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Questions tagged [history]

For questions concerning the history of computers, digital electronics, hardware manufacturers and software developers.

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109
votes
4answers
26k views

It's now safe to turn off your computer

One thing I remember very well from my childhood is the screen you got at the end of a shutdown process ond old computers: I don't know if this was a Windows 95/98/2000/ME only thing but I wonder why ...
79
votes
9answers
13k views

Why were CLIs typically light text on dark background, whereas GUIs typically use(d) dark text on light background?

My experience is that CLIs were typically shown with light text on a darker background. For example, the IBM PC would use white/light gray (depending on your point of view), amber or green (the latter ...
74
votes
12answers
16k views

Back in the late 1980s, how was commercial software for 8-bit home computers developed?

When hobbyists wanted to write software for e.g. the Commodore 64, they either used the built-in BASIC interpreter (with all its limitations) or some native tools, like compilers for other languages ...
69
votes
6answers
8k views

What technological factors drove the rise of “high-speed” modems in the early 1990s?

The first inexpensive modem I ever purchased was a 300 baud direct-connect unit for the C64 User Port in late 1983. I recall that a couple of years later (1986), 1200 baud modems were affordable and I ...
63
votes
8answers
16k views

Why did IBM make the PC BIOS source code public?

IBM released the IBM 5150 Technical Reference manual in August, 1981, and included in it the fully commented source code listing for the BIOS. I find this odd for two reasons: IBM must have realized ...
62
votes
7answers
17k views

How were the first ZX Spectrum games written?

Being a child of the 80s I loved my ZX Spectrum, did my best to learn BASIC but I felt like the games I was playing (Jetpac, Dizzy, Renegade etc) were perhaps not written using BASIC. I wondered: how ...
61
votes
7answers
14k views

Where did the popularity of the `i` variable come from?

I have heard that the reason the i variable is used so much is because there was an old computer where each variable could only be a single letter and that reserved the variables a through h as ...
60
votes
8answers
19k views

How was copying prevented when the first CD-ROM games were introduced?

Several ways exist to protect against the copying of games but, when CD-ROM games were first introduced, were there any measures taken by video game developers to prevent the copying of games?
59
votes
6answers
12k views

Why did C use the -> operator instead of reusing the . operator?

In the C programming language, the syntax to access the member of a structure is structure.member However, a member of a structure referenced by a pointer is written as pointer->member ...
58
votes
13answers
13k views

Were later MS-DOS versions still implemented in x86 assembly?

Recently, Microsoft published the source code of old MS-DOS versions on GitHub. What is odd in my opinion is the use of x86 assembly language for everything. The assembly language would not be my ...
53
votes
1answer
9k views

When was the famous “sudo warning” introduced? Under what background? By whom?

On all Unix-like operating systems, sudo is often provided as the standard package for executing commands as superuser (or an alternative user). When sudo is invoked by the user for the first time, ...
52
votes
4answers
9k views

Why did F1 become the Help Key?

There was actually a pretty big push among some vendors in the 1980's to have a dedicated Help Key (conveniently labeled as Help). Atari introduced it in 1983, and kept it to the end. The Commodore ...
50
votes
12answers
11k views

What early home computers have more than one CPU, where both could be used by the programmer? [closed]

I am interested to know if any computers that are on-topic for this site had more than one CPU, where this plurality could be leveraged by a programmer. Some cases I don't so much care about: The ...
49
votes
11answers
14k views

Why did trackballs disappear?

For a desktop computer, a mouse is a great pointing device. For a laptop if you don't want an extra device to keep track of, you need an alternative. The options I'm aware of: NubLow-tech, cheap, ...
49
votes
4answers
11k views

Did the Apollo Guidance Computer really use 60% of the world's ICs in 1963?

This NASA webpage makes this claim about the Apollo Guidance Computer: By 1963, MIT - during the testing and development of the AGC Block I units - had ordered and consumed some 60% of the then ...
48
votes
2answers
7k views

How was the blinking terminal cursor invented?

I was just staring at my blinking terminal cursor: And was wondering where it comes from. Does anybody have some piece of history about the blinking cursor? I couldn't find much online. E.g.: when/...
45
votes
5answers
13k views

Why did C have the return type before functions?

In general, there are two types of syntax of defining functions - Something like C, C++, C#, or Java (int functionName(char arg)) vs the ML (and others) tradition of defining the return type after the ...
45
votes
3answers
7k views

Why did line printers have 132 columns?

From what I read, most line printers have 132 columns. Also, the VT-220 and presumably other terminals may be switched between 80 columns (that's a usual width) and 132 columns. As I recall, 80 ...
44
votes
9answers
17k views

Why were floppy drives not any faster?

180rpm to 360 rpm, unlike 12000rpm on optical discs, was how fast floppy disks got. I am not sure, whether all drives had the same speed, but 360rpm is not close to the physical stress limitations of ...
44
votes
11answers
6k views

What is the oldest computer capable of running a modern version of GNU/Linux?

A bit of a trivia question: What is the oldest hardware capable of running a modern Linux-based operating system, including user-space? (Not necessarily GNU userspace, but running a standard GNU/Linux ...
44
votes
3answers
7k views

What's the relationship between early 90s Pentium microprocessor and today's Intel designs?

My simplified understanding of the evolution of the Intel processors over the last 20 years is that the Pentium II and Pentium III architectures were sort of "dead-ends", and today's Intel processors ...
44
votes
2answers
5k views

Why did the IBM 650 use bi-quinary?

The IBM 650, announced in 1953, was the world's first mass-produced computer. It represented numbers in decimal, which is understandable, both because it needed to work with exact money amounts, and ...
42
votes
20answers
14k views

How were files transferred between different systems in the late 1980s?

Today there are adapters available allowing you to connect historic floppy drives to a modern PC. This allows you to copy data from historic floppy disks to the PC. In the late 1980s and the early ...
42
votes
8answers
7k views

What was the first programming book

I'm curious, what was the first book, about programming for digital computers. I tried to google it, but it led me to multiple results. I'm mostly interested in the language it was about and the ...
39
votes
6answers
9k views

How did the SysRq key get onto modern keyboards if it's rarely used?

Was the SysRq key ever used on any common operating system? Google tells me it wasn't. But then how did it end up on so many keyboards?
38
votes
3answers
7k views

Why does nobody attempt to build Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine?

The Difference Engine was built in the 90s. Why has nobody succeeded in building the Analytical Engine? Charles Babbage designed the Analytical Engine as a general-purpose computer to succeed his ...
38
votes
2answers
6k views

Did IBM encourage Bill Gates to retain the rights over PC-DOS?

As is well-known, Microsoft's negotiations with IBM to deliver PC-DOS 1.0 with the original IBM PC resulted in: IBM licensing the OS from Microsoft, as opposed to purchasing it outright. Microsoft ...
38
votes
4answers
7k views

When did computers stop checking memory on boot?

I remember my old 8088 used to do this (640K OK) but can't remember seeing anything like this since. Does this still happen and it's just not visible? If not, when did it stop, and why? (Imagining ...
35
votes
5answers
5k views

Did any compiler fully use Intel x87 80-bit floating point?

There is a paradox about floating point that I'm trying to understand. Floating point is an eternal struggle with the problem that real numbers are both essential and incomputable. It's the best ...
35
votes
7answers
12k views

Why did computer video outputs go from digital to analog, then back to digital?

While early microcomputers used analog video outputs (often to use a television as a display), higher end machines such as the BBC Micro or Commodore 128 supported a digital RGB (or RGBI) video output....
35
votes
7answers
8k views

How did Apple fail to tap the business and scientific markets?

Currently reading an excellent book called Blue Magic: The People, Power and Politics Behind the IBM Personal Computer, which is just what it says on the tin; highly recommended to anyone who wants to ...
34
votes
7answers
11k views

Why did Commodore 64 cartridge games disappear?

The Commodore 64 has a cartridge slot, but by the mid-eighties, cartridge games disappeared; everything was on tape or disk. Why? One answer that suggests itself is that by that time, a larger ...
33
votes
3answers
3k views

Why did the VIC-II and SID use 6 µm technology in the era of 3 µm and 1.5 µm?

In short, 3 µm looks like it was the "standard" process size at the time, and it was available to Commodore before the chips were designed. Therefore it looks like using the larger 5 to 7 µm process ...
33
votes
2answers
3k views

Why are the symbols on the number keys of PC & Mac keyboards different to ASCII keyboards?

On a US-layout PC keyboard, the symbols above the number keys are as follows: Whereas the keyboard on an Apple II is different: Note, for example, the '(' and ')' symbols are now above 8 and 9, and '...
33
votes
2answers
3k views

Why did the C64 have ← and ↑ as dedicated keys?

I've always wondered why the Commmodore 64 had discrete keys dedicated for the ← and ↑ symbols. If I remember correctly, they weren't used in BASIC at all, and were not very useful for drawing, ...
32
votes
6answers
10k views

Which was the first programming language that had data types?

Machine language (and Assembly language) don't have the concept of data types, so if you want to add an int and a float variables in Assembly, you have to use the appropriate Assembly instruction that ...
32
votes
3answers
6k views

Were any of the books mentioned in this scene from the movie Hackers real?

In this scene from the 1995 movie Hackers, Cereal pulls out several books referred to by different colors of the "technicolor rainbow", including a "green one", "luscious orange", the "Pink Shirt book"...
32
votes
5answers
2k views

Why did the Bell 103 modem use a data rate of 300 bps?

Virtually every telephone modem in existence runs at a data rate that's a multiple of the Bell 103A's 300 bps. Why was the base 300 bps chosen in the first place?
32
votes
1answer
2k views

What soviet computer used trinary bits?

Discussing 'non-standard byte sizes' with co-workers today, one mentioned hearing of soviet experiments with computers that used three-state bytes - and not just what is common today, 0, 1 and High ...
31
votes
8answers
9k views

Why do articles use the term “UART” instead of “serial port”?

I am learning about old computers, and I have found the following image from this article: They use the terms "UART" instead of "serial port" and "UART driver" instead of "serial port driver", I have ...
31
votes
7answers
10k views

Why did some early computer designers eschew integers?

Several early computer designs regarded a 'word' as representing not an integer, with the bits having values 2^0, 2^1, 2^2, ..., but as representing a fixed-point fraction 2^-1, 2^-2, 2^-3, ... (For ...
31
votes
4answers
5k views

What was the IBM PC cost saving for using the 8088 vs 8086?

The decision to use the 8088, a version of the 8086 with the data bus restricted to 8 bits, in the original IBM PC, seems strange on the face of it, certainly hurt performance and intuitively shouldn'...
31
votes
3answers
11k views

Where does this esoteric Pascal operator come from?

In the documentation for an implementation of Pascal for a Soviet computer, I've encountered a very weird language extension. I'll try to translate it: Branching operator (branch) Syntax &...
30
votes
5answers
4k views

Could you see what you are typing in a Teletype?

I have read that the early terminals were Teletypes, for example: So you send your input to the (large) computer, and then you receive the result which gets printed on paper I suppose. But could you ...
30
votes
4answers
6k views

Did any computers use the Z80B?

The Z80 was one of the most popular CPUs of the seventies and eighties. In almost all cases that I know of, the version used was the Z80A, rated for 4 MHz, sometimes clocked a little slower in order ...
30
votes
6answers
3k views

What was the purpose and history of the C64's special keys?

I never had a Commodore 64 but I've always been curious what the purpose and history of some of the special keys were. In particular: C= Run/Stop Clr/Home Restore I'm mostly used to the standard ...
29
votes
4answers
8k views

Why (historically) include the number of arguments (argc) as a parameter of main?

A comment on this answer to a StackOverflow question made me curious. According the C99 standard, section 5.1.2.2.1: The function called at program startup is named main. The implementation ...
29
votes
5answers
5k views

How was the C language ported to architectures with non-power-of-2 word sizes?

By the time the C language started to gain popularity outside of the PDP-11 circles (mid-1970s), mainframes with "weird" word sizes, and no capability to address individual bytes efficiently were ...
29
votes
5answers
9k views

Why were early personal computer monitors not green?

Green was traditionally the most common color for computer monitors; it combines strain-free readability with low cost. Given this, it's surprising that the first versions of the Commodore PET and ...
29
votes
1answer
5k views

1913 mystery computer below Grand Central Station

Over on the twobithistory Twitter channel, I came across this post from Gothamist about a computer from 1913 under Grand Central that was purportedly developed by Westinghouse. According to the ...