Toms Dream…

How would you describe your Dream Computer? Here is the tale of how Thomas got his.

At the time you got your first new computer home, did you call it fantastic, awesome, blah, stupid or even a pain in the butt? Well, here is a configuration Thomas would bet you would find pretty funny; especially in today’s age where computer systems have multiple Terabytes of storage capacity, dual and quad core processors running Gig’s of RAM. But you see, his dream computer isn’t a new computer, by any means. It did however make IBM the standard to which all other computer manufacturers must meet, or make better. “The Term IBM compatible” was there for a reason. Thomas’ dream computer was always an IBM 5150 Personal Computer with as many IBM branded peripherals as possible, and all the while, keeping the computer period correct as well. So you won’t see an old computer with a CD Rom where a hard drive would go.

What Thomas was talking about building was the absolute best IBM PC which could possibly purchased in 1984.

Below are the specifications for Toms IBM 5150 Personal Computer. This particular computer was originally manufactured, and sold in 1984. Everything you see below is how the computer was initially ordered. At the end, you’ll see some prices. Don’t cheat by looking ahead. We think you’ll be very surprised! Thankfully, Thomas didn’t have to pay for the computer, as it was one he used in college. In fact, it was the very first PC Tom had ever used.

Sure, there were others before the IBM Personal Computer, but none were nearly as important to computing history. The IBM 5150 Personal Computer set the standard for all others to follow. It was this computer alone, and IBM in particular who are responsible for the IBM Compatible movement, because after it’s introduction, other computer manufacturers had a crucial decision to make. Do they continue making their own brand, and their own idea of what a home computer should be? Or did they follow the pack and go with a proven strategy and build another IBM compatible? The answer was obvious. By manufacturing an IBM compatible, these computer builders had made the correct decision, not only for themselves, but for their customers who would eventually purchase one of two eventual competitors designs, and even then, Apple systems looked and felt much like the IBM systems they were trying to compete against.

So here are the specs for Thomas’ IBM Personal Computer. (At the end of this BLOG post, We’ll include another chart outlining the completed system.)

1. 8088 processor. In this case an Intel running a whopping 4.77 MHz
2. 384Kb Memory Expansion which brings the total system memory to 640Kb.
3. * 256Kb of memory installed on the motherboard using a series of 16Kb and 64 Kb chips.
4. ***No hard disk drive.
5. ** 2 – 5 ¼” floppy disk drives capable of writing Dual Side Double Density (DSDD) 360 Kb on a single disk, along with its floppy drive controller card.
6. No Mouse.
7. A keyboard that weighs over 10 pounds.
8. *** Cassette Recorder to load and save programs the computer user may have written in BASIC.
9. Color display adapter card that was capable of delivering CGA or 16Kb of video card memory. Maximum resolution was 640×200, supporting only 16 colors.
10. Graphics Printer that was really manufactured by Epson as their model Epson MX80. IBM contracted this printer and sold them under the IBM brand name for approximately $50.00 more than if the customer just bought the Epson branded printer. This was/is a dot matrix printer. It can print carbon copies, and multi part forms where multiple pages are printed at once, one on top of the other.

Memory initially supplied with the computer started at only 16Kb. This was upgradeable to 64Kb, but later models, from 1982 forward, came with 64Kb to 256Kb of memory as standard. Upgrades were available to maximize the memory to 640Kb through the use of expansion cards. IBM chose to offer their Personal Computer with no floppy drive for home users. In this configuration, customers would need to purchase a cassette recorder, or supply one on their own in order to save and load programs written in BASIC, which was included in the 5150’s ROM. However, the 5150 Personal Computer could also be purchased with either one or two internal floppy drives. However, that also required the additional purchase of an internal floppy drive controller.

A cassette recorder had to be purchased separately. The customer had to furnish their own because IBM never offered one. Customers had to buy one separately either from Sears, Computer Land, or other stores like Radio Shack. Prices for the recorder routinely ran about $39.95.

When Thomas purchased this computer in April of 2011, he had been looking for a computer. Not just any computer though. He wanted the very same computer I used in college. Thomas wanted the IBM 5150 Personal Computer, with all original keyboard, monitor and as many IBM labeled upgrades as possible!

When this computer was first built, sold and configured, it cost the original owner $5548.16. That was in 1983. By using the inflation calculator located at:; this particular IBM computer would sell for $12,459.43, in today’s dollars as of December, 2011! Luckily, Thomas didn’t have to pay over $12,000. he scoured E-Bay, Craigslist, and any number of pages on the Internet. Tom had just signed up and joined the Vintage Computer Forums, about a month before Tom planned on buying this particular model. He even made a few friends in the forums along the way. One such friend, who goes by the handle “Hargle” happened to see this computer for sale in a thread located in the Vintage Computer Forums, so Tom contacted the owner. They struck up a conversation and before long; made an offer of $200.00! The owner immediately accepted it and made arrangements for the computer’s purchase.

The only bad part of the entire deal is that the computers owner, and for that matter, the computer too; lived in Southern California. Tom lived in Las Vegas, NV. So, they put the deal on hold for a couple of days while Tom contacted his brother-in-law; who just happens to live about 20 or so miles away from the seller. While they waited to get hold of him, the seller had gotten several other offers, and a couple of them were actually higher than what Tom was willing and able to pay, but true to his word, they had a deal and both parties held up their end. So when Tom finally called and told the owner that his brother-in-law was willing to purchase the computer on Toms behalf, well, they had a done deal. Tom immediately forwarded the money to make it all happen. Tom’s wife was planning a trip to Southern Cal with her mother an just over two months, in June of 2011, so Toms brother-in-law held onto the computer at his home until they’re scheduled visit.

What did Tom buy? Well you know most of it. He got the computer, keyboard and monitor, all configured as explained at the beginning of this article, original boxes, and even original buyers invoice, and a small problem or two, but nothing serious. (We’ll discuss the problems later) For being almost 30 years old, this computer was, and still is, in fantastic condition. There are no signs of heavy use or any kind of abuse at all. Aside from some kind of ink and some dirt on the keyboard’s spacebar, the entire system was almost flawless. There are no nicks, scratches, dings, dents, and neither are there any signs of yellowing in the plastics. The computer looked like it had been boxed it’s entire life.

Electronically, and physically this is a fantastic example of an all original IBM 5150 Personal Computer. The only issue Tom ran into was in the form of money. While unpacking the computer, Tom and his Wife Kris, heard something rattling inside. They were both immediately worried that parts of the computer had come lose and were just floating around the bottom of the computers’ case. So they removed the cover, which had to be straightened because someone had tried to pry the cover off from the sides, not knowing what they were doing. Well, that was an easy fix, Tom just tweaked the case cover to bend it back into proper shape. Then with the top removed, they tilted the PC side-to-side and watched. To their amazement, they found some change. There was about 38 cents floating around the bottom of the case. So Tom and Kris got all that out and buttoned the computer back up.

After that, the computer ran fine when booting straight into BASIC. However, it was very intermittent when reading or booting from any floppy disks. The left or “A” drive would work most of the time, but the right floppy wouldn’t work at all. So, Tom contacted one of the friends he made on the Vintage Computer Forums named Chuck. They made arrangements for Chuck to completely clean and align both floppy drives. So the drives were sent to Oregon, and in less than 10 days, they arrived back home. Tom reinstalled them and gave them a good testing. Both drives worked great!

Tom’s friend, Edward Hall is the one person Tom trusts enough to take care of his “Baby”. In fact, when there is anything that needs to be added to the system, Tom calls Edward. Not just because Ed is Tom’s best friend, but also because Ed is one of very few computer technicians who know what they’re doing around these old machines. So when Tom wanted to upgrade the 5150 by adding in a game controller and a combination parallel/serial port card, there was only one place to go. Later Tom had one more upgrade he wanted, so he worked out a deal with another member in the Vintage Computer Forums to obtain an AST Six-Pack Plus card. He called Edward, who again came over to take care of the hardware change. Tom is a good technician in his own right, however, due to educational differences, Tom never saw the inside of a computer till 1995 when he purchased his first “Real Computer”; a Packard Bell Legend home computer bundle that came with a new upgraded monitor capable of 640 X 480 graphics at true 32 bit color, a 75 MHz processor and 4 Megs of RAM running Windows 95 installed on a 540 Meg hard drive. Those differences kept Tom from learning how to perform most of the processes for upgrading and repairing PCs until after 1995 when the operating system did most of the work of installing new hardware. So when it came time for things to be added to Toms IBM, of course he had no idea what steps to take.

Back on track, Tom credits his friends for getting his IBM 5150 PC running the way he wants it to be. In particular, Ed Hall for being there to handle the areas where Tom’s expertise is lacking.

Tom’s PC looks great and works perfect. This is the one computer Tom had envisioned and wanted ever since he first saw that first one in the college.

Pictured here is Tom’s IBM 5150 computer, complete with cassette recorder and 16 color CGA monitor.

Tom’s next project was a huge add on and a very rare piece of computer history; an IBM 5161 Expansion unit clone.

During the restoration process of Toms IBM 5150 PC, he ran into an article explaining the virtues of an IBM 5161 expansion unit. This piqued Tom’s interest to the point that he had to get more information. What he learned got him motivated into either trying to find one for sale, or building one on his own. Since original 5161 expansion units were so rare to begin with, Tom decided that he would build one from parts available to him through his resources.

The parts list for Toms version of the expansion unit was fairly long, having to include things like an 8 slot 8 bit Passive ISA Back Plane, 170 watt ATX power supply, expansion cards, hard drives and controllers. The price list including the case would also include very minor things such as expansion slot covers, full length expansion card guides, and a few other minor odds and ends. Tom expected to be working on the build for approximately 6 months. However, things change, especially well laid out plans.

In late January, a friend named Ole Juul, in the VCF had given Tom a complete set of extender and receiver cards for an IBM 5161 expansion unit. Ole gave Tom the cards with the understanding that they may work, but there was an equal chance that they wouldn’t. So Tom took them and paid Ole for the postage. The sole intention at the time of taking the extender and receiver cards was so Tom could begin building an IBM 5161 expansion unit “clone” using a discarded IBM 5160 case as a starting point. At least that was the plan. However, something happened in late March of 2012.

Tom fell into a great deal for an original IBM5161 Personal Computer Expansion Unit. A user in the Vintage Computer Forums web site had posted in the Wanted section that he was looking for an expansion unit extender card. So, since Tom had the complete set of transmitter and receiver cards, he offered to purchase his expansion unit. he wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, but you never know if you don’t ask. To his surprise the owner replied that yes, he would be willing to sell the unit. He did not know however how much to ask, so Tom initially offered him $150.00 in it’s current condition. When he got his reply a couple of days later, Tom was at first heartbroken. The owner of the expansion unit informed was refusing the offer, but he had a counter. Instead of $150.00, he would sell the expansion unit to Tom for only $40.00! With shipping, the total cost to would be only $68.50! Of course, Tom had to take it. Tom sent payment for the expansion unit that evening.

Tom thought I had made a fantastic deal. The seller told Tom that the unit currently had 2 SCSI drives installed, but he needed to keep those drives. The seller assured Tom that he would install an MFM controller and 2 MFM drives. He was also including “a selection of various expansion cards” to “sweeten the deal”

What Tom received about a week later was huge let down to say the least! When the package had finally arrived, Tom was elated. As he opened the box, the expansion unit was exactly described on the outside. There were no scratches, dings, dents or other damage, but there was also a large hole in the front of the case where a hard disk drive was supposed to be. Upon opening the unit, Tom and Kris discovered that the seller did indeed remove all of the SCSI equipment, but instead of installing 2 MFM drives, he only included one, with a broken Western Digital controller card. To top it off, the drive that was included was meant for an IBM AT computer, since it had no front faceplate. Later it was also discovered that the drive was also not in any kind of working order.

So, back to the VCF where Tom was able to post a new thread looking for a hard disk drive and controller card. Of course his friends on VCF came through, yet again. Chuck, (yes the same chuck who repaired the floppy drives earlier) replied that he had a controller and pointed Tom to an auction on E-Bay for a full height 10 Meg Miniscribe MFM drive that was due to close in less than a day. There were a few bids on the drive, but Tom decided to go for it. Toms bidding strategy worked wonders, and in less than a week he had the drive in his hands. He also had the controller that Chuck(G) put together and so, off to work.

Assembly of the expansion unit went very smoothly. That is until Tom got to the hard drives. The Miniscribe drive and Xebec controller worked out great. It was the IBM drive that was included with the expansion that gave the most trouble. (Tom didn’t know the drive was bad yet, and since putting it on E-Bay, had gotten no bids either.) First, the MFM cables weren’t long enough to accommodate connecting the 2nd drive comfortably. The ribbon cables had to be run underneath the drive bays in order to just barely reach the controller’s connections. And the IBM drive didn’t have a faceplate. So back to VCF. Tom contacted a couple more friends in the forums and bought an old MFM drive cage that still had it’s faceplate attached. Well, that wouldn’t work as is, so with a little modification, the faceplate was removed from the old cage and installed onto the front of the IBM drive. As seen below; it was a perfect fit!

When Tom powered on the system, everything spun up very nicely, so it was working; at least so far. But when the expansion unit was connected to the PC, there were immediate issues with the IBM drive. Plus, Tom had forgotten that he had listed the IBM drive for sale on E-Bay, and it just sold; for a good amount too. So the IBM drive was removed, the faceplate put back on the old drive cage, and the entire cage reinstalled into the empty drive bay to cover the opening on the front of the expansion. This time everything was a perfect fit. Without the second drive, the ribbon cables could ‘relax’ as they were meant to. The system even booted directly to DOS on the Miniscribe drive. Tom had a working expansion unit. But most importantly, the extender and receiver cards that Tom was given and which were so far were in questionable condition, were working just fine.

Tom went back into the forums when the money cleared his PayPal account so he could see if anyone had another drive for sale. True to form, Tom found another drive, and this time with a Western Digital controller. The member who sold the drive and controller pre-configured the controller so the installation is as ‘drop in and run’ as possible.

So, here’s where everything sits right now. The IBM PC has been upgraded with a new AST Six-Pack Plus expansion card and has been upgraded as far as Tom wants it to be. The expansion unit is going to be completed once the second hard disk and Western Digital controller card arrive. There were also some small advances in peripherals over the last weekend too.

Tom has a friend in Las Vegas who is also into vintage computing. His name is Ivan. Ivan is more into the Tandy Color Computer, or Coco, but still works with original IBM systems as well. Ivan brought Tom a small gift on his last visit. It is a dual 9 pin serial port card. Along with that card, Tom has an Intel 8/16 LAN adapter and an 8 bit modem that will be installed and configured at the same time as the drive and controller. Tom has planned it so that the system is opened as rarely as possible.

Tom is very proud of his all original IBM 5150 PC with IBM 5161 expansion Unit. The two pieces are now completely dependant on each other too, so that the PC cannot be booted if the expansion unit is not powered on itself. All of the time and effort that Tom has put into this machine has also prompted him to name her “Alice” after a derelict spacecraft found in a junkyard in a Star Trek Voyager episode. Below are the IBM’s completed specs and a couple of pics to show the set up Tom chose for his favorite computer.

1. IBM 5150 PC with 8088 Processor with original PC/XT Keyboard
2. dual 5.25″ floppy disk drives
3. IBM Floppy disk controller
4. IBM 5153 CGA Video Monitor
5. IBM CGA Color Video Adapter Card/Parallel port – LPT1
6. AST Six Pack Plus expansion card with the following
A. 384 Kb Memory expansion (which increases total system memory 640 Kb.)
B. Asynchronous Serial port
C. Parallel Port – LPT 2
D. Game Controller Port
E. Clock
F. Calendar
7. IBM 5152 Graphics Printer – (on LPT1)
8. Radio Shack Optimus CTR-109 Cassette Tape Recorder
9. iOmega Z100P2 100 Meg Parallel interface Zip Drive – (on LPT2)
10. Expansion Unit Extender Card (For connecting the expansion unit to the PC)
11. IBM 5161 PC Expansion Unit
12. 1 – Miniscribe 2012 – Full Height MFM Hard disk Drive – 11 Meg Capacity.
13. 1 – Control Data Full Height MFM drive.
14. 1 – Western Digital MFM Controller Card
15. Expansion unit Receiver card (For connecting the expansion unit to the PC)
16. Intel LAN Adapter
17. 3Comm 28.8 or 33.6 Data/Fax/Voice modem.
18. Serial Mouse
19. Dual 9 pin Serial Port Card
20. Manual – IBM PC/XT Guide to Operations
21. Manual – IBM PC BASIC
22. Manual – IBM Disc Operating System 3.3

IBM 5161 Expansion Unit with extender and receiver cards, which by using a special cable designed just for this purpose,
connects the two machines together. This in effect makes them “One Piece”.

What began as an ongoing project is almost complete. There are still a few things that require work, but Toms has friends. Tom thanks them every day he looks at the system.

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