Portable Computers Explained: A Complete History

Portable computers represent an important milestone in making computing accessible to more people by allowing users to easily transport their machine. The earliest portable prototypes in the 1970s from Xerox and IBM laid the groundwork. But it was the 1981 Osborne 1 that ushered in the first commercially successful portable model, weighing 24 pounds and bundled with software.

While bulky by today‘s standards, these early "luggable" computers gave users unprecedented flexibility compared to being chained to a desktop. Let‘s explore the history and inner workings of these revolutionary devices.

SCAMP and NoteTaker: 1970s Portable Computer Prototypes

In the early 1970s, researchers were hard at work trying to make computers smaller and more transportable. While minicomputers and even microcomputers existed, they were still generally anchored to one place.

In 1973, IBM‘s Palo Alto Scientific Center built a prototype portable computer called SCAMP (Special Computer APL Machine Portable) based on the IBM PALM processor. It included a small CRT display, cassette tape drive, and full keyboard with the ability to run IBM‘s APL programming language to solve complex problems.

SCAMP was inspired by an even earlier prototype from Xerox PARC in 1976 called the NoteTaker. The NoteTaker was created by computing pioneer Alan Kay and could run SmallTalk and BASIC. Unfortunately, neither device made it to full commercial production. But they directly inspired the first true portable.

Osborne 1: The World‘s First Portable Computer (1981)

The Osborne 1, developed by journalist-turned-entrepreneur Adam Osborne, built on these ideas to create the first commercially successful portable model in 1981. Priced at $1795, it was remarkably affordable for the time.

The specs were modest – a Z80 4MHz CPU, 64KB of RAM, and a 5" screen. But that got you a complete system with the CP/M 2.2 OS preloaded, as well as $1500 of bundled software like WordStar and SuperCalc. For mobility-minded users, it was revolutionary.

Weighing 24 pounds, the large suitcase-sized machine was certainly portable compared to any previous computer system. Special carrier bags helped users move the Osborne 1, allowing people to easily take their computer to a hotel room or office. While far from lightweight, this level of mobility and flexibility marked a major shift.

1981 magazine ad for the innovative Osborne 1 portable computer (Credit: DigiBarn)

The Osborne 1 sold over 10,000 units in its first year, making it a smash success. Unfortunately, the company declared bankruptcy just two years later due to inventory issues and the IBM PC‘s debut. But their pioneering early portable changed expectations of what a computer could do.

IBM 5100: A 1975 Suitcase-Sized Portable

While the Osborne 1 grabbed headlines in 1981 and raced to market thanks to being built from off-the-shelf components, IBM had quietly released another important early portable system six years earlier that‘s worth noting.

In 1975, IBM unveiled the IBM 5100 Portable Computer, which they touted as putting "computer power at your fingertips." Shaped like a large suitcase, it weighed 55 pounds, making it lighter than many desktops of its era.

The 5100 stood out for its technical sophistication, using an innovative 16-bit microcode CPU that executed an emulator allowing it to run APL and BASIC virtual machines. It included up to 64KB of RAM, a tape drive, and 5" display packed into a sturdy metal frame.

Priced from $9,000-$20,000 depending on options, the 5100 sold predominantly to engineers, analysts, and scientists who appreciated its robustness and programming capabilities. Most importantly, it provided true mobility – a snapshot of things to come.

IBM‘s 1975 5100 system offered portability in a suitcase-sized metal frame (Credit: OldComputers.net)

How Portable Computers Worked

These early portables utilized many standard desktop components like motherboards, CPUs, RAM, keyboards, and displays. This made them cheaper and easier to produce than custom designs. But it resulted in larger, heavier systems versus modern laptops designed meticulously around purpose-built optimized parts.

Still, they represented a major milestone in allowing computing on the go, a dream since the earliest days of massive mainframes. Their strengths versus desktop machines were clear:

Portability: Able to easily transport between locations like an office, hotel room, or client site

Flexibility: Use it anywhere, not chained to a single desk. Enjoy a greater sense of immediacy.

Lower Cost: Less expensive than most desktops while still moderately powerful

Space Savings: Smaller overall footprint and storage when not in use

For road warriors who needed computing power outside the office, early portables like the Osborne 1 delivered. Their arrival marked a paradigm shift toward mobile computing.

The Evolution of Modern Laptops

Portable computers rapidly evolved thanks to the meteoric pace of microchip innovation throughout the 1980s and 90s. Each year engineers could cram more power into smaller packages, birthing new generations of luggables.

1983‘s Compaq Portable with its suitcase form was a smash hit, cementing portables as a hot product category. Screen sizes gradually grew as bulky CRTs got replaced by sleeker LCD displays. Weight dropped from 20+ pounds to the 10-15 pound range for popular models like 1989‘s Macintosh Portable as components slimmed down. Hard drives supplanted tapes and floppies for storage.

The term "laptop" entered the lexicon by the late 80s to describe systems you could actually use on your lap without crushing certain anatomy! By the 90s, portables bearing strong resemblance to today‘s notebooks hit the mainstream with clamshell designs and better battery life.

The rest is history – exponential technological progress produced the sub-3 pound ultraportables and 2-in-1 tablets we enjoy today. But it was those pioneering early portables that got the ball rolling down the path to accessibility and mobility in computing we now take for granted.

Historical Significance

It‘s easy to dismiss early portable computers in the age of MacBook Airs. But these systems hold an underappreciated yet critically important place in the history of personal computing.

For the first time, average people could realistically afford a system they could easily pick up and walk away with. Early portables democratized access in a profound way – freedom to compute wherever your travels take you, no office or den tether required. It may seem trivial in today‘s world of ubiquitous mobile devices. But this mobility represented a radically new computing experience.

Just as the expanse of the railroads brought big changes economically and culturally in the 19th century, the explosion of portable computing unlocked new ideas and efficiencies. Lawyers could create contracts on flights to meet clients. Salesmen could tally orders remotely. Academics could crunch data lakeside. The flexibility drove productivity increases across industries.

And the ripple effects in making computing achievable for more budgets and lifestyles can‘t be overstated. Affordable systems you could take anywhere inspired new enthusiasm for personal technology in both work and leisure spheres. They spurred massive software growth to feed portable hunger. It‘s no coincidence the 80s and 90s saw an explosion of consumer computing alongside portable uptake.

Early portables bridged these worlds – blending power and peripherals of desktops with go-anywhere sizes reasonable for price-sensitive buyers. They laid vital groundwork for further innovation that changed how we work and live.

Frequently Asked Questions

For those still hungry to know more about the dawn of portable computing, here are answers to some common questions:

What was the first portable computer?

Most consider the Osborne 1, released in 1981, to be the first commercially successful portable system. Weighing 24 pounds, it boasted a 5” screen, modem, and ran the CP/M OS – remarkably powerful specs for on-the-go use at the time.

How portable were early portable computers?

The first portables were designed for transportability using mostly off-the-shelf desktop components, so were large and heavy by modern standards. The Osborne 1 weighed 24 pounds. Compaq‘s 1983 system was 28 pounds. But they were a huge leap forward in mobility from previous computers.

What made portables different from desktops?

Early portables offered advantages in mobility, flexibility, lower cost and footprint versus most desktops. You could transport them and use them anywhere, instead of being physically tethered. But this generally meant a bit less computing power in exchange.

How did portable design evolve?

Portables slimmed down rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s thanks to advances in displays from CRT to LCD, smaller storage like 3.5" hard drives, better batteries, and new industrial designs prioritizing lightness. The term "laptop" emerged by the late 80s as they became easier to use on your actual lap!

So while a decade‘s progress now gets us a thinner iPhone, back then it slashed portable dimensions radically. If the Osborne 1 was a small suitcase in 1981, by 1999 people marveled at sub-3 pound notebook systems. The rest is history.

I hope this guide has enhanced your appreciation of early portable computing. It‘s easy to take mobility for granted in today‘s always-on world. But the luggables of the 1980s set this revolution in motion. Next time you see someone computing at the park or in flight, think fondly back to the Osborne 1!

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