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Dell's History at Home in D.C.

Earlier this afternoon, Dell founder Michael Dell stopped by the Smithsonian Castle to hand over one of the first machines his company made--a squat desktop built in 1985, when the firm went by the name "PC's Limited" and made its home at an Austin office park's cul-de-sac.

This computer--a "Turbo PC" with an Intel 8088 processor and 640 kilobytes of memory--was sold to Clint Johnson, then a freelance writer in Florida. A couple of years later, Johnson (who showed up for the donation ceremony with his wife Barbara) realized the sales invoice listed him as customer number 100, figured the computer had historical significance and kept it around. When Dell opened a factory in 2005 near Winston-Salem, N.C., not far from Johnson's current home, he got in touch with Dell to offer a trade: Give me a new computer made in your new factory, and I'll give you the old model back. And so the machine wound up on a table in D.C.

The old machine looked in solid shape for its age--perhaps thanks to its hard metal case. Even the power button, a thick red switch on the side, looked sturdy. Johnson said the only replacement part on the inside was the hard drive, which he upgraded from 10 megabytes to a whopping 20.

The original invoice, which lists a price of $795 for the computer and $165 for the amber monochrome monitor, an order date of 12/19/1985 and the name of the Dell salesman, one Jim Lamb, sat in front of the computer. It also included Johnson's credit-card number and expiration date; it must have been a simpler time in terms of identity-theft risks.

Before signing the donation papers, Michael Dell spoke briefly about how he'd never expected any of this to happen way back when, and how much the PC industry had changed since then: "Twenty years ago, most of our customers were pretty happy just doing word processing on their PCs." Then again, how many people still buy computers for only one or two basic tasks?

Dell also compared the PC industry's diversity with Henry Ford's "any color, so long as it's black" single-mindedness. But Dell is only now beginning to offer some home buyers a real choice of software--Windows Vista or Windows XP today, with Ubuntu Linux coming soon. (In that respect, Dell is well ahead of other PC manufacturers.)

The old Dell will be on display starting tomorrow at the National Air and Space Museum, the temporary home of a small sample of the exhibits normally housed at the under-renovation National Museum of American History.

Got any ancient computers gathering dust in a closet, attic or the basement? Share your memories in the comments!

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 9, 2007; 3:41 PM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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Next: A State of High-Definition Denial


Hope you don't mind this off topic question. What is a simple program I can use to rip CD tracks to MP3s? I tried Windows Media Player but it could not rip to 128. I don't want a bloated program; I don't need bells and whistles.

Posted by: A | May 9, 2007 6:10 PM | Report abuse

I don't have these computers anymore, but I still have the fond memories. While the old Commodore 64 was cool -- Paper Clip for word processing, B-52 Bomber for nuking Soviet cities, Infocom text adventures, barely 3D golf simulation -- nothing, and I mean NOTHING, beats a $99 Timex Sinclair 1000.

Hmmmmm. Monochrome chess.

Posted by: Erol Flynn | May 9, 2007 7:24 PM | Report abuse

My sister still has my old (sewing-machine-size) Kaypro 64 in her closet. I purchased it in 1984 and wrote my entire dissertation on it, and hooked to the university computer center on a 300 baud modem! It had 2 360K floppy drives and 64K of memory. I still have the software disks as well! It came bundled with Wordstar and dbase.

Posted by: Mark in Memphis | May 9, 2007 9:35 PM | Report abuse

Funny how technology changes so much. I just took a box of 3.5 inch floppies to work because I don't have those drives anymore on my home computers (notice the plural). The other day, I ran across the tape recorder I used for backing up files on my Radio Shack Model 100.

Posted by: Doug | May 10, 2007 3:19 AM | Report abuse

Last year I finally got rid of my California Computer Systems computer. 19 slot S-100, Z80, dual 8" floppies, one 20MB hard drive partitioned into 8-8-4 since CPM couldn't handle more than 8MB. It sat in three separate boxes, each with a huge heavy power supply, one for the hard drive, one for the floppies, one for the processor/bus. I had mounted it in a cube rack that I got as payment for a software project (they needed software, I needed a rack). All together, it weighed about 300 pounds. The cases were heavy iron with a thick iron shield on the top. It cost around $8000.

I also got rid of a Cromemco "desktop" computer many years ago. It had a built-in colour monitor and keyboard and dual high speed (3 microsecond average seek, believe it or not) 8" floppies. List was about $6000.

But I still have my IBM-XT.

Posted by: fil | May 10, 2007 7:22 AM | Report abuse

I hope you didn't just toss it in the landfill. There are people who collect those old boxes. If it still booted it would be worth money...

I don't know if there's a Windows version of cdparanoia or not. It's a small, command line, cd ripper.

Posted by: wiredog | May 10, 2007 8:30 AM | Report abuse

I still have two Atari 800XL computers (no, not the original 800 with two cartridge slots and four joystick ports, this one has one slot and two ports, with the other bits being used for internal control functions) - one with an expansion memory kit and S-Video mod. They're in my 3-year-old daughter's closet, as I expect she will soon be getting more use out of them than the Core Duo in the family room, since she's begun to get a bit bored of the Nick Jr. website lately.

I also snapped up several cartridges of video games, programming languages, a cassette drive for data storage, and even a color printer/plotter and a 5-1/2" floppy drive with the hardware enhancement for it to double storage capacity and read/write the MS-DOS disks of the day. I didn't go quite so far as to get the mouse or the SCSI adapter that was available for it, though.

Hm; maybe I'll have to fire it up this weekend and see if she's interested in that 3D joystick game...

Posted by: Charles | May 10, 2007 10:42 AM | Report abuse

When I started in the repro biz we had a PC Limited 286, an IBM 8088, and a Compaq 386. We processed and printed plot files for the Architect/Engineer community using 1/2 tape, bernoulli cartridges, and 5.25 floppies to Calcomp 1044 and HP 7585 ink plotters and Calcomp electrostatic plotters. That PC Limited box was great. We ran DOS with AutoCAD and CADvance, evetually running Windows 3.11 on it. Which I still had some of that old equipment for remembrance sake.

Posted by: reprobill | May 10, 2007 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I've got a Mac Classic II at home with my folks, with a working Apple StyleWriter printer. I wrote most of my college papers on it, and I'm sure if I went back and plugged it in it would boot from its 10 MB HD into its 2 MB RAM pretty quickly . . .

Posted by: PK | May 10, 2007 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Actually, scratch that - according to the web, that Classic II had at least 40 MB of HD storage . . .

Posted by: PK | May 10, 2007 3:34 PM | Report abuse

wiredog, Thanks but it looks like it's not available for XP.

Posted by: A | May 10, 2007 5:32 PM | Report abuse

My first pc, an old leading edge model M, was a serious steel boat anchor made by Misubishi in 1982, with two floppies, a monochrome monitor, and DOS 1.something - 2.11 came in the mail a little later. I put a 20MB HD in it a year or so later, and then a CGA emulation card for gaming in 1984. I remember playing a character graphics game called Black Dragon on Compuserve at 300 baud.

Posted by: Angus | May 10, 2007 8:30 PM | Report abuse

for wiredog: I couldn't find an interested party. All my old unwanted goes to for recycling/reuse. Good organisation!

Posted by: fil | May 11, 2007 7:15 AM | Report abuse

A - the smallest, lightest CD-ripping tool out there would be the free, open-source CDex. But it's far from the simplest.

Why not just use iTunes instead? It's free and easy, and you don't have to buy a single thing off the iTunes Store if you don't want to.

As for old computers: I may have the most embarrassing one of the bunch here, as the first machine we had was an IBM PCjr, souped up with a third-party expansion chassis. I remember many happy hours playing Flight Simulator, Lode Runner and Gato... and many not-so-happy hours cranking out papers in Microsoft Word for DOS.

I was not all that broken-hearted when I tried booting up this thing on the first day of college and discovered that it had not survived the trip.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | May 11, 2007 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Our first computer was an IBM with 2 floppy drives bought in 1985. My parents used it for a decade, until I came home one day and announced "Mom, our computer is in the Smithsonian!"

Which is was, in the former Information Age exhibit at American History.

Posted by: tower | May 11, 2007 8:09 PM | Report abuse

My first machine was a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 16 which was notable for being one of the first 16-bit machine in an 8-bit world. It had an integrated CRT, two 8" floppy drives, and a Motorola CPU. I also added an external Winchester 8" hard drive with a whopping 8 MB of storage. The drive cost $4000.00 or $0.50/KB compared to roughly $0.50/GB today. I'll leave it to some math major to calculate the percentage savings based on a capacity increase to the third power, but surely Tech has got to be the greatest bargain of all time. Whether its PCs or TVs, they still cost the same or less than they did 40 years ago despite the ravages of inflation and the amazing technological improvements.

I still have almost every computer I ever acquired, including my first venture into the Microsoft arena with an AT&T PC6300, a succession of IBM PS2s, laptops, Dell servers, and home-built desktops. Only a Toshiba PII laptop, which was stolen, is missing.

Posted by: JAB | May 19, 2007 11:29 AM | Report abuse

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