back to article Remembering the IBM PC

It's time again to rewind that fleshy cassette storage device in your head to yesteryear. This old box logo This week, we're headed back to August 12, 1981 — the date IBM introduced its Personal Computer, a system that would shape the industry and make the term "PC" synonymous with home computers. But let's not get ahead …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    "ogle your hardware"

    hehe, I bet there was no inuendo inferred there!

  2. Alan Lukaszewicz

    Ah! The beeb?

    At least the beeb (BBC computer/Archimedes?) did not have quite so demanding a footprint and all that RISK?

  3. Anonymous Coward

    No No No !

    "a small company called Microsoft, which had built some fame for itself as the creator of BASIC Programming Language"

    It's bad enough that every kid today thinks that Bill Gates "invented the computer" without El Reg spreading this kind of rubbish, The BASIC programming language was developed by Kemeny and Kurtz in 1963 (when Bill Gates was still in short trousers).

    I think what you meant to say was "a small company called Microsoft, which had built some fame for itself as the creator of a BASIC interpreter for the Altair 8800".

  4. Martin Gregorie

    Whoever invented BASIC... certainly wasn't MicroSoft.

    BASIC was written at Dartmouth College in 1963 and was widespread on mainframes and minicomputers within the next decade.

    What MicroSoft wrote wasn't the first microcomputer BASIC either. That was Tiny BASIC, defined in 1975: I saw it running on an SWTPc microcomputer in an NYC computer store in 1976.

    What they wrote was the first portable 8 bit BASIC, M-BASIC. This rapidly spread across most microcomputer operating systems and hardware because it was good and it allowed BASIC applications to be easily ported. As a result it made them the money to buy QDOS and then bootstrap it into MS-DOS.

  5. Ashlee Vance (Written by Reg staff)

    Re: Whoever invented BASIC...

    Thanks for the catch on BASIC. My fault for letting that slip through. Story has been fixed.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Mi...cro...soft........ who?

  7. Bruce

    C:\> ? not half.

    A 1981 era PC would have only had DOS 1.0, which it is unlikely would have come with a hard drive, since it didn't have support for directories (added in 2.0). (Hence the stupid path char). So no C drive, or extra prompt part. Further, that prompt was only default in quite recent (5ish) version of DOS, before that it was plain old A> or C>

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    I wonder how IBM

    feels about this now. It's hard to believe they didn't do the operating system in house strange days indeed.

  9. Tom

    Intel would now be dust...

    ...if IBM had picked the 68000 as the processor. They would be still making DRAM and EPROMS as the name INTegreated ELectronics implies. Oh well. We're stuck with this decision for ever more.

    At this point I can only dream of what should be. Such is life (*SIGH*)

  10. Solomon Grundy


    "BASIC was written at Dartmouth College in 1963 and was widespread on mainframes and minicomputers within the next decade."


    And BASIC is possibly the only worthwhile thing to come from New Hampshire.

    I take that back, the "Old Man of the Mountain" was pretty cool when he fell off the mountain. If you haven't seen it, it's worth the laugh, the "Old Man" fell off and all that remains is a huge pile of stones - across the highway is the favored viewpoint of the "Old Man" and now there are signs that explain how it fell off and why, mostly Asian and Eastern European tourists can no longer languish in the magnificence of "The Man".

    The signs alone are worth the trip to NH.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The old microsoft branding sucked :)

  12. Alan Potter
    IT Angle


    @Grundy - WTF have those rocks to do with the PC or IT in general?

    Anyway - I remember getting the first PC in the Byte Shop and wondering why IBM thought they could break into the microcomputer business. Compared to some of the CP/M business machines (Sol-20 anyone? - I've already mentioned the Cromemco and the North Star Horizon in the PET thread) it was very expensive, had a non-standard operating system (at the time!), and had limited expansion capability. But it was IBM and the Big Blue branding was very important to corporates. When I worked at Lloyds Bank there used to be a running joke - Why are London Buses red? Because if they were blue, Lloyds would buy them.

    @El Reg - slightly off topic. I know, but are you going to cover the Osborne 1 (or was it 2?) you know, the one that was about as portable as an electric sewing machine and about the same shape?

  13. This post has been deleted by its author

  14. Neil

    Read it again

    I think you'll find it says "as the creator of a BASIC interpreter for the Altair 8800"

    Not the inventor of BASIC.

  15. Anonymous Coward

    Big Blue

    > Big Blue was able to own the personal computer market until the end of the '80s

    Really? I'm sure Alan Michael Sugar of Amstrad fame would like to hear about that. He introduced the Amstrad 1512 and then 1640 in about 1986, and I think he sold one or three of those - it's possible that Paris Hilton might have got hold of one (hang on a minute though - either the owner was trash or the thing being owned was trash - it wouldn't be right for both ends of the ownership chain to be trash now would it?).

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Picking a CPU because the others were "too powerful"?

    No, they weren't too powerful, instead they would have required a 16-bit design around them making the thing too expensive, and in the case of the 68000 the part itself was probably quite expensive as well. It is interesting to speculate how things would have turned out had the 8-bit external bus variant of the 68000 (the 68008) been available at the time...

  17. Adam Foxton
    Jobs Horns

    Microsoft Ad

    Even back then they knew how to actually sell things to businesses and (to a lesser extent back then) home users- "more software!" "Easier to program for!"- rather than "It's open source!" "It's more secure!" and other such things that 75% of the world don't care about until it's too late (hacked, patent issues, etc). For a car comparison, people ask "how many Horses does it have?", "How fast does it go", or maybe "how many MPGs?" or "How many seats?". When was the last time Top Gear covered a car because it had a large number of airbags or a really great security system?

    Linux, fantastic OS though it is, really could learn a lot from MS's marketing if it wants to hit the big time!

    @"I wonder how IBM"'s Annonymous Coward, and "Tom", if IBM had made it's own in-house OS and used the 68000, wouldn't that have made them... Apple?

  18. Ash

    Oh the good old days...

    I remember a friend of mine asking a PC engineer to fix a computer which had started giving "Bad or missing command interpreter." He charged £160, which I thought was rediculous.

    It wasn't until I had a look at the PC and saw it had a 5.25" FDD that I understood...

    This was 10 years ago...

    I feel old.

    (I wasn't born in 1981)

  19. Jeremy

    'User friendly error messages'

    Where did it all go wrong?

  20. Doug

    the IBM PC ..

    > Big Blue was able to own the personal computer market until the end of the '80s.

    The begining of the end was when Columbia Data Products produced the first PC clone in 1982, followed by Eagle Computer (who tha') and Compaq. They did this by figuring out how to cleanroom the BIOS and Microsoft were more than willing to license MS-DOS to these IBM PC clone companies. IBM later tried to clawback control of the PC with OS/2 only to fail, yet gain ...

  21. Doug

    I remember it different ..

    > IBM also decided to create an open architecture .. Other manufacturers would be allowed to build and sell peripherals and software, thus creating the "IBM-compatible" legacy of PC equipment.

    Not so open that other manufacturers would be able to walk off with the IBM PC. They later on tried to clawback the PC with their own interface (Micro Channel architecture), only to fail again ..

    Secondly IBM considered 'software' irrelevent, it was the hardware was where the money was. That they had a plan to create the IBM PC software/peripherals industry is news to me and I'm sure to the executives that were around at the time.

    > Project Chess was juggling between using the 16-bit Intel 8086 processor, Motorola MC68000 and the Intel 8088. The latter was eventually chosen because the others were determined to be too powerful.

    Another opinion was IBM choose a low-spec design so as not to cut into their more expensive hardware based word processor ...

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Re: Read it again

    @Neil: If you look further up the comment thread you'll see an entry from the author acknowledging the mistake and saying that it's been fixed in the text look for the quote with the super-special Vulture icon:

    Re: Whoever invented BASIC...

    By Ashlee Vance

    Posted Saturday 17th November 2007 01:57 GMT

    Thanks for the catch on BASIC. My fault for letting that slip through. Story has been fixed.

  23. Marco

    Re: Intel would now be dust...

    "At this point I can only dream of what should be. Such is life (*SIGH*)"

    We would be lamenting why we have keep up with chipmaking giant Motorola and what would be if IBM had chosen Intel.

  24. sleepy

    Seeing Apple's success made IBM do it

    Apple's upstart success in taking computers beyond the hobbyist market goaded IBM into this first PC. Like the Apple II, it was intended for home use as well as for business, with cassette data storage, TV display, and even games paddle ports. It was a competent entry into a crowded market. (the Jan '82 Byte magazine in which it was launched is 500 pages of competitors) Such was IBM's prestige & mind share in business, that IBM was able to advertise it as "the IBM of personal computers". Home use was quickly forgotten, and it immediately became a business standard. Bill Gates was smart enough to understand the significance of IBM entering the market better than IBM themselves, and negotiated accordingly.

    And thus we were all condemned (even Intel has never escaped despite multiple attempts) to the ghastly x86 architecture and a Microsoft monopoly.

  25. De Zeurkous

    IBM PCs? Blehhhhhhh

    If anyone at Reg HQ likes to clean up the rather large pile of vomit in front of me here, they can reach me at the e-mail adress associated with my account.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    There was more than PCs

    Come on come on! If you're going to reminisce you've got to talk about The Sinclair ZX-80, first home computer under £100! The BBC Model B that got put in to every school. The Atari Amiga that had the best graphics around! The Vic-20 and the Commodore-64 that had the best games (as long as you were prepared to type in all those hex codes!).

    The PC came in to the home due to its use in the office but THESE were the grandfathers of the home computer!

  27. Stephen Channell
    Gates Halo

    And what about Xenix?

    Back in 1980.. things were rather different.. Digital Research had the OS everybody wanted (CP/M) .. but they were having trouble with the port.. and it was not available when the PC launched.. instead of coming clean.. Gary hid in the skies.

    Microsoft on the other hand, did have an OS, based on Unix called Xenix.. that they tried to sell to IBM.. and sold DOS as an escalator-pitch to move IBM onto Xenix later.

    If history was different and IBM had not created the PC, we’d still see Microsoft dominating the industry, but we’d all be running Xenix and AT&T would not have been so dumb to cut-off academic source access thus creating Minix then Linux.

    Perhaps the only difference would be that the Pascal p-code (the original bytecode) that ran Microsofts Pascal & COBOL runtimes back in the ‘80’s would be what Java became.. ooh hang-on a minute.. that’s what .NET and ISO standard CLR is..

  28. Chophshiy


    OK, so y'all feel great because, what?

    You're not old enough to be repelled by new tech, but young enough to have grown up watching the early stages. Freakin' whoo pee. Me too. That does not make anyone interesting, special. Please shut up.

    And yes, x86 sucks so hard. Oh wait, nope. This C2D with 4GB which cost almost exactly as much as the 1981 machine but can do a xillion times more is not sucking. How about that.

    I should get a life and stop reading others comments and replying to them. You too :)

  29. Simon Harris

    @Martin Ward

    From the beginning of the PET article last week 'Over the next few weeks, we'll retrospect some of the computers that made the industry what it is today'.

    Have a little patience Martin... Don't know what El Reg has planned for the next reminiscence, but it looks like more is to come!

  30. Mike Stephens

    Bill Did the Decent Thing

    I believe Bill went to Seattle Computer and was offerred the $50,000 per customer normal deal. Of course Seattle couldn't imagine any customer could possibly sell thousands let alone millions of pcs, or that they might be called IBM, so Bill trousered all the profit. He did I believe later incorporate Seattle into Microsoft so I guess quite a few millionares were made anyway. I dispute Bill had Xenix at this early stage.

  31. Paul

    the PC and XT weren't IBM's first personal computers!

    the PC 5100 was earlier, but failed as a product, the PC as we know it was a totally different architecture despite being the 5150.

    I recall first encountering PC XTs as a undergrad in Elec/Electronic engineering at the University of Leeds, when IBM gave them enough to build a classroom full of machines, with network and a file server - the staff knew IBM was going to make the gift but didn't expect it to be so generous, especially as the machines were higher spec than normal (memory etc) nor did they expect to get a network and file server!

    Many of us had Amigas or Ataris and though the specifications of the PCs to be a bit of a joke - no colour, crap graphics, no sound except a beep, and hugely expensive! Four years later I was using a 386 @ 16MHz with a whopping 4MB of ram to write C and assembler, but I still went home to an Amiga. I didn't consider owning a PC for many years still until an affordable system with accelerated graphics (matrox were king at the time) and quality sound (soundblaster) came my way in the early/mid 90s.

  32. Simon Booth
    Jobs Horns

    The C:\ prompt still has it's uses!

    In fact I'm doing it tomorrow morning...

    If you're stuck with a non-bootable CD of WinXP one of the few ways to get a system working is to boot off of a DOS disk, install Win98 and then upgrade it to WinXP.

    An even more fraught exercise is doing the same stuff with a cd and floppy devoid machine but it's still possible using a PXE boot environment (did that last week on my Tablet PC)

    There's life, and a real - albeit limited - need for the old dog still

  33. Anonymous Coward

    Plus ça change...

    > Microsoft wasn't up to the challenge of writing an operating system itself

    Yeah, things have changed so much since then...

  34. ben edwards


    In 20 years you'll be saying the exact same comment in the new era's forums, and some little brat will laugh at your C2D and point at the now-ubiquitous multicore quantum architecture with holographic storage for the same price.

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Simon Harris

    I hope you're right, although given the source of the machines being photographed I doubt there will be many UK machines.

    Gosh, I wish I had kept all my issues of Personal Computer News... a new machine being reviewed every week! Happy days.

  36. The Mighty Spang

    68000? I have to add text here as apparantly "68000?" doesnt count as a comment title

    if only they had picked the 68000, i reckon something like 7000 billion years worth of human time could have been avoided arsing about with the 640k limit, loadhigh, quemm etc. With the amount of cash that intel got, motorola could have RULED.

    From somebody who coded in assembler at that time, I wouldnt code 8086, it was like a glorified z80, whereas the 68000 made some sense and didnt involve shoving registrers into memory every 4 instructions.

    credit where its due though (and through law of unintended consequences) the segmented architecture really worked for dlls in 16 bit windows.

    BTW Atari Amiga? hand in your geek badge at the door man

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Gates Horns

    Some obvious (or maybe not, eh?) mistakes or omissions.

    "Gates managed to convince IBM to let Microsoft retain the rights to the operating system"

    Wasn't very hard as mom Gates was a member of the board in IBM at the time and IBM expected to sell a couple of thousands these small toys, insignificant. Also made very simple to "choose" junior Gates as provider.

    MS was founded in a garage, a garage belonging to a millionaire and board member of the biggest IT company. Shouldn't be too hard to anybody and by no means Bill-boy isn't stupid. Greedy bastard maybe, but not stupid.

    "IBM also decided to create an open architecture for the system (now known internally as project "Acorn"). Other manufacturers would be allowed to build and sell peripherals and software, thus creating the "IBM-compatible" legacy of PC equipment."

    Yes and no. Architecture was open only to accessories, not cloning. There were some legal disputes between first cloners and IBM about this matter. IBM lost and the reason follows.

    Unfortunately for IBM, they were and still are, very thorough, documenting everything, and PC's technical manuals (bought separately) included BIOS listing (I've one of those manuals in my archives, somewhere). When components used were standard components and BIOS wasn't a secret anymore, it was just a matter of time that somebody writes functional equivalent of BIOS. Of course they couldn't use the same code due the copyright, but BIOS listing gave enough information to offer same functionality.

    IBM's copyright of course couldn't stop recreations and by some mysterious reasons, they didn't bother to patent anything. Gates older is suspected, as IBM at that time and even now is known for patenting everything.

    " ...Intel 8088. The latter was eventually chosen because the others were determined to be too powerful."

    Too expensive. And 8 bit buses are much cheaper to make. "Low cost" was showing everywhere: Mass media: a C cassette!, Display:TV, Sound/Graphics: None. Expansion slot: 8 bit, slow as hell.

    Also was the advantage of easy porting of CP/M-programs to 8088, one segment was like 8080.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    640k limit

    How many know why there was that famous 640k limit?

    8088 had only a megabyte (1024k, 20bits) of address space and as a cost saving method, the BASIC ROM (384k) was in same address space. Leaving 640k.

    As a hardware design limitation, it wasn't easy to circumvent cheap and low cost was the primary feature in any PC. It still is.

  39. Xenios

    User friendly

    Don't know if anyone bothered to read the microsoft ad in the article but at some point it says "And MS-DOS' descriptive error messages make it a user friendly OS".

    Don't know about that but I guess that's why they later went for the BSOD, that's their marketing tool for user friendliness.

  40. Anonymous Coward

    Not exactly the brilliant product of the age

    In the same time frame as the clunky IBM PC, Digital Equipment Corp. turned out the Professional series of pdp-11 based desktop microcomputers. These little honeys had 22-bit address space, separate floating point processors, imbedded telephony, hard drives, zoomy VGA-level (monochrome) graphics and a reliable multitasking operating system based on RSX-11M with a track record and thousands of applications (alright, maybe hundreds). They even sold at Sears for a while, alongside the IBM PC.

    DEC also sold Rainbows, which offered the 12-bit pdp-8 with COS-8 and WPS word processing alongside the 8080 with CP/M in one box.

    Of course, all this typical first class DEC equipment was sunk by Ken Olsen, the founder of DEC, who uttered the most absurd comment of the age: "I cannot imagine why anyone would want a computer in their home", thus proving that marketing is everything. Microsoft continues to sell incomplete, clunky, unreliable product, which doesn't stop them from being by far the industry leader.

  41. Bela Lubkin

    @The Mighty Spang

    > BTW Atari Amiga? hand in your geek badge at the door man

    It's a fair cop -- Jay Miner and many other Amiga designers were refugees from Atari, and Atari had funded some of the early development. Meanwhile the Atari ST, Amiga's closest rival, was designed under the whip of Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore.

    In some sense, it's as if Atari and Commodore swapped product lines at the 32-bit juncture.

  42. Anthony Chambers
    Thumb Up


    I'm loving these articles, keep 'em coming!

  43. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    The range did go on

    The XT as you mention was the extended technology monica. What most dont realise IBM had its first RISC system out then commercialy under the RT monica. This was early AIX days folks and indeed installing of 70 floppies was memories you dont get today. The model I was familar with was the RT/6150 which was the early birth of the whole POWER CPU range. It wasnt until AIX version 3 that we say AIX realy kick of and alas iirc the 6150 was at best AIX 2 based. Lovely machines, but there again I used to like the cute Honeywell bull DPS6's.

  44. Anonymous Coward

    Fear: The Record (1982)

    "I wish I had kept all my issues of Personal Computer News... a new machine being reviewed every week!"

    I used to have a stack of them. Every issue had a chart of the ten best-selling business computers of the previous week, or month, and another chart with the ten best-selling home computers. The second chart always had Sinclair at the top, and then Commodore, and Atari a distant third.

    There were lots of names that are either obscure nowadays (Sord, Altos, ICL, NEC) or that are not usually associated with computers (Casio, Canon, Sharp, and Tandy, who made a computer based around the obscure Intel 80186). The magazines filled up space with articles about Prestel, which was an interesting idea whereby distant computers were connected together over the telephone line, and also articles about add-on keyboards for the ZX81. It's fascinating to compare the iPod's parasite peripheral market with that of the early 1980s microcomputers, with joysticks and new cases and the Multiface etc.

    This was at a time when the games magazines had type-in listings, and I distinctly remember Your Sinclair/Spectrum running a series of guides on how to hack into Jet Set Willy and modify the code(!).

    "Standard cassette tapes were used to load and store programs."

    I wonder if the loading process was anything like the 8-bit microcomputers of the era, with the psychedelic colour bars and the challenging avant-garde music that the manufacturers used to play as the tapes loaded. I picture the fusty old IBM showing the text "LOADING - REFER TO SERVICE MANUAL #83.4 IN CASE OF ERROR" on the screen and, in even bigger writing, "DO NOT LEAVE THIS MACHINE UNATTENDED".

    One day this article will have to describe a standard cassette tape, because they are falling out of use.

  45. Don Mitchell

    BASIC, etc

    Dartmouth BASIC was pretty influential in the 1960s, when some computer companies adapted it as their operating system interface (e.g., Control Data's timesharing systems).

    Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) pioneered the minicomputer, and its operating systems for the PDP-10 and PDP-11 were what a lot of students used in the 1960s and 1970s. Systems like TOPS-10 and RT-11 were what people had in mind when they wrote CP/M or DOS. The BASIC user interface disappeared, but the programming language sort of survived. It wasn't really very popular for a while, viewed as just a toy, so FORTRAN, FORTH, PASCAL and C were a lot more important as programming languages in the 1970s.

    Visual Basic breathed new life into the language in the early '90s, by combining it with a nice object-oriented graphical user interface builder. The language was also extended and modernized a lot since the non-structured language that Dartmouth originally designed (remember GOSUB?). Today, the BASIC language has declined, but GUI scripting lived on in Java and C#, both of which owe a lot to Visual Basic.

  46. BitTwister

    @Martin Ward

    > The PC came in to the home due to its use in the office but THESE [ZX-80, BBC-B, Vic-20 etc.] were the grandfathers of the home computer!

    No no - they were but the first pre-built & badged generation to be sold generally.

    The real grandfathers of the home computer were the many home-brew machines available before Sinclair, the BBC and IBM etc. got into the game. Some of us were wielding soldering irons and working on binary dumps for a few years before things got wrapped in fancy plastic - er, or any case at all...

  47. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    @Paul Grey

    Although the IBM RT/6150 was an early RISC computer, and built by IBM Austin, there is not really a huge amount that was carried across from the 6150 to the POWER RISC System/6000.

    There was no code compatibillity (apart from re-compiling the source), no compatible media, no compatible devices. And AIX version 2 was even at the time an archaic UNIX version, being based on SVR2, when most people had moved on to SVR3 or BSD 4.3 and later based unicies with proper demand-paging.

    Anybody who had used the tools to configure the VRM on a 6150 (it was essentially a hypervisor - in 1987!) would know that it really was a bodge, with the VRM presenting a larger virtual system to the OS than was physically present. Still, I guess that some of the work probably made it into the current p5 and p6 IBM systems.

    Still, it was streets ahead of the IBM PC products that were around at the time, but Sun, Apollo, and numerous other small vendors (like Altos, Whitechapple, NCR et. al.) were selling much better workstations.

    I had a 6150 model135 in my home until about 2001, with a megapel adapter and a 5157 (I think) at home. Unbelieveable size, weight (I still pity the poor removal man that carried it up two stories when we moved), and noise.

  48. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oddly enough...

    I found an original IBM PC keyboard (not even XT), new-in-box, up in our old storage a few weeks ago. Quite literally, NEW IN BOX.

  49. John Benson

    I come to praise the 8086/88, not to bury it...

    What people nowadays don't seem to appreciate is the tremendous wisdom that guided the the design of the Intel 8086 and its eight-bit datapathed variant, the 8088.

    The ingenious scheme of 16-bit paragraph + 16-bit address with 4-bit overlap cleverly divided up RAM into 64KByte areas, clearing the way for the immediate porting of many (perhaps even dozens!) of perfectly serviceable 8080 CP/M programs to the IBM PC.

    The result, as everyone knows, is that WordStar became the dominant word processor on the PC, and dBase went from strength to strength with its 8086 port as well.

    This gutsy decision to support the generous, tried-and-true 64KByte 8080 data space in its new processor line saved the world from the threat of constantly expanding memory dangled in front of programmers who could only be counted on to abuse the same in an orgy of bloatware creation.

    Unfortunately, Intel's valiant effort to hold the line on the 64KByte memory model started to crumble as programmers insisted on constantly manipulating the DS register to slake their insatiable thirst for more memory, and Intel finally signalled its capitulation by making linear addressing available on the 386.

    But let us not forget Intel's noble gesture to 8-bit compatibility and those invaluable CP/M programs that lived on in the golden twilight of small memory model programming on the 8086/88. It was the hardware equivalent of the brilliant 32-to-16-bit thunking layer that Microsoft later created to secure for posterity the benefits of a finely-tuned, 16-bit OS in a 32-bit-besotted world, and that world will be forever indebted to both Intel's and Microsoft's inspired backward-looking technological initiatives for the stability and predictability they have brought to the art of computing.

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    prompt $p$g

    Well, I think Bruce is right. My parents rented a IBM PC that runs MS-DOS 1.0 back in the late-80s, and it only shows A> and B> .

    I only recall seeing the A:\> prompt on MS-DOS 2.11 or later (2.11 came with the Sharp PC-7000A portable that my mom rescued from the company dumpster in the early 90s).

    God, I feel old.

  51. Simon T

    Hacking Jet Set Willy?

    I still remember the poke code for that on the Vic 20:

    Poke 9926, 256

    I think thats for two player, can't remember the single player poke.

    Funny what sticks in the mind.

  52. Nick Sargeant

    68008 was too late ...

    Motorola was quite determined to get the business for the IBM PC, but the 68000 at the time was a huge chunk of ceramic - a 64-pin beast that swallowed too much real estate. It was also in a gold-pinned package, which made the socket expensive as well (manufacturers didn't use dissimilar metals for packages and sockets). The 8088 eventually chosen for the PC was in a 40-pin package with tinned leads, and used an 8-bit bus. Motorola's 68008 was about four months too late.

  53. Nick Ramsay

    USCD Pascal?

    It was actually the UCSD p-System - see here

  54. MrT

    68008, soldering irons and Prestel

    MC68008 - ah, the Sinclair QL. Loved it. Developed for it and thought it much more of a step forward from Z80 than, say, the Spectrum was over the ZX81. But since when has "technically better" sold kit? Especially when hugely expensive like the PC ranges were before about 1995. After all, IBM's PS/2 MCA was a better standard than ISA, (even though it could be seen as IBM trying to drag things back into its playground), but no-one wanted to spend money on it.

    I've still got an unbuilt kit version of the ZX81, so WRT the 'grandfather' thing being wrong, I'd say the ZX80 and ZX81 were the last of the line before the beginning of the pre-built systems like Spectrum, BBC Micro and, yes, IBM PC - just because it can be built from bit doesn't mean it's anything like an Altair! So for me, the ZX81 would be the last grandfather, very much in the spirit of the earlier late-70's kit. Later stuff was limited to plugging in CMOS chips to upgrade RAM, or adding functionality through extra ROMs, or just buying pre-built expansion systems.

    Prestel: IIRC there was an edition of the "Making the Most of the Micro" TV show where two Beebs exchanged an message across the Atlantic to show the ability to swap data over telecoms networks (would be about '85 or '86, so just after the Internet switched to TCP/IP, but before WWW). The data exchanged okay, but the program fell over because the BBC Micro had region-specific spellings in the version of BASIC they used (couldn't have an educational micro with 'spelling mistakes'!) - the US programmer in the New York studio had used the word 'COLOR' where the UK micro was expecting 'COLOUR' and the program crashed - when corrected, it drew a big red apple.

    Must book my trip to Bletchley Park - the National Museum of Computing ( looks stacked full of geeky goodness. Are the photos for this series of articles taken there?

  55. Nick Sargeant

    And as for Bill ..

    He only got the job as he was Mary's son, and Mary was on the national Executive Committe of the United Way along with John Akers, then CEO of IBM.

  56. Phil the Geek

    PC compatibility

    IBM may have documented "everything" in the PC's Tech Ref manual, but amazingly "everything" didn't extend to the PC's expansion bus (later to be known as ISA). Most people had their own definitions based on analysis of the states, timing and levels generated by the 74-series TTL chips on IBM's PC schematics. IBM didn't release a bus definition until the RT Tech Ref (it looked like the RT team had gone through the same analysis process themselves), and by then it was academic.

    A generation of clone-designing hardware engineers lived and died by whether their designs' busses were "close enough" to what that pile of TTL did - which could get tricky when it was stretched to cope with later CPU generations like the 386.

  57. Big_Boomer Silver badge


    REM Ahhh the commands of my Yoof


    A:\>FDISK /MBR

    A:\>FORMAT C: /U

    A:\>CHKDSK C:

    A:\>COPY A:\*.* C:\TEMP


    REM If you try and run the above on your PC and it b*ggers it up

    REM then you are stoopid and deserve everything you get

  58. Simon Harris


    In a sense, I'd disagree with the ZX81 being the last of those in the spirit of the 70's. While the kit did involve soldering everything together, if I remember rightly the ZX81 consisted of the CPU, RAM, ROM and a custom gate array - just 4 chips.

    To my mind it was the introduction of the custom chips that brought about the demise of the 70's spirit. Probably the last of the line in that scheme of things were systems like the Acorn Atom and Tangerine. Provided you had the schematics (and back in those days, you did get them), and had access to the ROM images, it was quite possible to buy all the components from somewhere like RS or Farnell and build your own version without needing anything special from the manufacturers. With the old guard using standard components and a pile of databooks, you knew exactly what was happening inside, and it made it so much easier to mess with the hardware.

  59. John Angelico

    "God, I feel old!"

    Umm, I have only seen one person dare to claim they wrote in assembler.

    I am past caring about my age, but when the boss bought the IBM PC-1 with 256K of RAM via an IBM friend, I thought "how amazingly small these new things are..." :-)

    I trace my computing back to 1969-1972, the era of 80-column punched cards, 15-inch and 17-inch fanfold stationery, 24-hour turnaround at the job collection window, 5th floor of the Institute of Technology where I trained in Accounting. There was the one register per instruction ICL George 3 OS running nearly 1000 jobs per day in 96K of core memory. This was the era of showing employees a room full of whirring machinery and saying "there you are, that's what calculates your pay." "Wow!" (Witnessed that conversation over and over again.)

    I bear the scars, but I am sure there must be others who pre-date me...somewhere! Fellas? Anybody still here??

  60. A J Stiles

    @That Poke

    The second argument to a POKE would never be 256 -- POKE stores a single byte value (i.e., 0 to 255) in the address given by the first argument. Could have been 255, maybe.

    The number 234 crops up often in POKEs for Commodores, Apples and Beebs (although the Beeb didn't actually use the word POKE, but a construct using ? as an operator, such as ?A=B; there was also an analogous form using ! to poke four bytes at once) as it is a NOP instruction on the 6502. The Z-80 used 0 for NOP.

    Er ..... I'll get my coat.

  61. Anonymous Coward

    @Bit Twister

    > No no - they were but the first pre-built & badged generation to be sold generally.

    > Some of us were wielding soldering irons and working on binary dumps for a few years before things got wrapped in fancy plastic - er, or any case at all...

    You are correct, that was before my time.

    I bow to your experience ancient one!

  62. MrT

    @ Simon Harris

    Fair enough - the 4-chip thing is why some courses still refer to the ZX81 as being a classic in computer design, with the major functions identified in separate chips. Still, I had a ZX80 for a while - 24 chips in that one. IIRC the reduction in numbers was down to the custom logic design - not much could be done with CPU, RAM and ROM, so how about the ZX80 as last 'in-spirit' design? There must have been some overlap where the techies became mainstream - they can't have all gone through Acorn!

    On a slightly different tack, and bringing it back to the IBM PC, if we look at more general chips in a PC, how about the RM 186? This was of the era when companies tried to produce IBM-compatible PCs, rather than clones. Not much fresh air in those boxes, and the check of compatibilty always seemed to be whether Flight SImulator ran on it.

  63. Anonymous Coward

    @The Mighty Spang

    > BTW Atari Amiga? hand in your geek badge at the door man

    <sorrow> it's true, the grey cells are wearing thin these days.

    I remember trying to write a program in assembler on my TRS80 Model I Level II but gave it up as a bad job (which it was) and waited for something better to come along...

  64. H2Nick

    BDOS err on B:

    Yep - M$ DOS was an improvement over the standard CP/M error.

    (singular intended - most CP/M error conditions seemed to end with "BDOS Err on B:")

  65. Steve

    flight simulator

    "the check of compatibilty always seemed to be whether Flight SImulator ran on it."

    Ah yes, I wonder how many other purchasing departments signed off on POs for "compatibility test software", all unknowingly...

    And there was always Battle Chess to test the graphics.

  66. Andy Taylor

    @Anon Cow - 640k limit

    I think you will find that the memory immediately above 640k was originally taken by the CGA memory map.

    I still remember the pain and misery of trying to get DOS memory optimised so that our programs would work.

    Who else remembers that there were 2 different types of additional memory - extended and expanded?

  67. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Footnotes on BASIC and choosing the 8088

    The authors of BASIC have written a book called "Back to Basic" that may amuse readers.

    As far as choosing the 8088, I also heard that the large body of 8085 code played a role in that translators were used to convert 8085 assembler into 8088 assembler (and rather poorly at that -- check out the original PC bios one day #6-). Being a great fan of memory-mapped peripherals and not a great fan of segments, I have often rued that day.

  68. Lukin Brewer

    From Robert X Cringely’s “Accidental Empires”

    IBM, recognising their total lack of experience in this sort of development, did indeed OEM as much as they could. The 8088, regardless of all other merits, had a complete chipset ready to support it.

    Because they had OEMed everything, the only part of the PC which could be protected as IBM’s intellectual property was the BIOS. The engineers assured management that nobody would be able to produce a 100% compatible clone without using the IBM BIOS. Anyone who did would either licence the BIOS and compete with IBM on very unequal terms, or steal the BIOS and be sued. Either way, IBM wasn’t worried.

    However, it was possible to “cleanroom” or “blind reverse engineer” the BIOS, replicating all the functions it performed, but without copying it or even looking at it. A few companies did, and sold their clone BIOSes to everyone. Then a chip design startup called Chips & Technologies, while waiting for the chip design work to come in, took it upon themselves to reengineer the Intel chipset, reducing the part count from 63 chips to 12. They licensed this design to everyone.

    As a result of this, anyone could start manufacturing PC clones and match IBM on price. And so the PC began to pull away from the IBM brand and move towards becoming a commodity item.

  69. Graham Dresch
    Jobs Halo

    A debt to Steve and Steve

    The open architecture and slots for third party peripherals owes an enormous debt to the architecture of the Apple ][

  70. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    Cassette tape? Surely not?

    I remember the dreaded tape on its predecessor (& on acorn's + bbc micro) but not the 5150 PC1 or is it that my brain is succumbing to the early onset of the dreaded A disease?

    A very simple machine and let's not forget (it was probably in an earlier post) that the reason why it took off was because it was Big Blue. The likes of Apple, Atari etc were not to be trusted with big corp's data and services. I can remember working for an American defence manufacturer who forbade until relatively recently (15 years ago) that the PC & their applications were not to be used for critical applications (invoicing, accounts you know the stuff that helps make the world go round - stuff the computers).

    So forget all this twaddle about the technology. Gates & co also recognised that companies were not about to reinvest in new applications - hence the failure of OS/2 - multiple DOS boxes could have been put in there - betamax lost to VHS on marketing & how much better *it* was and twas ever thus...

  71. John F***ing Stepp


    "Umm, I have only seen one person dare to claim they wrote in assembler."

    Well, 6502 was a hell of a lot more fun than any of the 88* 86* but back in them old days sometimes you just had to get out the hex editor and mung the sucker for a while.

    I still have my copy of _The Programmer's PC Sourcebook_ with a listing of Register calls (but I just had to look for it, it has been a while).

    DOS prompt, command prompt; has anyone looked into the evolution of this since passing the torch from the 98-ME platform to the NT?

    I have.

    "My God, it's full of asterisks."

  72. Michael

    Telex. How *quaint*.

    Anyone else notice that in the Microsoft ad they list a Telex number?

    Telex is obsolete now, thanks to the Internet...and ironically NO thanks to Microsoft, who didn't want to have anything to do with the net until about 1994 when they woke up and smelled Mosaic.

  73. Martin Gregorie

    @John Angelico

    I joined the industry about the same time as you and, over the years have written more assembler and COBOL than I care to remember, though in the last decade my C output has just about caught it up. In summary:

    My first computer was an Elliott 503 that I learnt Algol 60 on before graduating.

    In 1968 I joined ICL and spent my next two years writing PLAN 3 assembler before learning COBOL. Then it was George 1, mini-MOP, George 3 and programming in COBOL, JEAN, PLAN, the PLAN macro-generator and Algol68R.

    Since then its been ICL 2903, ICL 2900 and no more professional assembler. Then on to Stratus, Tandem NonStop, DEC VAX, S/38, S/88, AS/400 in COBOL, TAL, PL/1, RPGIII, C running under VME/B, VOS, Guardian, VMS, OS/400, Unix.

    Home stuff:

    MC 6809, Flex 09, lots of assembler, PL/9, BASIC and C

    MC 68020, OS-9, C, Sculptor 4GL, some assembler

    Intel X86 - no more assembler, but lots of C and then Linux, C and Java


    Re: the IBM 5150 and speed

    The IBM office automation systems of the era (System/3, System/34 and System/36) were notoriously slow. They did all arithmetic using variable length packed BCD values. I remember hearing rumours at the time that IBM had mandated that the PC must not be faster than an entry level S/36 in case it affected S/36 sales.

    Shortly after the 8 MHz PC-AT was launched a third party S/36 emulator, the Baby/36, appeared. It emulated a S/36 with one terminal and would run all the standard S/36 software including the development tools. IBM sales guys hated Baby/36 because, on a PC-AT, it was quite a bit faster than an entry level S/36 and a fraction of the price, but S/36 developers loved it.

    Contemporary non-IBM clones were generally faster than IBM PCs. IBM salesmen, dyed in the wool mainframers to a man, really put the PC down as a piece of insignificant garbage. So, do I believe that IBM PCs were slow by design? Definitely!

  74. Ben

    Ms strategy revealed.

    Looking at the Microsoft Ad made me laugh out loud , a wood chisel !

    Talk about a long term game plan.

    Explanatory note : Chiseller , a mean person , with an acute interest in even

    the smallest increment of personal profit .

  75. BitTwister

    @Martin Ward

    > I bow to your experience ancient one!

    Thansh <wheeze> shonny...

    I'll get me wheelchair...

  76. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    PC 5150's...

    Never had audio cassettes as storage... The Adams, Atari's, Trash 80's and Commodores used an audio cassette as a storage... Apple ///'s which with the proper hardware, could be backed up to a standard VHS vcr... No, I'm not making that up. But in all my years I've never seen an audio cassette storage device for an IBM PC.

    I remember when the world actually blinked in awe at a 10 Mb hard drive... And the only way to address memory over 640 K was to use the LIM spec sys files...

    Anybody remember what the LIM stands for in LIM spec?

  77. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Big companies and small OSes

    The reason why IBM didn't write the OS for their PC may be the same reason that ICL had problems getting its head around small computers -- they literally couldn't think down to that level. You really have to hear a heavy duty mainframe OS type try to describe the inner workings of CP/M and then map that to a quick and dirty disassembly of the CP/M code. They also were convinced that nothing useful would come of these small systems - yes, they were limited but somehow they didn't get the idea that stuff tends to get more powerful year by year.

    MS-DOS's earlyest incarnations was a direct rip of CP/M, right down to the system interface. For v2.0 they added a bunch of Unix type system calls (leaving the old CP/M style in place). Its one of the ironies for those who have to listen to Microsoft going on about 'ix' people 'stealing their ideas'.....I suppose if they keep it up long enough all the people with the long memories will die off and then they will have truly invented computing.

    BTW(1) -- BASIC -- Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code

    BTW(2) -- You can back data to and from a cassette drive using just a handful of gates and bistables. You don't even need a processor. Its was a bit slow but it worked. My very earliest systems just dumped memory to/from tape -- kind of useful if you were just trying to get a processor to work.

  78. Anonymous Coward

    @bws and 640K

    LIM = Lotus Intel Microsoft

    Wasn't the 8086 segmented memory/640K limit due to backward compability with the 8080 64K address space. IIRC it was so that you could have 10x programs running at the same time in their own address space?

    Had a spectrum with 48K at home, always fascinated by the IBM POST, watching it count all that memory....

  79. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I remember it!!

    I used to sell them. The original IBM PC had only five expansion slots. The explanation of rocker switches in the manual of the expansion cards were the pits!

    I also had an IBM PC Portable. Modified it by taking one of those slim line floppy drives out and replacing it with a 20Mb SCSI drive. It had to be a SCSI drive because there was only one free slot and it was next to the CRT. The 8-bit SCSI card was short enough to fit in there.

  80. Brian Culligan

    LIM spec

    LIM stood for Lotus Intel Microsoft

  81. Robert Hill

    @Anon Coward

    "Wasn't very hard as mom Gates was a member of the board in IBM at the time and IBM expected to sell a couple of thousands these small toys, insignificant. Also made very simple to "choose" junior Gates as provider."

    Not that I love Billy-boy, but Gate's mom was NOT a member of the IBM board - his father was a hugely successful Seattle lawyer, and mom did the charity-work circuit. She was on the board of the Seattle Red Cross (if memory serves), WITH the wife of an IBM board member. There WERE no female execs of that level in the US at that time, as a general rule. And her position didn't determine that Bill got it, but she DID get him the introduction.

    Prior to that, Bill had already made a major name for himself crafting languages in the orginal homebrew PC world, and had legitimate credibility from his work on SWTP's or IMSAI's BASIC if I remember. He was also (before he bought & sold PC-DOS) a founding member of the "software should NOT be free" brigade, taking out ads and publishing papers on the need to protect intellectual property and prevent the mass-copying of computer software.

    In short, Bill Gates was an active member of the PC industry BEFORE his mom ever made any introduction for him. But as someone who used to be a professional CP/M programmer myself, I wish Kildall had been in the office...


  82. MrT

    PCs and tape storage

    @bws: IIRC the IBM PCjr could be specced with tape drive - all storage was seen as optional on that, except for the twin ROM slots below the external drive bays. Granted, most shipped with a 5.25" floppy drive instead, but I have vague memories of the adverts for that PC variant showing a tape drive setup.

    Granted, it's not a proper IBM PC (lots of incompatibilities), but was IBM's attempt at making the full-blown business PC more home-friendly. Actually, the PCjr was quite innovative - wireless keyboard from the start (IR, not radio), the cartridge-based storage idea and a few other things like wireless joysticks that didn't make it out of the factory before the whole idea was pulled. Apart from these things, which we're seeing today in a different form (Bluetooth connectivity instead of IR), the only other thing of note was that everyone wooed the home users for far less cash - apart from Apple. Plus ça change?

    And WRT using video tape as a backing store, this has made appearances over the years in several guises. After going through a variety of interface systems it eventually faded away, presumably due to cheap HDD costs, plus the fairly slow speed (ArVid was in the 300kB/s range, though Danmere Backer reckoned to be about 20-30 times quicker). However, there are still plenty of USB VCR capture devices, for pulling video from VCR.

  83. A J Stiles

    If you're going to speculate

    If you're going to speculate, here's one to run with.

    What if RMS and a few friends had gatecrashed the next meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club after 03/02/1976 (the date of *that* letter), dragged Bill Gates into the Gents', administered a Damn Good Kicking (TM) with optional head-flushing -- and then worked on a new OpenBASIC interpreter, which would be faster and better than Microsoft's?

    Hey, a guy can dream .....

  84. Chad H.

    Descriptive Error messages?:

    Bad Command or File Name.

    General Write failure on Drive A:, Abort, Retry fail.

    Okay, I know what they mean now, but I wouldnt call them user friendly. User friendly is so simple an amish person wouldnt need to think about what they might mean.

  85. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A little personal history about the IBM PC

    IBM was trying to market to schools, with the hard drive before they released it to the general public. In the spring of 1981, when I was in eighth grade, the "exceptional students" were allowed to go to a local vocational school and "play" with these "cutting edge" microcomputers. I was in Heaven when I arrived as I had been previously programming on a TRS-80 Model I.

    They had a sweet setup. The 10+ computers were networked to the hard drive and had the two 5 1/4" floppy slots.

    The principal of the vocational school gave some speech with the IBM suit and blathered on about the need to be careful and how gracious IBM was to allow our school to be on their tour. My attention lasted about 10 seconds. In 15 minutes I was hacking away writing some simple BASIC. I started messing with the DOS and lo and behold, I was able to access the hard drive. After another 15 minutes or so of tinkering, I made a BIG mistake. I asked the suit about the hard drive and showed him my screen. I wanted to know what some of the files did. He blanched, whispered to the principal, and my computer time ended abruptly.

    Ah! Those were the days. Sadly, even though I've spent nearly 29 years working with computers, I've never learned how to program efficiently. I then made the bad decision to get art and English teaching degrees in college. Finally, I'm returning to my roots and working on my BS in Computer Science.

    I should have realized my IBM experience at that moment in 1981 was an epiphany, because working in the architectural field (buildings--not software) sucks.

    SIDE NOTE: I've been reading the REG since it started, but this is the first time I've ever posted anything. Great site, and I roll with laughter when the Brits bash us Americans--sometimes the truth hurts (ha-ha). FWIW, I'm one of the gun-toting ones and am federally licensed to sell machineguns, silencer's and various other goodies to law enforcement and certain civilians.

  86. Anonymous Coward

    @ Andrew - "Big Blue"

    Yes Mr Sugar (later to be Sir Sugar) did introduce the 1512 and 1640 models in the early 80's, but like a lot of other AMS devices they weren't very well thought out and failed in the market.

    In NZ my dad bought us a 1512, which sported twin 5-1/2" floppy drives (hard drives weren't yet readily available for PCs) and a very fancy graphics chip, which if I remember correctly could reach the (at the time) almost unprecedented range of 512 colours. Quite a step forward from 16-colour CGA.

    Still, no software we ever came across apart from Amstrads own demos could drive the custom chip, and shortly after Amstrads PCs dissapeared from the shelves never to be heard from again.

  87. Simon T

    Pokes at 256

    Ermmmmm. Got me there :) You are 100% correct (or 99%, if starting from 0).

  88. tony trolle

    Amstrad Histroy ?

    did they drift off into making hardcards ? (harddrive with a isa controller card).

    Then bought Sinclair and died?

    Nearly forgot the word processor things; sometime around then also.

    BTW I nearly bought a MK14,then ZX80,nearly a ZX81 but bought a motorbike instead who knows what could of been. :)

  89. Demian Phillips

    WD MFM & RLL cards



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