Patentmania! Personal Computers of the Early 1980s

Posted by  | Wednesday, May 27, 2009

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PCs of the Early 1980sThe first few years of PC history were its stone age–the era when any signs of life whatsoever were history-making. The period from 1985 to the present, as amazing as it’s been, has been one of consistency and compatibility. Which is why I think of 1980-1985 as the most interesting half-decade  in PC history. Almost every new system (including some that debuted in 1979) was still an experiment–and even flops could be fascinating. Herewith a gallery of notable examples, illustrated with evocative drawings from Google Patents. (Click on the filing dates to see the patents in their entirety.)

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18 Comments For This Post

  1. Stilgar Says:

    Hey, I had a PCjr! Although, I can’t deny that IBM set the look of PCs for many years, you have to admit they tried to “sex” it up a bit with the first line of PS/1’s in the early 90’s.

  2. Joe Says:

    Neither the apple II nor the original Mac are particularly timeless-looking, imo — although both were incredible designs for the time. However, both were looking very dated by the time the platinum Apple IIe made it’s debut in 87. The Apple IIc and the IIgs both still look modern and fresh today, thanks to the ‘timeless’ designs by frog design. I thought this was pretty conventional wisdom, but I guess everyone has a different perspective on what “timeless” means.

  3. David Says:

    Looks a lot like the Zenith 138. I think that one did come with the pop up drives. Oh and my college had a lab full of TRS-80 Model IIs. I learned Fortran on one back in the day. Actually a very good machine that lasted and lasted.

  4. Nick Says:

    Having gone into the PC business in 1980, I still feel the sting of the arrows for being a pioneer, this was a walk done memory lane. What I did miss amoung the flops was the Apple Lisa. It cost most business, selling the Lisa, a lot of money and put some business out of business. It is amazing that when the business started gross margins of over 50% were common and when IBM put everyone in the PC business in 1981 margins fell to low teens and single digits in no time. I guess anyone sell PC’s today would be very happy with margins in the 20% range. Being old and out to pasture I think back on those days and loved every minute of the industry, but it was a strain everyday. Not only trying to stay in business, but keeping up with an industry that changed by the minute.

  5. Gilbert Borom Says:

    What about the Atari ST 1040 series? I had one and it was great!

  6. Dan Mulvaney Says:

    I wa sin the Navy from 1982 – 1991 and we had quite a few of these on the ships I was on… they certainly were capable of burning floppys by the score.

  7. Dan Mulvaney Says:

    To clarify, I was referring to the TRS-80’s

  8. Hamish Says:

    I had a sinclair ZX81 and then a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Then an Amiga 500. Awesome!

  9. Lou Says:

    I’m amazed you do not mention the Atari ST 1040/520 series. Used with a colour TV it had some great applications and games. Also, it had a GIF that preceded Microsoft Windows.

  10. Fred Says:

    You did not mention the Digital Group. I learned everything about computers with one of these. You got bare circuit boards and plastic bags full of chips, capacitors and sockets. Then the soldering began. They were marvelous machines. You could run either an 8080 cpu, a Z80, or a Motorola 6800 just by swapping the cpu card. I think there were 6 or 7 operation systems for them, including CP/M, and something called OPus. They supported both disk (8″ and 5 1/4″ floppies) and a “sophisticated” tape system using phi-deck drives. A 20 amp power supply was mandatory…they needed a lot of power.

  11. John Says:

    No Kaypro II? Everyone thought I was carrying around my wife’s portable sewing machine!!! Classy machine with detachable keyboard, steel case, and–get this–twin floppy drives!!!

  12. auctoris Says:

    No mention of the “best-selling single personal computer model of all time”–the Commodore 64. That’s odd.

  13. Paul Says:

    The TI-95a ! Should be on this list! Plain and simple, somebody
    made a mistake – bigtime. Texas Instruments was a big player with
    innovative technologies in the early ’80’s computers.

  14. Michael Says:

    Refer to page 13. The Amiga 1000 also had the designers signatures etched into the plastic top cover.

  15. Colin Says:

    The commentary on the Atari picture is wrong–there is only one floppy drive. Item 14, which looks like a thicker floppy drive is in fact a printer–the model 820 dot-matrix printer. You can see a picture of it here:

  16. IIcer Says:

    I had a IIc when I was in college. I’d been banging away on the ][‘s for a while and was more familiar with it than the mac, which had just come out (~1984) and it was a lot more portable (for the commute)… or so I thought. Didn’t realize lugging the monitor around would be such a pain.

    The PC jr., although a joke, had one groundbreaking feature that never caught on until this milenium. A wireless IR keyboard.

  17. Jourdan Cameron Says:

    Does no. 3 double as a microwave? Great job!

  18. Ken Hansen Says:

    The TRS-80 Model II was an interesting machine, it was designed to address the market as it existed then. When it came out there were TRS-80s at homes and in very, very small businesses, all the real action was in the small business VAR market, which was heavily invested in CP/M, 8″ floppies, and CBASIC/DBASE applications. This machine was designed to fit in that market, but that market was in decline. Three years earlier and Radio Shack would have “owned” the small business market, but it was too late to catch on. Soon after it was released, the IBM PC stormed on the scene (it also offered CP/M support, though few took advantage of that offering, opting for cheaper IBM PC-DOS).

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