Nov 20, 2016

Building My First Personal Computer...

The Apple II, similar to the computer Margo used at Motlow State
In August, 1981, IBM introduced its first personal computer.  This computer, formally known as the IBM Model 5150, became the standard for the PC industry.  To this day, users will argue over the merits and superiority of the Apple line of PC products versus those built on the IBM-established standards.  At the time the IBM PC was introduced, it and its many imitators sold for $3,000 or more.

It wasn't too many years after this introduction, around September 1983, that my wife Margo attended a convention in Alexandria, VA, of a group known as Small Computers in Libraries (SCIL).  This was a fairly small organization that had grown up around the common interest of utilizing small computers (Apple or IBM-based) in performing tasks common to libraries, e.g., cataloguing, membership renewals, tracking of periodicals, etc.  Margo, who was employed by Motlow State Community College at the time, had been quite active in the group.  She was then an expert in the applications available for the Apple IIa.

She called on Tuesday evening saying she had attended a workshop in which a presenter alleged that it was possible to build an IBM-PC clone for less than $1,000!  This seemed astounding at the time, since a new IBM-PC or clone listed more typically at $1,800-$2,500.  I asked her if she had gotten a copy of his paper, but she informed me that he had run out of handouts before she had gotten one.  So Margo agreed to go back the next day, as he was repeating his presentation.  I admit that I was very skeptical at the idea that we could have a PC for less than $1,000.

I flew to Washington on Thursday evening and joined Margo, as we had previously decided to drive back together.  She met me at the airport and had a copy of the gentleman's paper.  There it was in black and white.  The secret was a periodical called Computer Shopper.  This fellow listed in his paper all the separate parts and pieces that you needed to buy, along with the names of vendors who advertised in that magazine, as well as the prices he had paid for each component.  We immediately found a bookstore and bought a copy of Computer Shopper.

Over the next three weeks we ordered all the parts.  Some prices had actually dropped slightly since the author had built his PC, so we ended up spending around $970.00.  This included shipping.  When everything had arrived, we set aside one evening to build our first PC.

The author was extremely detailed in his descriptions.  He even recommended using a muffin tin to separate and keep track of the small screws that attach everything, "because so many of them look similar, but aren't quite identical."  After two or three hours we had a newly-built PC, including a state-of-the-art 20 Megabyte hard drive!  (Today, I often work with individual files that wouldn't fit on that entire hard drive.)

The appearance of our homebuilt computer
The next step was to load the operating system on the machine.  I took it to work the next day and one of the IT guys helped me do that.  Then we booted it up for the first time.  No smoke, and it worked!  Including that 5-1/4" floppy disc drive.   That PC served us for many years, after which we gave it to our niece, Angela Calhoun, who continued its use as she learned to use a PC.

I was reminded of this story the other day when I bought a 1-Terabyte hard drive for $59.95.  For those of you who don't like to calculate, that's 50,000 times the state of the art drive that we bought in 1984!

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