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19 Fun Pieces of Computer History From the Museum of Interesting Things

The Original DIY Robot

Bonus: Check out one of the catalogues where tech enthusiasts would browse for their next Heathkit. 

Apple Lisa

The Apple Lisa debuted in 1983, making a name for itself as one of the first PCs with a graphical user interface (GUI).

Speaking of names, what’s with the name? While a seemingly clever take on the Mona Lisa painting and said to stand for Local Integrated Software Architecture, it was also long debated whether or not the machine was also named after Steve Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. That debate can now be laid to rest, thanks to Brennan-Jobs’ tell-all book Small Fry, which came out earlier this month. In the book, the author says Jobs admitted to naming the PC after her.

Beyond some controversy, the Apple Lisa is a part of PC history. It represents one of Apple’s least successful pieces of hardware, partially due to its astronomical price. After selling just 100,000 units in its first two years (not a great figure, considering the first Macintosh sold 70,000 units in its first three months), the PC was taken off market. But it remains infamous as helping to almost put Apple out of business.

Apple Lisa Specs

  • CPU: Motorola 68000, 5MHz
  • Memory: 1MB, expandable up to 2MB
  • Display: 12 inches, 720 x 365 resolution
  • Operating System: Apple Lisa GUI
  • Ports: 1x parallel, 1x mouse, 2x serial
  • Storage: 2x 5.25-inch floppy drives, 1x external hard drive, 5MB (optional)
  • Price: $9,995 (about $25,000 today)

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The iPad’s Great-Great-Great-Grandfather

Apple has carved a seemingly permanent spot in the portable computer category with its iPads. But the company has been working on this idea since way before the first iPad launched in 2010.

The company’s original foray into this space was actually the Apple Newton PDA, which first appeared in 1993 and was killed off (by Jobs) in 1998. Apple launched four Newton MessagePads in this time period. Pictured here is the first, the MP100.

QWERTY’s Biggest Threat

IBM’s Selectric typewriter click-clacked onto the scene in 1961. What made the machine so successful (selling 13 million units by 1986) was its efficient typing response, made possible after IBM brought a special ball, which had already existed for decades, to the U.S. The ball replaced traditional typewriter bars that would often clump up and stick together if you typed too fast.

However, Daniels tells us that today’s QWERTY keyboard layout, which became common in 1878, was actually designed to slow down typists and prevent that issue. But by the time IBM’s technology came around, people were too used to the QWERTY standard to allow change.

Some, however, remain hopeful.

“Typewriter societies are trying to bring [other keyboard layouts] back, but no one wants to change the keyboard. ... But had we had the ball, we would’ve been using better systems for 100 years, and you never would've known QWERTY existed,” Daniels says.

Need proof? Germany actually had this technology before IBM, making for more efficient keyboard layouts like that seen on 1893’s Blickensderfer #5 (pictured on next page). 

Credit: Scs/Wikimedia Commons and Scharon Harding/Tom's Hardware

QWERTY’s Biggest Threat

See? The Blickensderfer #5 is proof that QWERTY isn't the only way.

IBM Punch Cards

Putting these on the list (or in a museum) was a no-brainer. IBM punch cards were a major update to the bigger, bulkier cards used in jacquard looms throughout the 1800s. 

IBM’s first punch cards “had 22 columns and eight punch positions; then 24 columns and 10 positions (1900); and until the late 1920s, it had 45 columns of round holes and 12 punch positions. But it was not enough, as customers needed to put more data on each card," according to IBM.

So, there was eventually an internal competition, which researcher Clair D. Lake's team won. The winning formula? A 7.375 x 3.25-inch rectangle with smaller holes that were easier for metal tabulators to read, but called for new machines. IBM chose it because “it could be implemented quickly and required the least adjustment in how tabulating machines worked.” And IBM “wanted to move away from round-holed machines, which were more common. Nobody had rectangular holes.”

These cards are also a big part of IBM’s success. The company says the cards helped it make a name in data processing. And as recently as the mid-1950s the cards accounted for up to 20 percent of IBM' revenue.

The First Floppy Disks

Now that’s a lot of floppy! Just look at it overshadowing its 3.5-inch baby brother. The first floppy disks were 8-inchers that came to market in 1971. They first debuted as part of IBM products before companies like Memorex started selling them individually in 1972.

Credit: Thomas Bohl/Wikimedia Commons

PC Gaming Geekdom

Nothing quite beats gaming, huh? What else allows you to be as athletic, musical, violent, boring or non-human as you want?

While there were other PC games before The Hobbit software game (see 1950’s Bertie the Brain, 1952’s OXO, or even IBM’s 1981 Microsoft Adventure), this 1982 Hobbit PC game makes the list, not just because we saw it at the Museum of Interesting Things, but because of the sheer geekiness (The Hobbit, hello) it brought to the PC world.

The Hobbit was originally made for ZX Spectrum PCs before being made available on other platforms, including the Commodore 64 (pictured), BBC Micro and Oric. And if that’s not enough geekdom for you, note the game came with a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book. Score!

And Again....

Similarly, it’s safe to bet this PC game, Star Trek: The Kobayashi Alternative, had an impact on the lives of many an early PC gaming geeks. This game came out in 1985 and was available on Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64 and IBM PC.

Scharon Harding has a special affinity for gaming peripherals (especially monitors), laptops and virtual reality. Previously, she covered business technology, including hardware, software, cyber security, cloud and other IT happenings, at Channelnomics, with bylines at CRN UK.