by Gwen Barnes
n my travels, I recently acquired a box full of old computer magazines from a second-hand bookstore. For a grand total of a buck, I snapped up such treasures as Mechanix Illustrated Personal Computers Number 2, from 'way back in October 1980; Volume 1 Number 2 of PC World; and perhaps the most delightful find of all, an early issue of the now-defunct Creative Computing, complete with a review of the "new" IBM Personal Computer.
I'll get to that review later. What really fascinated me in these old magazines when I first looked through them was the ads, and particularly the prices for computers, software, peripherals and gadgets. I did a little comparison shopping to see what it would cost to put together a system more or less equivalent to the one I use now.
My own computer is the Sirius Cybernetics Bambleweeny 57 (a pretty generic turbo XT with 20mb hard drive, 1200 baud internal modem, Hercules+ graphics, clock/calendar, and 640k of ram). I bought it about two and a half years ago and have used it more or less daily since then, mostly for writing, with occasional telecommunication binges and a rare, guilty diversion into Leather Goddesses of Phobos. The whole shebang, including an NLQ dot matrix printer, set me back about $3500. Should've waited—prices have come down quite a bit since then. Just the same, I'm glad I didn't try to buy one in 1980.
In 1980 just before IBM muscled its way into the microcomputer marketplace, the nearest I could come to Bambleweeny would be any one of these discovers "small business" systems:
The Micro V Microstar II was a 16-bit 8085-based computer with 1 MB of main memory. It looked like a filing cabinet complete with slide-out drawers full of circuit boards. For something equivalent to my generic XT, you'd be looking at a price tag equivalent to six brand new 1980 Toyota Corollas, or ten Bambleweenies.
The Cromenco System 3 was more like a hefty toaster oven in size. It was also considerably cheaper than the Microstar II, coming in around $5990, plus $2995 for a "fast" printer. Another Corolla would get you an 18 megabyte hard disk. Southwest Technical Products made a computer for $12,000, and the Ohio Scientific C3-C (catchy name, what?) sold for $9,900, or roughly 2000 copies of Saturday Night Fever.
These early microcomputers all seem to have vanished without a trace, among the first of the celebrated "orphans." It took a giant like IBM to impose some standards in the microcomputer world, but when the IBM PC was first introduced in 1980, reviewers didn't quite know where it would all lead.
Creative Computing was among the first magazines to do an in-depth writeup of the IBM PC, around December of 1981. Reviewer Will Fastie notes that, while the new PC "represents a revolution in small computers, ... they have built a machine which is vastly different and for which very little support can be found in the general market." Nevertheless, that reviewer went on to praise the "subtle tones of beige and eggshell white" and liked the pleasantly rounded contours of the various components, suggesting the PC would easily blend into any environment.
Blend it has and the 'lack of support in the general market for this computer doesn't seem to have hurt it any, in retrospect. Software selection wasn't great to begin with, although the reviewer had some nice things to say about MS-DOS, which he considered "about equivalent to CP/M in features." Everything ran smoothly, he said, except DISKCOMP, which he was able to abort only by way of the Big Red Switch. IBM and Microsoft may have gotten around to fixing this by now, but I couldn't say for sure.
What did all this cost, back in 1981? A 128k PC with monochrome display adaptor, two floppy drives, monitor, printer and DOS, plus VisiCalc to make it useful, came to a grand total of $4625. You could pick up a 20 megabyte Corvus hard drive for a mere $6450, bringing the total to around $11,000. Or two Corollas and a trail bike. Or 15 microwave ovens.
Meanwhile, Microsoft was selling 16k RAM cards for your Apple II, and a noname 64k DRAM board fetched $550. A box of 10 generic diskettes set you back $21.95 (mail order price), but a rival company was selling single sided Memorex diskettes for $1.94 each, in quantities of 100 or more.
The microcomputer industry abhors a vacuum, and PC World was rolling off the presses by early 1983. By then, IBM's PC already had competition, in the form of the Compaq portable, which its reviewer noted was frequently mistaken for a sewing machine as he hefted it through airports.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the most profitable form of flattery has to be aftermarket improvements to fix design flaws in the original. Quick off the mark were a few companies which recognized the shortcomings of IBM's monochrome display adaptor. A few of the early "compatibles" had their own monochrome graphics built-in, but PC World reported with some skepticism a monochrome graphics card that made better pictures than IBM's CGA. The reviewer said this graphics card, made by a tiny company named Hercules Computer Technology, seemed clever, but was "not likely to become a standard."
PC software was starting to roll off the production lines by then, too. Ashton Tate claimed its new dBASE 11 would "make your micro work like a mainframe," and included a little IBM 370 label with their ad, which you were supposed to cut out and glue to your PC while trying out dBASE 11 for 30 days, free. Lotus was making grand claims for 1-2-3, suggesting your PC would 'jump through hoops." This same magazine carried a 10-page listing of DEBUG patches to make Wordstar work properly. Plus ca change, eh?
Prices were starting to relax by then, too, at least for some things. A 64k multifunction card with clock/calendar, parallel and serial ports would have set you back only $495 in 1983. A 256k memory board from Tecmar was $975 and gobbled a whole long expansion slot. Nowadays nobody prints the price of RAM in their ads. Too volatile, I guess!
For everyone who bought a Cromenco System 3, or an Exidy Sorcerer, or an APF Imagination machine, or any of the other evolutionary experiments from that period, hang onto them. They're a part of history.
And if you have one of the original IBM PCs, count yourself a microcomputing pioneer. Kick yourself a few times for paying far too much for it, then stick it in a safe place. If I can make a prediction of my own, I think these early microcomputers will eventually repay their owners in collectible value, if not in computing finesse.