The production of the first motherboard is a controversial topic. Many attribute the invention to IBM, while others point to Apple. The conflict of opinion is the definition of a “motherboard.” Although, it seems quite clear that the motherboard is a big card to which all the electronics of the computer are soldered, whether any card fits into that definition, or whether a card connecting cards counts, clouds the issue.
The mother of all boards
A motherboard is a big circuit board. All the processors, resistors, interfaces and connectors of the computer are soldered onto it. The board is not just a big piece of card with holes in it, but it also has pathways embedded, or “printed” onto it. These pathways carry the electric signals that transport data and form a circuit. This is why it is also called a “circuit board,” or a “printed circuit board.” These cards exist in other forms, such as a sound card, which used to be bought separately and slotted into a connected that was soldered onto the motherboard. But is a sound card simply a motherboard for sound functions?
The first computers didn't contain motherboards. The original computers that came out during the Second World War were developed to aid computation for the war effort and their application was focused on code breaking. These computers were large banks of cabinets, containing large glass valves. Miniaturisation helped computers develop and the valve was replaced by tiny transistors in 1956. This was a major step towards the advent of the motherboard, because it would not be possible to fit all the components of a computer onto one board, until those components were miniaturised.
The motherboard is the core of the PC. A large mainframe computer, as the name suggests, has a large frame into which several connections allow component to slot, like shelves in a cabinet. The motherboard shrinks these frames down to one shelf, and at a smaller size than any of the boards originally used for mainframes. The need for small, desktop computers drove the creation of the motherboard.
Many experts point to IBM as the inventor of the motherboard, and its PC, released in 1981 did contain a motherboard. This was the computer that launched the fortunes of Bill Gates, because he and his partners at Microsoft were awarded the contract to build the operating system. However, advocates of the IBM PC motherboard who see it as the original overlook that fact that the Apple 1, released in 1976, was also based on a motherboard.
The original Apple 1 was produced for one shop in the United States and only 200 were made. In 2012 an original Apple 1 motherboard sold at auction for $374,500. This high value denotes its importance as a museum piece. This was the first commercially available motherboard-based computer and by the time of the auction, only 50 survived in the world. Of those, only six were believed to still be in working order.
Steve Wosniac and Steve Jobs originally intended to sell the Apple 1 as a kit. They centred all the functions of the computer onto one large circuit board, which was designed by Wozniak. This circuit board became the first “motherboard.”