March 12, 2016

Chapter 4 - 1978

As I mentioned in chapter 3 my work involved servicing mainframe computers, and I was always very conscious of the fact that dozens and sometimes hundreds of people were using the system at any one time.

This was always in the back of my mind as I tried to solve a problem with the hardware, it wasn’t a big problem when working on a peripheral device such as a tape drive or CDC disk drive as there were other devices that could be used by the operators.

But if it was the main controller cabinet for all the tape or disk drives or even the mainframe itself, then any wrong action could be disruptive, downtime on a site could mean that orders did not get processed or stock did not get picked or even worse, salaries did not get paid.

That is why I loved working on the smaller mini and later personal computers, I had more control and I did not have so worry about affecting lots of users.

In 1978 I left ICL and went to work for W H Smith & Son in their Computer Evaluation and Planning Team, the main reason was so I could work on a more diverse range of computers, they had other systems besides ICL, they included DEC PDPs & Vax’s as well as some of the new Personal computers, Apple II, Wang Word Processors, DEC Profesional & Rainbows.

DEC Vax 8550 & Professional on topDEC Vax 8550 & Professional on top

Apple II systemApple II system

We were testing and evaluating cutting edge systems and peripherals, it was a great place to be working.

In 1979, they decided to trial selling the new Personal Computers to small businesses, so they opened three stores. I saw this as an opportunity to get in at the start of the PC revolution and transferred to the new WH Smith Business Computer Centres as a technical consultant.

We sold a range of computers but the star was the newly launched IBM PC, later we added Compaq and Apricot to the portfolio.

The first IBM PC (Model 5150) came with two Floppy Disk Drive, an Intel 8088 4.77 MHz Processor, Ram of 16Kb to 256Kb and a Mono green screen monitor.

IBM PC 5150IBM PC 5150

The 5150 was available with one or two 5-1/4″ floppy drives - with two drives the program disc(s) would be in drive A while drive B would hold the disc(s) for working files; with one drive the user had to swap program and file discs into the single drive.

Initially, there was a choice if CP/M-86 or PCDos as the operating system, but PCDos (IBMs version of MSDos) soon became the norm, the disk drive capacity was originally 160kb, but after a few months this was doubled to 320KB.

Back in 1981, there wasn’t a lot of software available for the IBM PC, however, sales really took off after the launch of the spreadsheet, initially, we had VisiCalc which was the killer App for the Apple II, but on the IBM, it only worked on the CP/M operating system. That all changed in 1983 when Lotus 123 came out, Lotus 1-2-3 drove sales of the PC due to the improvements in speed and graphics compared to VisiCalc on the Apple II.

The other main reason the IBM PC was so successful was it’s open standards, this meant that we soon had a choice of hardware add-ons that could be used in the machine, and we were soon mixing and matching various hardware add-ons, Hard Drives, tape drives, Memory upgrades, colour monitors, I spent a lot of my time testing and evaluating all these new add-ons.

I stayed at WHS Computer Centres until 1986 when events took me down a new path.

….more in the next chapter.

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Computer Hardware Timeline The development of computing devices in chronological order. (This list is an ongoing project and subject to change, there is still a lot to do, but