back to article The IBM PC is 30

IBM announced its new machine, the 5150, on 12 August 1981. It was no ordinary launch: the 5150 wasn't the 'big iron' typical of Big Blue - it was a personal computer. Here's the original 1981 announcement (PDF). IBM PC IBM's Personal Computer: the 5150 Source: IBM IBM came late to the party. Through the 1960s and 1970s …


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  1. John 62


    loving the spec list :)

  2. Anonymous Coward


    Holy crap - El Reg got a photo of *my* datamaster! Notable in it's ability to crash the display - without outside interference at all - at 3 characters a minute.

    None of this blue-screen-for-a-second-then-reboot business...Datamasters made crashing a visual artform to watch!

  3. Nights_are_Long

    I love stuff like this.

    I love stuff like this, I rember watching Pirates of Silicon Vally and seeing the scean with Bill, Ballmer et all in a meeting with IBM when Microsoft said they must retain rights to sell it to the competition, and IBM said "Sure the money is in hardware not this software stuff...."

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Big thanks due!

    Even though we may not work much with them now, how many of us got our first breaks in IT via the humble PC? I work on Solaris based Oracle DBs almsot all the time these days, but my first break into IT came because I was handy with the PCs I had messed about with in college back in the mid to late 80's. My first proper IT job was becuase of Novell Netware knowledge ( a glorified multi-user PC O/S after all ) that I had picked up when my old man decided to push his company to install Netware where he worked.

    1. Solomon Grundy

      Total Agreement

      So many of us get hung up on technology differences that to daily users are a non issue. The fact the lot of us are making a living with a computer is largely due to IBM and their attempt to bring computing to the Everyman is largely forgotten. Microsoft, Apple, RedHat - they have all been built on the what IBM started.

  5. Hud Dunlap

    And this was the first IBM plant to close and lay off all it's workers

    the Entry Systems Division, based in Boca Raton, Florida. Was the first IBM plant to close and lay off it's workers. At least for this layoff IBM took good of it's employees, with a severance package of one to three years pay depending on how long you had been there. Of course later closings got nowhere near that.

  6. /dev/null


    Not quite accurate - the second floppy drive was an optional extra, and the serial port would have been an optional expansion card too (I was going to say "ISA card" but this was before the 16-bit ISA "standard"). Only keyboard and cassette interfaces on the motherboard, everything else was on a card.

  7. John 48

    February 1984's IBM PC Portable and the August-announced PC AT

    The PC-AT did not just have a faster 6MHz processor. It had a faster 6MHz 80286 in place of the 8088/6 of the earlier machines, and also a 16 bit wide version of the expansion bus (or ISA bus as we know it today). It also brought us what we would now recognise as the standard keyboard layout.

  8. andy 103
    Thumb Up


    things may have moved on but nobody makes keyboards as good as the ones that came with the original '81 IBM PC!

    1. ThomH

      Unicomp do!

      Unicomp being the inheritors of the buckling spring. They still seem to be producing them, with USB variants, versions with modern Windows and Mac layouts and other arrangements.

    2. jake Silver badge

      @andy 103

      You might be happy to see this:

      Not affiliated, don't own stock, just a happy customer ...

  9. Armando 123

    One other factor

    Two other things, in conjunction, pushed the market IBM-ward. First, the mantra at the time was "no one has been fired for going with IBM". So when corporations started to impose standards on PCs, those standards were decided largely by people with a mainframe background who knew nothing about personal computers. Naturally, they defaulted to IBM or at least IBM-compatible machines. Then, when people bought a computer for personal use, they wanted "something I can use with work". Which increasingly meant IBM-compatible machines.

    There were other factors, to be sure, but I don't think this factor gets enough notice by people writing about that era.

    1. Solomon Grundy

      When Corporations

      started to "impose standards" there was nothing to know about personal computers. It was all new and the first people to the table set the standards.

      I'm not sure you remember the "pre-computer in every house age". Going to the computer was something people did in labs and on TV. Searching for something online wasn't an option. Nobody really knew how PC's were going to change the world. What IBM attempted to do with the PC chnaged everything - they just sucked at marketing.

      You also aren't getting the "no one has ever been fired for buying IBM" thing. Thirty years ago there was no other option. If you didn't buy IBM then you'd be lucky if the beige machines you bought didn't burn down the building; much less advance your business. Nothing else worked in the business world.

      1. Wommit

        Re : Solomon Grundy

        I was using non-IBM PC's in the mid to late 80's. We even had an official copy of Flight Simulator. If a PC could run FS, it _WAS_ IBM compatible.

        I worked on the Sirius 1 (Victor 9000), and machines from Aston Technologies an outfit near Birmingham (the UK Brum).

        There were a huge number of third party manufacturers around then. Low margins finished most of them though.

      2. Armando 123

        @Solomon Grundy

        I remember those days well. I cut my programming teeth on a TRS-80 with the slowest cassette reader in the world; there might have been one on Sirius 4 that was slower, but for Earth, this was it. Some days you could count the individual 1s and 0s. The Apple II was a godsend, and both were before the IBM PC came around. And IIRC you had Burroughs and Unisys and someone else selling mainframes then.

        And I did convert a program from punch card FORTRAN66.

        Anyone else remember when C was a high-level language and vi made file editing quick and simple?

        1. jake Silver badge

          @Armando 123

          C was never a high level language, that's why we use it ... and I still use vi, on a dumb terminal no less, for most of my typing needs.

          1. T.a.f.T.

            read the 2nd half of the statment

            > vi made file editing quick and simple?

            He does not question vi he questioned when it made life easier.

            1. jake Silver badge


              Nowt easier than vi, lad ... and I've tried most alternatives.

  10. Admiral Grace Hopper
    Thumb Up

    Thanks Don

    If IBM had been left to their own devices they'd still quite happily be knocking out S/360s. The Project Chess team deserve thanks and kudos for creating a very un-IBM product in the very heart of the Incredible Blue Monolith. It may have given us many frustrations down the years, in which I number Microsoft itself as one, but by making the PC acceptable to the suits you gave an awful lot of us an awful lot of employment down the years. Ta!

  11. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Lucky they didn't quote boot times

    ... it would probably embarrass the majority of brand new W7 PCs being sold today.

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      @Pete 2

      Yes, but just how long does it take to copy the two files that made up the OS from a floppy, and then prompt for the date and time! Remember that the first IBM PC did not have a realtime clock, or ANYTHING other than a keyboard adapter. Everything else was on a card, including as far as I can remember, the floppy controller, the display adapter, serial and parallel adapters, and they all cost an arm-and-a-leg from IBM. So enterprising third parties produced 'multi-function' adapters that would include a parallel port on the display card and so on. And there was no plug-and-play, so there was all of the hassle of conflicting base addresses and IRQ settings. I'm sooo glad that those days are gone.

      Anybody else remember ROM Basic that the system would drop into if there was no bootable floppy in the drive? If I remember correctly, this persisted in IBM PC's on into the PS/2 line that replaced the PC, although you had to disable the OS from the hard disk to get there.

  12. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    I remember

    The polytechnic I worked at took a decision in 1982 to install several computing lab's full of 5150's. Over the summer, we were inundated with the things, with boxes filling all the foyers, waiting to be unpacked. Horrible, horrible long persistence phosphor in the monochrome monitors, and the Poly' decided to ditch the one good feature (the keyboard) for a soft-touch silent Cherry keyboard as standard. Ugh.

    I never liked them even then. Because they were floppy-disk only systems, the students had to book out the disks from a librarian for the software before they could use them, which meant that we had fragile 5-1/4 floppies moving around like crazy. We got an agreement through the distributor to allow us to keep the originals safe, and issue copies. Was not long before most of the students twigged on that they could further copy the disks, and then not bother with using the booking system.

    I was glad when the first PC-ATs were installed, because we at least then only had to worry about keeping the hard disk clean, and repair the applications when the students trashed them. Introducing a virus on one of the ATs became one of the most serious offences, and we had to have disinfectant sessions to clean the student's own floppies to protect our systems and their work. Mind you, the 1.2MB floppy drives on the ATs caused no end of problems when students tried to write to 360KB floppies on them.

    This was waaaaaay before disk cloning was thought about, and everything was done according to the installation process, although one of the labs (not one I worked with) was set up with a low cost (hmmm, relatively low cost, it was still bloody expensive) co-ax CSMA/CD Ethernet alternative called Omninet running at 1Mb/s for file and print sharing.

    Interestingly, we had Pick installed on one of the ATs, and Xenix-286 on another.

    I still regarded the PC's as poorer teaching tools than the lab of BBC micro's I also ran, and of course 'my' UNIX V7 (and RSX-11M) PDP11/34e (in Systime covers, with 22bit addressing and 2MB of memory, and CDC SMD disks to speed it up) was the bees knees as far as I was concerned, running Ingres to teach relational database. Knocked Ashton Tate DBase II (remember that!) into a cocked hat! And it was, of course, far less maintenance work.

    The software line-up on the PCs was PC-Dos 1.1 (on the 5150s, the 5157's has PC-Dos 2.1 for the hard disk support) with Word 2, Multiplan (MS spreadsheet before Excel), and DBase II. I couldn't work with Word then, and still find it a traumatic experience now.

    We definitely need either a rose-tinted spectacles or an old-fart icon here. I guess I'll just have to use the coat icon. It's the one with the big stretched pockets to hold the 5-1/4 disk box.

  13. Bob H

    It doesn't have to be said... but I will!

    We had an IBM PC XT at home!

    Thanks Dad!

  14. alyn

    PCWs first review

    I remember PC World magazine first review. It said the IBM PC was a dodo and doomed to failure. How wrong they were!

    1. Scott Broukell

      eerm ....

      .... wasn't that IBM thoughts on the project as well. I seem to remember them saying how these desktop machines just wouldn't catch on and their big iron would rule for ever and a day.

  15. Anonymous Coward

    Something seriously wrong

    with the dimensions listed in the specs table. You do realize that the computer is actually the box under the display and the flattish thing with lots of buttons on it is something known as the "keyboard"?

  16. Neil Porter
    Thumb Up


    Got one in my loft, the keyboard is better than anything you can get today...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I have a keyboard a bit like it

      - it's quite something, I think it draws about 80 watts! Gets very hot!!

  17. Paul M 1


    Anyone else remember the PC dept doing "compatibility testing" of non-IBM PCs by running MS Flight Simulator?

    Well that's what they told us it was for, anyway!

    1. Return To Sender

      Ah, flight sim....

      Yup, we definitely did that; basically it was testing the BIOS rather than anything else.

      I worked for one of the first UK PC dealers (that was a bit of first for IBM-land too, dealers rather than using agents who just took a percentage). We inevitably had to start selling compatibles as well and one of the yardsticks for any new BIOS was whether flight sim would run. That was mainly because FS used every shortcut in the book, plus several that weren't, through BIOS to get the necessary performance. At one time the manufacturers would actually include 'Runs MS Flight Sim!' in their dealer presentations when announcing new kit.

      1. Bilgepipe
        Thumb Up

        Just FS?

        Our testing was much more extensive, and covered Space Quest, Leisuresuit Larry and EA Golf. We had to be certain those machines were /absolutely/ compatible....

  18. jake Silver badge

    Actually ...

    My group had a half dozen 5150s in late 1980 ... We were a Pilot build site (Ford Aerospace, on Fabian in Palo Alto). They ran PC-DOS, the UCSD P-system (Pascal), CP/M, and ROM-BASIC.

    Bloody useless, for the most part ... until we figured out how to use them as terminals ;-)

  19. David Gosnell

    Love it or hate it, just think...

    Without it, even the Apple Macintosh wouldn't be what it is today.

  20. Charles E

    Check out the IBM dot matrix printer

    I had forgotten all about IBM's dot matrix printer until you showed that pic on the first page. That is an Epson printer, rebranded with an IBM badge. IIRC it had an IBM ROM so it could print the IBM PC extended character set and it responded accurately to commands like Print Screen. Epson sold their own version minus the IBM PC-specific code, it didn't quite work the same, it didn't print the ASCII graphic characters right, and I think the PrtSc didn't do a page feed right. But it was much cheaper than the IBM printer, so it sold like hotcakes. I think I recall selling only a couple of IBM branded dot matrix printers while I sold hundreds of Epsons.

  21. Mondo the Magnificent
    Thumb Up

    The "Beige Era" of computing

    That brings back memories

    I recall way back, when working as an X25/WAN Engineer, I was furnished with a brand new IBM5155 "portable" XT, it had a 10MB hard disk, 320K FDD and sported a Frederick Engineering FELine card, hence a WAN Protocol Analyzer, with an external Break Out Box that connected to the 8-Bit card fitted within the said "portable"

    It was cutting edge at the time and it weighed a ton! The carry handle was on the rear, where the IO slots are and it was not exactly small either with a wedge shaped design.

    I spent many an hour on the office based IBM XTs squinting over WordPerfect documents and Lotus 1-2-3 spreasheets and even got my very first virus (the bouncing ball) on the XT!

    I also played legendary games like Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest and Tetris on those old genuine IBM systems

    Major upgrades included an RTC (Real Time Clock) card, a Bus Mouse card, DOS 3.3 and squeezing 1MB of RAM into these old workhorses of yesteryear

    I recall that IBM customer engineers used to repair those systems on site. I'd seen keyboard BIOSes and DRAM chips removed and replaced by engineers on site. Quite different to the "throw away" environment we're accustomed to nowadays

    The youth of today have got it made, they haven't watched the PC evolve like us old school techs have. I do miss that nostalgic era of pre-Windows computing.

    Thanks El Reg for reminding us where the most powerful of desktops available today actually originated from.

  22. Andrew Dyson
    Thumb Up

    Still in use in 1998

    In the late 90s my mother volunteered at the local church doing admin work, and they were still using a model very similar to one of these! I don't think it was a 5150 because it had a 30MB hard disk, although I suppose that could have been added later. I was fascinated by this living antique and used to go in on my days off from college to play around with it.

    It ran a very early DOS and a green-screen, keyboard-operated version of MS Works (or some equivalent, I forget), comprising a simple word processor and a spreadsheet program. There was a similar epson dot-matrix printer attached too. It booted in about 5 seconds and was ready to use.


    Sometimes, I'm not sure how much progress we have really made!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Epson still sells dot-matrix printers...

      ...but for carbon-copy related purposes.

      To this day. No, really. It isn't beige anymore.

      But now they sport USB cables, and maybe even a color ribbon along the black one.

      And somebody beat me to the keyboard comment, because they still make those too. Replicas, with the same engineering, but still...

  23. Spoonsinger


    Not entirely sure what is being celebrated. Being a late 80's grad, (yep no loan, etc. - those were the days), of all the options available at the time, (i,e. home orientated Amiga, ST's, etc.and education based Apollo's, etc.), were an order of magnitude better than the 'PC' architecture. The ‘PC’ really only came into it’s own circa 94/95 when the hardware vendor’s took real advantage of the plug-ability lego brick expandability. However in no way should this can be attributable too IBM whose early 80’s practices were still firmly embedded in the 50’s/60’s, just their cost-cutting for something which they thought wouldn’t work in the long term.

    (From a current stand point it, IBM were really graced with the fifteen year duration to get total “market” saturation).

    1. Return To Sender

      Ehh, when I were a lad...

      Yep, there were always 'better' architectures / systems / whatever around than the IBM PC. What they *didn't* have was the sheer scale and presence of IBM. A bit like the VHS/Betamax thing (wikipedia if you're not old enough to remember!), the 'best' doesn't always win. Here's my take:

      As a home PC, IBM's offering was 1) bleeding expensive 2) very conservative. But then, you're talking about a very new market; home users were still largely geeky hobbyists and not major spenders. Where this beast was selling was in to business, where it was mainly about running things like Visicalc, Wordstar, Dbase II et al. The first 'killer app' that we saw was Lotus 1--2-3; that was when the conversation shifted from 'what can I do with this PC thing' to 'I want to run Lotus, I'll buy a PC, what else can it do?'

      That only gets you so far. Where IBM's scale really told was in the corporate market. PCs started getting bought in for the bean counters to play spreadsheets on, secretaries (remember them :) ) to run Wordstar / WordPerfect / IBM Displaywrite (and that was important to IBM shops, believe me). Then folks started thinking 'why do we have this PC *and* a 3278 terminal on the desk?'. Lo, the birth of the comms card and the terminal emulator. IBM's 3278 emulator wasn't that functional, but because of the open architecture 3rd parties fixed that. The (3rd party) IRMA 3278 emulator sold like hot cakes in to our corporate accounts, you could do things like data transfers instead of just screen scraping and even local printing (!).

      So now what you're looking at is a large market that lots of players want to get in to. And that software houses want to develop for. And that hardware OEMs want to supply to (multi-function cards, disks, graphics cards, networks and so forth). And that IBM have decreasing control over as their competitors in the PC-compatible market establish good brand reputation (notably Compaq, for instance). Ladies and gentlemen, we have a commodity. And since commodities generally only get cheaper in real or relative terms, the market expands to the folks who think 'hey, I could have one of these at home'.

      At first, the excuse is that we can do some work at home. After all, one of the most common reasons given to my salesfolk in the early days of home computers was 'I can do my home accounts on it, see'. And the games were a sort of bonus. Hmm, yeah... Amazing how many copies of Flight Simulator we sold for 'work at home' PCs. Things like MS-Windows (for better or worse, add your attitude here) make it all look easier and prettier. The graphics get better, the machines get faster, the games get better and the prices fall. The smaller competitors drop out or start building PCs, leaving eventually an x86/MS dominated market.

      So, after all that, what are we celebrating? Not the sheer brilliance of a manufacturer blessed with miraculous oracular powers, but rather the appearance of a machine which as much by accident as design laid the foundation for what we have today. Could it have been better? Quite probably. But 30 years later, we still call 'em PCs, even though IBM don't make 'em any more.

  24. Matthew 17

    as crap as they were, retrospectively

    The whole early steps of computers and associated technology seemed a lot more inventive and interesting than it does now.

  25. Anonymous Coward

    Cease this

    PC claptrap forthwith!

  26. John Watts

    Start as you mean to go on ...

    I notice MS BASIC was available in three different versions from the start.

    I suppose they'd have done it with DOS if there'd been any functionality that could have been taken away without leaving it unusable.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      " if there'd been any functionality that could have been taken away "

      You're right, there's not much you can remove from a bootloader without leaving it unusable.

  27. Anonymous Coward

    The good old days-

    My company, doing MOD work, insisted "everything was backed up" so we paid £1000 for a PC with a 20Mb hard disk and blew another £1000 on a 10Mb tape drive, to go in the fireproof safe every week. God knows what those green screens did to my eyesight, but visicalc still works on my emulator.

  28. pullenuk

    can it run windows 7

    Can it run it? Lol.

    That 4.77mhz was the joke part. But today's computers are so fast kids today don't realise that back then the processor speed was recorded in single digits.

    We are lucky things change. Imagine running windows 7 on that....

    1. jake Silver badge


      "We are lucky things change. Imagine running windows 7 on that.... "

      I still run a couple sub-10MHz processors. They do good work.

      Win7 ... not so much.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It doesn't run Win 7... but the reverse....

      A friend of mine managed to install DOS 6.22 on a Pentium 4 machine. It booted faster than his *cellphone*.

      Memory count took longer than booting... leaving BIOS...

      Count 3,2,1...



      He installed Windows 3.11 on top of it just for kicks. I never ran through a Ctrl-Alt-Del so fast in my life, it just took 09 seconds from memory count to mouse pointer.

  29. ducatis'r us

    pioneering work

    I was working as a programmer in a totally IBM Mainframe shop back then. IBM gave us a couple of early pcs, I forget what model exactly, to play with perhaps to see if we could find a use for them. Whilst messing around I discovered how to change the display font size and colour, but could not get it back to its original state. Convinced that I had broken the bloody thing and would be in trouble, the next day I Went into work slightly nervously. Then I had the 'turn it off and turn it back one revelation'. All was well, and I never looked back. It's true though that for corporate use in the 80s they only became useful when we started using them as terminals!

  30. Retron

    Re: Can it run Windows 7

    I had a both 5150 and a 5160 (a PC XT) back in 92, when my dad's company threw them out. We ditched the 5150 (MDA display and no HD.. and yes, I regret that now!) and upgraded the XT to VGA (from CGA) and a full 640K of RAM. I tracked down a copy of Windows 3.0 and by gum it was slow... it'd take a couple of seconds to draw the font select dialog box in Write, for example. It wouldn't run in 16-colour VGA though and it was only years later I found the colour VGA drivers used 286 code. Pah.

    The XT is long gone but I kept its keyboard as a souvenir, it's even better (and louder) than the well-known Model M AT keyboards. One day I'll buy an XT to AT (and PS/2) adapter box for it and hook it up to a modern PC...

    1. Peter Mc Aulay

      "it'd take a couple of seconds to draw the font select dialog"

      Just like this Core Duo 2Ghz with 2GB RAM when the virus scanner and the other crap that came with the standard corporate image is running. Plus ça change...

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