View Full Version : Reminiscing about my IBM AT

Andrew T.
December 23rd, 2013, 05:06 PM
Although I'm partial to Apple's designs as well, my "gateway drug" into older computers back in the late 1990s was a genuine IBM Personal Computer AT. Well, sort of genuine:


By the time I got it, this AT had already turned into something of a bastard mule. The case was from 1985, but the motherboard was a small-planar 512k version from 1987. The disk controller was the only expansion card that was original: The other slots were taken up by a pair of generic serial-parallel adapters, an ATI Graphics Solution SC video card, and an AST Rampage(?) board that brought the memory to a full meg. I didn't have the keys for the case lock and didn't have the original disks or manuals; though I did have books that explained more than I wanted to know about the system and was able to alter the CMOS setup with a third-party utility.

The original gray floppy drives had been replaced by a black-panel Tandon 360k unit and a Teac 1.44MB. At first I presumed that I had a 1.2MB drive (This is an AT, after all!), and proceeded in throwing half a dozen "bad" 1.2MB floppies away since they couldn't be read by the drive. Live and learn.

My favorite part of the computer may have been the tactile sensations of working with the parts inside. The AT case was gigantic, well-finished, and heavy as a rock. Cards and drives slid into place and fit together with the ease and precision of Lego bricks, and there was lots of wiggle room left to feel around everything within. I've never experienced a case as pleasurable to work on as the genuine IBM AT either before or since.

My dream was to use the machine and push it to its limits: Get a larger hard disk, and store more programs. Better yet get a Zip drive, attach it to the second parallel port. Get an EGA video card and 5154 monitor, so I can render a GUI and play a decent library of games. Get a dot-matrix printer. Get an old copy of Quattro Pro or 1-2-3, and crunch numbers with the 80287. Get a modem, and connect to the Internet. I also wanted to replace some of the third-party parts with Big Blue IBM originals...maybe even get a copy of OS/2 1.x while I'm at it. Alas, that was not to be. Craigslist didn't exist, eBay was in its infancy, message boards were primitive affairs, and I was a penniless kid living in rural West Virginia where there was little hope of any local collaboration around. How could I find more parts? The answer to that was simple: I didn't.

Initially, I had a weathered CGA monitor attached that had originally shipped with some Zenith Data Systems clone of the same era. It had severe screen burn and displayed text messages on itself even when it was turned off. One day I was adjusting the pots in the rear, and one of them promptly disintegrated and set the hold askew. Without a working digital monitor, I wasn't able to use the system. Some months later I was able to scrounge a third-party VGA card with an onboard BIOS that allowed it to be compatible with an AT, and I was able to use it again...and promptly discovered that the battery had gone dead. Finding a replacement CMOS battery seemed to be as difficult to me at the time as finding a CGA monitor, and I eventually resorted to wires running to a six-volt flashlight lantern outside the case. And it still wasn't enough juice to keep the system time.

The story after that is somewhat brief: It was the sore subject of periodic moves, and just sat around getting rare and infrequent use until 2008. Once I replaced the motherboard with one from a generic 486...then a couple weeks later I had a change of heart and put all the "original" parts back in place. I posed it with a PS/1 monitor for the picture above, but that didn't work with the system. Finally the time came to simplify, and I gave it away.

Since my IBM exercises of the late 1990s were more or less prompted by nostalgia, it feels weird that I now feel nostalgic over that nostalgia. It also feels very weird to realize that the Pentium III box I'm typing this message on is actually older now, year for year, than that AT was then. I still have one of the ISA I/O cards from the AT working inside my PIII computer, though, so at least a little part of it lives on!

December 23rd, 2013, 10:25 PM
Thanks for sharing. About a year ago I picked up a clone XT turbo with the same front facia, EGA and a flip top lid. I certainly agree about the amount of room you have to play with and the weight.

December 25th, 2013, 09:10 AM
Yep, the AT was my first PC also. But I was in my 30s and it was provided to me at work in 1988 so I had lots of time to learn about it.

I had to scramble (around 1999) to find the correct parts to make up an original one once I realized I wanted one for my small collection. It's still my favorite machine due to the memories and the racket it makes when it's running.

Thanks for sharing.

December 25th, 2013, 10:50 AM
Yes, there are two things that stand out for me about my AT. One is the weight (jeez it's heavy) and the noise. Both of these combine to give the impression of a serious bit of ironmongery!


December 25th, 2013, 10:58 AM
I had to scramble (around 1999) to find the correct parts to make up an original one once realized I wanted one for my small collection.

That's a beautiful totally original looking machine Paul! I'm still looking an AT Model F keyboard for mine.


Andrew T.
December 27th, 2013, 03:26 PM
Thanks for the feedback and pictures!

Were I to repeat the experience today, it's hard to say how things would unfold. On one hand, I'd have the deep pockets and avenues of communication necessary to attain the parts I'd need and make the system exactly what I wanted it to be. But on the other hand, I don't have the same amount of free time or the same temperament any more, and nothing would come for free...the days of dumpsters filled with IBM castoffs are 15 years behind us by now.

December 28th, 2013, 12:30 AM
The original AT case and the clone cases made like it are a pleasure to work in. It's funny because I consider the original PC, or PC/XT cases, while certainly heavy, are some of my least favored cases. Cramped, and whatever it is you need to remove, you have to remove at least one other component to get to it.

I got an IBM AT motherboard from eBay nearly a year ago, and was able to repair it after following some threads here on the forum (a fantastic place). I hope to someday put the entire system together around it. I have most all the components now except the case. Once it was repaired and I was able to really play around with it, I was surprised to find it wasn't as advanced in some ways as my late model (1986) XT. It has the second revision of the AT bios and doesn't support enhanced keyboards. Spent some time spinning my wheels figuring that out.

December 28th, 2013, 01:29 AM
I have mine right here, next to the 5160XT!


I have to find some keys for the Model M...