Thirty years ago: My first computer was an IBM PC

Thirty years ago: My first computer was an IBM PC

Summary: The 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Mac has spurred a lot of reminiscences. For me, my first computer purchase was an IBM PC, however...

TOPICS: PCs, Apple, Microsoft, Windows

Unlike many of those who've been reminiscing over the past week about their first Macs, I don't remember a whole lot about my first PC.


Here's what I do recall. I bought it in 1984 -- 30 years ago this year -- at the Boston University book store. I spent all of my savings at the time on it. And I had absolutely no idea what to do with it once I bought it.

In 1983, I had just started my first full-time job out of college. I was working as a reporter at a magazine called Electronic Business. I had no background in electronics or computer science, but they hired me anyway, and said I could learn on the job.

I'm sure it sounds like those "I trudged 20 miles through the snow to school" stories to those who weren't around back then, but not having a background in technology wasn't a limiting factor to those of us being snapped up by the fledgling tech press in the mid 1980s. It didn't seem nutty to me, someone who had learned to write local news stories on a manual typewriter in college, that I should be tasked with writing about operating systems and development tools without having the first notion about what these things were. (Only later did I come to appreciate the more you know, the more you know what you don't know.)

At Electronic Business, we were using CP/M systems to compose our pieces. But I decided if I was really serious about writing about software, I'd need to teach myself something more about the topic with some "cutting edge" hardware. That's how I ended up emptying my bank account of about $5,000 to buy a shiny new IBM PC running DOS, WordPerfect, an accompanying Epson dot-matrix printer -- plus a big desk to sit it all on.

(To be candid, I cannot say with 100 percent certaintywhich model PC I bought. It could have been the original IBM PC which rolled out in 1981 or  a PC AT, which debuted in 1984.  It even might have been a PC XT, which IBM introduced in 1983. I've looked at images of all and, for the life of me, can't recall which I probably bought. If I had to guess, I'm going with the XT.  The fact I don't know says a lot about how I approached PC computing.)

I had no idea how to set up or use my new big-ticket purchase. Fortunately, someone from work came to my studio apartment and set it up for me. When he left, I remember wondering if I'd remember by tomorrow how to get back to the command prompt. Whatever that was.... Spoiler: I did and ended up using my PC happily and steadily until 1988, when I sold it upon leaving the States for a while.

From a very young age, I was on a quest to find a better typewriter. My first IBM PC did the trick.

Reading the many "my first Mac" stories posted over the past week, I've been struck by the solidarity and camraderie experienced by many in the Mac community. For me, a computer was and still is, first and foremost, a productivity tool. It was easier to write stories with a PC than on a typewriter with a bottle of Liquid Paper by my side. I wasn't trying to make a political statement of any kind by buying an IBM PC rather than a Mac. It just seemed to make sense to master what looked back then to be the most popular personal computer brand in the market. To be honest, Apple computers and Macs in particular weren't even on my radar screen at the time.

PCs weren't -- and still largely aren't -- objects of beauty. I couldn't have cared less that my PC wasn't as stylish as a Cusinart ... or a Mac. I definitely was one of the very first among any of my acquaintances to own one. Whenever anyone came to visit, they couldn't help but notice the loud, hefty piece of equipment that dominated my living room.

The fact I can recall so little about my first PC, beyond the fact that it worked and made my work and school life a lot more pleasant, also points to a challenge that Microsoft and PC makers are finding themselves facing today. I didn't and don't identify with my first PC or any of the subsequent ones I've owned. Microsoft is trying to change this with its own Surface devices by making them more personally tailorable, but the jury's still out on whether this strategy will result in more Apple-like platform loyalty.

Any others out there whose first computers back in the mid-1980s were PCs, not Macs? If so, chime in with your own experiences below.

Topics: PCs, Apple, Microsoft, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • first pc

    The first ibm pc I was exposed to was the PC Junior. It's not as big as PC senior but still kind of mysterious to me. Kinda cool too ;-)
    • WWW.FB39.COM

      YOu Should open the my name then go to home page for more information
    • First Mac

      I bought my first Mac 6 or 7 years ago. It was a 21'' iMac. I sold it for 300$ a year and a half later. It had faulty ram when I bought it so I had to send it to Apple. It was fixed but It always mad a strange Bip on booth. My second Mac was a 24''. It was replace by Apple twice due to board and display failure. It ended up in the conference room, running Windows only. I bought another 24'' Mac for an employee who wanted one. That one also had a display failure in the first 2 year of ownership. I did not replace the faulty part, It was too expensive and it was not worth it. I gave it to the repair shop for the value of some of its parts.

      I have bought at least 75 Pc in my life for my employees. HP mainly a few Compaq, a few Gateway also and a couple of PC that were built by a local shop. I never had as much trouble with any of those than I had with all of the iMac I have bought.

      No point here, but just do the math.
    • Click

      I miss those noisy clicky keys. I am not sure I want them back but I still have fond memories of the sound and feel.
      • those keayboards are still lurking around

        these days they go by the name "mechanical keyboard". they may not be as noisy but still clicky enough and expensive
        • Don't have the weight!!

          My first was an olivetti (yes the typewriter people) m24.

          Absolutely loved that machine - it was the first computer we had, and it was one of the last to go!

          We found it in clearing out my parents loft - apparently as there had not been a tech progression at this pace before, my father had put it in the loft in case it came in handy.

          Lots of memoried came back - but the biggest thing for my was the weight of the keyboard - must have been 4lbs!
      • Re: Click

        I did data entry for a period in the late 80s and discovered I typed faster and with less errors on a mechanical keyboard than on the membrane-type -- which I always claimed was like typing into a bowl of mush. I miss my "clicky keys" also...
      • Loved those clicky keyboards also.........

        My experience with the clicky keyboards is the same........ I kept mine alive as long as possible........ Like others, I could type faster on them. My favorite typewriter was the IBM Selectric........ The feel and rhythm just makes the fingers fly. I've often wished I could have that keyboard, and the sound effects.........
        • You can still have one!

          Visit Unicomp is the remains of the old IBM keyboard group in Lexington KY. They still sell the old click style keyboards, now updated for today including Windows keys and USB. I can not type on anything else.
          • Not as good as a model M

            I had a Unicomp model M clone, it only lasted a few months before half the keys quit working. It's nice they still produce them, but the quality and feel of a real model M just isn't there with the Unicomp.

            The model M was built like a tank, the Unicomp has a cheap plastic feel to it.
        • downloaded

          I remember missing the clicking of typing too. I remember downloading and put it into my boot batch file so that my keyboard would click as I typed. When I updated to the next version of windows it wouldn't work. It might have been when I went from dos to windows it didn't work anymore. i can't really remember which
    • Mine was and IBM too..

      Technically my first PC was a Xerox 35k memory writer, but I needed more memory, and it was cheaper and more effective to simply add a laptop to the mix. So I purchased an IBM Convertible and some conversion software called SCOM to talk to the Xerox as my printer.

      Those were heady days, and even the shops were shocked at what I was able to do with such a mish-mash of hardware & software! I fully automated my office in the Army, and was able to keep my PFC clerk working separately on the Xerox whilst I worked on the IBM. When I PCS'ed out, I declared my position obsolete, as I had replaced myself and my clerk with automated computer technology. This made the staff nervous, and it turned out to be a prediction of the downsizing of the ARNG just for that reason. I didn't whine and cry about loss of working positions, my job was "outsourced" to a PC!! I happily enrolled in college and finished off my tech engineering degree, and have stayed happily employed or engaged in my own employment every since.

      If folks would quit whining about their jobs going over seas and simply use their brains to invent new jobs for themselves and become self employed, their would be nary a problem one! I think it is stupid and despicable to assign some kind of political equation to the type of PC or Mac you use. In the future, I hope we look back at this kind of discourse as a bunch of cavemen arguing over scraps of meat! Nothing but troglodytes!
  • It depends

    my first home computer was a Radio Shack Color Computer. Then I had an Apple 2e. my first actual PC was an IBM clone running an 80286 processor with a whooping one MB RAM and a 20 MB HD wid MS-DOS 3.something. Compared to the Apple, it was like moving from a family sedan to a Ferrari. I didn't move to Windows until Win95.
    • 1st PC

      My first PC was also a Radio Shack Color Computer II. If fact, I still have it. That was quite a learning experience operating with Tandy Basic. My second PC was a Packard Bell 286 with a 30 MB hard drive and running DOS 3.3. I thought that was a great improvement as I was able to save my stuff on a 5¼ drive instead of the tape drive on my CCII. But I still had to use Edlin to write batch files.
      • A Tandy 1000 HX was my first "PC"

        It was a neat little "PC", built in 3.5. I added an external 3.5, a modem, and maxed out the memory to 640K! A printer and a monitor rounded out the system, and it held up great.

        Last year when cleaning out stuff I came across it again, so plugged it in (still had the monitor), and it booted right up
        • Correction

          had 2 internal 3.5 drives, and an external 5.25 drive.
    • me too

      My first was a RS CoCo too. Display was a TV, and we had a 300bps direct connect modem. I was getting an Engineering degree and my wife was taking CS classes. The CoCo let us remote into the university computer and avoid spending hours in the keypunch room creating card decks for our projects. I recall doubling the RAM on the CoCo with a kit that had 16 pin memory chips soldered onto the backs of others with an address line wire soldered to each pair and connected to a cut printed circuit track to address the additional memory. I think it took it from 16Kb to 32Kb, and was over $100 for the kit.
  • I was in high school...

    My older cousin, straight out a BS degree in computer science, taught me how to code in Basic on an Apple IIe (circa 1980). Since I couldn't afford to have my own, I got a Radio Shack Pocket Computer PC-2 (in 1982) in which I continued to develop my coding skills. I later wrote my undergraduate thesis (engineering) on my next door neighbor's Mac in 1986-87. I finally bought my own Mac (a Performa) for a whopping $2,500 in 1992 when I finished grad school.
  • Apple II was first

    Quickly followed by the IIe. Then an IBM XT. Whilst I was using the IBM(s) for office work I then got one of the first Macs in the UK. But whilst it was pretty, and Paint and so on looked good, and you could see what they were grasping at, those intial Macs (and LISA) were too slow in all ways to use.
    Since that time I have always worked in ERP software and infrastructure so no need to venture into Apple world again.
  • ATARI 400

    And about all I did on it for the first 6 months was play defender. However, when you didn't put a game in it, BASIC would boot-up and curiosity got the better of me and that's when I first started learning how to program. In two years, I asked my parents for an ATARI 800XL and purchased to floppy drives with my own money and ran my own BBS (bulletin board system). I was 16, God I was such a dork.