Techie Toys in the 1980s
A short list of computing's major stepping stones

[Processors] [Computers] [Software] [Graphics] [Game Systems]

Watching the changes in modern technology in the Eighties was thrilling. With all the new developments, anything seemed possible. We knew that it someday we would be sailing through the stars like Captain least until the Challenger disaster. Even though such tragic setbacks occurred, technology grew exponentially. One of the most exciting developments was the culmination of the technological work of the preceding decades into the IBM PC. In the 1980s we saw the introduction of the 286 and IBM's AT, the 386 and the 486 processors from Intel, the Windows GUI from Microsoft, and the original Macintosh from Apple. Other early computers such as the TI-99/4a and the Commodore 64 made us think about what was possible. Of course this article wouldn't be complete without mentioning everyone's favorite gaming system, the Atari 2600, or the original Nintendo. Each of these was important for different reasons; they all had their special part in the development of our modern tech scene.


  • XT - IBM's original architecture, powered by the 8088.
  • AT - IBM's newer architecture, powered by the 80286 and up.
  • bit - 1/8th of a byte. In this article, the number of bits will refer to the Bus width of the processor.
  • Bus - "Path" the bits travel through the processor. The more bits, the larger and faster the bus. A faster bus means more instructions can be completed per second. More is better.
  • MHz - "Speed" of the processor, measures in megahertz, or millions of cycles per second. More is better.
  • transistors - The number of "switches" in the processor. The more switches, the more calculations the processor can perform per second. More is better.
  • micron - In this article, micron refers to the size of the transistors in the processor. A lower number means a smaller transistor, thus more transistors can be fit onto the chip. Lower is better.
  • Addressable RAM - The amount of memory the processor can use. More is better.
Note: The less microns, the more transistors, and the more cycles, the hotter the processor will be. For example, Intel's next planned development, the 300MHz Pentium is expected to produce 17 watts of excess heat energy. That's as much as a light bulb!

The 8088 processor was a wonderful innovation that furthered computing enormously when IBM started making the XT. It was an 8 bit microprocessor with a top speed of 8MHz, 29,000 transistors at a size of 3 microns and could address 1 Meg of RAM (but no virtual memory). However, the 8086 paled in comparison to Intel's 1982 release of the 286, which was quickly incorporated into IBM's AT. The 286 processor had several key improvements over the previous processor. The first is speed. It could run at 12 MHz top speed, with a 16 bit bus width. It had 134,000 transistors (more than a quadruple improvement) an a size of 1.5 microns. It could address 16 megabytes of RAM, 1 gigabyte of virtual memory, and had 6 times the performance of the 8086. This opened the door for the 286 instruction set, which is still used in programming to this day, as well as the AT architecture, which is also still used. This innovation between IBM and Intel drastically changed the development of computing.

As good as the 286 was, it would be surpassed 3 years later in 1985 by the 386. Intel introduced the 386 on October 17, 1985 in a 16 MHz version. The 386 was an exciting development because it was the first x86 processor to handle 32 bit data sets. Intel shipped it in 16, 20, 25 and 33 MHz versions, and AMD shipped a 40 MHz version. The chip held 275,000 transistors at a size of 1 micron. It could address 4 gigabytes of RAM and 64 terabytes of virtual memory. The 386 opened the door to 32 bit computing. It was at this point that Intel began encouraging software developers to design a 32-bit Operating System. Only recently has this really become popular with the success of Windows 95 and Windows NT..

The final processor barely squeaked through into this article. The 486 DX was introduced on April 10, 1989, in a 25MHz version. It would later be released in versions of 33 MHz, 50 MHz and higher. The 486 was the first chip to include a Level 1 cache on chip. The Level 1 cache is an area on the chip of 16K that is used as RAM for frequently executed instructions. It is 4-5 times faster than conventional RAM and reduces lag time between the memory and the processor. It has 1.2 million transistors onboard at a size of .8 micron. It is capable of addressing 4 gigabytes of RAM and 64 terabytes of virtual memory. It was the 486 processor that made "point and click" computing a reality and GUIs such as Windows truly possible.

Computer Systems

Just a brief mention of some of the early computers...

The Commodore 64 and the TI-99/4a can be rated together. They were all fairly similar machines. They were inexpensive (compared to the PC at the time) and allowed you to be able to program in BASIC or play cartridge games. You could buy accessories like a speech synthesizer and disk drives. Monitors were available, but I just hooked my TI up to the TV. The TI had a 16 bit processor running at 3 MHZ , and a graphics resolution of 256x192. The Commodore 64 had a 6510 processor, 64KB RAM and 20 KB ROM with Microsoft BASIC, custom sound and color graphics for $595. During 1983, the price drops to $200. It becomes the best selling computer of all time, with estimated sales of 17-22 million units. It is the first personal computer with an integrated sound synthesizer chip.

The IBM PC was definitely the most important development in the industry. It was the IBM PC that made the computer more than just a 'toy' or a hobby for geeks. It "legitimized" the PC in most peoples eyes. Of course the original PC was not so much important in itself, but important because of what it started; a roller coaster ride into the future, full of technology making its way into everyone's everyday lives. It began Microsoft's dream of a PC on every desk. Today, that dream is almost a reality. When Tandy president John Roach heard that IBM was entering the PC market, he is quoted as saying, "I don't think that's significant."

The first IBM PC entered the market in August, 1981. It featured a 4.77-MHz Intel 8088 CPU, 64KB RAM, 40KB ROM, one 5.25-inch floppy drive, and PC-DOS 1.0 (Microsoft's MS-DOS), for $3000. A fully loaded version with color graphics cost $6000. This also established the preeminence of the Intel 8086-family and the Microsoft MS-DOS operating system. It was soon followed by the XT. It had a 10 MB hard drive, three more expansion slots, and a serial interface. With 128KB RAM and a 360KB floppy drive, it cost $5000. An upgrade available was the IBM PC-XT Model 370, with 8088 CPU, 768K RAM, 360K drive, and 10 MB hard drive for $9000. The AT, released in August, 1984, had a 6MHz 80286 computer running PC-DOS 3.0, a 5.25-inch 1.2MB floppy drive, with 256KB RAM, for $4000, which didn't include hard drive or monitor/card. With a 20MB hard drive, color card and monitor, the price was $6700.

Of course the PC was not the only personal computer. Apple had been around for several years and was the current king of the hill. When the IBM PC debuted, Apple took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal that read "Welcome, IBM. Seriously." Apple didn't know it yet, but they were about to be dethroned. The Macintosh, however, was a very important innovation. It was the Mac that began the 'graphic revolution.' People didn't want a Command Line, they wanted 'point-and-click.' The Macintosh delivered with the first Mac OS and the mouse. The graphics craze spread to the PC with Windows.

Software and Operating Systems

The development of two software programs during the 1980s drastically changed computing as we now it. The heavyweights in this arena were IBM's OS/2 and Microsoft's Windows. OS/2 by IBM (which, by the way, was co-developed with Microsoft beginning in 1983) was important because it was the first major PC alternative to MS-DOS. It never caught on as well as Windows did.

Windows in general is one of the great computing success stories. The version that would be Microsoft's breakthrough program, 3.0, wasn't released until 1990, but its two predecessors were definitely 80s material. Windows became an enormous success, revolutionizing computing as we know it. With Windows it was possible to operate a PC in a totally graphical environment, as well as run multiple programs at the same time. This drastically increased productivity as well as changing the entire look of computing.

I'm sure everyone has at least heard of the famous "look and feel" lawsuit that Apple laid on Microsoft. The lawsuit was based on the idea that Windows mimicked the "look and feel" of the Macintosh. I find it very surprising that Apple felt they could do that...they stole the basic idea for the Mac OS from a development team at XEROX PARC in Palo Alto, CA. Now there's a tidbit I bet they'd like to hide...

In other areas, Sierra's Kings Quest 1 started a 'gaming revolution' of graphics, sound, and new levels of interactivity.


Granted, there is a certain aura about a monochrome monitor, but I still prefer my SVGA. Text based games, i.e. Zork, etc. are great. I am a total Infocom junkie. But I still love my graphics, too. The CGA card gave the PC 640x200 res with 16 colors. With the introduction of EGA in 1984, computer games were more possible (and enjoyable) than CGA. EGA supported up to 640x350 res in 16 colors. The main advantage of EGA was the palatte of 64 colors to select from. With 64K, the card cost $524. In 1987, VGA's introduction made possible advanced graphics, Windows and an entirely new realm of computing. VGA offered 256 simultaneous colors at a resolution of 320x200, and 16 colors at 640x480. The colors displayed have six bits of depth for each primary color, giving a palette of 262,144 different colors to select from. Now that we have our SVGA monitors in a res of 1024x768 and 16.7 million colors, most people think of early text and CGA games and say "Yecch!" But I would like to encourage everyone to play at least one Infocom game in their life...they're more fun than you'd think.

Game Systems

Although the Atari debuted in the 1970s, it was marketed as the "video game system of the 1980s" so here it is. The Atari, to me, personifies the eighties. Think about it for a second... Growing up, Atari was the stuph! You were cool as beans if you had an Atari. All your friends who didn't have one were jealous. The Atari was a tangible sign of financial success.

The Nintendo was the Atari of the late eighties. Atari was declining at this point, when Sega and Nintendo developed their own systems and preceded to eat Atari's lunch. The Nintendo was an 8 bit processor, compared to the 4 bit Atari. It was capable of better graphics, better sound, and more interactivity with devices such as the Power Pad. The Nintendo has continued to evolve into today's Ultra 64.


This is by no means an all-inclusive list. It leaves out inventions like the laser printer, the CD-ROM drive, the modem and the LAN. For a list in exhaustive detail, try Ken Polsson, whose site I found to be of the utmost usefulness in compiling this list.

Seth Waddell

Thanks to Corey for his input. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is strictly prohibited. Logos used without permission. Sorry!
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