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40 Years of Personal Computing

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40 Years of Personal Computing

Computers have probably been around longer than you think.

Charles Babbage began to theorize about computers in the early 1800s, imagining a machine that could automatically calculate basic arithmetic and print out the results. After reading about his "Analytical Engine," Ada Lovelace not only wrote the very first computer program, but predicted the future of powerful computers that could "compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent," and perform any task that could be translated into binary code.

While the military found uses for "automatic calculating machines" using punchtapes in the 30s and 40s, it wasn't until the mid-20th century that businesses began to use computers as well.

When you think about early computers, what comes to mind probably isn't the Analytical Engine, but the huge mainframe computers that came into use in the 1950s and 60s, like th IBM 1401. Thousands of 1401s were sold to businesses which used them to replace accounting machines and calculators. These mainframes had a hefty pricetag, starting at $2500 per month (equivalent to about $20,000 today).

Back then, it was accepted that computers were for the government, research laboratories, and big businesses who needed to automate complex calculations and process large amounts of data. Computers tallied votes, scored sports games, and calculated ballistics.

No one imagined that computers would have a use in personal households. What individual person had a need to process large amounts of data at home?

Even when the first microcomputers started coming out in the 1970s and 80s, many computer companies just didn't see a market for them outside of businesses. The first microcomputers were designed for use by small businesses who couldn't afford larger computers, but then started to be used in the home as well.

Many early computer hobbyists got their start on these early computers, and it was only a matter of time until computer companies recognized the potential of the personal computer, and started building and marketing computers for individual home use.

In such a short history of personal computing, we've come a long way! Here's how the journey unfolded. Do you remember using any of the classic computers listed below?


Transcript: 40 Years of Personal Computing

Computer kits of the 70s and 80s required a bit of programming knowledge and a lot of cash to get started in home computing.

(Plus resourcefulness to find information, support and parts needed to build these early systems.)

Let's geek out over home computers of the past.

Computers in the '70s

  • March 1974: The Scelbi-8H (Scientific, Electronic, Biological) personal computer kit sold for approximately $565 ($2,716.95 in today's money).

    • It was based on the Intel® 8008 processor.
    • It included 1K of programmable memory.
  • July 1974: The Mark-8 personal computer kit debuted in Radio Electronics magazine and sold for $47.50 ($228.42 in today's money).

    • It too, was based on the Intel® 8008 processor.
    • The only thing it included was the main six boards, so you had to find the other parts yourself.
      • CPU Board
      • Address Latch Board
      • Input Multiplexer Board
      • 1K memory board
      • LED Register Display Board
      • Output Ports Board
    • You had to order the plans to build the computer for an additional $5.
  • January 1975: MITS Altair 8800 was featured in the Popular Electronics magazine as the "World's First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models".

    • Sold for $395 as a kit ($1,746.66 in today's money).
    • Sold for $650 assembled ($2,874.26 in today's money.)
  • July 1976: Apple I: Only about 200 of these were made.

    • Sold for $666.66 with 4K RAM ($2,777.62 in today's money).
    • Keyboard was not included.
  • June 1977: Apple II, became one of the most popular computers of all time.

    • Sold for:
      • $1,298 with 4K RAM (minimum) ($5,077.88 in today's money)
      • $2,638 with 48K RAM (maximum) ($10,320.06 in today's money)
    • Was also available as a circuit-board only without:
      • Keyboard
      • Power supply
      • Case

Computers in the '80s

  • March 1981: British company Sinclair released the ZX-81 computer, just a year after their flagship ZX-80 product.

    • Sold for:
      • $149.95 assembled ($391.08 in today's money)
      • $99.95 in kit form ($260.67 in today's money)
    • First computer under $100.
    • Sold 500,000 units in the first 12 months.
  • January 1984: Apple's Macintosh computer

    • Sold for: $2,495 ($5,692.92 in today's money)
    • First commercially successful computer to use a graphical user interface (GUI).
    • No room for internal expansion options.
      • Special tools required to open the case.
  • 1985: AT&T UNIX PC

    • Sold for: $5,590 ($12,316.29 in today's money)
    • Very powerful computer for its time.
      • Could process data from as many as 12 open windows.
  • January 1987: Commodore 128D computer

    • Sold for: $299.95-$499.95 ($625.97-$1,043.35 in today's money)
    • Three major versions of this computer:
      • The one-piece Model 128 ($299.95 or $625.97 in today's money)
        • Built-in keyboard.
        • Optional external floppy drive.
      • The two-piece plastic case 128D
        • Not sold the in the U.S. because of failure to meet FCC regulations for RF emissions.
      • The two-piece metal case 128D ($499.95 or $1,043.35 in today's money)
        • Internal 5-1/4″ floppy drive.
        • Separate keyboard.

      Computers in the '90s

      • March 1991: Commodore CDTV CD-1000

        • Sold for: $999 ($1,738.88 in 2014)
      • October 1992: IBM Thinkpad Laptop Model 300

        • Sold for: $2,375 ($4,013.16 in today's money)
        • Weight: 5.9 lbs
      • March 1994: Apple's Power Macintosh

        • Sold for: $1,820, $2,000, $2,350 depending on model ($2,911.41, $3,199.35, $3,759.24 in today's money)
      • Computer ownership rises sharply between '90 and '97 from 15% to 35%.
      • The first web page was created in 1991.
      • The first graphical web browser for the public, Mosaic, debuts in 1993.
      • Some feared computers would stop working in 2000, thanks to the Y2K (aka Millennium bug.
        • The general thought was that dates would roll back to 1900, rather than to 2000.

      Computers in the '00s

      • May 2000: Dell Dimension XPS T800r

        • Sold for $1,599 ($2,201.38 in today's money)
      • June 2003: Apple PowerMac G5

        • Sold for: Starting at $1,799 ($2,317.89 in today's money)
        • First home computer with 64-bit processor.
        • When it was first released, Apple claimed it was the "world's fastest personal computer".
          • The claim produced mixed results in speed tests.
        • February 2009: Dell Inspiron 530s

          • Sold for: Starting at $279 ($308.31 in today's money)
        • March 2009: Apple Mac Pro (quad-core)

          • Sold for: Starting at $2,499 ($2,761.50 in today's money)
        • In December 2009, Mac OSX® held just 5.2% of the market share.
          • Windows® held 93.75%.

      Today's Computers and DIY Kits

      • Desktops
        • Dell Inspiron 3000 Small Desktop
          • Sells for: Starting at $329.99
        • Mac Mini
          • Sells for: Starting at $599
      • Laptops
        • Dell Inspiron 15″ Non-Touch
          • Sells for: Starting at $299.99
        • MacBook Pro 13"
          • Sells for: Starting at $1299
      • In March 2014, Mac hits an all-time high with 8.16% of the market share.
        • Windows drops to 89.96%
      • If you're more of the DIY type, you can get more computer bang for your buck.
        • AMD FX-4130 Kit: Retails for $359.99 at TigerDirect.com. The kit includes:
          • 80 GHz Processor
          • Motherboard - 7.1-CH Audio, Gigabit LAN, USB 3.0, HDMI,
          • 4GB RAM
          • 1 TB Hard Drive
          • 24X Super-Multi DVD Internal Rewriter
          • Tower Computer Case
          • CPU Cooler
        • Guardian Gaming Series GAA-9140M: Retails for $754.99 at NewEgg.com. This kit includes:
          • Steel chassis Computer Case
          • Motherboard
          • 2GB 256-Bit Video Card
          • SLI Ready CrossFire Ready Power Supply
          • 0GHz (4.2GHz Turbo) Desktop Processor
          • 8GB RAM
          • 1TB Hard Drive
          • Internal Super Multi Drive

          Once priced so high personal computers were a luxury but over the past four decades, we've reached the point where at least one computer can be found in nearly every American home, alongside the tablets and smartphones we use today.


          KeriLynn Engel

          About KeriLynn Engel

          KeriLynn has worked as a freelance writer for various websites. She is an advocate for domestic abuse victims and has way too many hobbies.


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