The History of Laptop Computers

Laptop on a Table in a Cafe

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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, there are several potential firsts below and how each might qualify for the honor.

The First Laptop

The Grid Compass was designed in 1979 by a Briton named William Moggridge (1943–2012) 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 space shuttle program in the early 1980's. As far as technical specs, it featured a 340K byte bubble memory laptop computer system with a die-cast magnesium case and folding electroluminescent graphics display screen.

Gavilan Computer

U.S. engineer Manny Fernandez (born 1946) had the idea for a well-designed laptop for executives who were just starting to use a computer. Fernandez, who started Gavilan Computer Corporation, 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

Osborne 1
The Osborne 1. Tomislav Medak/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 

The computer considered by most historians to be the first truly portable computer was the Osborne 1. Thai born book and software publisher Adam Osborne (1939–2003) 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 $1,795. 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. 

Early Laptop Releases

1981: The Epson HX-20 is announced in Japan, a battery powered portable computer with a 20-character by 4 line LCD display and a built-in printer.

January 1982: Microsoft's team of the Japanese engineer Kazuhiko Nishi (born 1956) and Bill Gates (born 1955) begin discussions on designing a portable computer that featured a new liquid crystal display or LCD screen. NIshi later showed the prototype to Radio Shack and the retailer agreed to manufacture the computer.

July 1982: Release of the Epson HX-20

1983: Radio Shack releases the TRS-80 Model 100, a 4-pound battery-operated portable version of its TRS-80 Model III with a flat design that looks more like modern laptops of today.

February 1984: IBM announces the IBM 5155 Portable Personal Computer.

1986: Radio Shack releases the new, improved and smaller TRS Model 200.

1988: Compaq Computer introduced its first laptop PC with VGA graphics, the Compaq SLT/286.

Notebook Styles

October 1988: 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.

September 1989: Apple Computer releases the first Macintosh Portable that later evolved into the Powerbook. 

1989: Zenith Data Systems releases the Zenith MinisPort, a 6-pound laptop computer. 

October 1989: Compaq Computer releases its first notebook PC, the Compaq LTE.

March 1991: Microsoft releases the Microsoft BallPoint Mouse, which used both mouse and trackball technology in a pointing device designed for laptop computers.

October 1991: Apple Computers released the Macintosh PowerBook 100, 140 and 170—all notebook style laptops.

October 1992: IBM releases its ThinkPad 700 laptop computer.

1992: Intel and Microsoft release APM or the Advanced Power Management specification for laptop computers.

1993: The first PDAs or Personal Digital Assistants (pen-based hand-held computers) are released.

Sources and Further Information

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Laptop Computers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). The History of Laptop Computers. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Laptop Computers." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).