Can You Do Real Work With the 30-Year-Old IBM 5150?

Our intrepid reporter spends a week trying to write, browse the Web, edit photos, and even tweet on IBM's first PC.

Writing for the Man

Twiddling around with the Internet is all fine and dandy. But when it comes to work, the real meat-and-bones stuff involves writing (for me, at least). And when I think "word processor software," Microsoft Word usually springs to mind. It seemed a good choice at first, but the earliest Word for DOS version (3.3) that I could find would not fit on a 360KB diskette and still function. Scratch that.

Second to come to mind was Microsoft Works, a word processor (and office suite) that I actually used in the DOS days myself. The earliest version of Works that I owned sported an executable file size of 372KB, which would not fit on a 360KB floppy either. What was I to do?

To find the answer, I had to look back at what people with a 360KB floppy drive used. I happened to have a cache of floppies from my dad's free-wheelin' days with an ITT Xtra (a PC clone I mentioned earlier). His Xtra came equipped with only two 360KB floppy drives--just as my 5150 did. I found his copy of LifeTree Software's Volkswriter 3, a popular word processor that he utilized heavily until Microsoft Works entered his life.

Volkswriter boasted a strong user base in the 1980s because its first version had been one of the earliest word processing packages released on the IBM PC platform. Moreover, users held version 3 in especially high regard since it didn't rely on arcane typed commands or "Ctrl-Shift-Alt-H-1"-style keyboard gymnastics for added functionality.

Thankfully, the Volkswriter disks still worked, so I loaded up the program. I started with a warm-up exercise to keep my fingers limber, typing what you see in the accompanying photo.

Volkswriter 3 turned out to be very useful, proving that out of all the tasks I had thrown at the 5150 thus far, word processing most resembled its modern PC equivalent.

PC Keyboard, Is That You?

I should take this opportunity to talk a little about the original IBM PC keyboard layout.

To put it simply, it's weird--well, at least by our current standards (those set by the IBM 101-key Enhanced Keyboard released in 1984).

While most PC users respected the 5150's keyboard for its durability, its generally reasonable layout, and its now-famous clicky feel, critics took issue with the nonstandard placement of some important keys, including the left Shift key and the Enter key. On top of that, many of the most-used keys have an unusual design (a peak on top of a lower-set key face) that makes me think IBM wanted users to mistype them or miss them all together.

Still, one could get used to a keyboard like that, and I found myself growing accustomed to the layout after using it for a few days. Then I went back to a standard, modern keyboard and started making mistakes.

Next page: Playing games and mousing around

Tags desktopsIBMdesktop pcshardware systems

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Benj Edwards

PC World (US online)




Great article, just shows the quality of engineering and the robustness of equipment in the early days of the personal computer was top notch. Granted size limitations and processor speeds were limiting by todays standards; your evaluation (experiment) show that old equipment can again be used (although limited).

Fleet Command


Computer collector, eh? Your computers are lucky having you to be able to see sunlight once again. Mine aren't that lucky.

The first computer that I had was an IBM-PC Compatible Aztech system sporting an Intel 80386DX CPU and a Trident VESA video card with 512 KB VRAM. It was built in 1992 and came with a HUGE hard disk drive (40 MB)!

I never retired that computer; it is KIA! Its longest surviving component was its keyboard which worked until mid-2001, when it suddenly died out. (By then I had to use a special adapter to connect it to PS/2 ports.) Its longest surviving thing was its tower's skin (box) which housed an Intel Pentium 233 and the corresponding retinue until 2003.



I loved the article!

Writing high quality document would be possible with mg/latex and html-pages is easy to write with vi/vim/mg . Emacs are unfortunalty too slow or big for these machines. Vi/Vim was developed for slow lines over modems. I can see these as workmachines, to do the real works nobody else would bother:
Write big books or big webpages. ;)

*BSD (before 4.3 BSD) was already around on universities,
long before this machine and DOS.

I have a Compaq DX486 with 48MB RAM and 480MB+2000GB HDD. I used it for several years as a firewall and router and had uptime for over a year until power outage. Sure it takes 14 seconds for ssh to log in, but who cares? :)
Now it's replaced by a boring small router from the cable company. The magic is gone.

I had a i286 but I had to throw it away as it was useless with Linux. Damn, I loved it, but it was so big and useless for me.

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