From Dynabook to Netbook – History of the Laptop

Todays ultra portable laptops have a come a long way since the bulky, sewing machine sized PCs of the 70s and early eighties. Notebooks have become a market phenomenon and are now more popular than desktop computers, but where did the idea come from to develop a laptop?

This is a difficult question to answer conclusively, however there can be no doubt that the world of laptops is indebted to american technological visionairy Alan Kay. Kay imagined a portable computer which he called the Dynabook which would have wireless network capabilities, excellent color graphics and tremendous computing power.

Alan convinced the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to fund a laboratory to work on his vision. Eventually putting together the best hardware prototype of the Dynabook that he could manage with available technology. The result In 1972 was “the Alto”, which had bitmapped display, mouse and network connectivity and could be considered the prototype for the modern workstation. He also set out to design software to make it all usable.

Choosing school children as his test audience he did a series of evaluations and experiments then followed up by analysing people actually using the system. The result was Smalltalk which was used with the new Xerox Star computer which alas turned out to be a commercial failure.

IBM 5100 computer

Some consider the IBM 5100 to be the first portable computer on the market. The pioneeering 5100 was announced in September 1975 tipped the scales at a beefy 50lbs and was available in 12 models which varied in memory from 16kb to 64kb. Prices for these machines shot up to almost $20,000. This was out of the price range of most home users so the 5100 was withdrawn from shelves in 1982.

Osborne 1

In 1981 Adam Osborne released the Osborne 1. This machine came bundled with its own software and operating system, had a keyboard, two floppy drives and a very small screen, barely 5 inches in width. It weighed half as much as the IBM 5100 at 24.5 pounds and retailed for $1,795.

Gavilan SC computer

In 1983, Gavilan Computer produced a laptop computer caled the Gavilan SC, which ran MS-DOS with 64 kilobytes (expandable to 128 kilobytes) of random access memory (RAM). The Gavilan weighed in at 9 lb (4 kg) alone or 14 lb (6.4 kg) with printer. It had a floppy drive that was not compatible with other computers. At just under $4000, sales were slow and the company failed before the Gavilan SC could take off.

Apple IIc

Then in 1984, Apple Computers gave us the Apple IIc model. The IIc was a notebook sized computer targeted at the home and educational markets, and was very successful for about five years. It was Apple’s first foray into the laptop market and was the predecessor of their ultra successful line of iBooks, Powerbooks and Macbooks.

IBM PC Convertible

In 1986 the IBM PC Convertible was famed for its clamshell design. Data storage was supplied by two 3.5 inch floppy drives as hard drives at this point in time were too large to fit into a battery powered portable machine. The PC Convertible used an 8088 microprocessor running at 4.77 MHz, it had 256 kilobytes of memory, two 3.5-inch floppy drives, liquid crystal display, parallel and serial printer ports and a space for an internal modem. It came with its own applications software, weighed around 12 lbs and sold for under $2,500.

Apple Powerbook

The PowerBook 100 was a laptop manufactured by Apple in 1991 that gained huge market share. Priced at $2,300 in the States. It sported a Motorla 68000 16-megahertz (MHz) processor, 20mb hard drive, 2 to 8 megabytes (MB) of memory, and a 9-inch (23 cm) monochrome backlit LCD screen with 640 × 400 pixel resolution. It did not have a built-in floppy disk drive but did have a trackball pointing device in front of the keyboard for moving the cursor. It weighed only 5.1 pounds

Shortly after this Powerbook series many other brands entered the market, IBM with their hugely popular Thinkpad range and Sony with their high end VAIO line up to name but two.

Since then many companies such as Asus, Dell, MSI and Toshiba have built upon Alan Kay’s original idea and developed laptops and notebooks to a higher level of performance and portability.

Today’s computers are much faster, lighter, and more sophisticated than their older 70s, 80s and 90s siblings. Certainly 21st century machines are closer to Kay’s original Dynabook concept. Indeed, looking back to 1975 we can see that IBM’s 5100 weighed over 50 pounds and cost almost 20 grand.