August 12, 1981: Ronald Reagan was halfway through his first year as president, MTV was less than two weeks old, and the IBM 5150 – arguably the first widely successful personal computer and the first to be called a “PC” – was introduced at a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria ballroom in New York City.
Its retail price was $1,565 – equivalent to more than $4,000 today.
As the computer world marks the 35th anniversary of that historic occasion, some may not know there was a University of Florida connection.
The chief architect in the development was UF alumnus and Jacksonville native Philip Donald “Don” Estridge. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the UF College of Engineering in 1959, Estridge worked for the Army and eventually became the acting lab director at IBM in Boca Raton, Fla.
The fruits of his team’s labor, the 5150, included a system unit, keyboard and color/graphics capability. Options included a display, a printer, two diskette drives, extra memory, communications, game adapter and application packages — including one for text processing. From these fairly modest beginnings, the personal computer industry exploded into a multibillion dollar juggernaut.
Sadly, Estridge would live to see only a small portion of the impact he made on the world. He and his wife, Mary Ann, died in a plane crash in 1985. Friends, family, business associates and colleagues contributed to create the Phillip D. and Mary Ann Estridge Scholarship Fund that continues to honor their memory.
But other Gators — both before and after Don Estridge — also have earned a page in the book of computer history. They include:
John Atanasoff – Created the first electronic digital computer, known as the ABC, in 1939. The son of a Bulgarian immigrant, he also earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at UF. When submitting the manuscript detailing the invention that he and fellow Iowa State graduate student Cliff Berry developed, he described it as “a computing machine for the solution of large systems of linear algebraic equations.”
Atanasoff (far left) in 1925 UF yearbook
The ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer) was an electrical computer that used vacuum tubes for digital computation, including binary math and Boolean logic and had no CPU. Only two years earlier, its design existed only on a cocktail napkin.
Manuel A. “Manny” Fernandez Jr. – Moved with his father from Cuba to Daytona Beach, Fla. in 1959. He graduated from UF in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering and earned his master’s degree in solid-state engineering from UF two years later.
Fernandez founded the Gavilan Computer Corporation, which developed the first portable computer marketed as a “laptop” in 1983. He would later go on to become chairman, president and CEO of Gartner, the world’s leading information technology research and consulting company, as well as chairman of UF’s Board of Trustees.
James “Jim” Edward Allchin – An American computer scientist, philanthropist and musician. After growing up on a Florida orange grove farm, he earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from UF in 1973.
Ten years later, he joined Banyan Systems, an early leader in networking software and servers, eventually becoming senior vice president and chief technology officer. Allchin later joined Microsoft, where he led the Platforms division. He is perhaps best known for building Microsoft’s server business into a multibillion dollar operation. Allchin is now a recording artist, widely renowned for his guitar skills. His accomplishments as a computing pioneer earmed him the University of Florida Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2015.
Chris Malachowsky – A recognized authority on integrated-circuit design and methodology, and author of nearly 40 patents. After earning his bachelor’s in electrical and computer engineering from UF in 1983, he held engineering and technical leadership positions at HP and Sun Microsystems. In 1993, Malachowsky co-founded the visual computing company NVIDIA, which currently dominates the gaming and virtual reality markets. In 2011, UF honored him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award.