Why Were Old PCs Beige?

Why Were Old PCs Beige?

If you’re a cool person, the kind that listens to albums on cassette for authenticity, then no doubt you’re already ahead of the game in building a 1990s gaming PC to relive the glory days of Windows 95 – just like this fella. There’s a heady mix of nostalgia in such an exercise, with names like Voodoo FX and SoundBlaster sending vintage PC owners into paroxysms of joy and tears, fond reminders of the good old days before Cortana started pestering everyone like a bored child at a bus stop.

Yet even with her constant pleading to just ask her something, *anything*, Cortana still only qualifies as the second-most needy Microsoft program. Never has a program tried so hard to be my default browser as Microsoft Edge. And yet we both know, deep down, that it will never, ever happen – despite its underhand tricks. The other day Edge somehow managed to end up making itself the default method for viewing PDFs, momentarily shoving Adobe Reader aside to get a little time in the limelight. I quickly put an end to that. Edge, mate, it’s never going to happen. Please stop.)

A common element in all of these retro PC builds that keep popping up is that they are all uniformly, unashamedly beige. Which got me thinking: whatever happened to beige PCs? There was a time when you simply couldn’t get a PC in any other colour, and yet these days new beige PCs are practically impossible to find.

Technically old PCs weren’t all beige – or Pantone 14-1118 TPX, to be specific. Most were various shades of off-white or ecru (which according to the OED is ‘the light fawn colour of unbleached linen’, well la-di-dah). Apple called their shade of beige ‘Putty’, because Apple.

Then suddenly, all these shades of sort-of-brown were gone, wiped out by successor generations of stark-white or deep-black PCs and, later on, every possible colour you can think of. Except beige.

Paint it black

The YouTuber VWestlife posted a video in 2017 that blamed this phenomenon on the IBM ThinkPad. He highlights a book on the history of this early laptop called ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue by Deborah Dell and Gerry Purdy, in which the authors reckon that IBM was the one to break the mould and ditch the beige – and that the reason why PCs were beige in the first place was down to German employment laws.

According to the book, “In the late 1970s, Germany initiated workplace standards that required ‘light-value’ colors on office computing equipment; those standards were soon picked up by other European and Scandinavian countries. Then, during the 1980s, any offerings other than gray and off-white were virtually eliminated across the computer industry because of cost and the European workplace standards.”

The book goes on to say that IBM wanted to differentiate their new laptops by making them black, but that they encountered resistance from IBM Germany, and the company even considered a “pebble-gray” option specifically for the German market (which was rejected.) Eventually Germany “capitulated to the use of black, but with the condition that the German manual covers be boldly printed ‘This product not for office use.’”

The thing is, I couldn’t find any evidence of a German law stating that office equipment must be in ‘light-value’ colours. I asked Mascha Tobe at the Computerspiele Museum in Berlin, who said “Even if there might be [such a] law, I have never heard about it.” I then got in touch with Christian Bartsch at The Software Preservation Society in Germany, who said that he “wasn’t able to find a specific law requiring computers to be beige”, but did add that German workplace standards in general are “pretty strict”, giving the example that “high contrast between displays and the surrounding things should be avoided”.

Indeed, German workplace law stipulates things like all office workers must have “visual connection to the outside” (in other words, be near a window.) Which I’m sure will be a great comfort to all the UK workers reading this on their lunchbreak in a windowless office-coffin.

I even contacted the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, which specialises in video-game law and computing, to see whether they could find out anything about this German law, and the firm kindly asked their research librarian to look into it. Sadly he “wasn’t able to find anything authoritative” aside from “some anecdotal comments.”

Whatever the reason for the trend, it’s undeniable that computers became almost uniformly beige over the course of the 1980s. There were the exceptions, such as the Jupiter Ace and Sinclair Spectrum in defiant white and black respectively, but the industry had converged around beige(ish) colours by the time the Amiga and Atari ST came along later in the 1980s. IBM-compatible PCs were pretty much beige from the start.

Regardless of whether there was actually a German law mandating light colours, there may have been an overall push for computers to fit into the office culture of the day: everything needed to be the same colour, and that colour had to be as inoffensive as possible. A 2002 New York Times article suggests that: “Beige PC’s arrived in offices in the 1980’s, when the management fashion was to scorn hierarchy and extol the virtues of teamwork and a more egalitarian workplace.” The piece goes on to say that office managers wanted equipment to be standardised and quotes Mike Stinson, a vice president of Gateway, saying: “In business, they don’t want the new thing looking different than the old thing.” So once the market settled on beige, it was going to be beige all the way.

More to the point, the article claims that the age of beige was partly brought about as a result of cost savings – beige components were the cheapest because they were the most widely available. “Beige was the unshakable standard for the East Asian suppliers of ‘drive modules’ for floppy disks, CD-ROM’s and Zip drives,” author Steve Lohr writes. “It was only in the last few years, said Steve Gluskoter, director of industrial design for Dell, that the company’s market share was large enough that it would not have to pay a higher price for black housings on the drive modules.”

This snippet of information only serves to deepen the mystery: why did East Asian suppliers settle on beige as the standard, mass-produced colour in the first place? Did this move also link back to the rumoured German employment law, or pre-date it? It’s also interesting that computers ended up being swathed in beige at a time when other electrical equipment, such as TVs and hi-fis, were generally presented in silver or with a wood effect. It seems a crying shame that we missed out on wood-effect PCs – although at least we’ll always have the Atari 2600.

Bye bye beige

The shift away from beige began in the 1990s, with IBM releasing their all-black ThinkPad and Apple launching the iMac in a range of garish colours. The NYT article quotes Hewlett-Packard executive Tom Anderson saying that people buying home PCs “want to get away from beige because it is associated with work,” a trend that has culminated in today’s gaming PCs looking more like props from The Fast and the Furious, all underlighting and rainbow keyboards.

Even in offices, it’s rare to see this classic PC style any more. The age of beige is truly over. Yet perhaps, as in the world of fashion, this is just a cycle. Maybe, as the cool folks rebuild their 1990s gaming rigs, a wider hankering will emerge for all things off-white.

Mark my words: one day soon, beige will be all the rage once more. You could get a head start on the trend by following this chap’s lead, and cramming a modern PC’s guts into a gloriously greyish 1990s PC shell: after all, it’s what under the hood that matters.

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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