Computers in the 1980s

Apple Macintosh

Computers in the 1980s

The keyword to the history of computers in the 1980s is “microprocessor.” While these vital little chips had come onto the scene many years earlier, the microprocessor almost took on a new life between 1980 and 1989. The place where all the computer’s most essential functions — like logic, math, and control circuitry — take place, the microprocessor underwent many advancements throughout the decade that effectively elevated the overall features, design, speed, and technology of the computer. From the best 80s computers from the minds of Bill Gates or Apple to the advancements of the personal computer and home computer, these are the most notable facts in the history of computers in the 1980s. 


In Living Color

Each new decade brought mankind closer and closer to the computers we know and use today. The 1980s were no exception. In the summer of 1980, Tandy put out the TRS-80 Color Computer. A personal computer based on a Motorola processor and rooted in Microsoft’s BASIC programming language, the Tandy computer’s features boasted color graphics and computer games. It effectively acted as a bridge between the features of a home computer and the features of computer games.

Hard Disk Hardware

Also in 1980, Seagate Technology debuted the ST506: the first microcomputer hard disk drive. A big step up from the floppy disk, the hard drive could handle up to five megabytes of storage (more than five times that of a floppy disk, all while fitting in the same size space as a floppy disk).

Home Computer Craze

The boom of the home computer wasn’t just an American thing — it was also happening over in the United Kingdom, too. The Sinclair ZX80, released in 1980, sold in kit form for 79 pounds and came assembled for 99. Over 50,000 people got their hands on this tiny little personal computer that had to be hooked up to a person’s home television as a monitor.


Getting Familiar

In 1981, the BBC — through their Computer Literacy Project — debuted a television program focused on introducing adults to the vast world and the seemingly endless possibilities of the home computer. Complete with its own BBC Microcomputer System and everything, the program allowed viewers to follow along with the program almost like a walkthrough tutorial. The corresponding BBC Microcomputer came with lots of handy software including productivity tools, educational programs, and video games.

Meet the Personal Computer

There’s no doubt that IBM’s creation of the personal computer in 1981 was one of the most seminal events in computer history thus far. (And not just in the 1980s, either — its significance goes far beyond the decade.) Here are the facts: The first IBM personal computer (or PC) came loaded with the Intel 8088 — a 4.77 MHz microprocessor — as well as Microsoft’s newly announced MS-DOS operating system. IBM’s invention of the personal computer singlehandedly revolutionized the personal computer, the work computer, the home computer, and the history of computers on the whole. When it comes to the best 80s computers, the IBM PC takes the cake.

Getting to Work

The Apollo had made a splash in earlier decades, but the 1980s saw the debut of the DN100: Apollo’s first workstation for engineering and scientific fields. Equipped with a Motorola 68000 microprocessor as well as its built-in network and high-resolution display, Apollo dominated the world of computer workstations throughout the remainder of the 1980s. 

The Power of Portable

The Osborne 1’s release in 1981 marked the first portable computer to be mass-produced. Coming in at a price of nearly $1,800 for a five-inch display, 64 KB of memory storage, and a pair of floppy disk drives, it might not have been the most practical purchase, but it sure was a portable one.

Inching Toward the Internet

September of 1981 saw the establishment of the TCP/IP protocol. While it sounds pretty unremarkable based on its simple name, this protocol singlehandedly established the ability for information to be carried across the Internet. Today, we’d be lost without it.


Commodore Conquers

The Commodore 64 was released in 1982 and went on to sell ~20 million units within 10 years,

In January of 1982, Commodore debuted the Commodore 64. A titan in speed, technology, design, and storage, the computer was created in just a couple of months. With 64K of RAM and 16K of switchable ROM, the Commodore 64 (or C64) went on to sell around 20 million units by 1992. It was the best-selling computer model of all time and undoubtedly one of the best 80s computers.

Here Comes the Sun

An abbreviation for Stanford University Network, Sun Microsystems was born out of a simple loan. Stanford grad student Andy Bechtolsheim took the Alto Ethernet network and laser printer that Xerox PARC had landed in the engineering department and redesigned it for Stanford’s computer network. This one little action led Bechtolsheim and fellow students Vinod Khosla and Scott McNealy to create a model workstation with a UNIX operating system, Ethernet, and high-resolution graphics in one. Sun quickly grew into a legitimate competitor for even the biggest names and brands like Bill Gates and Apple. 


Meet Lisa

In January of 1983, Apple introduced the world to Lisa. Lisa was no person, however. Lisa was the first personal computer with a GUI (or graphical user interface) to be mass-marketed. While its creation proved to be a vital moment in the eventual push for GUIs in PCs, Lisa’s slow speed and gargantuan price tag of $10,000 meant it was destined to be unpopular. For all its pros and cons, Lisa’s impact on the future of the PC is too great to dismiss the invention as an outright failure.

The CD Arrives

It’s hard to imagine a world without CDs (and CD-ROMs), but before 1983, this was the reality. Initially developed by Sony and Philips to store and distribute music, the CD was eventually used by computer and electronics companies to store information and software, as well.

The Compact Compaq

Described to the general public as the very first computer to be 100% IBM PC-compatible, Compaq Computer Corporation’s Compaq Portable was a clone of the IBM PC capable of running all the same software at a smaller price. The company quickly surpassed $100 million in sales, which was the most an American company had ever made in a year at the time.

Welcome, Windows

Bill Gates and his company Microsoft had a pretty great 1983. From the announcement of Microsoft Windows to the release of Microsoft Word, it was clear that this company was making the kind of advancements that would cement them as a real powerhouse of computing.

DNS Debuts and the Internet Comes Alive

Similar to the establishment of the TCP/IP protocol in 1981, the introduction of the DNS in 1983 brought the world that much closer to the Internet we know and rely on today. In short, DNS is the structured naming system that the Internet uses to identify computers that can be reached over the Internet. It’s with this introduction that many consider to be the official start of the Internet as we know it.


Apple Macintosh Released

Not long after the trial and error that was Lisa, Apple took the pros and cons from their previous product launch and turned it into the Apple Macintosh. The first GUI computer to successfully utilize a mouse, the Macintosh was born out of the Motorola 68000 microprocessor and sold for a low price of $2,500.

LaserJet Takes Off

Between the launch of the Hewlett Packard LaserJet printer in 1984 and a decade later, HP managed to sell over 10 million printers. This single invention effectively secured its status as a pillar of the computing industry. The inkjet technology pioneered here remains in use today.

Invented in a Flash

Flash memory came to be in Japan in 1984. Invented by Fuji Masuoka, flash memory could be erased and reprogrammed again and again and quickly rose in popularity throughout the computer industry.


C++ is an A+

1985 saw the release of the C++ programming language, designed to appeal to both serious and amateur programmers alike. A general-purpose language, C++ allowed difficult programs to be written with relative ease. It was an enormous success.

Nintendo Entertainment System Released

The Nintendo Entertainment System was the first video game console made by Nintendo in the 1980s.

While it might sound hard to believe, the video game market in America was on unstable footing throughout much of the early to mid-1980s. Many consoles, games, and brands had come and gone after a very poor performance, and it wasn’t totally clear where this technology was going to go from there. Then, one of the most recognizable brands came along and dropped a hit: The Nintendo Entertainment System. With this, the American video game industry was up and running again. 


The Battle of the PCs

Compaq, Apple, IBM, Amstrad, Sinclair… each of these brands with its PC, each of these brands with their pros and cons, each of these brands fighting to be the best-selling PC on the market. From Apple to IBM, Compaq to Amstrad, 1986 saw the big names fighting tooth and nail to come out on top with continued improvements to their already successful PCs. Consumers knew all the facts, they knew all the features, and they knew the pros and cons. As such, each brand began to establish its sizable following. This loyalty would continue throughout the rest of the 80s and beyond.


Get the Duct Tape

Perl — or Practical Extraction and Report Language — was written by Larry Wall in 1987. Designed to allow for report processing as well as the scanning and extraction of text files for auto-generating reports, Perl was easy to use and helped speed up the programming process. While you might not have heard of it before, it was soon integrated into nearly every corner of computing and is jokingly referred to as the Internet’s duct tape.


Optical Chips See the Light of Day

While electrons are still considered the standard for computing bandwidth, 1988 saw some push for photons to be used instead. With the invention of the optical chip, some hoped that light could be used to heighten processing speed instead of electricity. While it didn’t catch on immediately, this was sort of like an early step toward fiber optics.

Steve Jobs’s Next Move

After being pushed out of his position at Apple in 1985 after the failure of Lisa, Steve Jobs — now operating under the company NeXT — debuted a new computer in 1988. Called the NeXT, the computer had three microprocessors and a RAM of 8 MB. It had a groundbreaking object-oriented operating system capable of some serious multitasking, making it a real selling point for programmers and developers and a real threat for Apple at the time.


The Internet Hits 100,000 Hosts and the World Wide Web Emerges

The Internet’s launch in 1983 did not necessarily explode with popularity. It took a little bit of time, but by 1989, the Internet finally hit 100,000 hosts. This benchmark was unheard of at the time, and it showed the world that this was not some simple little fad — the Internet was here to stay. This was further underlined by the emergence of a proposal for the World Wide Web in Switzerland (and, not long after, the entire globe).

Handheld and Portable

With the release of the Nintendo GameBoy and the launch of the Macintosh Portable, 1989 showed consumers and developers alike that the decade ahead would bring with it an emphasis on convenience, portability, and handheld capabilities. Smaller, better, faster, stronger, and more affordable were the real pillars of technological advancements at this time, and these priorities would come to the forefront in the 1990s.

Up Next…

For more information on computers throughout the decades, check these out:

  • Computers in the 1970s: This decade saw the advent of the personal computer. Find out what exactly it entailed and which brands ruled the tech space.
  • Computers in the 1990s: This era was dedicated to improving the overall performance of computers. Find out how computing metamorphosed during this decade.
  • Computers in the 2000s: It was the decade of the iPhone, Google, and virtual currency. Discover other key trends which defined this era.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were computers like in the 1980s?

By the 1980s, most middle-class American households had a personal computer. People could play games, do simple administrative tasks, and store data on removable drives like the floppy disk. They were faster, smaller, and more user-friendly than in decades prior, but still a ways away from the computers we know and use today.

What were computers used for in the 1980s?

Computers were used for talking with associates on your business or office’s network, playing games, and running basic administrative programs like word processors or spreadsheets.

How have innovations in computer tech since the 1980s improved the standard of living?

These computer innovations from throughout the 1980s made the standard of living better by putting advanced, state-of-the-art tech in the hands of the people and allowing them to simplify tasks and connect with the world around them with more relative ease than ever before.

What were the most popular home computers in the 1980s?

The Commodore 64 was far away from the most popular home computer in the 1980s, but the Apple Macintosh, the ZX80, the IBM PC, and the BBC Micro also saw some really excellent sales.

What were the most popular 1980s computer games?

The most popular computer games of the 1980s included Oregon Trail, Prince of Persia, Microsoft Flight Simulator, SimCity, and many other classics still putting out new editions today.

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