William C. Lowe: Father of the IBM PC
Remember your first car? Do you also remember your first computer?
The odds aren’t bad that it was an IBM personal computer, the boxy device with the twin floppy drives and the green glowing type on its screen that was introduced back in 1981. While it wasn’t the first desktop PC, it was the first one many people felt comfortable plunking down $1,565 – $4,031 in today’s dollars – to buy, because it was made by an iconic technology giant. (As the saying used to go, “Nobody ever got fired for buying an IBM.”)
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William C. Lowe, who died on Oct. 19 at age 72 in Lake Forest, Ill., was the visionary engineer who made the IBM PC happen.
It was Lowe who pitched notoriously stodgy IBM on the idea of making a computer that ordinary folks could own and use. And he was the one who formed and ran the team that actually developed it in just a year, daringly bypassing IBM’s traditional reliance on its own hardware and software to use parts made by other companies.
Here are some intriguing facts about Lowe and his brainchild:
- Lowe, a native of Easton, Pa., attended Lafayette College on a basketball scholarship and graduated with a degree in physics. He was the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
- Lowe was the director of IBM’s Boca Raton Labs in 1980 when Atari approached IBM about manufacturing one of its brand of personal computers. According to Cnet.com, Lowe instead went to his bosses and suggested that IBM buy Atari and develop a PC under its own brand. They reportedly called his pitch “the dumbest thing we’ve ever heard of.” But ultimately, then-chief executive Frank Cary assigned him to develop such a product.
- The team of 12 engineers Lowe recruited became known inside IBM as “The Dirty Dozen,” after the 1967 movie in which a group of prisoners is recruited to perform a dangerous mission during World War II.
- Lowe’s team faced plenty of skepticism. One analyst, for example, was quoted as saying that “IBM bringing out a personal computer would be like teaching an elephant to tap dance.”
- IBM advertised its new product with this TV commercial featuring actor Billy Scudder as Charles Chaplin’s little tramp character. He beat out 100 other Chaplin wannabes for the role.
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- The IBM PC was so successful that at one point in the mid-1980s, the company controlled 80 percent of the personal computer market. But the company eventually became a victim of the IBM-compatible standard, because other makers were able to develop cheaper, faster machines that ran the same software.
- Lowe was modest about his achievement, despite its enormous impact. “We didn’t have any expectation that we were going to change the world,” he said in 2001. “We could see that the world was changing.”
Photo: Ruben de Rijcke via Wikipedia
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