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How did the "motherboard" get its name? I know that the name fits because it's the main circuit board in the computer, but how did that name come to be?

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"Main chip"? No, it's the main PCB in a computer. –  sblair Nov 6 '11 at 23:52
    
@sblair - Good point, fixed. –  Moshe Nov 7 '11 at 0:30
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

This was asked on the English.SE. The most popular answer offers:

It's called a motherboard because it is the main circuit board in the computer, and it can be extended by plugging other circuit boards into it. These extensions are called daughter boards. Wikipedia suggests that historically a "mainboard" was not extensible in this way, hence the need for different terminology. Many computer terms use human or biological words as metaphors.

See the link for other answers as well as more details on that answer.

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Originally, of course, computers were racks and racks of equipment. Printed circuit boards, generally about 5x8 inches, plugged into a "backplane" which had no active components on it. (In fact, the "backplane" was often just wire-wrap sockets with wires connecting the pins -- no printed circuit board.)

Slowly this layout changed. The "S100 bus", the original PC, generally used printed circuits for the backplane. The Apple II was probably the first commercial product that resembled the current "motherboard" with the processor on the main board and multiple expansion slots, though the layout of the board was a bit haphazard. The early IBMPC had a slightly more organized layout, but basically the same. More recently motherboards have diverged from the original Apple II/IBMPC style, incorporating more componentry on the mainboard, with more specialized slots.

The term, as vcsjones suggests, was probably a sort of back-formation from the fact that the plug-in boards would have been called "daughter" boards.

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This is a rather PC-centric view of history. Computers did not originate the modular backplane concept. Backplanes (and wirewrap) originated with telco switch racks. All of the early personal/home computers you mention had to use off-the-shelf parts/components, the cheaper the better. The S100 had a 100-line bus because that was the pin count of the surplus connectors it used. –  sawdust Nov 7 '11 at 2:39
    
The term "motherboard" (the topic of this thread) is a PC-era invention, and one that originated with PCs. Prior to that it was mainly "backplane" (and some other term I can't think of that IBM used -- they always had to have their own terms for everything). –  Daniel R Hicks Nov 7 '11 at 4:26
    
That's questionable. Jobs & Wozniak interned/worked at Hewlett Packard, and were probably exposed to instruments that utilized mainboard/motherboard configurations. Modular oscilloscopes date back to at least the 1960's, that's almost two decades before any PC. –  sawdust Nov 8 '11 at 8:26
    
The term may have been used outside of the computer industry, but computers, up until the Apple II era, used backplanes, not motherboards, since there were essentially no active components on the backplane. And "mainboard" was the term generally used for non-computer boards with smaller boards attached. Yes, modular oscilloscopes date back to the 60s (if not earlier), but they used modules plugged into a housing. –  Daniel R Hicks Nov 8 '11 at 11:14
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