Although WordStar was long suspected to be the reason (or at least one of the major reasons) for implementing the A20 gate hardware on the PC/AT and all the associated problems later on, it is now all but certain that that wasn’t the case.
To recap, the earliest versions of WordStar for the IBM PC were 3.02 (probably April or May 1982), and 3.20 (likely Summer 1982). Whatever version 3.02 did or didn’t do, it was not compatible with PC DOS 1.1 or later, and thus could not have been relevant when the PC/AT was being designed. WordStar 3.20 has now been examined and found not to use the CALL 5 system call interface or do anything else that would cause problems on the PC/AT. WordStar 3.2x did use the word at offset 6 in the PSP to query the available memory, but not the call at offset 5.
Then it turned out that a crucial piece of evidence has been hiding in (almost) plain sight all along. Richard Wells highlighted U.S. Patent 4,779,187, “Method and operating system for executing programs in a multi-mode microprocessor” by Gordon Letwin. The filing date of the patent is April 10, 1985, less than a year after the IBM PC/AT was introduced, when these sorts of problems would have been in fresh memory.
The patent contains the following text: Some programs written for the 8086 rely on [address wrap-around] to run properly. Unfortunately, memory locations extend above 1 megabyte in the real mode of the 80286 and are not wrapped to low memory locations. Consequently, programs including those written in MicroSoft PASCAL and programs which use the “Call 5 ” feature of MS-DOS will fail on the standard 80286 system.
Microsoft Pascal, huh? Two paragraphs later, Pascal is mentioned again, explaining how one might work around the problems: For example, no PASCAL programs are loaded into memory below 64K, and a special instruction is placed in the lower memory locations above 1 megabyte–for example, address 100000h or 100010h.
So… Pascal programs might have trouble when loaded below 64K? What does that have to do with the A20 line? A lot, it turns out. Continue reading