It was sort of a slow week at the RedState Department of History this week. With much of the staff on vacation, we sat around playing Solitare on our computers while the boss was away while listening to a pretty good album from Van Halen (or Van Hagar in those days) called 5150. And in so doing, we were able to commemorate today’s anniversary without even realizing it.
The anniversary has nothing to do with music (that was last week). Many of you reading today’s entry will remember this day because many of us are old enough to remember its arrival. On this date in 1981, IBM introduced its Model 5150 desktop computer.
To make its rollout public, IBM rented a room at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York for the big announcement. As it turned out, the announcement wasn’t merely big — it was one that eventually changed the way we work, recreate, and even play solitaire and listen to classic rock.
Now that isn’t to say that the 5150 was the first small computer, or even the first by IBM. But market forces had made it necessary for IBM to find a radical solution to stay competitive in what was already a rapidly growing field.
Commodore, Apple, Atari and Texas Instruments had already come out with personal computers by this time. In fact, the very first computer I ever had personally was a Commodore VIC-20 complete with cassette tape drive. The success of the Apple II forced IBM to radically rethink its operation. The result was something very unlike IBM — or even American industry, for that matter.
Pressed by the need for a more or less immediate solution, IBM decided to contact with third parties to produce the components for its computer. As a result, the 5150 went from idea to reality in just twelve months, which was a record for a new product from the company. For its time, this was radical thinking.
First, IBM turned to the Intel corporation to use its 8088 processor, which ran at 4.77 MHz. The 5150 had 64k of read-0nly memory (ROM) and from 16 to 256k of random-access memory (RAM). It also had expansion ports for up to two 160k floppy disk drives (of the old 5 1/4 inch size — the monsters). Hard drives could hold up to 10 MB of data.
If you liked, you could also buy a color graphics card to spruce up the monochrome CGA green screen for the amazing low price of $1,565 ($4,470 in today’s money).
Yet it was in the operating system where IBM really broke ground. At that time, a company called Digital Research Incorporated was pacing the field with an operating system known as CP/M. That was IBM’s first choice for its 5150 system but DRI wasn’t in a hurry to work with IBM. As a result, the company turned to an upstart supplier known as Microsoft, which was starting to market its new PC-DOS operating system.
The resulting combination changed everything. IBM became a major player in personal computers, thanks in part to a wonderful advertising campaign which featured a recreation of the old “tramp”, Charlie Chaplin, using IBM products. The commercials were enormously well received and sales zoomed.
But then, IBM sowed the seeds of its own demise in the field.
It made large segments of the 5150’s technology available to the general public to help grow the industry and of course, immediately spawned clones which diminished IBM’s market share.
However, the real post-5150 turning point came when IBM developed the OS/2 operating system in conjunction with Microsoft. However, that company was working on its own operating system which it called Windows. When Microsoft marketed that product in 1990, IBM was undercut in its own area of innovation.
Eventually, IBM sold its computer business to Lenovo in 2005 for $1.75 billion. But the 5150, and those computers which followed it, had an undeniable impact first on the working world and then on the world we all enjoy today.
So as we sit behind our screens on a lovely Sunday, perhaps say a word of thanks for the technology we enjoy — and then get outside and enjoy the summer. Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!