Early Years

So what was the first laptop – the first truly portable computer? If we’re going to get fussy about definitions, the abacus was probably the first truly portable computing device. Come to think of it, the first time man counted rocks using his fingers was probably the real breakthrough moment, millions of years ago.

But I’m getting ahead of myself (or should that be behind myself?) – I don’t have the space to relate the entire history of man, mathematics and computing, so let’s get back to more familiar ground…

The inspiration for the first laptops as we know them today is said to have come from imagination of Alan Kay, a researcher at the now famous Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the 1970s. His vision of mobile computing – the Dynabook – saw the laptop as an educational tool aimed at children. It was the orginal $100 laptop, a tool that everyone could buy and use. Alas the technology around at the time wasn’t good enough to build his dream, and Xerox wasn’t prepared to commit funds to its development.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that commercial designs for the first portable computers began to be sold, and even then they were a long way from Alan Kay's original idea.

I remember quite clearly a joke my dad told me about a bloke who buys a TV-watch from another bloke on the street. This watch can do everything – tell the time in every country in the world, receive hundreds of TV channels, and remind you when your wife’s birthday is – everything except, perhaps, cook the dinner. He only realises once he tries to walk away that there’s one big problem – it’s powered by a suitcase full of batteries.


The Osborne 1 is widely regarded as the first commercial portable computer.


It seems laughable now, but that bizarre image wasn’t far from the truth, at least if you wanted to be on the bleeding edge of portable computing technology back at the beginning of the 1980s. In an age where everything was big, bold and brash, the laptops were too. And the daddy of them all, at least as far as most computer historians are concerned, was the Osborne 1.

It was the size of suitcase and weighed as much as a one year old child (a whopping 12kg). It had a tiny monochrome CRT screen a fold down keyboard that doubled as the machine’s lid, two 5.25in floppy drives, ran on the CP/M operating system, and even had an optional battery pack – though I dread to think how much this weighed.


The GRiD Compass 1101 predated the Osborne 1, but it was hardly a consumer product.


Of course the Osborne 1 wasn’t truly the first portable computer – that award can go to Bill Moggridge’s earlier GRiD Compass 1101. This was the first portable with a clamshell design – a plasma screen was built into the lid – it was designed and built in 1979 and popular with the military and NASA. But the Osborne was the first commercially successful portable and it sparked a whole army of clones.

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