Technologizer: Patentmania! Personal Computers of the Early 1980s


By Harry McCracken

The first few years of PC history were its stone age–the era when any signs of life whatsoever were history-making. The period from 1985 to the present, as amazing as it’s been, has been one of consistency and compatibility. Which is why I think of 1980-1985 as the most interesting half-decade in PC history. Almost every new system (including some that debuted in 1979) was still an experiment–and even flops could be fascinating. Herewith a gallery of notable examples, illustrated with evocative drawings from Google Patents.

Data Processing System With Programmable Graphics Generator

Filed January 8th, 1979

With their advanced graphics and sound, I always thought of Atari’s 800 and 400 as the first third-generation personal computers–with the MITS Altair and its kin representing the first generation and the Apple II, Commodore PET, and Radio Shack TRS-80 the second. This 800 setup is uncommonly well-equipped, with two floppy drives, a tape deck, and what might have been considered a flat-screen TV in the early 1980s. Only two of the four joystick ports are occupied, though.


Computer Housing

Filed November 1st, 1979

If there’s a heaven for old PCs, Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Model II probably shares a bunk bed there with the Apple III. Both were follow-ups to hugely popular computers. Both were aimed at business users. Neither was compatible with its predecessor. And both were flops. I only saw one Model II in the wild–my friend Charles’s father had one in his office.



[This post is excerpted with Harry’s permission from his Technologizer blog.]

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5 thoughts on “Technologizer: Patentmania! Personal Computers of the Early 1980s”

  1. Paul Van den Bossche

    And what about the other ATARI’s ? The 260ST ? the 520ST ? A little later there was the fabulous 1040ST … Desktop Publishing, Midi, Games with stunning graphics etc …

    I know that there are still people who use their 1040 daily, mostly in the music bussiness … !

    Just to bad that ATARI stopped producing computers …

  2. Now I really feel old. I remember using the TRS-80 “I” in school thinking that it took more work to get anything out of this thing than it was worth!! I thought it was a glorified adding machine. Then when I got to play with a tandy 1000 I thought WOW you can play games on these things. Someone gave me a clamshell Pc and the compac “laptop”. At the time both were still working (come on and displayed something) but I couldn’t get either to understand anything I input so they went in the trash, I’m sorry to say–I wish I still had for show and tell. My daughter and I now play games on a Q6600 w/ Geforce 275 and 2.75Gb HDD… What will my daughter be playing on in 2045???? WOW (@-@) It boggles the mind!!

  3. I do remember the Trs 80 computer. I think the nick name it had says it all.

    Me and my friends call it the trash 80 and I’m very sure we weren’t the only ones that called it that.

  4. No mention of lowly Osborne? I bought a used paperpunch typesetting machine in 1982 because someone had come up with a computer interface forit using the Osborne. The first thing I did on buying the Osborne was to get a 12″ monitor for it. After getting used to it, I checked out the Basic Programming disk that came with it. I wrote a program that would display my son’s name after any key was touched. The seven-year-old was thrilled. He began studying the manual, trying everything out. Now, many years later, he is a Google Senior Programmer.

  5. Johann Fassmacher

    Great trip. For another ghost in the machine, look up the history of the Otrona computer company. Lots of material there.

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