Robin Miller for Slashdot: Today we have with us Evan Koblentz. Am I pronouncing that wrong?
Evan: No, you got it right.
Slashdot: I got it right. He has recently released a book called Abacus to Smartphone: The Evolution of Mobile and Portable Commuting. Did you know that around World War II when people talked about a portable computer that meant they could maybe jam it in a semi and drive it across the country? But wait, way before that, there was the abacus -- which is this big (hand motions) and works fine with no electricity. So Evan, how did we get stuck with these electrical computers?
Evan: That's a good question. You kind of caught me off guard right from the start. I'd say mainly because of the war. So there were plenty of computers in the 1930s, 1940s--there were not plenty--plenty for the time, half a dozen maybe in the world, and they were electromechanical with relays and solenoids.
Evan: As opposed to circuits and chips. So it was during World War II that people started working on fully electronic computers. And the military have a long tradition of moving things around to wherever they need them. That was a novel idea of computing, but it wasn't a novel idea for communications and warfare. So those two ideas started to come together; now during World War II itself already the only time you moved a computer was when you're delivering it somewhere. Konrad Zuse had his electromechanical computer and he escaped bombardment in Germany by putting his computer in the back of a truck and tricking the guards into thinking it was military equipment.
Slashdot: Wasn’t it?
Evan: No, he didn’t want it. He was as much of a nerd as you and me. He happened to be in a wrong place but at the right time. But it wasn't until after the war, until the 1950s that they started designing computers to actually be mobile from the start as opposed to putting in them in a truck as the afterthought just to move them.
Slashdot: And you’re talking about being mobile from the start, you mean like two big suitcases one in each hand, that breaks your back like, oh I don't know... Osborne?
Evan: Well, no, I don't mean that. And here's what they A lot of people just associate mobility or portability with small size but I disagree, to me mobility and portability don't mean size it means the ease with which you can move it. Actually, I take it back, it means whether or not the device primarily is intended to be moved around versus used in one place. So for example Apple 2C 1986 has a handle on the back. It has a nice little folding handle. But it's not a portable computer because it is designed to be used on your desk with a separate monitor and separate.. you know separate things, plug in and use in one place. So you have computers from the ‘80s that even they have a handle on them but are not inherently mobile because they're designed to use at one place not take it around. On the other extreme, you have computers in the middle of the 1950s that okay they're the 18 wheeler (haha) but it's not as if they were designed first as mainframes and later on someone said, hey let's shove it in a truck and move it around. They were designed from the get go for that purpose. Between the part where I talk about mainframes in 1950s and Osbornes in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s there were various companies making suitcase sized analog computers.
Evan: Okay, people said Oh, where did Osborne get the idea from, a lot of people had that idea for a suitcase computer. Now by the way there were five or six examples of real computers in the ‘70s that Adam Osborne himself stole the idea from. And I talk about that too, but anyway in the early ‘60s John Mauchly the man behind ENIAC, the biggest computer of all time.
Evan: He built a suitcase size analog computer, in the late ‘50s or early 60's. And he was showing it to a reporter for Time Magazine and I guess at one point the reporter said ‘Well what's next, where is this all going?’ And John Mauchly said, “Well in 25, 30 years, (the 80s) by now we will all have computers in our pockets.”
Now he was right of course, but the reporter took that to mean that he was actually working on such a machine (I quoted it verbatim a Time Magazine article from 1961 or whatever) and so the reporter says Mr. Mauchly is working on this pocket monster and the reporter goes on at length of about how a woman would take this thing to a grocery store and plug it into a socket and her order would get uploaded, her food would automatically pop out and go into her basket and the reporter wrote that she would “take home the electronic bacon.” And it's horribly chauvinistic and hysterical! Because nobody was working on this in 1960. The reporter was either very gullible or I don't know, just ignorant. But it's a great story and I was able to reproduce that in the book.