also came with floppy drives. 
     For any computer to be successful back in the day, it had to have a 'killer program'. This was a program that was go amazing that people would buy a computer just so they could run it. The Apple ]['s killer program was called Visicalc. Visicalc was the first spreadsheet program for a computer. You see, most people don't really understand how monumentally useful this was. Picture the most complicated Excel spreadsheet you have ever seen. Now picture having to manually write it out on a chalk board and then if you change one cell, you have to go through and change everything it is related to. Visicalc did all this for you. It literally would compress hours of work into a few seconds.
     So there was definitely more than one reason that the Apple ][ deserves an article on this page. It had better graphics, smaller chips, and more RAM then any other computer of it's time. It introduced spreadsheet software, and it bridged the gap between hobbyist computing and functional home computing.

 Apple Macintosh


     Imagine you are Steve Jobs in the late 1970s and early '80s. You are the co-founder of a fortune 500 company that is making millions by selling the Apple ][, a computer that your friend, Steve Wozniak, has designed. This was all great, but Jobs wanted something more. He wanted to totally reinvent the home computer in a way that would change the world. This is exactly what he did with the Macintosh.
      There were many technologies used in the Macintosh that were previously unheard of. The biggest example of this is the Graphic User Interface, or GUI for short. The Macintosh was the first widely marketed computer to make use of a GUI. Many people thought this made the Mac seem childish and unprofessional. Back in 1984, everyone was used to using DOS, a text mode operating system, and having to type in commands to do everything. When the Macintosh came out, it's GUI was ahead of it's time and most people weren't ready for it. However, over time GUIs ended up replacing older operating systems like MS-DOS and CP/M.

IBM PCs and Compatibles

1981 and On 

IBM PC 5150


     This is the machine that started it all. It is probably the father of the computer you are using right now. There were many events that led up to its creation. In 1980, microcomputers like the Apple ][ had been hugely growing in popularity. Not just with consumers and hobbyists, but in the business market too, which is what IBM specializes in. At the time, IBM was making mainframes only. These were huge computers that took up whole rooms and were very expensive. Well, businesses were suddenly realizing, "Why pay so much money for a huge computer that is accessed by many terminals and uses out-of-date forms of data transfer like cassettes or paper tape if I can get a new microcomputer that has an actual monitor and keyboard plugged directly into it, uses a newer, smaller, and faster data transfer format with 360k of storage called the floppy disk, can make sounds and print directly to a printer, and can fit all of these features onto a desktop?" This realization was especially common with small businesses that didn't have money to blow and needed to conserve space.
     Obviously, IBM just had to get in on the action. They were the leading manufacturer of business machines. IBM did know that their window of opportunity was closing. It usually took about four years to develop a new technology at IBM. That was too long. If they had gone about the PC's development in the normal way, they would have been released after the Apple Macintosh and the Compaq Portable. Who knows what would have happened then. Anyway, IBM authorized a special team that could bypass normal company restrictions to get a PC on the market fast. This was one of IBM's best business choices ever. They has a fully operational microcomputer in one year. They named it "Personal Computer" or PC(because that's such a creative name ;D). It used about half 3rd party parts like the floppy drives, power supply, and the built in copy of BASIC. This was another reason the PC was finished so fast. The other half was made up of parts from the IBM System 23 Data Master like the keyboard and expansion bus, along with some new technologies like the motherboard.

     The invention of MS-DOS also goes along with the story of the IBM PC. It is an interesting set of events that occured. IBM wanted to have the PC run Digital Research's CPM operating system, but they could never strike up a deal with CPM. Nobody really knows why, but I think it was because Digital Research knew they wouldn't have a version for the PC ready by it's release date. IBM then proceeded to ask a small company called Microsoft which had created a programming language called Microsoft BASIC to come up with a whole new operating system for the upcoming IBM PC. This seems a bit unorthodox for IBM. They are going to a small company to ask them to create software they had never created before, and to make things worse, the software was for a computer they had never used or programmed before. However, the ambitious Bill Gates wasn't one to back down to a challenge. Instead of writing an operating system from scratch, he purchased the rights to a rather unpopular operating system called 86-DOS or QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) from Seattle Computer Products. Once Microsoft owned the rights to 86-DOS, they proceeded to adapt it for the PC. By 1981, Microsoft had accomplished what Digital Research couldn't do with the operating system they had written from scratch. The PC was finally released with MS-DOS (PC-DOS at the time) on floppies and BASIC in the ROM.
     Nobody knows what made the PC so popular. It wasn't particularly powerful. Some think it was simply because IBM made it. I have a hunch that the fact it came with MS-DOS and how easy it was for developers to convert programs to compatibility with DOS didn't exactly hurt it's popularity. No matter how it became so popular, it sure did change the world.
IBM 5150 PC

Compaq Portable


     This is an  IBM PC compatible computer  I know what you are thinking - what's so great about that? They were a dime a dozen back in the day! Well, the reason this is so important is because it was the first IBM PC compatible. Up until the Compaq Portable, IBM had a total monopoly on the PC market. They could manufacture a completely awful PC but people would still buy it because they were the only ones making PCs. You see, the big mistake that IBM made was that they only copyrighted the BIOS of the IBM PC. The techies at Compaq reverse-engineered the IBM PC's BIOS ROM and then recreated it in a way that does not violate the copyright(a long, complicated process). Once they succeeded in that, they had to give users a reason to buy their computer instead of the IBM PC, right?  Well, what better way is there than to make it portable? Compaq also gave their Portable PC enhanced CGA graphics. IBM used 8x8 pixel character cells to generate text. Compaq used 9x14 pixels. This gave it the high quality text of MDA, and the high quality graphics of CGA. It was a bit more expensive, but it was absolutely the perfect solution for businesses that relied heavily on spreadsheets because you could have a graphical spreadsheet program displayed in high quality resolution, and the text in each cell displayed in high quality resolution also.

     The reason this PC is so important is that when computer manufacturers found out that there was a way to legally duplicate the PC's BIOS, they all started doing it. There was a huge burst of PC compatibles. Technically, that is all we can get today, because IBM doesn't even make PCs anymore. Before people started cloning the PC, IBM didn't have as much pressure to improve on their design in order to stay at the top of the market. Look at the IBM PC vs. the IBM PC-XT. Then look at the IBM PC-XT vs. the IBM PC-AT. The XT was very similar to the PC. It had the same case design, the same processor, and the same 8-bit ISA slots (although there were 8 instead of 5). The AT had a completely different case design, new 1.2Mb floppy drives, a newer fully 16-bit processor, and thus new 16-bit ISA slots. As you can tell from this comparison, manufacturers had started cloning the PC right after the XT came out. IBM saw the building competition and that's why every IBM PC that came out since the XT was faster and better than the last.

Compaq Portable I

 Please note that I do not take credit for any of these images.

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