We’ve already written about the rise of the PC and its iconic beginnings in the IBM PC and the Macintosh 128K, but what about its more portable relative? Laptops are a common fixture these days, with many of us owning a laptop in lieu of a stationary desktop PC, and even that market is increasingly being encroached upon by ever more capable tablets. In this week’s Throwback Thursday feature, we cast a look back at the history of portable computing.

The first ‘portable’ computer was developed in 1975: the IBM 5100 had a 16-bit processor, an integrated keyboard, a five-inch display, and up to 64KB of RAM. The machine cost between $8,975 and $19,975, depending on what hardware you splashed out on. It also weighed 55lb, making its designation as ‘portable’ somewhat dubious, but at least you wouldn’t need to pay for a gym membership.

The first mass-produced portable computer was the Osborne 1, which was released on April 3, 1981. It weighed 23.5lb, retailed at $1,795 and shipped with software worth as much again as the price of the unit. It was the first time a portable microcomputer had been commercially successful, and marked a watershed change in the use of computation for business. It was also the first portable computer to be deployed in a military field operation.

It wasn’t until 1983, however, that any portable computer used the name ‘laptop’. The first machine to do so was the Gavilan SC, which resembled something far closer to what we would recognise as a laptop today. It ran MS-DOS, had a floppy disk drive, an LCD display and was the first laptop to make use of a touchpad-like pointing device, as well as the clamshell design which has the screen fold down over the keyboard.

Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that laptops would develop true industry standards, a significant step in the development of any technology. The Apple PowerBook series, introduced in 1991, was the first to include space for a palm rest, and proper pointing devices. Technological improvements of the age also saw increased battery life, and the inclusion of innovations such as coloured screens.

In the summer of 1995, Microsoft released Windows 95, the first operating system to include advanced power management, which allowed the system to run on mobile devices. Prior to that point, all portable machines had run custom hardware and software configurations to maximise battery life, and Windows 95 heralded an era of standardisation that enabled greater adoption and production of laptops. Around the same time, the CD-ROM and the Intel Pentium processor were introduced to mobile computing, setting standards that endure to the present day.

Once again, Microsoft are pushing innovation in the mobile computing space, recently releasing the Surface Pro 3 with the slogan ‘the tablet that can replace your laptop’. Whether it succeeds in doing just that remains to be seen, but the trend for smaller, more powerful machines is one that isn’t set to abate any time soon, and has a history stretching back over forty years.

Image courtesy of Marcin Wichary