The IBM PC: Brainchild Of A Misfit

We’ve read a number of histories of the IBM PC and lived through that time, too. But we enjoyed [Gareth Edwards’] perspective in a post entitled The Misfit who Built the IBM PC. The titular character is Don Estridge, a decidedly atypical IBM employee who was instrumental in creating the personal computer market as we know it.

It’s not that IBM invented the personal computer — far from it. But the birth of the PC brought personal computers to the mainstream, especially in offices, and — much to IBM’s chagrin — opened up the market for people to make add-on cards for printers, videos, and other accessories.

IBM was a computer juggernaut in the late 1970s. Its divisions were the size of other companies, and some have compared it to a collection of mafia families. The company was heavily invested in big computers, and management was convinced that personal computing was, at most, an avenue to video games and most likely a fad.

Known as a conservative company, the PC project drew from a number of corporate misfits who had been technically successful but often punished for coloring outside the lines. They developed a prototype. The post quotes one of the people involved as saying, “The system would do two things. It would draw an absolutely beautiful picture of a nude lady, and it would show a picture of a rocket ship blasting off the screen. We decided to show the Management Committee the rocket ship.” Wise choice.

That’s just the kind of tidbit in this post, and if you have any interest in computer history of the 1980s, you’ll definitely want to check it out. Estridge died in 1985, so he didn’t get to see much of the result of the market he opened up. Of course, there were many other players who appear in this story. The PC has many parents, as you might expect.

We’ve done our own recounting of this story. However, we tend to obsess more over the internals.

Video And Audio Playback On Low-End MS-DOS Machines

For most people the phrases ‘MS-DOS’ and ‘video playback’ probably aren’t commonly associated, yet it was quite normal as those of us who were watching full-motion video with games like Command & Conquer can attest to. These audiovisual experiences did however require somewhat more capable hardware than something like an original, 4.77 MHz IBM PC. More recently, however, the removal of these limitations has been turned into a challenge that has been gleefully accepted by hackers, including [Scali] whose recent tinkering with getting not only real-time video but also audio working on these old beasts has been documented on their blog.

Unlike existing early video formats like FLIC from the 1990s, the XDC format developed over the past years enables real-time, 60 FPS video and audio playback on an 8088 IBM PC that has a SoundBlaster 2 and CGA card installed. As [Scali] notes, the SB2 card is convenient, because it enables DMA transports for the audio data, which saves a lot of precious CPU cycles. Unlike the original SB card, it also fixes some teething issues, but an SB2 is hardly ‘low-end’ for an early 1980s PC, so it has to go.

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The IBM MDA Should Have Been The CDA

If you are reading this on an IBM PC-compatible computer, it is a certainty that its graphics card will support the lowest common denominator of PC displays, the Monochrome Display Adapter, or MDA. This was a video card which delivered a text-only display in black-and-white that was an option fitted to the very first PC models. But was it really a monochrome display adapter? [TubeTimeUS] is here to show us that when connected to the appropriate colour monitor, it can produce text in colour. It seems that this was a feature only on the very earliest revisions of the card.

Reading up on the MDA card, we find that at its heart it had a Motorola MC6845 CRT controller, a chip that appeared in a huge variety of machines from that era. The beauty of this chip was that it provided the correct timing signals and memory locations for video to be created, but didn’t include any video circuitry thus the designer was free to craft a video device to their specification, allowing for it to appear in both colour and monochrome devices. While the MDA card only supported a text mode it seems its designers managed to put in some form of colour attribute support even if it was never marketed as such. We’re not students of IBM graphics card modes here at Hackaday, but it would be fascinating to know whether this undocumented mode works in the same way from the software side as the colour text modes on CGA and better colour cards.

Continue reading “The IBM MDA Should Have Been The CDA”

Browsing The WWW On A 1980s IBM PC Using MicroWeb

Do you ever sit at your 1981 vintage IBM PC and get the urge to pop onto that newfangled ‘WWW’ to stay up to date on all the goings-on in the world? Fret not, because [Al’s Geek Lab] has you covered with a new video (also embedded below), which you will unfortunately have to watch on a device that was made at the very least in the late 1990s. What makes this feat possible is a miniscule web browser called MicroWeb, created by [jhhoward], that will happily run on an 8088 CPU or compatible, without requiring any fiddling with EMS or similar RAM extensions.

Of course, you do need to have some kind of way to actually connect to the World Wide Web, which can be an ISA network expansion card, EtherSlip, as well as using a thin client as a network bridge with some Serial Line Interface Protocol (SLIP) action. Of course, some limitations exist, in that graphics and CSS are not rendered, JavaScript is totally off-limits, and for HTTPS-only websites a workaround like retro-proxy has to be used as TLS encryption would be completely unusable on a couple-of-MHz-CPU.

There’s also the FrogFind service, which will helpfully strip down a target website down to its barest HTML essentials, along with the 68K News site that strips down Google News, so that you can enjoy the WWW in its text-based glory as it would have looked in the early 1980s.

(Thanks to [Stephen Walters] for the tip)

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MS-DOS Meets The Fediverse

By now, most Windows users are set up with decently functional machines running Windows 10 or 11. Of course there are a few legacy machines still lagging behind on Windows 7 or 8 and plenty of computers in industrial settings running ancient proprietary software on Windows XP. But only the most hardcore of IBM PC users are still running DOS, and if you have eschewed things like Unix for this command-line operating system this long you might want to try using it to get online in the Fediverse with Mastodon.

The first step is getting DOS 6.22, the most recent version released in 1994, set up with all the drivers and software needed to access the Internet. At the time of its release there were many networking options so the operating system didn’t include these tools by default. [Stephen] first sets up an emulated NE2000-compatible networking card and then installs the entire TCP/IP stack and then gets his virtual machine set up with an IP address.

With a working Internet connection set up, the next step on the path of exploring federated social media is to install DOStodon (although we might have favored the name “MastoDOS”) which is a Mastodon client specifically built for MS-DOS by [SuperIlu]. There are pre-compiled packages available on its GitHub page for easy installation in DOS but the source code is available there as well. And, if this is your first time hearing about the Fediverse, it is mostly an alternative to centralized social media like Facebook and Reddit but the decentralization isn’t without its downsides.

An IBM PC showing "68000 IBM PC" on its monitor

IBM PC Runs BASIC With Motorola 68000 CPU Upgrade

Although ARM CPUs have been making headway in several areas of computing over the last decade or so, the vast majority of desktop, laptop and server CPUs are still based on the x86 architecture. How that came to be is no secret, of course: IBM chose the Intel 8088 to power its model 5150 PC back in the early 1980s, and since it became the dominant PC platform, everyone else followed suit. But what if IBM’s purchasing department had got a good deal at Motorola instead? [Ted Fried] has been experimenting with that scenario, by equipping an IBM PC with a 68000 CPU.

To be fair, he didn’t use an actual Motorola chip; instead, he emulated a 68k core on a Teensy 4.1 and implemented the 8088’s bus interface on its pins. The emulated core does exactly the same thing an actual CPU would do, while the rest of the computer works the same way it always did – data is stored in the motherboard’s DRAM chips, keystrokes are processed by the standard 8255 chip and progam output is displayed on the monitor through the MDA video card. Continue reading “IBM PC Runs BASIC With Motorola 68000 CPU Upgrade”

How The IBM PC Went 8-Bit

If you were around when the IBM PC rolled out, two things probably caught you by surprise. One is that the company that made the Selectric put that ridiculous keyboard on it. The other was that it had an 8-bit CPU onboard.  It was actually even stranger than that. The PC sported an 8088 which was a 16-bit 8086 stripped down to an 8 bit external bus. You have to wonder what caused that, and [Steven Leibson] has a great post that explains what went down all those years ago.

Before the IBM PC, nearly all personal computers were 8-bit and had 16-bit address buses. Although 64K may have seemed enough for anyone, many realized that was going to be a brick wall fairly soon. So the answer was larger address buses and addressing modes.

Intel knew this and was working on the flagship iAPX 432. This was going to represent a radical departure from the 8080-series CPUs designed from the start for high-level languages like Ada. However, the radical design took longer than expected. The project started in 1976 but wouldn’t see the light of day until 1981. It was clear they needed something sooner, so the 8086 — a 16-bit processor clearly derived from the 8080 was born. Continue reading “How The IBM PC Went 8-Bit”