Prior to the invention of the microprocessor, a digital computer consisted of multiple printed circuit boards in a card-cage case with components connected by a backplane, a set of interconnected sockets. In very old designs, copper wires were the discrete connections between card connector pins, but printed circuit boards soon became the standard practice. The Central Processing Unit (CPU), memory, and peripherals were housed on individual printed circuit boards, which were plugged into the backplate. The ubiquitous S-100 bus of the 1970s is an example of this type of backplane system.

The most popular computers of the 1980s such as the Apple II and IBM PC had published schematic diagrams and other documentation which permitted rapid reverse-engineering and third-party replacement motherboards. Usually intended for building new computers compatible with the exemplars, many motherboards offered additional performance or other features and were used to upgrade the manufacturer’s original equipment.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, it became economical to move an increasing number of peripheral functions onto the motherboard. In the late 1980s, personal computer motherboards began to include single ICs (also called Super I/O chips) capable of supporting a set of low-speed peripherals: keyboard, mouse, floppy disk drive, serial ports, and parallel ports. By the late 1990s, many personal computer motherboards included consumer grade embedded audio, video, storage, and networking functions without the need for any expansion cards at all; higher-end systems for 3D gaming and computer graphics typically retained only the graphics card as a separate component. Business PCs, workstations, and servers were more likely to need expansion cards, either for more robust functions, or for higher speeds; those systems often had fewer embedded components.

Laptop and notebook computers that were developed in the 1990s integrated the most common peripherals. This even included motherboards with no upgradeable components, a trend that would continue as smaller systems were introduced after the turn of the century (like the tablet computer and the netbook). Memory, processors, network controllers, power source, and storage would be integrated into some systems.