What was the first portable computer?

The IBM 5100. Portable? Sort of.
Sandstein/Wikimedia Commons

I don't currently have a desktop computer. I use a laptop to write because it's so convenient -- I can use it anywhere in the house (or at the library, or at a coffee shop). I think most people these days have laptops or use devices like tablets or smartphones to do a lot of things that we used to do on our desktop computers.

I'm not suggesting that desktops are going away anytime soon; they're still preferable in a lot of situations. But today when you need something portable, there's no shortage of options. Back in the earliest days of personal computing ... not so much. But portable computers have been around since the mid-1970s -- depending on what you mean by "portable."

There are laptops on the market (sometimes known as ultraportables) that weigh around 2 pounds, but the computer widely thought of as the first portable weighed in at nearly 53 pounds. You wouldn't have wanted it on your lap, but that wasn't the idea. In 1973, IBM designed a prototype computer called SCAMP, which stood for Special Computer APL Machine Portable. (APL is a programming language that has since been replaced by A+.)

Two years later, it released what is often considered the 5100. The IBM 5100 was a single unit with a 5-inch CRT display, a keyboard, a 200K tape drive for storage and a processor. You could get it with up to 64KB of RAM, and either APL or BASIC (another programming language) operating systems, or both. The 16KB RAM model with just APL sold for $8,975, while the 64K model with both operating systems hit at $19,975. Pricey by today's standards, and that was in 1975. But you might have guessed that the 5100 wasn't built for fun; IBM intended the computer to be used by scientists and programmers. There wasn't much else available at the time in terms of a personal computer (it was all about the mainframe), and nothing that was as powerful in such a "small" and portable package.

Despite these achievements, the hefty price tag made it a tough sell, and you couldn't really upgrade it. So maybe we should reassess the term "portable." Portable computers still exist -- they're too big to be called laptops and plug in instead of relying on battery power, but they're far easier to transport than a desktop. But when you first saw this question, you were probably thinking of a laptop. Read on to learn about the first one of those.

A Computer in Your Lap

The first actual laptop, the Epson HX-20.
The first actual laptop, the Epson HX-20.
Sandstein/Wikimedia Commons

There's some question about what makes a laptop, a laptop. Is it just about size? Ease of portability? Or do things like a rechargeable battery or screen size make a difference? Which one qualifies as "first" in the flurry of IBM competitors in the early 1980s is a difficult one, too.

The Osborne 1 sometimes gets the distinction of being the first commercially successful portable computer. Released in 1981, it weighed 23.5 pounds -- easier to tote than the IBM 5100, but still not something you'd actually carry in your lap. And since it had no power supply (there was an optional battery pack that would give you an hour of use), it couldn't be used just anywhere. The Osborne 1 had 64K RAM, dual floppy disk drives, and a five-inch screen. It came with lots of software, worth almost as much as the machine itself. The whole thing closed up (it had a fold-down keyboard) and Osborne pointed out that it could fit under an airline seat. Retailing at $1795, it was a vast improvement over previous versions. But it's called a "luggable" computer today -- it's definitely not a laptop.

The first laptop actually could fit in your lap. And it has an unexpected feature: a tiny, dot-matrix printer that used adding machine tape. Announced by Epson in 1981 and produced a few years later, the HX-20 was small enough to easily carry around at 3.5 pounds. It also had four rechargeable batteries. The display was much smaller than the Osbourne 1's; it could display just four lines of 20 characters. The data-storage device was a mini cassette recorder, and the computer came with either 16K or 32K of RAM. The HX-20 came in a hard case and cost around $795. A review written by David Ahl in Creative Computing magazine (published in March 1983) includes this: "For working on a plane, train or away from the office, the HX-20 is unrivaled. How often I have dreamed of having a spreadsheet or word processing computer with me on cross country or transatlantic plane trips! It would seem that the HX-20 is the answer to these dreams" [source: Creative Computing].

It still didn't look like a laptop. The flip-form design came a bit later, and then the first machine to be marketed using the word "laptop" came out in spring 1983. But the HX-20 was arguably the first portable computer that you could easily carry and use anywhere.

Author's Note

When researching this article, it was interesting to see how passionate some people can be about older computers. Many models are still in use by enthusiasts. You can still buy the printer ribbon and other accessories for the Epson HX-20, and I came across a person who still writes programs meant to be used on it. The earliest laptop I can remember using was my father's and it was supplied by his employer for work. He sometimes brought it home so I could play the first "Sim City" on it, and this was around 1990. I wish I could remember the model, but I do recall that it was impressively small compared to the computers I was using at school!

Related Articles

Sources

  • Ahl, David A. "Epson HX-20." Creative Computing. March 1983. (Sept. 10, 2012) http://www.atarimagazines.com/creative/v9n3/101_Epson_HX20_computer.php
  • Boisseau, Olivier and Thierry Schembri. Old Computers Museum. 2011. (Sept. 9, 2012) http://www.old-computers.com/news/default.asp
  • Epson. "Epson HX-20 Manual." (Sept. 9, 2012) http://www.epson.com/cgi-bin/Store/support/supDetail.jsp?oid=14492&infoType=Doc
  • Fallows, James. "Living With a Computer." The Atlantic. July 1982. (Sept. 9, 2012) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/07/living-with-a-computer/306063/
  • Hollister, Sean. "Osborne 1 celebrates its 30th birthday, and that of the portable computing revolution." Engadget. April 3, 2011. (Sept. 9, 2012) http://www.engadget.com/2011/04/03/osborne-1-celebrates-its-30th-birthday-and-that-of-the-portable/
  • IBM. "IBM 5100 Portable Computer." 2012. (Sept. 10, 2012) http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/pc/pc_2.html
  • Pals, Leon. "World's first laptop, 25 years ago and still running!" The Next Web Shareables. Oct. 26, 2010. (Sept. 9, 2012) http://thenextweb.com/shareables/2010/10/26/worlds-first-laptop-25-years-old-and-running/
  • Stengel, Steven. "Old Computers.net." 2012. (Sept. 10, 2012) http://oldcomputers.net/