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Portables Hardware

The Laptop Celebrates Its 40th Year 88

Wired has an interview with Alan Kay on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the idea of the laptop computer. Kay's vision, which he dubbed the "Dynabook," was for a 2-pound, 1-Mpixel color computing device. "... the Dynabook was never built. But it greatly inspired the devices we now call laptops, although it's taken four decades to slim the tech down to the point where usable computers actually weigh as little as two pounds. To honor his achievements, Mountain View's Computer History Museum on Wednesday will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the legendary Dynabook. [Quoting Kay:] 'The Amazon Kindle is kind of a subset of a Dynabook — too much of a subset. The screen is too small, it is not very capable of dynamics, the keyboard is poor, etc. But it does have several limited service ideas that are good. The next version of a Kindle could be really exciting.'"
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The Laptop Celebrates Its 40th Year

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  • Doh, Vapourware (Score:5, Insightful)

    by xsee ( 469209 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @01:25AM (#25622601)

    It was never built?? Not 40 then...

    • Re:Doh, Vapourware (Score:4, Insightful)

      by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @01:39AM (#25622723)
      Yeah. Not to troll here, Xerox PARC came up with lots of neat ideas (the Star [] and all that, but they never actually SOLD anything to speak of. Real laptops (not luggables or lunchboxes) came in around circa 1987, things like the IBM laptop, and the Toshiba T1000 and that crazy black magnesium thing with the plasma display (what was it called? Grid or something). I used to draw crowds with my T1100+ with the 6 Mhz 8088, monochrome 40x80 LCD display and dual 720k floppies - damn near as powerful as any desktop in its day.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by corsec67 ( 627446 )

        1983's TRS-80 Model 100 would like to have a word with you.

      • that crazy black magnesium thing with the plasma display (what was it called? Grid or something).

        GRiDCase (I think that is the capitalization used)

      • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Grid Compass was released in 1982. Its display wasn't a plasma, it was electroluminescent (whatever happened to that tech?).

        • it was electroluminescent (whatever happened to that tech?)

          You still see it, on things like PC case mods, the undersides of cars, and t-shirts. A more practical use is using el wire for things like stair tread lighting - it doesn't emit much light but it does emit enough to mark the edges. Some old HH amps used an EL panel for the backlight on the front panel - the whole front lit up green.

          It was probably too power-hungry for sensible laptop use, although it might be good for large displays.

          You can do so

        • by Molochi ( 555357 )

          I think the GRiD got gas plasma screens around '85-'86.

      • I have a T1000 and a T1000E. They're still really nice. Oh, sure, the actual computer inside sucks, but the general form factor, the awesome keyboard, the amazingly clear and easy-on-the-eyes screen, etc.

        Unfortunately, the E's baby winchester (20MB, baby) suffers rather from stiction, and the floppy drives' rubber drive bands have both perished, which means I can't actually do anything with them. Shame; they'd make nice serial terminals.

    • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @01:57AM (#25622837)
      In the mid-to-late 80s, a "laptop" was the size of a substantial suitcase and weighed ~20 pounds. Examples were the Osborne and Compaq "luggables". Which name I like because it brings forth the proper picture of a big piece of luggage. That was 20 years ago, nowhere near 40.

      The screen was a 5" square, monochrome CRT. The very idea of battery power was nothing but a joke. Clock speed for the newer machines was 7+ MHz. Hard drives (10MB!!) were offered as an option starting around 1990 or so, and added even more to the heft (and the price!). Alternatively you could have one or two 5.25" floppy drives.

      The reality is not as pretty a picture, is it?
      • by cstacy ( 534252 )

        In the mid-to-late 80s, a "laptop" was the size of a substantial suitcase and weighed ~20 pounds. Examples were the Osborne and Compaq "luggables". Which name I like because it brings forth the proper picture of a big piece of luggage. That was 20 years ago, nowhere near 40.

        OK, try more than 30 years ago... The first luggable computer that I used was the IBM 5100 in 1976. It weighed about 50 lbs, and had a screen that was 16x64 (though 16x32 was more readable and all we needed for APL code). The 16-bit CPU emulated an IBM mainframe, and it ran an OS that offered APL or BASIC (selected from another toggle switch). I used it for APL programming. It had 64 KB of memory and a cartridge tape drive. IBM link: [] Someone's

    • I use laptops for work, and I'm still stuck with 1024x768 - lame PC worldview. The only time in the last decade and a half that my organization decided to get better-than-lowest-common-denominator screens was when they decided that 640x480 with 24-bit color was *much* cooler than 800x600 with 8-bit color. My wife just bought herself a new laptop, and it's something like 1024x768 or 1024x800, but that's because she wanted the under 3 pound model with the ~10-inch screen.

      Desktops? My Sun-3 back in the 1980

    • My neverborn child is 13. Do I get to claim a tax credit? I'm still not sure what college it will attend.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      good point by that logic the helicopter is celebrating its 515th year, since da Vinci had an idea and technical drawings for one.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by interploy ( 1387145 )

      Vaporware indeed. How is this even news? The IDEA of a laptop is 40 years old? Do airplanes now date back to the times of da Vinci? Do we now trace automobiles back to the first time some guy got into his horse'n'buggy and said 'Man, I wish this thing could drive itself.'? Should we be celebrating the first time someone wrote about teleporters? Gimme a break. How about we make note of things that actually happened? He may be credited for it, but I doubt the guy in TFA wasn't the only or even the first one t

  • He's definitely old-skool, rocking the "computing" idea of a computer as opposed to the utility, I suppose.

    However, a hacked iPhone or Android Gi sound like a near-perfect computation device that's highly accessible. Just wish I could get a bluetooth keyboard for my iPhone :-)

    And no mention of tablets (or multi-touch, either). I think those will change the way people interact with computers (when the two are put together).

    • Just wish I could get a bluetooth keyboard for my iPhone :-)

      You can't get one--it would compete with the iPhone's touchscreen keyboard and thus is not permissible... :-)

  • 40 years? (Score:4, Funny)

    by narcberry ( 1328009 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @01:34AM (#25622679) Journal

    Sorry folks, the "idea" of a laptop is nowhere near a laptop. Otherwise, break out the cake and candles again, happy birthday flying car!!

    • Here's looking forward to your second centennial!

    • You knew we do love car analogies, didn't you ?
    • My first thought was we should then celebrate the 40 millionth year of Humanity, since by then the basic 'plan' for hominids was well under way.

      I have an idea for using exotic matter farmed from black holes in order to build an Einstein-Rosen bridge. If in 1000 years our descendants manage to build one will that mean it's the 1000th anniversary of the wormhole?

  • by TheModelEskimo ( 968202 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @01:36AM (#25622693) make trial runs at size and weight metrics. I loved reading that part. It makes you wonder...who is doing the equivalent right now? I'll bet somebody over at the DoD is estimating how many nanobots they can cram inside a nostril or something, using a funnel and a salt shaker perhaps.

    Also, if it really was the 40th year, I'd say it was a pretty fantastic year for laptops, with netbooks and the Macbook Air and all those new ideas coming into popularity.
  • Title again (Score:5, Insightful)

    by clarkkent09 ( 1104833 ) * on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @01:40AM (#25622729)
    In other news, Helicopter Celebrates its 500th Year! Bring out the cake, and thanks for giving us the helicopter Leonardo, what would we do without it for the last five centuries!

    This is not the anniversary of the laptop, it's the anniversary of the first known time someone made a drawing of something that roughly looks like a laptop (more like a tablet) on paper.

    Good job with the title yet again slashdot editors.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by JazzLad ( 935151 )

      What do we expect from kdawson?

    • I hereby invent what will be known as the "virtual workstation"

      This is a computer that will exist only in augmented reality. It can take on any form and can be floated or summoned to any point in augmented reality space that you wish. It can be used just like a real laptop or desktop except it doesn't physically exist, so you don't need to lug any objects around, just put on your AR glasses and go. Some may be installed on your AR window device while others will merely be instances of web applications or re

  • I'm not sure, but a Kaypro has to be lighter than my dell widescreen laptop.

  • by dtjohnson ( 102237 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @01:56AM (#25622821)
    The 'idea' of a laptop is not the same as an actual laptop that people can buy and use. The first laptop that people could really buy and use was the TRS-80 Model 100 [] introduced in 1983 which makes the laptop 25 years old.
    • The Osborne I in 1981, was the first portable, arguably a "laptop". However, I remember both the Osborne and the TRS80-100. Neither of which I would have wanted in my lap for more than, oh ..., 10 minutes. I consider the NEC Ultralite, about 1989, to be the first "true" laptop. All the other predecessors were simply portables. Although the TRS80-100 could arguably be called a laptop, due to a slightly better design than the osborne. So, I can't say you're right or wrong. It's really more a bit of how you wa

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Weedlekin ( 836313 )

        "I remember both the Osborne and the TRS80-100. Neither of which I would have wanted in my lap for more than, oh ..., 10 minutes."

        Your comments indicate that you don't remember the TRS-80 model 100 at all, because it was nothing like "luggables" such as the Osborne. Tandy's portable weighed 1.2 Kg and ran for 20 hours on 4 alkaline AA batteries, so it sat just as comfortably on a healthy set of knees as any modern netbook, let alone a laptop.

        • You're half right. It's been so long. I was thinking of the 4p (the luggable). Not the tiny 100 with 8 rows of 40 characters (hardly a laptop, and more of an oversized pim). I had to go out and find a picture. I do remember them, though. But with everything else to remember - I may not recall things precisely always. One of the downsides of typing at 2am, when I should be sleeping.

          • "hardly a laptop, and more of an oversized pim"

            That would be a fair description of the PC-2, but not the 100, which had a CMOS 8085 clocked at 2.3MHz, a full-size QWERTY keyboard, serial and parallel ports, a bar-code reader, a built-in MODEM, and an add-on (which we'd now call a docking station) that gave it the ability to be used with a monitor and twin 5.25" floppy disk drives. It looks pretty feeble hardware-wise when put against even weak modern systems such as smart phones, but the spec. was comparabl

      • You could make a case for the PDP-1. See here []. If you page down a little you'll see it out in a field...

        For real "laptops" the Grid Compass [](but not battery powered) and the DG One [] (which is recognizably modern looking). Great shaving mirror. The 80x25 LCD display was made up of four panels because they couldn't make a single panel large enough...

        I had the pleasure of playing with both of these and many other weird pre-pc clone boxs back in the early 80's (porting UCSD p-system).

        Andy Andy

    • I worked at RS at the time of the model 100 and nothing else I can remember was closer to the weight and general dimensions of a modern laptop as the model 100. There were definitely more powerful "portables" at the time that were arguably more *functionally* equivalent to a modern laptop; but they existed in a weight/form-factor that doesn't have a counterpart today.
  • Utter Crud. In 1968 the Jetsons had laptops (back of cereal boxes) and that is about as close to it as it got. Maybe Kay was watching TV at the time.....

  • by HW_Hack ( 1031622 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @02:27AM (#25623007)

    Many laptops are so depressed at reaching 40yrs old the are setting themselves on fire! Its so sad and unnecessary.

    Talk to your laptop today

  • You little whipper snappers have it easy.

    When I was a little boy.......and dinosaurs roamed the earth....laptops were made of stone. We called them abacuses back then...and it was so heavy you had to train for months before you could put one on your lap...then they got weak and started coming up with lap reinforcing tables....Luxury!!!


  • 40th anniversary? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @02:33AM (#25623043) Homepage

    The movie "2001" had "laptops" that seemed to work. But they were actually built into the tables they sat on and had film projected onto their screens from the rear. And the original Star Trek had a portable slate-like device.

    Kay described the Dynabook in the classic PARC publication "Personal Dynamic Media", which was around 1972-1973. There's a picture of a woman stretched out on the grass typing on a laptop-like device. It's a cardboard mockup, but the form factor was about that of a heavy laptop of the late 1990s. Kay called the Xerox Alto the "Interim Dynabook"; it did what the Dynabook was supposed to do, but took about 12U of rack space and a big CRT to do it.

    This makes me feel very old. I got a tour of PARC in 1975, met Kay, and saw the first Alto (they were making their own CRTs and were having trouble getting a uniform phosphor coating on the tube), the first networked laser printer, the first Ethernet (described as "an Alohanet with a captive ether"), and the first Smalltalk. It's interesting what Kay thought computers were going to be for. He though that graphical discrite-event simulation was going to be a big deal. He had a demo of a hospital simulation, where patients entered, went through Admitting, Waiting Room, Treatment, Ward, Cashier, Discharge, etc., and you could click on the patient icons (I remember "I a victim of Bowlerthumb") as a message.

    None of us thought that the uses of computers would become so banal.

    • There's an "Al Gore inventing the internet" joke in there somewhere....
    • by rbanffy ( 584143 )

      "The movie "2001" had "laptops" that seemed to work."

      Don't remember those. In what scene(s) did they appear? I remember tablets that played TV images (during the "TV dinner" scene) but were no data displays.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I think Alan's 1972 paper, "A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages", is still very interesting today:

      To be fair, he did mention that there were likely to be ads and that one of the first applications that users would write would probably be something to block them! That is about as banal as you can get.

      Everyone else seems to be missing the point, here. Of course there were similar discriptions of the laptop idea in both fiction and scientific speculation. What

  • I remember (Score:5, Interesting)

    by myth_of_sisyphus ( 818378 ) on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @02:37AM (#25623063)

    My uncle, a crackerjack computer salesman in Silicon Valley, with his suit, slicked-back hair, big tie and a piece of luggage under his arm showing us 'the future'. It was an Osborne I think. We looked on in awe as he removed the keyboard and we saw the 3 inch monochrome screen. He typed in a couple things and text scrolled by. My uncle was a GOD AMONG MEN. He told us how businesses would one day equip every employee with one of these to do spreadsheets and such while on the road.

    My mom said "who wants to bring spreadsheets with them?" (She still carried big boxes of punch-cards home sometimes and would give me a few extras to play with. Not from the box though--she made it clear that I couldn't mess with those at all or the whole thing would be ruined.)

    My uncle went on to build a small company that supplied parts to manufacturers in the Valley. Until people figured out that you could make them cheaper in Asia. Or just order a shipping container full of parts.

    Nowadays he specializes in obsolete programming for some company. It seems all his business plans were rooted in early 80s tech. At least he found a niche.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Actually I think I misremembered the punch cards. The punch cards gave way to big binders with bluish lined paper with scrollwheel holes on either side. These binders were huge.

      My mom worked for a company called California Microwave. When my teachers and other parents asked where my mom worked I would say proudly "California Microwave!" Microwaves weren't ubiquitous back then so people would say "Oh I really want to get one of those." And I would look at them strangely "You want to get a guidance system for

    • by mks113 ( 208282 )

      The head lab instructor in the EE labs at University was know to be a little "off". Having worked with him a bit, I think people were being very generous.

      I've heard since that he was a relatively normal person, doing a masters degree in Electrical Engineering. One spring his thesis project (a large box of punch cards) was destroyed when his mother's basement was flooded.

      He's still single, living with his mother -- 20 years after I left university.

  • My laptop history:

    1) At the age of 11, fervently desiring a WinBook that was shown in all those awesome computer ads in PC Magazine. It had interchangeable CD-drive bays and a floppy drive built in (very, very important). I continued to be frustrated with my parents' 486-33 instead.

    2) Graduating high school, received gift of IBM ThinkPad R31 - PIII 1.13GHz. Lasted 6 years, then power supply died last year. It was a workhorse.

    3) Hand-me-down 17" 9-pound Dell Centrino 1.4 GHz with 2GB RAM. It was a c
  • by Genda ( 560240 ) <> on Tuesday November 04, 2008 @03:45AM (#25623323) Journal

    The first laptop I ever remember was a cute little portable computer made by Epson America in the early 80s called the HX-20.

    It had a four line LCD display, a full keyboard, it ran a tiny basic, and supported a microcasette data drive and micro printer as plug-in expansions. There were also tools for simple word processing, games, and assembly language programming. It could use it's LCD for surprisingly interesting graphics, and it had external ports for centronics parallel and RS-232 serial interfaces.

    It's claim to fame, was that it was the machine used by Cal Tech students to hijack the score board at the Rose Bowl one year. An act that went down in Cal Tech mischief infamy for all time.

    There may have been earlier laptop computers around, but I don't remember any...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The First Laptop computer was the GRiD Compass ( 1982), Mt. View, CA.

  • So we're trying to pin down the creation of the laptop on some guy's doodles from the 60s. He didn't even get to 'officially' propose the idea to Xerox until the 70s, and even then it wasn't reasonably possible with the available technology. There's a reason why the first 'real' laptops didn't appear until the 80s. Come on, surely having a computer that's small enough to carry around yet still contains all the functionality of a full sized computer is far from a unique idea. It's just a vision for the futur
  • Alan designed SmallTalk to run on the Dynabook and other PARC computers. It was the second Object Oriented language after the Norwegian Simula. In some sense SmallTalk is still ahead of current OO languages which mostly descend from UNIX-C (C++, Java, C#, Objective-C, Motif, Groovy, Ruby, etc) [OK there are better boutique alternatives like Eiffel]. What we call the operating system, then a subset called the machine environment, was implemented in SmallTalk, so you have uniform UI and programming behavior f

Perfection is acheived only on the point of collapse. - C. N. Parkinson