On the history of laptops

How and why did we move away from desktop computers towards laptops? Although this next question isn’t the focus of today’s links, it is worth asking in this context: has the tendency to miniaturize accelerated over time? Mainframes to desktops, desktops to laptops, and then netbooks, phones, tablets to wearables – and maybe, in the near future, implants?

(Note to self: it might be worth thinking through how attention spans have also been miniaturized over the same period, and the cultural causes and effects of this phenomenon.)

But for us to be able to answer these questions, we first need to lay the groundwork in terms of understanding how we moved away from mainframes to laptops.

The first portable computer was the IBM 5100, released in September 1975. It weighed 55-pounds, which was much lighter and more portable than any other computer to date. While not truly a laptop by today’s standards, it paved the way for the development of truly portable computers, i.e. laptops.

The first laptop weighed near enough 25 kilograms. Insert large-eyed emoji here.

Though the Compass wasn’t the first portable computer, it was the first one with the familiar design we see everywhere now. You might call it the first modern laptop.

The Compass looked quite different than the laptops of 2016 though. It was wildly chunky, heavy and expensive at $8,150. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over $20,000 by today’s standards. It also extended far outward behind the display to help with heating issues and to house the computing components.

As with this series that we run on Tuesdays, as much for the photographs as for the text.

The portable micro computer the “Portal” of the French company R2E Micral CCMC officially appeared in September 1980 at the Sicob show in Paris. The Portal was a portable microcomputer designed and marketed by the studies and developments department of the French firm R2E Micral in 1980 at the request of the company CCMC specializing in payroll and accounting. It was based on an Intel 8085 processor, 8-bit, clocked at 2 MHz. It was equipped with a central 64K byte RAM, a keyboard with 58 alphanumeric keys and 11 numeric keys (in separate blocks), a 32-character screen, a floppy disk (capacity – 140,000 characters), a thermal printer (speed – 28 characters/second), an asynchronous channel, a synchronous channel, and a 220-volt power supply. Designed for an operating temperature of 15–35 °C, it weighed 12 kg and its dimensions were 45 × 45 × 15 cm. It ran the Prologue operating system and provided total mobility.

The Wikipedia article on the history of laptops is full of interesting snippets, including the excerpt above. In fact, interesting enough to open up a related article about the history of the Intel 80386, from which the excerpt below:

Early in production, Intel discovered a marginal circuit that could cause a system to return incorrect results from 32-bit multiply operations. Not all of the processors already manufactured were affected, so Intel tested its inventory. Processors that were found to be bug-free were marked with a double sigma (ΣΣ), and affected processors were marked “16 BIT S/W ONLY”. These latter processors were sold as good parts, since at the time 32-bit capability was not relevant for most users. Such chips are now extremely rare and became collectible.

Every now and then, there are entirely unexpected, but immensely joyful payoffs to the task of putting together these set of links. I started off reading about the evolution of laptops, and wanted to post a link about the development of LCD screens, without which laptops simply wouldn’t be laptops. And I ended up reading about, I kid you not, carrots.

Yes, carrots.

Liquid crystals were accidentally discovered in 1888 by Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer while he studied cholesteryl benzoate of carrots. Reinitzer observed that when he heated cholesteryl benzoate it had two melting points. Initially, at 294°F (145°C), it melted and turned into a cloudy fluid. When it reached 353°F (179°C), it changed again, but this time into a clear liquid. He also observed two other characteristics of the substance; it reflected polarized light and could also rotate the polarization direction of light.

Surprised by his findings, Reinitzer sought help from German physicist Otto Lehmann. When Lehmann studied the cloudy fluid under a microscope, he saw crystallites. He noted that the cloudy phase flowed like a liquid, but that there were other characteristics, such as a rod-like molecular structure that was somewhat ordered, that convinced Lehmann that the substance was a solid. Lehmann continued to study cholesteryl benzoate and other related materials. He concluded the cloudy fluid represented a newly discovered phase of matter and called it liquid crystal.