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Baby Dell

A proto PC harkens back to the birth of an industry

When he was 15, in 1980, Michael Dell took apart an Apple II computer and reassembled it, much as an earlier generation of teenagers had taken apart the engines of their Fords and Chevies. A few years later, Dell, by then a pre-med student at the University of Texas at Austin and founder of a small company he called PC's Limited, was putting together computers from components and selling the machines to fellow students.

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Dell never became a doctor, but he did all right. In 2007, his net worth was reported to exceed $14.2 billion. Along with other pioneers in a nascent industry—among them Steve Jobs and Bill Gates—Dell joined one of his generation's most select clubs—self-made tech moguls.

Of course, willing consumers were essential to his success. One of them was Clint Johnson, a freelance writer living outside Jefferson, North Carolina. In 1985, at age 32, Johnson bade farewell to his Remington typewriter and ordered a PC's Limited Turbo computer. He was customer number 00100. "In those days," he recalls, "there wasn't any Internet or big box electronic store where you could get information about computers. I ended up asking the tech guys at the corporate offices of Red Lobster [where Johnson worked] what they'd recommend. The reason I decided on a PC's Limited machine was that you could order over the phone and they'd deliver it."

The PC's Limited, of course, remains the model that defines Dell Computers. Johnson's pre-Dell computer featured a 10-megabyte hard drive and a 5.25-inch floppy drive (back when floppies really were floppy). To compare the PC's Limited Turbo with any current desktop (or even laptop) is, of course, to set a BB gun against an ICBM. The monitor, made by Amdek, had a dark screen with low-contrast amber letters and numbers, the digital equivalent of shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. The complete package cost Johnson $895. "It always sounded as if it were coming apart," Johnson recalls. "I never did figure out why."

When Johnson read a 1987 BusinessWeek article about Dell and his company, he "recognized that I had a historic artifact, an early product of what is now a Fortune 50 company. So when I moved up to a newer computer, I wrapped it up and put it in the attic." At the keyboard of several later Dell computers, Johnson went on to write several books (his most recent, A Politically Incorrect Guide to the South). But, he says, "I wrote a lot of articles on that first machine." Some years ago, Johnson phoned Dell's PR department to ask if there might be interest in his relic. "All I got for my trouble," he recalls, "was a plastic Dell coffee cup."

But in 2005, when Dell opened a new factory in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, not far from where Johnson and his wife, Barbara, were living at the time, he tried again. His hope was to trade his piece of digital history for the latest Dell. This time he reached Donna Oldham in the PR office; she readily agreed to the trade.

Soon after, Dell offered the computer to David K. Allison, a curator at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH). Allison recognized that it would fit well into what he calls the museum's "rich collection of early personal computers, including an Altair and an Apple Lisa." The Johnson computer is on temporary display in the "Treasures of American History" exhibition, housed at the Air and Space Museum until the renovated NMAH opens in 2008.

That Michael Dell had never tried to acquire a PC's Limited computer as his company grew did not surprise Allison. "Entrepreneurs aren't thinking about the past," he says, "they're focused on tomorrow." Dell, 42, may still be focusing on tomorrow, but the PC's Limited Turbo did evoke a hint of nostalgia. At the Smithsonian's donation ceremony in May, Dell disclosed that he might have assembled this very Dell himself; he was still working on the factory floor in 1985. When asked if the machine had been booted up since the company reacquired it, Dell replied that it hadn't. "It's out of warranty," he said.

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.

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About Owen Edwards
Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.

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