William Lowe: Computer engineer whose work at IBM extended the reach of computers from big corporations to homes and small businesses


Wednesday 06 November 2013 19:30

Bill Lowe was the mastermind behind IBM's first personal computer, the IBM 5150, the first to be successfully mass produced and mass marketed. It expanded the company's reach into small businesses, and more importantly into people's homes.

It was not, strictly speaking, IBM's first personal computer. In 1973, the company's General Systems Division produced a prototype called "Special computer, APL machine portable", or "Scamp", 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 5150 was the first machine designed specifically for the mass market. Conceived, developed and manufactured within a year, it was launched in 1981 and sold more than 250,000 units in its first year despite a price tag of $1,565 (about £2,500 today), without a monitor. It confounded many sceptics, particularly those within IBM.

Long a dominant force in mainframe computing for corporate and government customers, IBM became interested in the PC market in the late 1970s, well after brands such as Apple, Commodore and Atari had established a foothold. Aware that IBM needed to play catch-up, Lowe was director of their Boca Raton Labs in Florida in 1980 when Atari approached the company about marketing one of their computers under the IBM brand.

However, this proposal, along with an alternative suggestion to acquire Atari outright, was described by IBM senior management as "the dumbest thing we've ever heard of." Instead, Lowe was given the go-ahead for Lowe to develop a prototype made from off-the-shelf components. Under the codename "Project Chess" he assembled a team of 12 engineers to design and construct the prototype termed the Acorn Project.

They were able to develop the 5150 PC rapidly by bypassing the company's cumbersome development process and adopting open architecture – using parts and software from outside vendors, including a little known company at the time, Microsoft, who provided the operating system. The 5150 PC was bundled with a handful of applications and was an instant success.

An IBM computer had often cost as much as $9m and required an air-conditioned quarter-acre of space and a staff of 60 people to keep it loaded with instructions. However, according to an account in the IBM archives, the new PC "could not only process information faster than those earlier machines, but it could hook up to the home TV set, play games, process text and harbour more words than a fat cookbook." It was "very new, exciting and radically different."

Lowe was credited with fostering collaboration within the computer industry, which became commonplace. Microsoft, Intel and other companies whose products were used benefited tremendously, beginning their transformation into household brands. Four years after the launch of the 5150, IBM and Microsoft agreed to jointly develop software that would not be exclusive to IBM machines.

However, with IBM's commitment to open architecture and off-the-shelf parts, the back door was open to rival manufacturers such as Compaq, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, who began building IBM-compatible machines, or "clones", often cheaper with better specs. They adopted the colloquial name given to the 5150, the PC.

In 1982 Time magazine eschewed naming a traditional Man of the Year, instead bestowing the honour of "Machine of the Year" on the PC. Lowe was promoted to vice-president of the Information Systems Division and general manager of IBM's facility in Rochester, Minnesota, but with increasingly tough competition in the PC and software markets, it seemed to some that the approach had backfired, Lowe taking much of the blame. The PC division was sold in 2005 to Lenovo, the Chinese technology firm, for $1.25bn making Lenovo the third-largest computer maker worldwide by volume.

Born in to a poor family in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1941, William Cleland Lowe was the first of his family to attend university, winning a basketball scholarship to the prestigious Lafayette College in Easton, from where he graduated in physics in 1962. He secured a position with IBM as a product test engineer, progressing to vice-president of systems, and later of development, for the System Products Division, New York, which oversaw the development and manufacturing of IBM's personal computers and other businesses. He was elected an IBM vice-president in 1986.

In 1988 he joined Xerox, who wanted to expand beyond photocopying machines. Three years later he became president of Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, which made the world's most technically advanced corporate jets, and went on to hold executive positions at New England Business Services and the Moore Corporation, another business services company.

Despite his success at IBM, Lowe, who died of a heart attack, did not really learn how to use a PC until he left for Xerox, his daughter said. He understood the importance of the PC, but perhaps not the far-reaching implications it would have for everyday life.

Martin Childs

William Cleland Lowe, computer engineer: born Easton, Pennsylvania 15 January 1941; married Cristina (three daughters, two sons); died Lake Forest, Illinois 19 October 2013.

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