19 Fun Pieces of PC History
PCs have come a long way since the 1946 completion of ENIAC, or more recent mainstream PC originals like the Commodore 64. By today's standards, decades-old PCs seem bulky and are often coated in that classic shade of faded gray-beige that makes us grin.
But what is a computer anyway? In the most basic sense, a computer is something you can program to conduct specific operations. The first programming didn’t arrive with PCs--or even room-sized mainframes. It came much earlier, in surprising devices like musical instruments and automated weaving looms.
To find out more, we visited New York City’s Museum of Interesting Things to get our paws on as many pieces of PC history as we could. From self-playing instruments of the 1800s, to IBM’s first machine (and no, it’s not a punch card), to artifacts museum curator Denny Daniels views as the original Google, YouTube and PowerPoint. We encountered a delightful smattering of historical items that all contributed to the computer and PC market in their own way.
Buckle up. It’s time for a blast from the past.
The jacquard loom was invented in 1804 and made textile manufacturing much easier through the magic of programming. It’s often viewed as the beginning of computing, since it was the first programmable machine.
Invented by France’s Joseph Marie Jacquard, these looms carried a piece of hardware (pictured) that would spin and read punch cards before telling the loom what to do. There you have it, the first punch cards, designed to make cheaper textiles.
Who needs musical lessons when instruments can play themselves? While pop music has made lip-synching all but acceptable (we're looking at you, Britney Spears), self-playing instruments have long been faking gullibles out, since the early-to-mid 1900s to be more precise.
You've probably have seen player pianos, or self-playing pianos in old movies or at malls before. But did you know there were automated saxophones and harmonicas in the 1800s? These instruments were programmed to play music through an inserted paper roll that told them which notes to hit.
Just be careful who you perform for or else risk being dubbed a phony.
The First IBM
In 1911, the International Time Recording Company, Computing Scale Company and Tabulating Machine company all merged into the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. That conglomerate would later be re-branded as International Business Machines--aka IBM--in 1924.
The earliest of those three companies is the International Time Recording Company, which invented mechanical time recorders and was founded in 1888. So when you think about ‘the first IBM machines,’ it may be more accurate to think of time clocks like this, which assigned employees a number and allowed them to clock in and clock out with a loud chime.
Google and YouTube: 1800s Style
Museum of Interesting Things’ Daniels calls stereoscopes, also known as steropticons, as the Google and YouTube of the 1800s. Used up until the early 1900s, you could buy a pack of cards with a certain theme, ranging from kid's cartoons to teaching aids, medical devices and places around the world, for your stereoscope. The front of each card had a photo, while the back had text teaching you all about what you were viewing.
“In the 1800s, it was expensive to go to New York or France. Books were expensive. Libraries weren’t everywhere. So what did you do if you wanted to Google something? … You’d get these stereoscope slides and buy them in packs of 25. Learn about the Civil War, France, put in a slide, take out a slide, put in another slide, take out a slide--that’s your YouTube,” Daniels said.
The PowerPoint of the Past
Who needs Microsoft PowerPoint to make a slideshow? Not the techies of yesteryear. Instead, the Magic Lantern played their slideshows, called Magic Lantern presentations. Even Thomas Edison had a catalogue of Magic Lantern presentations, Daniels told us.
Magic Lantern presentations were crafted on glass slides and came with a booklet featuring information for each slide. This is like PowerPoint templates on steroids. Presentations covered a wide gamut of categories, including different historical periods and even secret societies, and were available to rent or own. We saw one priced at a whopping $65 (likely in 1900s dollars).
Magic Lanterns were invented in the 1500s but took off in the early-to-mid 1800s. They first ran on oil lamps (pictured), but eventually they used light bulbs instead.
Credit: Lomita/Wikimedia Commons
Enigma: The Early Encryptor
Anyone who keeps up with the latest security breach headlines--seemingly a full-time job these days--knows the importance of encryption. Encrypting data helps ensure privacy, secure computing and, in the case of the Enigma, engage in world warfare.
The Enigma is a cipher machine that was created by German inventor Arthur Scheribus toward the end of World War I. As a cipher machine, the Enigma encrypted messages sent by soldiers so the enemy couldn’t read them. Well-documented users include Nazi Germany.
The “First” Laptop
What, exactly, constitutes as the first laptop is hotly debated. But many give the Osborne 1 that title since it was the first to really take off.
Debuting in 1981 courtesy of the Osborne Computer Corporation, these portables used floppy disks as "hard drives." A vent on top managed heat, while a snap-up keyboard and handle led to its "luggable computer" nickname.
Despite the obvious bulkiness, an impressive 10,000 Osbourne 1 machines were sold per month in its first year. But in 1983, facing growing competition, the vendor filed for bankruptcy.
We wouldn’t be Tom’s Hardware without diving into the specs a bit here, right?.
Osborne 1 Specs
- CPU: 4MHz Z80
- Memory: 64KB, made of four rows of DRAM chips
- Display: 5-inches, CRT, 52 x 24 text
- Operating System: CP/M 2.2
- Ports: 1x parallel
- Drives: 2x 100K disk drives
- Connectivity: Optional modem
- Included Software: CBASIC2 (Digital Research, language compiler), MBASIC (Microsoft, game), Colossal Cave (game), Deadline (Infocom, game), dBase II and dBase II Tutor (Ashton-Tate, database), Nominal Ledger, Purchase Ledger, and Sales Ledger (PeachTree Software), SuperCalc (Sorcim, spreadsheet), WordStar (MicroPro, word processor)
- Price: $1,795 (roughly $4,800 today)
The First Smartphone
Most of us are familiar with the clunky cell phones made popular in ‘80s and ‘90s by the likes of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko and Saved by the Bell’s Zach Morris. Heck, you may have even owned one yourself. However, it’s less likely you owned the first smartphone, the IBM Simon, as it only sold about 50,000 units.
First available in 1995, it sold for $1,100 (or $900, and eventually $600, if you signed a two-year deal with BellSouth). That’s also in line with today's premium smartphone pricing, and perhaps rightly so since this smartphone had several of the same capabilities of today’s smartphones. There were basic apps like Email, Calendar, Notepad, Sketch Pad and To-Do Lists. The Simon featured predictive text and even had a touch screen!
Credit: Bcos47/Wikimedia Commons
The Original Tech Community
We love our community here at Tom’s Hardware, but from 1975 to 1986 there was another platform for PC enthusiasts to gather: the Homebrew Computer Club.
The Homebrew Computer Club may be the reason we have Apple and Microsoft today. Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, as well as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen were all members. In fact, the former introduced the first Apple computer there.
Pretty big names for a tech community, sure, but were their discussions as lively as those on the Tom’s Hardware forums?
The Original DIY Robot
DIY robots are all the rage. Today's kids are fortunate to have a fun way to dive into STEM and coding with robot toy kits. And parents get to have some fun with their children too. But building your own robots is nothing new.
Heathkits allowed customers to build their own robots, TVs, radios, oscilloscopes and computers from 1947 until 1992. In fact, Steve Jobs was a big fan of the kits, and it just may be what gave him the confidence to build computers for the world.
“[Heathkits] gave one the sense that one could build the things that one saw around oneself in the universe. These things were not mysteries anymore. I mean, you looked at a television set, you would think that ‘I haven't built one of those but I could. There's one of those in the Heathkit catalogue, and I've built two other Heathkits, so I could build that,’” Jobs told the Computerworld Information Technology Awards Foundation in 1995.
This particular robo is the Hero 1. His arm fell off over time, but after some gentle surgery, he'll be capable of walking around and picking things up. When he was born in 1982, he cost $995 (about $2,600 today).