IBM Turns 100, and Creates a Stir

The IBM Personal Computer

Journalists across the Web (mostly) celebrated the 100th birthday of IBM last week, on June 16th. See for instance, coverage at The New York Times, Wired, and Forbes. My history of computing colleagues at the IT History blog also covered the story, with a business history perspective from Joel West. As a former IBMer, I can't help but feel a small twinge of pride at this milestone. IBM's own PR, however, has caused a bit of a stir among the technorati, due to a claim by IBM VP Bernie Meyerson that IBM invented the personal computer. The real inventor, of course, was Ed Roberts, creator of the Altair 8800, as Robert Cringley indignantly pointed out, following up with a zinger:

Among his milestones IBM’s VP of Innovation completely forgets to mention the company having helped automate the Third Reich.

Or was he? Of course, the story is much more complex than this, as Matthew Lasar described in a story at Ars Technica, citing Paul Ceruzzi. There were Intel development systems and hobby machines that pre-dated the Altair (though none achieved the same level of commercial success), not to mention the whole legacy of time-sharing. Interestingly, however, many commenters on the Ars story ignore Lasar's complex analysis to provide their own straightforward answer. Some defend the IBM line, stating, in effect, that the IBM PC was the first personal computer that mattered. Steve Jobs and the Apple II is another popular answer, as is, of course, Roberts. One commenter wrote,

Whenever I think of a PC, it's got to have the GUI. I can't think of anything that defines a personal computer more.

That might make the Xerox Alto, the Xerox Star, the Apple Lisa, or the Apple Macintosh the first PC, depending on one's other criteria. This takes me back to my very first blog post, about the question of who invented the computer. The more I think about these kind of priority disputes, the more I think they could make a very interesting subject of a cultural history--aside from the question of patents and pecuniary interests, how do people get invested in particular outcomes of these disputes? It obviously matters to Cringely that Roberts invented the PC on a level beyond setting the facts straight--why?