It was twenty years ago today...


— 12:25 AM on March 31, 2008

As someone who's been building and using PCs since the 1970s, it amazes me when I look back at how far we've come since the early days. Inspired by UberGerbil's "Computer Archaeology" forum thread, I decided to do a little archaeology of my own, delving into the dark corners of my crawlspace and attic. It's going to take a while to sort through stuff and figure out what's worth sharing here, but one of the first interesting items I came across was a Byte magazine from March 1988 - exactly 20 years ago.

The feature articles for March of 1988 were "Enhanced EGA/VGA Boards" (a review of EGA and VGA graphics boards from a number of vendors) and "The New Coprocessors" (five articles about math coprocessors and floating point programming). 640x480 was still considered to be "high resolution" for a PC video card in those days, and you could easily pay upwards of $500 for the privilege. Intel's 80387 math coprocessor had debuted a few months before, and Weitek had also introduced their competing 1167 math coprocessor (which outperformed Intel's 80387 but required the installation of a $2,000 add-in card).

On the software side of things, Byte also looked at Microsoft Works 1.0 and Excel 2.0, giving both products good reviews. Since almost nobody was running Windows in those days, Excel actually came bundled with a copy of Windows 2.0!

The best part of looking at these old mags has to be the ads, though. I think they give you a great picture of where the industry was at, and they can also be good for a laugh.

Starting small, first up is an ad from Logitech touting its new mouse:

Wow, 320 DPI resolution! (Modern high-resolution mice are 1000+ DPI.) And just look at those sleek lines and that ergonomic design... not!

Next up is Toshiba's "desktop replacement" laptop computer:

Yes, 18.7 pounds was revolutionary for those days. And with a 12MHz CPU, 40MB hard drive, and the ability to connect to mainframes (gasp!), how could you possibly go wrong? Battery life was a non-issue, since you had to plug it in. I actually used a Toshiba laptop similar to this one on a couple of business trips back in the day... and yes, for its time it was quite impressive!

And then there's quad core desktop computing, 1980s style:

The Inmos Transputer (like the Weitek math coprocessor mentioned above) is one of those products that was considered quite impressive from a technical standpoint, but never gained sufficient traction in the market to become a commercial success. The company I was working for at the time evaluated the possibility of using the card on the right to do financial modeling, and even ported some of their code to run on it. Unfortunately, the overhead of breaking the problem up into chunks that could be processed in parallel by the transputers, combined with the dismal bandwidth of the ISA bus interface, meant that the modest application performance gains just weren't worth the $6,000 price tag. To put the performance in perspective compared to modern CPUs, you'd need several hundred of those Quadputer cards to provide floating point performance equivalent to a single modern quad core x86.

Last up is a memory module monstrosity from Micron, these days better known as the popular memory vendor Crucial:

Yup, that's 2MB on a full-size ISA card. 4MB if you get the daughter card option. All running at a blazing fast 12MHz!

Well, that's about it for this trip down memory lane (haha, pun intended). I'll probably make this a semi-regular feature as I go through more of the stuff I've got stashed in the crawlspace. I had hoped to find even older material (early 1980s or even 1970s), but haven't quite reached that stratum in my ongoing archaeological dig just yet. "It was thirty years ago today" doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

   
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