Collective Voice: Happy Birthday, PC

Thirty years ago today, IBM issued a press release announcing the IBM Personal Computer, the company’s “smallest, lowest-priced computer system.” With a “high-speed” 16-bit processor and up to 256 K of user memory available, the unit had the starting price of $1,565 and could be used by everyone from the “businessperson in need of accounting help” to “a student preparing a term paper.” I was only a kid in 1981, but I remember a friend’s father having one of these new machines and allowing us to try it out, its glowing green phosphor characters blinking back at us.

The personal computer and all that has developed since has changed our daily lives in ways that would have seemed other-worldly in 1981. It has also changed laboratories. For the PC’s 30th anniversary, I thought it would be interesting to look at some laboratory images from CHF’s photographic collections that demonstrative the transformative effects of the electronic age.

In the early 20th century, laboratories dealt primarily in wet chemistry. Apparatus, benches, sinks, and balances were standard equipment, as can be seen in this 1930 photograph from the Dow Chemical Company’s main laboratory:

Dow Historical Collection, CHF Collections

The rise of electronic-era instrumentation in the mid-20th century, however, led to some very large instruments and computation devises in the laboratory. One of my favorite photographs in the collection, seen below, shows Henry Earle Lumpkin and Jack L. Taylor at the Humble Oil and Refining Company in December 1971. They are standing with an IBM 1800 that was used to process mass spectrometer data. Mr. Taylor is wearing a black armband because it was the computer’s final day before being retired from use.

Henry Earle Lumpkin Collection, CHF Collections

The last image is the earliest I could locate of an actual personal computer in the laboratory. I’m sure there are earlier examples – they just aren’t cataloged yet. The scene below is from 1987, at Richard Smalley’s laboratory at Rice University. In it we see a group of students hovering around an IBM PC, studying a read out from a mass spectrometer. The instrument itself was still quite large, but a comparison with the photograph above shows how the computer had already reduced in size considerably from 1971!

Credit Richard E. Smalley Collection, CHF Collections

Jenn Landry is Associate Director of Special Collections at CHF. Collective Voice, dispatches from CHF's Collections team, appears every second Friday on Periodic Tabloid.

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