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Smaller and Smaller

Humble beginnings, but these were just the first steps along the road to the portable powerhouses we have today, and it wasn’t long before technological innovations began to arrive that made working on the move more practical.

The development of LCD screens was probably the most important in the evolution of the laptop. Early laptops had plasma, ELT (electro-luminescent) or tiny CRT screens, which drained batteries like a kid drinking a milkshake, and weren't very practical to use away from a power socket as a result.

It wasn’t long before manufacturers began to see the advantage of using low-powered LCD screens in their portable computers. In 1982 Epson started selling its HX-20, a portable computer with a small, 120 x 32 resolution monochrome LCD screen. This was powered by rechargeable NiCD batteries, had a full-sized keyboard and a built-in dot matrix printer. The size of the screen meant it wasn’t that usable, but as larger LCD panels began to appear, so the laptop gradually became more practical, affordable and widespread.

Steven Stengal, proprietor of the online museum www.oldcomputers.net, suggests that only at this point could the laptop truly be said to have arrived: "I don't consider the Osborne to be a laptop - it is merely the first useful system to be entirely self-contained. It has no practical battery supply, and is impossible to be used on your lap. Neither is the GRiD 1101 a laptop – the original GRiD has no batteries … the Epson HX-20 is probably the first laptop - it has everything required: a large keyboard, a screen, built-in batteries. It also has a removeable storage device (tape) and a built-in printer"

Then in 1983, the Kyocera Kyotronic appeared. It was a major milestone and, according to Stengal, "the most used and useful of the early laptops". It was marketed by Tandy in the US as the TRS-80 Model 100 (a version was sold in Europe by Olivetti as the M-10). This machine had a large (for its time) eight line, 40-character-wide LCD screen, featured several basic built-in applications and ran on (Gasp!) AA batteries. It was probably the first truly usable, portable laptop and as a result sold by the bucket load to everyone from businessmen to journalists.

I remember the excitement when my dad, who worked as a journalist for the Evening Standard at the time, brought his first work laptop home – the successor to the Kyotronic, Tandy’s TRS-80 Model 200. It was basic and the battery life from its four AA alkalines was woeful, but its clamshell form factor was the closest to today’s laptop designs yet. Ten years later, when I dug it out of a box in the attic in the mid-Nineties, I was impressed at just how portable and compact it was. And it still worked!

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