Yes, there was actually a predecessor to Windows 3.1. Several, in fact. The first of these was Windows 1.01, which was an actual project, not some myth. In fact, it was quite a large project for its time - it took 55 programmer years to complete. Released in 1985, Windows 1.01 retailed for $99, and was barely usable, which should hardly come as a surprise.
Unlike the bloated Microsoft monstrosities of today, which can run terribly even on relatively new hardware, Windows 1.x asked for relatively little; MS-DOS 2.0, at least 256k of memory, a graphics adapter card, and either two double-sided disk drives or a hard drive. (Remember those days when you had to choose?) Graphically, Windows 1.x was extremely primitive, and betrayed its status as an Operating Environment over DOS far more clearly than Windows 3.x, or Windows 95 for that matter. Windows could only be tiled and couldn't overlap. There were resize controls in the upper right corner, and sometimes in the lower right corner as well. The upper left control was the system box, a control that actually remains to this day.
All Windows sessions started out in MS-DOS Executive, the predecessor to File Manager (or Windows Explorer). The Executive bared a striking resemblance to the DOS Shell program - text only, incapable of icons, no drag-and-drop, and so forth. Windows 1 was capable of Multitasking, and had what could be considered a primitive taskbar at the bottom of the screen. That area was reserved for minimized program icons, which could not be moved around, nor could they be overlapped by an application unless that program was running in "zoomed" mode, meaning full screen mode.
There was a clipboard, and had a very evolved ability to share data between applications for its time. For example, you could copy text from Notepad and paste it into MS Paint as text. However, the programs themselves were often very limited - Notepad had a buffer limit of 16 kilobytes, and MS Paint was capable only of monochrome graphics.
Later versions of Windows 1.x included Windows 1.03 and Windows 1.04. These mostly included support for later versions of DOS, improved font variety, downloadable fonts, and enhanced support for some mice, keyboards and printers. Also assisting in this effort was the Windows Device Driver Library, which provided further support for monitors, printers, and mice.
In short, this half-baked little Operating Environment is of amusing historical value today, but had little practical value in its day. It served mainly as an evolutionary step to the later versions of Windows, namely Windows 3.1, which put Microsoft and Windows on the map.
http://toastytech.com/guis/win101.html (Screenshots available here!!)
http://www.win-dos.com/scrsh_win103.htm (Screenshots available here!!)
http://www.powerload.fsnet.co.uk/Timeline/win1.htm (Screenshots available here!!)
Phraggle: I had suspected as such. I think the thing to remember here is that, while it did take rather advanced hardware for its time, that need was justified. These days, with newer Microsoft Operating Systems, that is rarely the case.