Costlier than a house: list of the most expensive computers of the vintage era
Unless you’re a gaming maniac, buying a computer is unlikely to drain your savings account. Yet, that was not always the case. Some devices were as expensive as the average American house. We’ve compiled a list of some of the most expensive computers sold in the old days.
We almost take it for granted that a PC or a laptop can be bought at a reasonable price. After all, few jobs can be completed without intervention from a digital machine. Luckily, data shows that at least since the late ’90s, the price of computers and peripherals dropped drastically.
Compared with the price level registered in 1997, computers now cost only one-tenth of what they used to. Thanks to the conviction of Moore’s Law that the number of transistors manufacturers can fit on a chip doubles every 18 months, computers became faster and cheaper in a relatively short time.
Over the years, however, expensive digital machines were released to the markets with price tags almost unimaginable to an average modern consumer. Even though the PC revolution of the late ’70s was generally driven by PC manufacturers focused on appealing to the masses, others focused on the speed of the machines. And fast processing was a luxury not meant for everyone.
Below is a list of some of the most expensive computers we’ve found. Device price is adjusted for inflation and represents how much it would cost in 2020/2021.
Programma 101 (1965) $26,300
The list of most expensive starts with a PC, but not a personal computer. Made by Italian manufacturer Olivetti, the Programma 101 was more of a programmable calculator. However, the device had features that were in tune with what large computers of the time were equipped with.
Carrying a hefty price tag, Programma 101, also known as P101 or Perottina, was not for everyone. For comparison, the inflation-adjusted average price of a house in the US in 1965 was around $170,000. This means that seven P101s cost enough to put a roof overhead.
With 240 bytes of memory, 1,910 bits of RAM P101 mainly was capable of doing basic arithmetic. However, it was released in 1965, 12 years before the last execution by guillotine in France.
Meaning, its specs were truly revolutionary given the times it was released. So much so that NASA bought at least ten Perottinas’ to plan the Apollo 11 landings on the Moon.
HP 3000 (1972) $607,000
Yes, the price here is correct. In 2021 dollars, HP 3000 would cost over $600,000. For comparison, the inflation-adjusted average American house price at the start of 1972 was $170,000.
What technical wonders did the machine give to its user? Full 128 KB of user memory. Suffice to say, the cost prevented the 200-pound monster from entering any private residence.
The release was a massive failure for HP, credited to be the first instance of bad publicity HP has ever received. HP 3000 never did live up to promised support for 32 users at the time. For example, the first machine delivered to Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkley supported only two and crashed every 10 to 20 minutes.
It’s hard to wrap your head around that only half a decade later, comparatively as powerful Commodore, Apple, and TRS machines were sold for 2% of the HP 3000 cost.
IBM 5100 (1975) $54,600 – $109,200
Released almost 46 years ago, IBM 5100 was one of the first portable computers. ‘Portable’ for users who are not shy of a gym, however, as the device’s weight is 24kg (55 lbs). However, by contemporary standards, the 5100 was ultra-slim since a machine of similar capabilities would have taken a space of two desks.
The machine was equipped with a 1.9 MHz processor with RAM ranging from 16 KiB to 64 KiB and ROM from 32 KiB to 64 KiB. IBM meant the computer for professional use as the price tag comparative to an average house price of the time suggests.
Cromemco System Three (1979) $22,000 - $34,500
The first micro-computer on the list, the Cromemco System Three, saw the day of light in the late ’70s after the PC revolution was already in full swing. The hefty price on the device indicates that it was not meant to be used by amateurs.
The computer was designed with engineers, scientists, accountants, data managers, and others in mind. One of the critical components of the machine was a multi-user system usually seen on costly devices, like the HP 3000.
The machine was meant to be integrated into an office desk, not as a desktop. It was equipped with a Z80 processor and was sold with a 21-slot motherboard capable of accepting a variety of memory and almost ant application of the time.
Apple Lisa (1983) $25,970
The first desktop on the list, Apple Lisa, resulted from five years of development that turned out a commercial failure yet technical acclaim. Apple sold only 10,000 units before the machine was discontinued, losing the company around $50 million.
According to a website dedicated to history of Apple products, 'Lisa' stood for 'Local Integrated Software Architecture', but it was also the name of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ daughter.
Apple Lisa was one of the first personal computers with a graphical user interface (GUI) aimed at business users. One of the largest buyers for Lisa was NASA, where LisaProject, a GUI-based project management software, was of much value.
AGAT-4 (1984) $17,000
The only computer to enter the list from the Eastern part of the Iron Curtain, the AGAT-4, was produced by a Soviet military conglomerate LEMZ. The machine was distributed by ELORG, the Soviet agency created to license state-owned software and hardware.
The machine was equipped with a MOS6502 processor, somewhat unusual for Soviets, who preferred using homemade software and hardware. That might be related to the fact that the Soviets wanted to sell AGAT-4 outside the USSR for a staggering price of $17,000.
The computer went with a 30cm television, the keyboard was equipped with a Cyrillic keyboard and Numpad. The computer went with 64 KB RAM without any way to expand it. Not something you would expect from such an expensive device.
Compaq Portable II (1986) $8,500 - $12,180
Released 11 years later than IBM 5100, Compaq Portable II weighed only 10 kgs (23.6 lbs). Cheapest on the list of expensive computers, the Portable II came with different insides that accounted for a difference in the price.
Equipped with an Intel 80286 processor and 256 KB to 640 KB memory, the portable computer of the mid-’80s used MS-DOS 3.1 operating system, had integrated speakers, and came with a 360 KB floppy drive or an optional 10 MB hard drive.
Macintosh Portable (1989) $15,240
Another portable computer on the list comes from Apple. A lightweight device with a tad over 7kg of mass (16 lbs) received good reviews from tech critics but provided the company with disappointing sales. The machine was discontinued in 1991.
At the time of its release, the Macintosh Portable provided users with a novelty of an active-matrix LCD screen, which was reserved for only the most expensive laptops in the market. The LCD was used to cover the keyboard when the device was not in use, similar to modern laptops.
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