Why Motherboard is Called Motherboard?

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I’m sure at one point in time, a geek in you must have wondered why motherboard is called motherboard? I mean of all the fancy high tech terms that the technology industry could come with, why did they choose to go with the term “mother” for the PC’s main board.

Well sometimes, the name for a certain devices comes from how the thing actually works, sort of like a description of what it does. For instance, “printer” is a device that prints. Quite straightforward.

Other times, the names are highly ambiguous and hold no resemblance to their function. “Mouse”, for instance, tells you absolutely nothing about the fact that it is a pointing device.

The term “motherboard” is a middle of the road term. It is both descriptive as well as a bit ambiguous (at least to the uninitiated). This is a classic example of a terms that stems from people’s perception about what it is.

Scouring the internet brings forth a lot of theories, ideas, and assumptions that all aim to explain why a motherboard is called as so, and I’d like to share these with you.

To understand this, first, let’s look at the development of motherboards and their evolution. This could give some insight into how they came to be called as so.

How Motherboards Came to Be Called Motherboards

Up until the late 1980s, there was not such thing as a motherboard on computer. Instead, they used backplanes – passive printed circuit boards with no controllers.

old backplane
Top left: Backplane, Disk, Serial I/O and CPU. Source: classiccmp.org

A backplane is nothing more than a connector that is used to join several other circuits together. This forms a sort of bus (cable) for the computer that allows different devices to work together.

The main difference between the backplane and the motherboard is that the backplane lacked anything onboard. It was just a skeleton and nothing more.

Basically, it had no active components. It was inherently a sort dumb bridge between the different subsystems of a computer.

The earlier backplane actually had copper wires sticking out, however, as thing evolved Printed Circuit Board became the standard.

So you can image a backplane board on which everything everything including audio cards, I/O card for mouse and keyboard, RAM and processor card had to be housed separately.

In the 1980s with the advent of personal computers, things started to move forward as PC demanded standard chips for peripherals, audio, disk drives to come already mounted on the mainboard. This inclusion of controllers, or active components, gave birth to the modern motherboard.

Also Read in Detail: Why is a Motherboard Important?

Active vs Passive Backplanes

It should be made clear here the difference between a passive and an active backplanes.

  • Passive Backplanes: This is what we refer to when we talk about old computers. These were dumb bridges that only had the required circuitry and wires to house different subsystems we almost take granted on modern motherboards.
  • Active Backplanes: The modern motherboards are of this sort. These backplanes have many controllers, and components along with the essential circuitry to FACILITATE the communication between them.

So Why Motherboard is called Motherboard?

1. Because it’s the Main Circuit Board in a Computer

One of the most compelling reasons why the motherboard is named so is because it is the main circuit board in a computer.

Again, the name here derives mostly from people’s perception about what it is.

A computer can have more than one circuit board for several different functions. However, there can be only one main board to hold all the components together and facilitate communication between them. Hence, the name motherboard sounds quite fitting here.

2. Because it’s the Mother of Other Components

Why Motherboard is Called Motherboard 2
The PCIe slots on the motherboard can house a range of different daughterboards providing your PC with expanded functionality. 

A motherboard can extend its capability by adding or plugging additional circuit boards to it.

Not surprisingly enough, these additional circuit boards are curiously, and quite appropriately, named “daughterboards”.

We may not refer to the VGA cards, network card or the storage as daughterboards in common terminology these days, but the term daughterboard defines the technical idea behind them.

So, in essence, the motherboard, being the mother to the attached components, allows them access to its resources and use its channels to convey their data.

Point to note, daughterboards can have daughterboards of their own. For instance, a motherboard can be attached with an NVMe SSD Expansion Card (daughterboard), which can then be used to add an SSD Drive onto (Grand-Daughterboard?).

nvme expansion card
An NVMe Expansion Card

3. It Contains the Chip with the Instructions to Run a Computer

A motherboard contains what is widely known as the ROM chip which houses the instructions that make up the BIOS.

These instructions are what is used to initialize the computer at startup. They perform the necessary checks to ensure the hardware attached is working properly.

So essentially, BIOS is the first operating system that computer loads up. It is the building block of computer software.

Simply put, without a BIOS ROM chip, your PC will not work making the term “motherboard” highly appropriate once again.

Also Read: How to Reset Motherboard? – Clearing CMOS to Reset BIOS

4. It is Viewed as the Center of Life for the Computer

If we take the computer and anthropomorphize its components, all the parts that are connected to the motherboard can be seen as members of the same household.

Connected and sharing information and resources constantly.

Nothing in the computer will work without the motherboard as it takes charge of connecting all the components, ensuring they are well fed with power, taking care of making the conditions right for working, and also holding the components together.

5. It is the Largest and the Most Important Board in the PC

The term “mother” is also often used to describe a large or an important object/entity.

Mother ship, for instance, is a term used to defined capital and the most important ships in a navy often in the lead role.

Mother lode, as another example, is used to define a very large area of mineral deposit, and in more common language, is used to define something valuable in large abundance.

Hence, following the same idea, the term “mother” board not only appropriately reflects the fact that is the largest board on a PC, but it is also the most important.

In The End, There is No Particular Reason for The Name

So unlike the more descriptive names such as “printer”, “keyboard”, “speakers”, “display”, there is no particular reason behind the name motherboard.

It would still be wise, in my opinion, to call motherboards as “main boards” more commonly as that would be easier to grasp by the beginners.

But, the term “mother” holds a certain weight to it and reflects the role the board plays in a PC more appropriately.

There here have been some specific references to the term “motherboard” dating all the way back to 1956, but its meaning again stems from the writer’s perception about what it is.

Why Motherboard is Called Motherboard
1956 Popular Electronics Volume 4

A user that goes by the name “Hugo” has an excellent etymological account of where the name motherboard may originate from on stackexchange.com in case if you are interested.

Hence, the term motherboard is actually quite old. The term sees to have been originated from the electrical and electronic engineering design circles and follows the same idea – a larger board housing smaller boards.

In Summary

There is no official reason that I have found to explain the reason behind the name. However, most people seem to point to the fact that the device is named so because of the role it plays i.e it is the “mother” of all the attached components.

It may also stem from the fact that it is the largest board in a PC.

Photo of author

Author:

Atif Qazi
Atif Qazi is the founder of PCGuide101. He is a digital nomad who loves everything PC. He is a PC builder, tech enthusiast, engineer, and a lover of single player lore-rich RPG games.

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