The History of Laptop Computers

Fortran - Software Makes a Computer Ticks
Fortran - Software Makes a Computer Ticks. John Foxx/Getty Images

It is a little hard to determine which was the first portable or laptop computer since the earliest portable computers to arrive did not look anything like the book-sized folding laptops that we are familiar with today. However, they were both portable and can sit on a person's lap and did eventually lead to the development of notebook style laptops. 

With that in mind, I have outlined several potential firsts below and how each might qualify for the honor.

Many of the off-site links provided below include excellent photos of the computers so that you should be able to see the progression in design. 

The First Laptop? Maybe

The Grid Compass was designed in 1979 by a Briton named William Moggridge for Grid Systems Corporation. It was one-fifth the weight of any model equivalent in performance and was used by NASA as part of the the space shuttle program in the early 1980's. As far as technical specs, it featured a 340K byte bubble memory lap-top computer system with a die-cast magnesium case and folding electroluminescent graphics display screen.

Gavilan Computer As The First Laptop?

Manny Fernandez had the idea for a well-designed laptop for executives who were just starting to use a computer. Fernandez, who started Gavilan Computer, promoted his machines as the first "laptop" computers in May 1983. Many historians have credited the Gavilan as the first fully functional laptop computer.

The First True Laptop Computer - The Osborne 1 

The computer considered by most historians to be the first true portable computer was the Osborne 1. Adam Osborne, an ex-book publisher was the founder of Osborne Computer Corp, which produced the Osborne 1 in 1981. It was a portable computer that weighed 24 pounds and cost $1795.

For that, users got a five-inch screen, modem port, two 5 1/4 floppy drives, a large collection of bundled software programs and a battery pack. Unfortunately, the short-lived computer company was never successful. 

And the rest is considered history...

  • Also released in 1981 was the Epson HX-20, a battery powered portable computer with a 20-character by 4 line LCD display and a built-in printer.
  • In January of 1982, Microsoft's Kazuhiko Nishi and Bill Gates begin discussions on designing a portable computer that featured a new liquid crystal display or LCD screen. Kazuhiko Nishi later showed the prototype to Radio Shack and the retailer agreed to manufacture the computer.
  • In 1983, Radio Shack released the TRS-80 Model 100, a 4-pound battery-operated portable computer with a design that was flat and looked more like modern laptops of today.
  • In 1984, IBM announced the IBM 5155 Portable Personal Computer.
  • In 1986, Radio Shack released the new, improved and smaller TRS Model 200.
  • In 1988, Compaq Computer introduced its first laptop PC with VGA graphics, the Compaq SLT/286.
  • In 1989, the release of the NEC UltraLite was considered by some to be the first "notebook style" computer. It was a laptop size computer that weighed under 5-pounds.
  • In September of 1989, Apple Computer released the first Macintosh Portable that later evolved into the Powerbook. 
  • In 1989, Zenith Data Systems released the Zenith MinisPort, a 6-pound laptop computer. 
  • In October of 1989, Compaq Computer released its first notebook PC, the Compaq LTE.
  • In March of 1991, Microsoft released the Microsoft BallPoint Mouse, which used both mouse and trackball technology in a pointing device designed for laptop computers.
  • In October of 1991, Apple Computers released the Macintosh PowerBook 100, 140 and 170 - all notebook style laptops.
  • In October of 1992, IBM released its ThinkPad 700 laptop computer.
  • In 1992, Intel and Microsoft release APM or the Advanced Power Management specification for laptop computers.
  • In 1993, the first PDAs or Personal Digital Assistants were released. PDAs are pen-based hand-held computers.