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Questions tagged [history]

History of computers, digital electronics, hardware manufacturers, and software developers.

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137 votes
4 answers
42k 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 on old computers: I don't know if this was a Windows 95/98/2000/ME only thing but I wonder why ...
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108 votes
7 answers
25k views

Why was `!` chosen for negation?

It seems that the use of the exclamation mark ! to denote negation started with the C programming language (as far as I can tell from my Google research). Nowhere though is mentioned who and why chose ...
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88 votes
11 answers
12k views

What key factor led to the sudden commercial success of MS Windows with v3.0?

Microsoft Windows was originally introduced in 1985, ostensibly to compete with the Apple Macintosh, and other computers shipping with graphical shells by that time. However, early versions of Windows ...
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83 votes
2 answers
31k views

Is there any code in Firefox (as of 2020) that comes from Netscape Navigator?

Inspired by comments on the previous question Is it true that Netscape Navigator eventually became Mozilla Firefox? (Answer: Yes). In 1998, Netscape released a large amount of their existing source ...
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79 votes
12 answers
18k 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 ...
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79 votes
9 answers
25k 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 ...
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78 votes
9 answers
14k 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 ...
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75 votes
7 answers
9k 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 ...
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73 votes
8 answers
19k 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 ...
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72 votes
5 answers
16k views

Why did C use the arrow (->) operator instead of reusing the dot (.) 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 ...
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67 votes
7 answers
16k 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 ...
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65 votes
2 answers
10k views

What are the software logos in MORICONS.DLL?

Every copy of Windows comes with a file named MORICONS.DLL which was first distributed with Windows 3.0. As far as I know, this file has not been changed since Windows 3.0. Some of the icons include: ...
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63 votes
13 answers
15k 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 ...
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  • 953
63 votes
8 answers
21k 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?
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63 votes
6 answers
15k views

Why did base64 win against uuencode?

From the the two methods of encoding 8-bit data as human-readable ASCII, for a time, uuencode format was more popular. USENET 'binaries' groups were filled with uuencoded posts with whatever goodies ...
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61 votes
4 answers
11k 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 ...
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  • 56.5k
61 votes
1 answer
13k 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, ...
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58 votes
16 answers
12k views

Did many programs really store years as two characters (Y2K bug)?

The claim that programs stored dates as two ASCII or similar characters because computers were limited in resources seems wrong to me because it takes more memory than one 8-bit integer would. Also in ...
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58 votes
19 answers
18k views

Why were computer customers called "Users"?

The term User for computer hardware and software customers has been universal for as long as I can remember. It has always applied to both hardware and software customers - There were "Lotus Users" ...
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58 votes
4 answers
11k views

Why were single quotes ('…') chosen for characters, and double quotes ("…") for strings?

In C, '' is used to denote a character, while "" is used to denote a string. Why was this syntax chosen? I tried to research this using Wikipedia’s Timeline of Programming Languages along ...
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56 votes
8 answers
9k views

Could we have avoided the whole UTF-16 fiasco? [closed]

Anyone who has studied Unicode and is honest will admit that UTF-16 was kind of a mistake. It was born from the early assumption that 16 bits would be enough for all of Unicode. Then a hack was ...
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  • 1,693
54 votes
8 answers
9k views

Why didn't early single-chip CPUs support multiplication instructions

Early single-chip silicon CPUs like the Zilog Z80 or MOS 6502 did not have a multiply instruction at all. Was this because the technology did not exist at the time to implement it, was it too ...
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54 votes
11 answers
16k 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, ...
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54 votes
4 answers
15k views

Why were most PCs and electronics beige back in the day?

Back in the day (especially during the 70's and 80's), it seems that most computers and electronics were colored 'beige'. It seems it would be easy to use different colors, so why didn't they? Some ...
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  • 815
53 votes
9 answers
12k views

What is the oldest digital processor still performing non-educational duties in its original environment?

I discover that Mariner 9 is supposed to crash on Mars this month (2022/03). Discussing the specification of the CPU, I see that a CPU from the early 70s is still running. So I was wondering (sort of ...
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  • 647
52 votes
7 answers
12k 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 happen to be both essential and incomputable. It's the ...
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52 votes
12 answers
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 ...
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52 votes
5 answers
16k views

Why did C have the return type before function names?

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 ...
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  • 1,503
52 votes
4 answers
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 ...
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51 votes
4 answers
6k 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 ...
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51 votes
2 answers
8k 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/...
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  • 621
50 votes
9 answers
20k 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 ...
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  • 1,729
50 votes
3 answers
9k 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 ...
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48 votes
11 answers
10k 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 ...
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  • 765
48 votes
5 answers
4k views

Filesystems with versioning

I've been reading through The Unix Hater's Handbook. It has many, many very valid criticisms. (I'm still raging that terminal escape codes aren't in the terminal driver...) There is one anomaly though:...
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47 votes
3 answers
9k 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 ...
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  • 56.5k
47 votes
3 answers
5k views

How did varargs in C develop?

C has a feature for variadic functions, my understanding is this feature was originally a hack, relying on the simple stack-based parameter passing used by early C implementations and that some time ...
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  • 1,880
46 votes
10 answers
10k views

Why did 1950s-60s computers have such wide words?

Modern general-purpose computers typically have a 64-bit word size, but looking back in time, we see narrower CPUs. In the early 80s, the 68000 dealt with 32-bit addresses but the ALU was only 16 bits ...
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  • 48.9k
46 votes
2 answers
6k views

What did the DoD think Fortran lacked?

According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COBOL the project to design COBOL began when On 28 and 29 May 1959 (exactly one year after the Zürich ALGOL 58 meeting), a meeting was held at the Pentagon ...
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46 votes
1 answer
5k views

Where and when did the `0x` convention for hexadecimal literals originate?

By the early 1980s, C was using 0x as a prefix to indicate integer literals expressed in hexadecimal, e.g., 0xCAFE. This did not exist in B as of 1972, though B did support octal integer literals via ...
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45 votes
8 answers
8k 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 ...
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  • 1,035
45 votes
7 answers
7k views

Who invented the clipboard?

Just as the wheel, the clipboard on a computer is indeed a very useful invention! Who came up with such bright idea? Additionally, did it exist on non-graphical environments as well ?
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  • 5,786
45 votes
3 answers
8k 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 ...
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45 votes
2 answers
7k 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 ...
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  • 56.5k
44 votes
26 answers
15k 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 ...
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44 votes
3 answers
4k 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 '...
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  • 7,584
43 votes
5 answers
11k views

How did Atari lose money on home computers?

The answer recently posted to Did Atari make more money from arcade games or consoles? quotes a New York Times article from 1982 https://www.nytimes.com/1982/12/19/business/the-game-turns-serious-at-...
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  • 48.9k
42 votes
5 answers
8k views

Why didn't C++ specify filename extensions?

Apparently even today there is no single "official" standard for C++ file extensions. There are just common conventions. To me this stands out as an anomaly... file extensions are heavily ...
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  • 3,726
42 votes
6 answers
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?
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  • 491
42 votes
4 answers
12k views

Why did 80x25 become the text monitor standard?

Prior to the 1981 release of the IBM PC, the VT05 (72x20 1970), VT50 (80x12 1974), VT52 (80x24 1975), and VT100 (80x24 1978) text terminals were used on many Unix machines and the PDP-11 (probably the ...
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