Booting Up: The Rise of the PC

Explore the beginnings of the home and personal computing revolution, from the 1976 Apple 1 to the ubiquitous smartphone.

Apple 1 Computer, 1976 Apple 1 Computer, 1976 (1976) by Apple Computer, Inc.Original Source: Digital Collections

In March of 1975, a group of enthusiastic computer hobbyists met in a garage in Menlo Park, California. Steve Wozniak attended this inaugural meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club and walked away with the inspiration to create a new kind of computer. This was the beginning of the Apple 1, a groundbreaking computer that helped launch the desktop revolution.

In April 1976, the Apple 1 went on sale to the public. Customers received a pre-assembled motherboard but were required to purchase a monitor and keyboard separately.

Among its many unique qualities, Apple 1s allowed users to type on a keyboard and have characters show up on the monitor in front of them—an action we take for granted today.

This Apple 1 is fully operational, is one of the first 50 ever made, and was sold directly through early computer retailer, The Byte Shop.

Blue Box, Designed and Built by Steve Wozniak and Marketed by Steve Jobs, circa 1972, Wozniak, Steve, 1950-, Jobs, Steve, 1955-2011, 1971/1973, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Interesting Fact _____________

The Apple 1 computer was not Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs’ first business venture together.

Four years before Apple Computer, Inc. was founded, Wozniak was making “blue boxes” in his Berkeley dorm room, with Jobs performing the typical role of salesman.

These devices allowed people—known as “phone phreaks”—to place outgoing telephone calls anywhere in the world, for free. But the convenience of these early hacking devices came at a price, because outsmarting the telephone company was a highly illegal activity.

Apple Personal Computer, Model IIe, circa 1977 (1976/1978) by Apple Computer, Inc.Original Source: Digital Collections

The 1977 Trinity

In 1977, a trio of personal computers emerged: the
Apple II, the Commodore PET, and RadioShack’s TRS-80. These computers were dubbed
the “1977 Trinity” by Byte magazine. 

Just one short year after the Apple 1 was released, the Apple II hit the market—complete with color graphics, expandability, and an audio cassette drive.

Like the other computers in the 1977 Trinity, Apple II computers were sold “out of the box,” meaning all peripherals were included in the package, allowing consumers to set up their machine with ease.

This Apple IIe from 1977 was one of the most popular in the model line, remaining in production for over a decade after its introduction.

Commodore PET 2001-B Personal Computer, 1979 (1979) by Commodore Business MachinesOriginal Source: Digital Collections

The simplicity, durability, and affordability of the Commodore PET made it a popular choice among educators. For many students in the 1980s, the PET was an introduction to desktop computing and simple programming.

Designed by Chuck Peddle to operate on the innovative MOS 6502 microprocessor, the PET had a built-in cassette drive and featured a unibody construction with an integrated monitor.

Its small calculator-like “chiclet” keyboard, however, was unpopular with many users.

TRS-80 Personal Computer, circa 1980 (1978) by Radio Shack, Tandy Corporation, and Computer Simulations CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

The Radio Shack TRS-80 was the most successful of the 1977 Trinity.

The success of these computers was in part due to Radio Shack’s nationwide retail presence. These machines were sold direct to consumers out of the company’s storefronts.

When the TRS-80 was announced, Radio Shack’s president Lewis Kornfeld declared: "This device is inevitably in the future of everyone in the civilized world—in some way—now and so far as ahead as one can think."

Atari 2600 Video Computer System, 1982-1983 (1982/1983) by Atari, Inc.Original Source: Digital Collections

Atari and Home Computing

1977, when people were first bringing desktop computers into their homes in a
widespread way, the home video game industry was also making waves. 

The Atari Video Computer System (later rebranded the 2600) is one of the most iconic gaming consoles of all time.

This Atari 2600 "Black Vader" model marked a transitional period as the last console produced by Atari before the "Video Game Crash of 1983."

Video Game, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," Recovered from Landfill, Alamogordo, New Mexico, April 26, 2014, Site of the Atari Video Game Burial of 1983 (1982) by Atari, Inc. and Warshaw, Howard ScottOriginal Source:

The “Crash of 1983” occurred due to a flooded market, the rise of personal computers as gaming systems, and highly anticipated (but poor quality) games like "E.T." and "Pac-Man."

Atari Home Computer, Model 800, 1979-1982 (1979/1982) by Atari, Inc., Time Warner, Inc., and Sears, Roebuck and CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

With success in the home video gaming market firmly in place thanks to the Atari 2600, the company decided to enter the home computing market.

In 1979, the Atari 8-bit line was introduced, which included the 400 and 800 models. Unsurprisingly, Atari’s computers were friendly to video game players, with built-in joystick ports and graphic and sound performance on par with the later Commodore 64.

Commodore 64 Personal Computer, 1985 (1985) by Commodore Business MachinesOriginal Source: Digital Collections

Personal Computing

IBM Personal Computer, Model 5150, 1984 (1984) by International Business Machines CorporationOriginal Source: Digital Collections

The introduction of the IBM 5150 in 1981 saw one of the largest computing companies in the world shift their focus from unwieldy mainframe computers into the booming personal computing market.

The idea of internally producing a personal computer was at odds with corporate culture at IBM at the time. One naysayer remarked that “IBM bringing out a personal computer would be like teaching an elephant to tap dance."

Nonetheless, the team of engineers assigned to “Project Chess” developed what became known as the IBM PC in one short year. This computer was capable of processing data at a higher speed than the room-sized computers that the company was known for, ran on Intel microprocessors, and had a Microsoft operating system.

Commodore 64 Personal Computer, 1985 (1985) by Commodore Business MachinesOriginal Source: Digital Collections

The Commodore 64 made home computing accessible to a broad public in the 1980s. Released in 1982 as a successor to the VIC-20, the C64 was priced cheaply and was essential in establishing the home computing market. As an early platform for growing consumer-friendly software and game industries, it remains one of the top-selling personal computers of all time.

Osborne Portable Computer, Model OCC1, 1981-1982 (1981/1982) by Osborne Computer CorporationOriginal Source: Digital Collections

The Osborne 1 is the first mass-produced portable computer--a suitcase-sized "luggable" system weighing 23.5 pounds.

It was one of the first bundled systems, with an inclusive package of hardware and software including word processing, spreadsheet, and BASIC programs.

Despite initial success, when Osborne declared bankruptcy in 1983, it became the prototype victim of sudden, devastating, technological crashes in high-tech economies.

Apple Personal Computer, Lisa II, 1984-1985 (1984/1985) by Apple Computer, Inc.Original Source: Digital Collections

The Apple Lisa is the first personal computer to successfully promote the Graphical User Interface.

GUIs made computing accessible. People could use a mouse to click on task-specific icons, rather than typing instructions into a text-based command line.

The Lisa II is similar to the Lisa I, with a lower price point and a smaller, 3.5" floppy disc drive.

Macintosh 512K Personal Computer, Model M0001W, 1985 (1985)Original Source:

In 1984, the Apple Macintosh took the Apple Lisa’s “graphical user interface” and mouse driven desktop environment to a much larger scale.

Despite the Mac's relatively high price, its user-friendly features helped it demystify computing for many people without a technical bent.

This computer is a Macintosh 512k, released in 1985 with increased memory.

Pixar Image Computer II (P-II), circa 1987, Pixar (Firm), Sony Corporation, 1986/1988, Original Source:
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Specialized Computing

Pixar is celebrated for its animation, but the company's origins began with computer hardware.

In 1984, they created the Pixar Image Computer (PIC)--a groundbreaking device aimed towards advanced graphics and animation.

The PIC was used within medical and scientific industries and was also used by Disney for their Computer Animation Production System, from The Little Mermaid to Pocahontas.

This improved PII was released in 1987.

NeXTcube Computer System, 1990-1993, NeXT Computer, Inc., 1990/1993, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Specialized Computing __________________

Housed in a square die-cast magnesium case, the NeXT Computer System shipped out with the first magneto-optical disk drive, Ethernet, and the Unix-based NeXTSTEP operating system.

With a $6500 price tag, NeXT computers were not designed to be financially accessible to everyone, but were targeted toward the high-end education market.

One of the most enduring uses of a NeXTcube was by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, where he used one of these computers to design the first web server software and the first web browser, WorldWideWeb.

iMac, circa 1999 (1998/2000) by Apple Computer, Inc.Original Source: Digital Collections

The iMac G3 was "the computer that saved Apple." This highly successful computer was optimized for education and web-surfing. Steve Jobs declared it married "the excitement of the Internet with the simplicity of a Macintosh."

Available in 13 colors, Jonathan Ive designed its distinctive translucent case. Ive's design challenged the notion that computers had to be encased in opaque beige boxes.

Y2K Snowglobe, 1999 (1999) by At Home International and Walker, Kenneth H.Original Source: Digital Collections

Computing in the New Millennium

The advent of the new millennium was an occasion for both anxiety and levity. Fears of a global computer meltdown due to the Y2K bug were gently satirized by the exploding computer parts in this "01-01-00"-branded snow globe.

OLPC XO-1 Laptop Computer, 2008 (2008) by Quanta ComputerOriginal Source: Digital Collections

The One Laptop Per Child initiative was founded to increase access to affordable computers and to impact education through digital literacy in the developing world.

The rugged case of the XO-1 model was designed by Yves Behar at fuseproject.

iPhone, 2007 (2007)Original Source:

The iPhone elevated the idea of the cellphone as pocket computer--powerful technology in a sleek package. This handheld is a music player, a mobile phone, and an internet-enabled device in one, with a trendsetting touchscreen interface.

The iPhone's release in 2007 was a well-choreographed media event, with potential buyers waiting in lines for hours at Apple stores across the country.

"Cognitive Dress," Designed by IBM and Marchesa, 2016 (2016) by International Business Machines Corporation and Marchesa (Firm)Original Source: Digital Collections

IBM Watson and fashion designers Marchesa collaborated to create the world's first cognitive dress.

Watson is a form of cognitive technology--capable of analyzing huge amounts of data in seconds to reveal patterns of information.

Lights on the dress also respond to the emotional content of social media, allowing audiences to transform how it looks, using familiar digital tools.

"Cognitive Dress," Designed by IBM and Marchesa, 2016 (2016) by International Business Machines Corporation and Marchesa (Firm)Original Source: Digital Collections

The Apple 1’s exposed motherboard may look alien to people today, but in 1976, it was the first fully assembled personal computer available to customers. The “out of the box” computers that followed in 1977 also contributed to computers entering the home.

Today, the inventive aspects of the machines presented in this group continue to reverberate: the affordability of the Commodore 64, the “portability” of the Osborne 1, the ubiquity of the first successful smartphones and cognitive computing.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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