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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

“Like Teaching an Elephant to Tap Dance”: Designing the IBM 5150 Personal Computer

August 9, 2021 Archive Insight

On August 12, 1981, as members of the press gathered in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in New York City, one of the largest technology companies in the world was about to make an announcement. At the time, the name “IBM” was mostly associated with the room-sized installations of mainframe computers that the company had become famous for in the 1950s. They cost millions of dollars to purchase, needed their own air-conditioned rooms, and required specially trained staff. They were found in large corporations, universities, and research facilities—but not in a typical home. That was about to change with the introduction of the IBM Model 5150, also known as the IBM PC.

Horizontal computer processor with two disk drives, monitor, and keyboard
An IBM 5150 PC, circa 1984. / THF156040

The idea of internally producing a small, affordable computer was at odds with IBM’s corporate culture. One naysayer remarked that “IBM bringing out a personal computer would be like teaching an elephant to tap dance." Nonetheless, a development team was formed, and the lofty goal of completing the project in one short year was established. “Project Chess” began its race toward the finish line. The team of twelve was fronted by Don Estridge and Mark Dean, who designed the ISA bus (an interface allowing easy expansion of memory and peripherals) and color graphics system.

Part of the success story of designing the 5150 in such a short span of time is an exception to a long-standing IBM company rule: the engineers were allowed to include technology made by outside companies, rather than building every aspect of the PC, from the ground up, themselves. This is why the IBM PC uses an Intel 8088 microprocessor, can run on Microsoft DOS, and is compatible with software made by other companies. It was also released under an open architecture model—a philosophy that would soon lead to a flood of PC-inspired “clones.”

Computer (which looks like a large typewriter) and cassette tape player
An Atari 800 computer: an early attempt by a video game company to harness the home computing market. / THF155976

In truth, the IBM PC was not the first small home computer, and by entering this market, the company would face competition from Commodore, Atari, Tandy, and Apple—all of whom had produced successful microcomputers beginning in the mid-1970s. To match the wide reach of these rivals, IBM sold their machines at convenient retailers like Sears and ComputerLand. Importantly, it was affordable by 1981 standards at an introductory price of $1,565. And… it fit on your desktop.

A positive effect of IBM creating a PC is that it helped to legitimize the notion of home computers beyond specialists and the home hobbyist crowd. IBM was essentially a well-recognized “heritage brand” by 1981, so the type of consumers reluctant to invest in a computer produced by a scrappy start-up were suddenly scrambling to put deposits down for a 5150. Whereas as “young” computing companies (many of which started out as video game companies) were under threat of being swallowed up in a competitive market, IBM projected an aura of measured reliability and was trusted to stick around.

White button with silhouette image of Charlie Chaplin sitting in a chair that appears to be falling backwards at a table that holds a computer and vase of flowers; also contains text
A button advertising the IBM PC. / THF323543

Ironically, while IBM’s plan was to break out of the office and into the home, PCs were purchased in bulk by businesses to populate desks and cubicles. A visual unity was established in office environment—fields of putty gray and beige personal computers.

The IBM 5150 arrived at an important “boom” moment in computing history. It is evidence of an established company challenging its established design modes by harnessing emerging technologies. And IBM’s decision to pivot proved to be a timely decision too, since affordable microprocessors began to render behemoth, expensive mainframes largely obsolete. But most importantly, the IBM PC—and the wave of computers like it that followed—were designed with the non-specialist in mind, helping to make the personal computer an everyday device in people’s homes.


Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

home life, technology, computers, by Kristen Gallerneaux

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