Evolution Of Laptops: From Lumpy Suitcases To Notebooks

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Of all technology products, I really feel bad for laptops. The only time someone talks about it is when it runs into a problem. We never spare a thought for how far these portable computers have come. We all know that early computers were the size of a room, but ever wondered how the early laptops looked like? Well, here are some of the landmark machines from the past that evolved into today’s modern notebook computers:

IBM 5110 (1975)

The IBM 5100 was one of the first portable computers to hit the market. Most experts still debate whether it qualifies as a notebook computer. One thing for sure that it paved the way for laptops. It is kind of like how amphibians were essential to kick-off the terrestrial life. The IBM 5110 had a 5-inch CRT display, which is smaller than your smartphone’s screen. The machine was powered by a 1.9 MHz processor. You read that right, it is MHz and not GHz. And next time you moan about the “paltry” 4 GB RAM on your laptop, spare a thought for those putting up with 64 K RAM on the IBM 5110. At around 24 kg, it wasn’t light. But, look at this guy in the ad and tell me you are not convinced that it is a portable computer.

ibm 5110

Scrib (1978)

In addition to making excellent timepieces and hoarding money from across the globe, Switzers made computers in the 70s. Developed by Bobst Graphics, the Scrib was Macbook of a bygone era. It was quite popular with journalists due its smaller footprint and full-size keyboard. It could hold up to 8,000 characters on a magnetic cassette. These write-ups could be sent over a phone line. The machine had a 7-inch monochrome monitor. Placed at the back of the computer, it was made visible to a user via a folding mirror. Now, that’s some elaborate engineering. Little wonder then, the Scrib won a Wescon (Western Electronic Show and Convention) design award.

scrib

Osborne 1 (1981)

We can never thank the 80s enough. It not only gave us the finest rock music, but also the Osborne 1 that can be considered as a true notebook. It was named after Adam Osborne who had a curious Indian connection. Born in a Brit family, Adam spent his childhood in India and was fluent in Tamil. He studied in the UK and developed the Osborne 1 in the US. The machine was backed by a 4 MHz processor coupled with 64 KB RAM. The Osborne 1 had a 5-inch monochrome display. It was one of the first portable computer to feature two 5.2″ floppy drives. For generation Z, floppy drive is what your save icon looks like. The best part was that you could close the Osborne 1 like a briefcase and take it on a business trip.

osborne

Kookaburra PC (1983)

As you may have already guessed by its crazy name, the Kookaburra is made by the Australians. Developed by Dulmont Magnum corporation, it was one of the earliest machines to feature a clamshell design that resembles today’s hinge mechanism. The Kookaburra was powered by Intel’s 16-bit 80186 chipset. The computer offered 96 K RAM and dual 128 KB cartridge slots. Its display was so wide that it looked like a letterbox slot. It could display 80 vertical and 8 horizontal lines. The Kookaburra’s built-in Ni-Cad battery offered 2-hour run-time. The machine’s release date is disputed but majority of sources claim that it hit the market in 1983.

kookabura

NEC UltraLite (1988)

From the land of the rising Sun, NEC made a truly compact laptop for its time. It was something that users could actually carry in a backpack. The Aptly named UltraLite tipped the scales at 2 kg. That’s impressively light in the 80s. If you ignore those thick bezels, this laptop can easily pass as a budget netbook from 2000s. This machine was powered by NEC’s own V30 processor clocked at 9.54 MHz. It had 640 K RAM and up to 2 MB storage over cartridges. NEC probably ditched the 3.5-inch floppy drive slots in favor of compact design. Back in the day, the UltraLite’s price started at $4,000.

nec

IBM ThinkPad 700C (1992)

IBM is known for its distinct black machines that mean business. In the early 90s, its ThinkPad 700C was considered cutting edge of technology in computers. To put things in perspective, it was chosen by NASA for space missions. The ThinkPad 700C flew on various missions including one to Russian space station Mir. The laptop featured a 10.4-inch color LCD display with pixel dimensions of 640 x 480. The ThinkPad 700C was powered by Intel’s 486SLC processor running at 25 MHz. The machine had 4 MB RAM and up to 120 MB hard drive. According to IBM, the ThinkPad 700C’s battery lasted for four hours on a single charge. The IBM ThinkPad 700C was priced just shy of $3,000.

ThinkPad 700c

For next few years, laptops mostly kept improving upon specs. More radical design changes came in recent years with the introduction of convertibles, which all of us are well aware of.


Chandrakant is a sci-fi movie aficionado and wannabe space explorer. He writes about consumer technology for bread and butter. He has worked with some of the esteemed publications like PCMag, TechTree, Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, NDTV Gadgets, and more.