back to article A history of personal computing in 20 objects part 2

Personal computing may have originally been more ‘computing’ than ‘personal, but that changed in the late 1970s in the US and, in the UK, during the early 1980s. In the first part of ‘A History of Personal Computing on 20 Objects’, we saw how computing went from maths gadgets to first mechanical, then electromechanical and …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Surprised... not see any laptops in here. Any computer historians know which was the first computer to feature the hinged screen lid and built in keyboard design that we all know and love?

    1. AbortRetryFail

      Re: Surprised...

      Would that not be the GRiD 1100 Compass which was "the world’s first clamshell computer and thus the template for the notebook computer"?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Surprised...

        Very quick answer, thanks. Just Googled it. Wow, she's a beauty.

        1. Jason McLaughlin

          Re: Surprised...

          Is this a whoosh?

        2. Anonymous Coward

          Re: Surprised...

          Just realised that you were subtly pointing out that it was in the article after all. Just didn't read it properly and the picture doesn't really make it look like a "laptop"!

  2. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. jai


    I used a GRiD when I was about 5 - my dad brought it home from work for a weekend.

    I remember being quite awed by it at the time, and compared to the big case of the Apple ][e I was used to with a gigantic box of a monitor on top, it was futuristic looking.

    That said, I was only 5 or was pretty awed by anything technological at the time anyway.

    Then, 3 years later my dad came home and set up a Mac on the dining room table and I spent all weekend drawing bitmap pictures in MacPaint and wondering why anybody bothered with keyboards and command lines

    1. Grimxn

      Re: GRiD

      I still have a GRiD (an 110x Compass - the original model) as well as a later GRiDCase (which ran MS-DOS as well as GRiD-OS). The Compass WAS awesome - it had absolutely no moving parts - neither disk (bubble memory for permanent storage), nor fans (convection from the mag-alloy case for cooling), had 1Mb of RAM (when IBM were saying no one would ever need more than 640kb), OS and most apps in PROM, a fully graphical interface, a proper pre-emptive multi-tasking operating system in GRiD-OS (based on iRMX), and IEEE488 (HP-IB) and RS232 interfaces. All for a bargain entry price of £5,000 in 1983!

      The original specs were DoD-inspired - it had to capable of being dropped and run over by a truck without damage, however, when NASA first used it to augment the 60s/early 70s computing designed into the Shuttle, they failed to anticipate that the no-moving parts convection cooling didn't work so well in zero-gravity! Later models included a fan...

      1. Anonymous Coward


        "(when IBM were saying no one would ever need more than 640kb)" actually IBM never said that, and its extremely unlikely given the Big iron they build that they would.

        Bill Gates is the visionary, who also though the internet would never amount to anything useful, that gave us that insightful comment.

  4. davenewman

    National Museum of Computing

    You can see a lot of the computers mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of this article in the National Museum of Computing, located at Bletchley Park ( I went there on a trip with Reading BCS, and spent fascinating hours going through all the computers, from a working Colossus replica to a surface computer implementation of the BBC's Doomsday project.

  5. Neil Barnes Silver badge


    Not 'portable', more sort of 'transportable'.

    One of my arms still feels longer than the other...

    1. Mark McNeill
      Thumb Up

      Re: Osborne...

      Portable as a suitcase full of bricks, they said at the time. Didn't bother us, we never moved it.

      We ran a business on that machine for ten years or so, until clients started demanding Word-format files. I don't recall it ever crashing.

      1. dak

        Re: Osborne...

        Wrote my Master's thesis on one of those - I think it was the first word processed one the department had seen.

        Then I wrote a bookkeeping system in Mbasic that ran for 11 years without error.

        Brilliant machine. I tripped over it a couple of weeks ago in the loft...

    2. dssf

      Re: Osborne... Also, it had another term...

      "Luggable", because the things were so damned heavy, there was more lugging than carrying, hehehe. Now that I recall, my dad had one of those. We also had an Epson QX - 10. But, that Epson was mire of a desktop, tho the thin body made it easy for him to take it with him and use it on lunch breaks at work. Cannot recall wgat became of the Osborne, though.

  6. Ru

    Hmm, iPads?

    I'd have put Apple's most recent serious innovation as the iPhone. Whilst it wasn't the first touchscreen smartphone, the UI certainly blew away all the competition, and it has certainly defined the look and style of pretty much all smartphones since. The iPad wasn't anywhere near as interesting by comparison; did it really sell well because it was 'tablet computing done right', or because it was an Apple product?

    1. Britt Johnston

      Re: Hmm, iPads?

      The most important contribution of the iPad was to suppress the development of 10" smartphones

    2. a_been

      Re: Hmm, iPads?

      Well with over 100 million sold in under 3 years anyone who says it's becase of the name will have to explain why it's outselling the iPod Touch by over 5 to 1.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hmm, iPads?

      iPads shouldn't be there, the PalmPilot should be... that is where tablet computing began for me..

      1. MrEntropy

        Re: Hmm, iPads?

        I started with the Sony Magic Link

      2. John 104

        Re: Hmm, iPads?


        Agreed. Surprised not to see it in there. If people could get over their obsession with iProducts, and look back 10 - 15 years, you would see that the Palm Pilot was THE productivity tool for mobile users. They were HUGE in their time.

      3. jai

        Re: Hmm, iPads?

        the PalmPilot should be... that is where tablet computing began for me..

        fair enough, then the Apple Newton should be there too because "that is where tablet computing began for me" and three years earlier than the first Pilot too

        but it's all academic. the Psion Organiser is the grandfather of all of these, and that is in the article

    4. NumptyScrub

      Re: Hmm, iPads?

      quote: "I'd have put Apple's most recent serious innovation as the iPhone. Whilst it wasn't the first touchscreen smartphone, the UI certainly blew away all the competition, and it has certainly defined the look and style of pretty much all smartphones since."

      I'm guessing it's because putting an iPhone just underneath the Simon would invite all sort of unwelcome comparisons; the Simon has a rectangular touchscreen whose UI is a grid of icons, has rounded corners, can make phone calls... and was released in 1994, 13 years prior to the iPhone.

    5. Homer 1 Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      "UI certainly blew away all the competition"

      Only an Apple fanboy could be blown away by "a grid of icons".

  7. David_H

    EPSON HX-20

    Remember that the HX-20 also had two other really innovative peripherals in a portable:

    • a speech generation unit

    • a brail generator

    Its younger brother the PX-4 was used for F1 timing systems (all coded in assembler and hijacking the barcode input for timing beams, by yours truly)

    Epson also produced the QX-16 desktop on which I could run the same programs under DOS or CPM!

    And the EHT-10, a hand-held with integral printer option (much loved by traffic wardens in Westminster in the late 1980’s, and by the Concorde baggage loaders)

    Ah... life was so much simpler when a ROM disassembly was you bible!

    1. AbortRetryFail

      Re: EPSON HX-20

      My dad bought one when they were new and I used it extensively, both portable and hooked up to a telly with the very expensive external TV modulator. And later a FDD unit.

      As far as I know, it's still in a cupboard somewhere at my dad's as he rarely throws anything out.

    2. Christian Berger Silver badge

      Re: EPSON HX-20

      I've heard of a bunch of people using an HX-20 at a restaurant. When it was time to pay, they secretly rolled up the note in the printer. As the waiter came, they pressed the button and the printer spit out the note. They had a hard time getting their money accepted. :)

      Also, this is yet again one of those lazy articles. Everybody knows those old computers, and no one talks about the slightly more exotic ones back then, like the Canon Cat, which proved Apple and Microsoft wrong, by providing a user interface which was simple, efficient and powerful.

      1. asdf Silver badge

        Re: EPSON HX-20

        > which proved Apple and Microsoft wrong, by providing a user interface which was simple, efficient and powerful.

        Cue the dozen Amiga tards left that all happen to also read and post on el reg.

        1. asdf Silver badge

          Re: EPSON HX-20

          Bah only 3 downvotes. Guess they are dying off faster than I expected.

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: EPSON HX-20

      That looks like quite a nice keyboard.

      I think the A4 form factor is under appreciated.

  8. Stoneshop Silver badge

    ZX80 [...] cased and equipped with a Qwerty keyboard

    For a sufficiently tolerant definition of "keyboard", that is.

    I'm still undecided if the Speccy's blobs of chewing gum were any sort of improvement.

    1. David Given

      Re: ZX80 [...] cased and equipped with a Qwerty keyboard

      Those Spectrum keyboards were *brilliant*. Combined with the wedge shaped case, if you turned one over and wedged it under a door, they made superb doorstops. The rubber keys gripped the floor like nobody's business.

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Re: ZX80 [...] cased and equipped with a Qwerty keyboard

        Dude. The Spectrum was not wedge shaped, unless you had an Interface 1 attached. I admit that it was lower at the front than the back, but that was because of a step in the case, bringing up the rear of the case to the same height as the top of the keys.

        The ZX81 was wedge shaped, but did not have rubber keys.

      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: ZX80 [...] cased and equipped with a Qwerty keyboard

        > they made superb doorstops

        So microsoft might sell a few surfaces then ?

  9. Thing

    Wot no C64?

    Greatest selling single model of any computer (until very recently being overtaken by the iPad or iPhone - AFAICR)

    1. Not_The_Droids

      Re: Wot no C64?

      We weren't a rich family, so we couldn't afford a C64. I did talk the parents in to buying me a Vic-20 though. That's how I worked on my programming skills... guess that $99 investment back in 1984 or so did pay off eventually. I still have the VIC-20, tried to power it up last year. Alas, the power supply was completely dead (and epoxy filled, so no troubleshooting available), and after figuring out an alternative, the video did not come up. Poor thing...

      1. Ole Juul Silver badge

        Re: Wot no C64?

        I'm not into those, so just the other day gave away a power supply for one of those. There were lots of Vic-20s made and despite being very collectible, they're still not too expensive. The 5150s are starting to really go up in price though. I've seen them hit several grand, though mostly just a few hundred. Anyway, hang on to your old stuff. You'll be glad you did.

      2. Jop

        The tune from Radar Rat Race (Vic 20 cartridge game) is forever imprinted in my head...wish it wasn't!

        As another one who could not afford the C64 at the time, I ended up with a Commodore Plus/4. That should be on the history list as it had a built in word processor, spreadsheet and database thingy. None of them were very good though.

  10. Alan Bourke

    Great to see the Archie in there.

    More red keys on keyboards please, manufacturers.

    1. Andus McCoatover

      Red keys? Nah. Get yerself one o' these...

      Screws the other muppets at school when I have to go for a pee, and they wanna use my PC for 'faceboooook!'

      1. kwhitefoot
        Thumb Up

        Re: Red keys? Nah. Get yerself one o' these...

        That reminds me of my Nascom-2 which had the best keyboard I've ever used. No crappy mechanical switches in it, it had Hall effect switches if I remember right. Probably still have it somewhere, I wonder if I could get it hooked up to a PC?

    2. foo_bar_baz

      Re: Great to see the Archie in there.

      I might be off base, but to my understanding the Archimedes was pretty much limited to the UK. It did give us Virus the game, much like the BBC Micro gave us Elite - that's the extent of what we non-Brits knew about these.

      But yeah, the C64, ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST and even the various MSX compatibles would have been incluced in the list by Johnny Foreigner.

  11. Arrrggghh-otron


    Glad to see the Archimedes in there. I was introduced to proper CAD on one of these cutting edge computers at School.

  12. Unicornpiss Silver badge

    No Commodore?

    Where's the PET, the 64, and the Amiga? Nice article, but omitting Commodore's place is like skipping the existence of several countries in a history book. The Osborne used a Commodore OS if I remember right, BTW.

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: No Commodore?

      The Osborne ran CP/M off a floppy; the Commodores of that era all used the 6502 processor and used their own, ROM-based OSes.

    2. Chika

      Re: No Commodore?

      In a way, agree that the 64 didn't really need to be there. It was a good computer and certainly sold plenty of units, but it broke no new ground. I'd be more likely to put an Apple II in there. As for the Amiga, this was a fairly ground breaking system and one that, like the Archimedes, could have been much better than the IBM offering if only the marketing had been right. Both were very versatile and powerful for their day, but each got sidelined into its own niche, the Acorn in education, the Amiga in gaming, both suffocated off the market as IBM and Microsoft went for the proverbial jugular. Even Apple almost failed because of that.

      As for the Pet, there always seemed to me to be a standing battle between the various CBM Pets and the Apple II. I always liked the look of the Pet, with the monitor design and (on some models) the built in tape drive, but I also liked the Apple II with its flip up back end. Pity both were so bloody expensive in the UK!

      1. stewski

        Re: No Commodore?

        In the UK the Amiga was the shiz.

        Frankly for £400 notes, it smoked the apples and IBMs of its day and if you liked parallax scrolling and shallow game play shadow of the beast was your man.

        68000 and numerous specialised processing units killed the competition, now it's clear that symmetric multi cores arent the way forward with moores in mind, the Amigas design philosophy may prove more important than even the genius arm of the Archimedes.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: No Commodore?

        Have to disagree about the Apple II. The Commodore Pet was a much more important machine, released first and sold many more units than the Apple II ever did. It was the world's first personal computer.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Ah, the ZX80 ...

    What a piece of extra-ordinary crap that delighted and amazed me. I went onto the zx81 and the spectrum.

    All of them were flimsy, prone to crashing due to poorly constructed ram expansion packs and power leads, but my god, between them and the many other personal computers available in the 80's they unleashed thousands and thousands of programmers onto the world.

    I spent countless hours hunched over these lumps of plastic with ridiculously bad keyboards, punching in line after line of machine code from a magazine. The frustration at the program not working, only to be informed in the following months magazine that there was a critical bug didn't deter me.

    The family dog or cat brushing past the ram expansion pack ending up with the loss of 5 hours work? Well, start again.

    The tapes not loading or saving properly, the discovery that the cheapest tape deck you could get with the highest tinny sound was far better than an expensive one. Cheap, nasty, frustrating and ultimately, a whole lot of blood, sweat tears and eventually, fun.

    So, what do I do now?

    Well, I spend countless hours in front of a screen being frustrated by html, css, php, postgres for a living.

    30 years later and the only thing that's changed is it's faster, more comfortable and the hardware is a damn side more reliable.

    Long live the memory of the ZX80, but don't expect me to ever use one in anger ever again, even as an emulator :)

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Ah, the ZX80 ...

      >30 years later and the only thing that's changed is it's faster, more comfortable and the hardware is a damn >side more reliable.

      But now the operating system, programming language and frameworks are

      "Cheap, nasty, frustrating and ultimately, a whole lot of blood, sweat tears and eventually, fun."

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No Spectrum 48K, Amiga 500 or Atari?

    These affordable computers were what got many kids into the subject, I began programming on a 48K Spectrum


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