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Why is motherboard used to refer to the main board of a computer? What is the relationship with the word mother here?

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3 Answers

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:

  • Master/Slave (controller and devices)
  • Male/Female (plugs and ports)
  • Mouse
  • Peers
  • Server/Client
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+1 The mother-daughter relationship is clear, but why feminine, I don't know. Elsewhere in computing, we talk of parent-child relationships, so why not with the main board in a computer? In my experience, it has simply 'always been the case'... –  CJM Jan 28 '11 at 15:26
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I'd guess that it's "Mother/daughter" for the same reason that it's "Motherland", "Mother-ship", etc. It sounds foreign to me to talk of the "Fatherland", etc. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 28 '11 at 16:00
    
re Male / Female: message.snopes.com/showpost.php?p=464706 –  Sean Patrick Floyd Jan 28 '11 at 17:04
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@CJM, maybe it's an umbilical metaphor? –  Peter Taylor Jan 28 '11 at 21:17
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The relationship -- the child board clings to it, drawing sustenance, protection, and support -- seems maternal to me. Of course, maybe that just says something about my relationship with my parents... –  Malvolio Jan 29 '11 at 8:31
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Mother-board

In personal computers, a motherboard is the central printed circuit board (PCB) in many modern computers and holds many of the crucial components of the system, providing connectors for other peripherals.

The first references I found are in 1956 to "mother" board, "mother-board" and "mother board"; the quotes suggest this is new terminology.

  • EIA's 1956 Proceedings:

The units incorporate all of the sub -module features which we previously described, but here the repetitive components are mounted on what might be termed a "mother" board.

  • IRE's 1956 International Convention Record, Volume 4, Part 2:

Fig. 12 is an illustration of the so-called "baby-board" to "mother-board" package where the tube sub-modules are mounted on the larger board and the circuit sub-modules on the right angle small boards. The arrangement can be easily reversed.

  • Ziff-Davis's 1956 Popular Electronics, Volume 4, Issues 1-6:

was mounted on a large "mother board." Two other boards were used: one was for the power supply, and the other was for the readout subassembly.

  • Hayden's 1956 Electronic Design, Volume 4, Part 2:

A variant is the i-f strip, below, where repetitive components are mounted on "mother" board.


Baby-board

The observant will have noticed one of these early uses of mother-board are in conjunction with baby-board, and not today's common daughterboard. A mother-baby relationship seems more appropriate in this context than mother-daughter.


Daughter-board

A daughterboard, daughtercard or piggyback board is a circuit board meant to be an extension or "daughter" of a motherboard (or 'mainboard'), or occasionally of another card.

Daughterboard is the most common term nowadays. When did this replace baby-board?

The earliest I found was ten years later, in 1965 as daughter board, "motherboard-daughter board" and mother-daughter board.

  • Hayden's 1965 Electronic Design, Volume 13, Part 3

The daughter board can not be removed without using the tool again. (Keeping a spare tool on hand is wise with this approach. ... The number of microcircuits to put on each daughter board was a difficult design decision. ...

  • Rogers' 1965 Advances in Electronic Circuit Packaging:

Some special pins for attachment to the edge of a printed circuit board (currently available for 0.031" thick boards only), allow the plug-in connection at right angles, in "motherboard-daughter board" fashion.

  • McGraw-Hill's 1965 Electronics, Volume 38:

There are flatpacks, micromodules, film structures, mother-daughter board combinations and matrix configurations that defy description. And the only thing standard about them is that they're all different.

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Mother lode and mother ship are older compounds along similar lines (both dating to at least 19th century, in mining and whaling respectively). Perhaps motherboard was coined by analogy with one of those? (Influence from mother ship seems very plausible, due to its sci-fi popularity.)

In each case, “mother X” seems to mean roughly “a big X, associated to some group of smaller X’s” — the metaphor seems fairly clear.

Unfortunately I can’t find any reliable sources right now with specific info on the origin of motherboard — hopefully someone else can, or I’ll try again tomorrow when I have OED access again…

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In the case of mother ship, I presume it’s because ships were traditionally personified as female. In the case of mother lode, Wikipedia says it’s a translation from the Spanish vita madre; but that still leaves the question of why the Spanish phrase in turn used mother –  PLL Jan 28 '11 at 4:45
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Veta, actually. Maybe they used madre with it because veta is grammatically feminine in Spanish? –  Alex Jan 28 '11 at 5:44
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Computers frequently also (used to) have daughter-boards. Just throwing this in here... –  deceze Jan 28 '11 at 6:04
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Daughter boards plug into mother boards. –  ukayer Jan 28 '11 at 6:20
    
@JasperLoy Why mother-board? Before daughter-board came baby-board. –  Hugo Nov 11 '11 at 11:55
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