Personal Computer History: The First 25 Years

Personal computer history doesn’t begin with IBM or Microsoft, although Microsoft was an early participant in the fledgling PC industry.

Altair 8800The first personal computers, introduced in 1975, came as kits: The MITS Altair 8800, followed by the IMSAI 8080, an Altair clone. (Yes, cloning has been around that long!) Both used the Intel 8080 CPU. That was also the year Zilog created the Z-80 processor and MOS Technology produced the 6502. Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a BASIC compiler for the Altair and formed Micro-soft.

In 1976, Apple’s two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) designed the Apple I, Apple’s only “kit” computer (you had to add a keyboard, power supply, and enclosure to the assembled motherboard), around the 6502 processor. That was also the year Electric Pencil, the first word processing program, and Adventure, the first text adventure for microcomputers, were released. Shugart introduced the 5.25″ floppy drive; it would become a key component in the personal computing revolution.

The young industry exploded in 1977 as Apple introduced the Apple II, a color computer with expansion slots and floppy drive support; Radio Shack rolled out the TRS-80; Commodore tapped into the pet rock craze with its PET; Digital Research released CP/M, the 8-bit operating system that provided the template for MS-DOS; and the first ComputerLand franchise store (then Computer Shack) opened.

VisiCalc on Apple IISoftware took center stage in 1978 when Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston produced VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. This turned the personal computer into a useful business tool, not just a game machine or replacement for the electric typewriter.

WordMaster, soon to become WordStar, was released and went on to dominate the word processing industry for years. Atari leveraged its video game experience and household name to enter the personal computing market, and Epson shipped the TX-80, the first low-cost dot matrix printer.

The third important software category, the database, blasted onto the scene in 1979 with Vulcan, the predecessor of dBase II and it’s successors. That was also the year Hayes introduced a 300 bps modem and established telecommunication as an aspect of personal computing.

Texas Instrument’s poorly designed and ill-fated TI-99/4 also shipping in 1979 as the personal computer industry’s first 16-bit computer. It was hobbled by an 8-bit bus for memory and peripherals, which slowed memory access significantly.

1980 was the year Commodore opened the floodgates of home computing with the $299 VIC-20. Sinclair tried to one-up them with a $199 kit computer, the ZX80, which was quite popular in Britain, but it was destined to remain a bit player in the PC industry. The same can be said of Radio Shack’s fairly impressive TRS-80 Color Computer, which suffered primarily from complete incompatibility with its existing TRS-80 line.

Apple III

Apple III with 5 MB ProDrive hard drive.

Yet another 1980 disaster was the Apple III, which shipped with 128 KB of memory, an internal floppy drive, and Apple II emulation. Alas, it just didn’t work right, forcing Apple to recall them all, fix a number of problems, and rerelease the Apple III some time later with 192 KB of RAM. This was also Apple’s first computer to support a hard drive, the 5 MB Profile.

Estimates are that there were one million personal computers in the US in 1980.

Osborne 1In early 1981, Adam Osborne introduced the first portable computer. The Osborne 1 was about this size of a suitcase, ran CP/M, included a pair of 5.25″ floppies, and had a tiny 5″ display. The innovative machine was bundled with about $1,500-2,000 worth of software, and the whole package sold for $1,899.

Epson HX-20The first laptop computer also arrived in 1981, the Epson HX-20 (a.k.a. Geneva). The HX-20 was about 8.5″ by 11″ and maybe 1.5-2″ thick and used a microcassette to store data. It displayed 4 lines of 20 characters on an LCD screen above the keyboard.


Of course, the most significant event of 1981 for the personal computing industry was the introduction of the IBM PC on August 12. This computer ran a 16-bit CPU on an 8-bit bus (the Intel 8088), had five expansion slots, included at least 16 KB of RAM, and had two full-height 5.25″ drive bays.

IBM PCBuyers could get a fairly loaded machine with a floppy controller, two floppy drives, a monochrome display adapter and monitor, a color display adapter and monitor, a parallel card, a dot matrix printer, and an operating system – with the choice of CP/M-86, the UCSD p-System, or PC-DOS (a.k.a. MS-DOS). Pretty much everything was an option, and everyone recognized that the IBM PC was based on ideas perfected in the Apple II, particularly general use expansion slots.

The second most significant event of 1981 was dependent on the first: Microsoft got IBM to agree that PC-DOS would not be an IBM exclusive. This paved the way for the clone industry, which in the end marginalized the influence of Big Blue.

Time magazine called 1982 “The Year of the Computer” as the industry grew up. By 1983, the industry estimated that 10 million PCs* were in use in the United States alone.

* Ever since IBM entered the market, the term PC has taken on a different meaning. Although it retains the original meaning of “personal computer”, the IBM architecture has so dominated the industry that it soon came to mean IBM compatible computers to the exclusion of other machines.

VisiCalc met its match in 1983 when Lotus 1-2-3 shipped for the IBM PC. That was also the year Microsoft Word 1.0 shipped, although it remained a small player until Windows dominated the PC world.

Apple LisaApple introduced the first consumer machine with a mouse and graphical user interface, the Lisa. Of course, at $10,000, not many consumers could afford it, but it paved the way for the Apple Macintosh of 1984. At $2,500, it was much more affordable than the Lisa.

IBM took the PC beyond the 8-bit bus when the introduced the AT (for Advanced Technology), a 6 MHz 80286-based computer with a 16-bit bus, high density 5.25″ floppies, and a new video standard, EGA.


Microsoft first shipped Windows in 1985, and this DOS shell was content to run even on old 4.77 MHz PCs, albeit slowly. That was also the year Aldus invented the fourth major productivity software category by releasing PageMaker. Desktop publishing was born, and Apple found a strong niche market for the Macintosh and LaserWriter.

Compaq PortableCompaq, an early IBM compatible maker and the first to make a portable IBM compatible, shipped the first 80386-based PC in 1986. Compared with the typical 8-12 MHz performance of the 80286, the 16 MHz 80386 was a real barn burner. It also introduced some new operating modes that would make later versions of Windows far more powerful.

Macintosh IIxIn 1987, Apple introduced slots to the Macintosh in the Mac II (which AppleDesigned to support a then-mind-boggling 128 MB of RAM), IBM introduced Micro Channel Architecture with its PS/2 line, IBM and Microsoft co-released OS/2, and Windows reached version 1.01. We also saw the first fax cards that year, and Sun shipped the first RISC CPU. (The Acorn Archimedes, another early RISC computer, also shipped in 1987 and may have beat Sun to market.)

Perhaps the most significant computing event of 1988 was the first Internet worm, which infected about 6,000 Unix computers in very short order. Microsoft updated Windows to v2.03, Apple introduced high-density floppy drives compatible with IBM formatted 3.5″ disks, and there were an estimated 30 million DOS users.

Mac Portable, side viewThe overall count was about 54 million personal computers in the US in 1989, the vast majority of them running MS-DOS. Apple shipped the heavy (16 pounds!) Mac Portable, the first “notebook” computer with a built-in trackball and possibly the first with an active matrix display.

Windows moved to version 3.0 in 1990, and it was nearly ready for prime time. The first ‘486-based PCs shipped, and Apple trumped the DOS world’s 33 MHz computers with the “wicked fast” 40 MHz Macintosh IIfx, which was also one of the first personal computers to use an accelerated video card.

Linus Torvalds created his own version of Unix, naming it Linux, in August 1991. It remained obscure for a while, but it grew to become the second most popular operating system for Wintel computers and one of the leading examples of free open source software – until Apple moved the Mac OS to Intel in 2006, at which point soon Linux slipped to third place.

Windows 3.1

Microsoft Windows 3.1 shipped in 1992. Between Windows and the hardware of the day, the resources finally existed for Windows to become a major player. Windows soon became the default operating system shipped with new PCs.

In February 1993, Apple shipped its 10 millionth Macintosh. The same year Intel introduced its Pentium, a 60 MHz CPU with an undetected math bug, and Microsoft announced there were over 25 million licensed Windows users. By the end of the year, the Apple II line – the granddaddy of personal computers – was discontinued.

Intel acknowledge the Pentium math bug in 1994 and issued a recall. Apple shipped the first Macintosh with a factory-installed DOS card, the Quadra 610 DOS Compatible. (There had been DOS cards for Macs going back to 1987, but this was the first DOS card to bear the Apple brand.) This was also the year Apple decided to allow licensed Mac clones and shipped the first Power Macs, Macintosh models based on the then-new PowerPC 601 processor.

The Internet

Although the World Wide Web had been created many years earlier, it was in 1995 that it rocketed into public view. Window 95 shipped in August, and Intel unveiled the Pentium Pro in November. The Pentium II and Pentium MMX followed in 1997. Be began porting its BeOS to Intel hardware in 1997, 56k* modems took the industry by storm, and the first cable modems shipped.

* As explained on the No Hype 56k Modem Page, these modems could theoretically reach 56 kbps, were limited by the FCC in the United States to 53 kbps, and commonly connected somewhere in the low-to-mid-40s. Still, that was faster than the old 28.8 and 33.6 modems – and most users never realized that what they gained in download speed (up to 56k) came at the expense of upload speed, which was still limited to 33.6 kbps and decreased as download speeds increased when both processes were taking place concurrently.

Steve Jobs introduces iMacWindows 98 shipped in 1998, and Intel unveiled its low-cost Celeron CPU the same year. On the Apple side of things, the iMac helped push USB as the eventual successor to the parallel and serial ports common on Windows PCs.

The Pentium III arrived on the scene in 1999, as did the AMD Athlon, which became locked in a MHz war with Intel. The Athlon reached 800 MHz by the end of the year and was first past the 1 GHz mark in 2000. That was also the year Microsoft tweaked Windows 98 to create Windows Me (Millennium Edition).

In 2001 Intel shipped the Pentium 4, a processor theoretically more powerful than the Pentium III that tended to turn in lower performance ratings at the same MHz speed. The first Pentium 4 ran at 1.4 GHz, and by September Intel was selling 2 GHz P4s. During the summer of 2001, Intel finally began shipping its oft-delayed Itanium processor, designed as a 64-bit successor to the aging x86 architecture, itself designed as a successor to the 8-bit 8080 processor of 1975.

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