Tag Archives | IBM

A World Without the IBM PC

Apple's famous ad.

On August 12th, 1981, IBM announced its first PC. That makes today the thirtieth anniversary of the platform that’s sometimes been called the PC clone, IBM PC compatible, or Wintel…but is most often simply called the PC. We started our celebration on Thursday with Benj Edwards’ look at PC oddities such as Bill Gates’s donkey-avoidance game. But thinking about some of the weirdness that the PC inspired got me to thinking: what if IBM, which took a long time to decide to do a PC at all, had decided not to do one? What if it had decided that microcomputers were a blip and it should stick to mainframes?

The announcement of the PC was one of the most important moments in tech history, since computers based on the PC’s design quickly flooded the market and established a standard which lives on to this day in every Windows PC. As I played around with the idea of the IBM PC suddenly vanishing from the history books, I started asking myself questions, and trying to come up with answers. (Hey, the whole subject is so unknowable that there’s no such thing as a wrong answer…)

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The PC Turns 30

On August 12th, 1981, IBM announced its first PC. I was a high school student at the time, and was totally unimpressed. The machine was boxy and boring, with graphics that couldn’t compare to something like the Atari 800. And it was way too pricey. Who’d go for that?

Lots of people, it turned out–and even today, the vast majority of us use PCs directly descended from IBM’s first one. To mark one of the most important anniversaries in computing history, Benj Edwards, as is his wont, has focused in on some its sidelights and curiosities. Read about them in IBM PC Oddities.

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IBM PC Oddities

Thirty years ago this Friday, IBM announced its very first Personal Computer, the 5150. The tech press, in a rare unified act of prescience, immediately recognized a new computing standard taking shape before its eyes.

For three decades, the platform created by the IBM PC has served as the bedrock for computing progress and innovation. Most of us use still PCs that retain some compatibility with the first PC. That’s amazing.

The true tale of the IBM PC is too complex to convey with a mere historical narrative. You need to see the hidden world of back-alleys, dead-ends, and detours that is…IBM PC Oddities.


Happy Fiftieth Birthday, IBM Selectric

Last month, I had fun paying tribute to Polaroid’s SX-70, an old-technology gadget that’s all the more extraordinary because there was nothing digital about it. The SX-70 came to mind again when I learned that IBM’s Selectric typewriter is marking its fiftieth anniversary. It was a great leap forward beyond every typewriter of the time, both technologically sophisticated and beautifully designed. And it remains pretty darn cool even if most of us will never use one again.

To celebrate the Selectric’s fiftieth, I put together a slideshow of evocative images and interesting factoids, including stuff about later models–such as the $21,000 (!!!) Selectric Magnetic Tape Composer. Here it is.


It’s Selectric! IBM’s Classic Typewriter Turns Fifty

Do you remember typewriters? Of course you do. But do you remember the last time a typewriter was exciting and futuristic? That would be 1961, when IBM released its first Selectric. It went on sale on July 27th, which makes this Sunday its fiftieth anniversary. (IBM is celebrating its own hundredth birthday this year, making the Selectric a nifty half-way point in its long history.)

The result of seven years of research, the Selectric went on to become one of the best-selling office devices ever. It’s been so archaic for so long that it’s tough to remember just how remarkable it was in its day–and there’s no better time than right now to give it its due.


IBM Storage Tech: DVRs in the Cloud, SSD Replacements




An IBM data center in North Carolina

How is IBM funneling its vast resources into research around future products and services? At a press and analyst day last week in New York City, the company talked up projects around replacing today’s flash-based SSDs (solid state drives) with new PCM (phase change memory) technology and dropping DVRs (digital video recorders) in favor of video storage clouds.

IBM is about to start field tests with cable TV companies around new cloud-based video storage services for consumers, said Steve Canepa, general manager for IBM’s Global Media & Entertainment Industry Division.

Meanwhile, for businesses, Big Blue is eyeing the release in another four years of new storage servers based on PCM, according to other speakers at the press event on Thursday in midtown Manhattan.

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How IBM Sold Tech in the Eisenhower Era

Back in May, we told you about some industrial films that IBM commissioned from the Muppets in the 1960s. The decade before that, the office-equipment giant was a major advertiser in glossy mass-circulation magazines such as LIFE. Today, those ads are a fascinating, evocative trip back to a world in which technology, work, and workplaces were radically different. Yes, there was a time when the typical piece of business correspondence was a snail-mail letter typed by a secretary on a typewriter which might or might not have been electric–and which had no provision for correcting errors.

View The Golden Age of IBM Advertising slideshow.


The Golden Age of IBM Advertising

Back in the 1950s, IBM was just getting into the computer business, many companies still needed to be convinced that electric typewriters weren’t a technological boondoggle, and slide rules were still essential equipment. And the American workplace–at least as depicted in magazine ads–had what we’d now consider a distinct Mad Men edge to it.

Mix yourself the cocktail of your choice, settle into your Eames chair, and return with us now to the era of mainframes and secretarial pools to rediscover these vintage IBM ads from LIFE and other publications.


IBM's in "Jeopardy"

Computers beating humans at chess? Easy. Computers beating humans at Jeopardy? Unimaginably challenging–but an IBM supercomputer is now a really good (but not yet brilliant) Jeopardy player, and is gearing up to compete with human champions on TV. This New York Times piece by Clive Thompson on all this is among the best articles on technology you’ll read this year.


The IBM Muppet Show

IBM. The Muppets. Two venerable institutions-but not ones we tend to associate with each other. Yet in the late 1960s, before most people had ever seen a computer in person or could identify a Muppet on sight, the two teamed up when IBM contracted with Jim Henson for a series of short films designed to help its sales staff. Little known today, these remain fresh, funny, and surprisingly irreverent. Henson would return to their gags and situations in his famous later works–and he plucked the Cookie Monster from one of them when assembling the Muppet cast for Sesame Street in 1969.

Whose idea was this unique collaboration? Well, Henson had already established himself in the advertising field. He was best known at the time for the Muppets’ guest skits on variety shows and Rowlf the Dog’s appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show. But he was busier making a wide array of commercials and longer sales films for regional and national products from Esskay Meats to Marathon Gasoline.

For its own part, IBM was keenly aware that its products–including computers, electric typewriters, and very early word processors–had to be explained to both the public and IBM’s own employees. So it formed its own advertising group, including a film and television division. An executive named David Lazer headed this division, overseeing the production of training and sales films.

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