40 years of the laptop: how mobile PCs changed the world | Computing

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Main image: The IBM ThinkPad 700 series first appeared in 1992

If you own a PC there’s a very good chance it’s a lightweight and portable , rather than a big and bulky desktop. Those rectangular boxes that are tethered to your desk have been declining in popularity, with laptops now far outstripping them when it comes to sales.

Thanks to an almost constant stream of innovations, the humble laptop has become slimmer and lighter than ever before, while the hardware inside them has become ever-more powerful, while batteries are lasting longer.

Creating a powerful and portable computer is no mean feat, and here we look back at some of the pivotal moments in the history of laptop development, and examine how early machines influenced the laptops of today.

1981: Osborne 1, the ’s first truly computer

Photo of Osborne 1

(Image: © CC BY 3.0)

Many people consider the Osborne 1 to be the granddaddy of laptops. Released by Osborne Computer in 1981, the Osborne 1 had a five-inch screen, two floppy drives, a modem, battery pack and a keyboard that was built into the lid.

Although it was big and bulky (it weighed 11kg, which is just over the combined weight of five MacBook Pros), this early computer still has some recognizable laptop features. Sadly, it wasn’t a hit, but it showed the potential of a portable personal computer – for the first time, people were able to carry their computer with them and work on them when traveling.

At the time of its release it cost $1,795, which would be around $5,000 (£4,000, AU$7,000) in today’s money.

1983: Grid Compass 1101, the first clamshell laptop

Photo of Grid Compass 1101

Image credit: Russian Vintage Laptop Museum

(Image: © Russian Vintage Laptop Museum)

The first portable laptop that really looked like a laptop was the Grid Compass 1101, which was released in 1983. It featured the clamshell design, with the screen able to be folded up against the keyboard when closed. This remarkable innovation meant that the Grid Compass 1101 could be more easily carried around, while the screen and keyboard were kept protected.

It was such a successful and influential design that it’s endured to this day, and while the Grid Compass 1101 itself wasn’t a huge success due to its high price of around $10,000 (around $25,000 / £20,000 / AU$35,000 in today’s money), the patents on many of its innovations earned GRID Systems Corp a lot of money.

1989: Compaq LTE and Compaq LTE 286, the first notebook

Photo of Compaq LTE

Image credit: Source Centre for Computing History 

(Image: © Centre for Computing History )

Up until this point, early laptops were sometimes referred to as ‘luggables’, due to the fact that while they were more portable than a regular PC, they were still large and bulky, and not easily carried.

However, in 1989 the Compaq LTE and LTE 286 were released, and they’re generally regarded as the first notebook PCs, as they were around the size of a paper notebook. These smaller laptops were easier to carry around, making them more popular with people who travelled a lot.

They were also two of the first laptops to include a built-in hard drive and floppy disk drive, making them even more versatile. The hard drive in the Compaq LTE offered 20MB of storage space, which was doubled for the Compaq LTE 286.

1989: Macintosh Portable, the first Apple laptop

Photo of Macintosh Portable

Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

(Image: © CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

1989 also saw Apple release its first laptop device, and while it wasn’t as small or as easy to carry as the Compaq LTE (it was still considered a ‘luggable’ device), it offered very good battery life and decent screen – something modern MacBooks are still renowned for.

Due to its size and weight it wasn’t a popular device, but it did spur on competitors to release Mac-compatible laptops that were more portable – these days it’s strange to think of any other company other than Apple building Mac hardware.

1991: Apple PowerBook 100 series: a revolutionary early laptop

Photo of Apple PowerBook 100

Image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0

(Image: © CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1991, Apple released a series of PowerBook laptops – the PowerBook 100, PowerBook 140 and PowerBook 170 – which were far more successful than the company’s previous attempts at creating a portable PC, and they ushered in a number of revolutionary features that have become staples of modern laptop design.

For example, the keyboard was positioned towards the back of the bottom half of the laptop, providing room at the front for palm rests and a trackball. Up until that point most laptops had the keyboard positioned at the front, with the space at the back for function key reference cards and instructions.

The included trackpad was also noteworthy, as it provided a convenient way of controlling a pointing device. With operating systems moving away from text-only command line interfaces to graphical user interfaces, these pointing devices would become pivotal.

The Apple PowerBook series was immensely popular, and over the the PowerBook line brought in more innovative features that we now take for granted in laptops. In 1994, the PowerBook 500 series was the first laptop to include a true touchpad, and the first to include a built-in Ethernet network adapter.

1992: IBM ThinkPad 700 – a powerful and iconic laptop

Photo of IBM ThinkPad 700

In 1992 IBM released its first ThinkPad laptops, the 700, 700c and 700t, and these, along with the Apple PowerBook 100 series, can be considered some of the first modern laptops, helping to shape the laptop landscape for the next 25 years. 

The ThinkPad came with a red TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard, which was used to control the pointer, and the iconic feature is still found in modern ThinkPads.

The ThinkPad 700 also really showcased what a laptop device could be capable of. It had a full-color 10.4-inch display, which was larger than any laptop screen that had come before, a 120MB hard drive and a powerful IBM 486 SLC processor.

The design of the ThinkPad was both stylish and functional, and it won a host of design awards. IBM was keen to highlight how well built the ThinkPad was in a series of promotional events, with, for example, the laptops being used by archaeologists in Egypt. The ThinkPad 750c was taken into space by NASA, proving just how capable these modern laptops were.

With innovative features and design choices used to overcome the technological issues of the time, these early laptops paved the way for the modern machines we now use daily, and it’s these early pioneers we have to thank for making laptops the brilliantly versatile devices we have in our homes, schools and workplaces.

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