29 October 2013
Last updated at 11:57
Bill Lowe joined IBM in 1962 and spent 26 years with the company
William C Lowe, who supervised the birth of IBM’s first personal computer, has died aged 72 in Lake Forest, Illinois.
The IBM Personal Computer, known as the 5150, was launched in August 1981, several years after Apple had brought its first computer to market.
Mr Lowe was instrumental in driving IBM’s PC project from conception to manufacture within the space of a year.
Until then, IBM had been primarily known for large, mainframe computers.
Aware that IBM needed to play catch-up in the nascent PC market, Mr Lowe bypassed the company’s rather cumbersome proprietary development process and brought in components from outside to speed things up.
The operating system, MS-DOS 1.0, was provided by a little-known technology company called Microsoft, while the 8088 microprocessor came from Intel.
It cost $1,565 – about $4,000 (£2,500) in today’s money – without a monitor and was IBM’s first foray into the consumer market.
Mr Lowe studied physics at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, and joined IBM in 1962 as a product test engineer.
In 1975, he became director of development and manufacturing operations for the company’s General Systems Division.
IBM’s first PC sold 250,000 units in the first year of production
Three years later, as laboratory director of the division’s Boca Raton site in Florida, he hatched the idea of IBM selling an own-branded computer targeted at small businesses and consumers.
Mr Lowe originally suggested using Atari to help IBM gain quick entry to the market, but this idea was rejected.
Instead, management gave the go-ahead for him to develop a prototype made from off-the-shelf components.
He assembled a team of 12 engineers to work on the Acorn Project (not to be confused with the UK’s Acorn Computers) under the direction of Don Estridge.
Part of the testing involved the computer’s ability to run the Pac-Man game.
“We didn’t just design a computer; we created an industry,” said Patty McHugh, Acorn project team member responsible for designing the PC’s motherboard.
The rest, as they say, is history.
More than 250,000 IBM PCs were sold in the first year after its launch.
As a reward for his efforts, Bill Lowe was promoted to vice president of the Information Systems Division and general manager of IBM’s facility in Rochester, Minnesota.
But the IBM PC was not, technically, the very first personal computer the company made.
In 1973, IBM’s General Systems Division produced a prototype called “Special computer, APL machine portable” (Scamp), also made from off-the-shelf materials and components.
Scamp could be used as a desktop calculator and interactive programming device and led to the development of the IBM 5100 two years later.
But the IBM PC was the first machine designed specifically for the mass market.
The IBM PC project had highlighted the benefits of collaboration, and in 1985, IBM and Microsoft agreed to develop software together that could also run on other machines.
But while Mr Lowe believed in the “open architecture” concept, it opened the back door to rival manufacturers who could build IBM-compatible machines more cheaply.
It seemed to some that the approach had backfired, as IBM faced increasingly tough competition in the PC and software markets.
Mr Lowe took a lot of the blame and this may have contributed to his decision to leave IBM in 1988 to join Xerox, the photocopier specialist, then looking to expand into other product areas.
In 1991, he became president of corporate jet maker, Gulfstream.
Mr Lowe died on 19 October 2013 from a heart attack.