The early, awkward days of "portable" computing

You kids today are spoiled by your modern-day razor-thin ultrabooks. Come take a look portable technology that required some muscle.

big huge phone
Sure, it's a bit unwieldy

In the first iteration of any technology, it's amazing that you can do it. When the first Motorola mobile phone hit the market, it seemed miraculous to make phone calls unconnceted to the grid; only later did it become clear how unwieldy that first phone was.

The same is true for PCs. Early "portable" computers would make you laugh, because of their size (large), price tag (high), capabilities (poor), or some combination of the three. But as you take this tour through the history of mobile computing, we urge you to remember the day when it was amazing that you could lug these things around at all.

See also: 20 historic tech sounds you may have forgotten

DYSEAC, 1954

What makes a computer "portable"? Well, at minimum, you have to be able to move it from place to place. By that standard, just about any computer made today is more portable than the earliest computers of the 1940s and 1950s, built from hundreds of vacuum tubes installed into row after row of cabinets and taking up entire rooms. In this sense, DYSEAC, built by the National Bureau of Standards for the US Army Signal Corps, was a real breakthrough: it could be easily fit into a tractor trailer and driven from place to place.

ibm 5100
IBM 5100, 1975

Decades later, IBM looked to make a similar leap down in size from the half-ton behemoths it sold. With the IBM 5100, Big Blue was able to compress a lot of power into a package that, at 55 pounds, was relatively tiny: amazingly, the computer was able to emulate a version of the APL programming language that would run on an S/360 mainframe. Reasoning that anyone who would be opting for the 5100 over a real mainframe would put portability at a premium, IBM emphasized the suitcase-sized unit's luggability and built a keyboard and tiny monitor directly into the all-in-one machine. Fully tricked out, the 5100 cost $19,975 -- the equivalent of more than $85,000 today.

portable osborne
Osborne 1, 1981

Six years later, Osborne Computer introduced the Osborne 1, with a similar look and footprint but a much less cutting edge level of technology. Company founder Adam Osborne himself said that "It is not the fastest microcomputer, it doesn't have huge amounts of disk storage space, and it is not especially expandable." But it used the mass-market CP/M operating system, and it was cheap ($1,795, the equivalent of $4,500 today), and, at 22 pounds, relatively easy to fit into a suitcase for lugging to wherever you might need a computer. Osborne published a magazine specifically for users, The Portable Companion, and the first issue featured an amazing picture of journalist David Kline with Afghan mujahideen admiring his Osborne 1.

space grid
Credit: NASA
GRiD Compass, 1982

The GRiD Compass was an Osborne contemporary; it was smaller -- at a scant 11 pounds, it's almost getting to the same order of magnitude of modern-day laptops. It also used a unique operating system and rugged but slow bubble memory, and cost $8,150 (more than $19,000 today). The combination of its tough construction and high price tag meant that its chief customer was the U.S. federal government: the Compass went into orbit on the Space Shuttle, and was rumored to be part of the presidential "nuclear football," which stored launch codes.

compaq portable
Compaq Portable, 1982

The Compaq Portable was roughly the same size (28 pounds) and form factor as the Osborne: barely portable, in other words, despite the name, though it did come with a nifty suitcase. What made it really special wasn't related to its portability: it was the first ever IBM clone of any sort, with reverse engineered BIOS and Microsoft's MS-DOS, making it the ancestor of every Windows laptop ever made. Its luggable design was an added bonus; it was popular enough that IBM had to answer with its own portable version, the IBM 5155 model 68.

epson hx 20
Epson HX-20, 1983

Having read about what passed for portable computing in the early 1980s, you can now understand how shocking and revolutionary the Epson HX-20 was. At three and half pounds, its lighter than a modern-day 15-inch MacBook Pro, and at $795 (the equivalent of $1,800 today), it's cheaper, too.

What was the catch? While the other luggables we've seen had monochrome monitors on the order of 8 or 9 inches, the HX-20 sported a tiny LCD that could only show four lines of text, 20 characters wide. There was also very little software available for its proprietary OS, and the machine was distinctly underpowered.

mac lugging
Classic Mac form factor, 1984

Even as this spate of what we'd now recognize as the ancestors of modern notebook computers was being released, the idea of just what might make a computer count as "portable" was still in flux. For instance, nobody would've mistaken the original Macintosh for a laptop, with its near-cubical form factor -- but at 16.5 pounds, it was lighter than many computers specifically billed as portable. The case came with a built-in handle on top so you could carry it around your house or office, and, as this page from the original owner's manual demonstrates, custom-made carrying satchels were available.

mac portable hideous
Macintosh Portable, 1989/PowerBook 100, 1991

Five years later, Apple's first portable Mac looked like the early '80s dinosaurs we've already seen: huge, clunky, and awkwardly designed. The Portable was a bit lighter than its predecessors at 16 pounds, and of course ran a more modern OS, but at $6,500 ($12,000 in today's money) it was difficult to justify.

The truly amazing thing was that just two years later, Apple released the PowerBook 100 series. These machines started at a third the weight and a third the price of the Portable; more importantly, their design, with wrist rests and a trackball below the keyboard, set the standard for all laptops, Mac and PC, that followed. The modern portable era had arrived.

newton and iphone
Apple Newton, 1993

Of course, around the same time the world was launching into a whole new world of portable computing: the PDA, direct ancestor to the modern-day smartphone. We leave you with this picture that shows how far we've come in the "handheld computing devices much smaller than personal computers" department: the orignal Apple Newton, that prophetic flop, seemed miraculously small at the time, and yet dwarfs the original iPhone. (Though with the advent of the huge iPhone 6 Plus, perhaps this is going full circle.)