Obituary: Bill Moggridge, inventor of the first laptop computer

Obituary: Bill Moggridge, inventor of the first laptop computer

Summary: Bill Moggridge came up with the clamshell format for the GRiD Compass laptop when attempting what seemed impossible in 1980: design a real computer that would fit in an executive briefcase

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TOPICS: Laptops
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We've taken the clamshell design of the standard laptop computer for granted for a very long time, and it seems obvious now, but someone invented and patented it. That person was British designer William Grant "Bill" Moggridge, co-founder of the IDEO design firm, who has died of cancer aged 69.

Early portable computers, such as Adam Osborne's famous Osborne 1 (1981), were luggables more like portable sewing machines. One of the driving forces for that design was the need to include a small monitor based on a cathode ray tube (CRT) and 5.25-inch floppy disk drives.

Grid Compass in space
NASA took the GRiD laptop on the Space Shuttle

Moggridge, however, designed the GRiD Compass laptop (1982) around an early flat screen produced by Sharp. This was a yellow-on-black electroluminescent panel that could display 80 characters of text and 320 x 240 pixel graphics.

"The screen was gorgeous: it was like a jewel," according to GRiD's founder John Ellenby, the ex-Xerox PARC man behind the Compass. It was indeed amazing.

The GRiD Compass 1101 was innovative in its use of storage, too. It didn't include a floppy drive — something that IBM's Think Pad 240 also dispensed with in 1999 — or a CD drive, because the CD hadn't even been invented. Instead, it included 384K of non-volatile electronic "bubble memory" developed at Bell Labs. It seemed a promising idea at the time, but rotating hard drives rapidly took over.

The GRiD Compass was a powerful machine for its day, with an Intel 8086 processor running GRiD OS in 256K of memory. Perhaps even more important, it looked wonderful in its solid black, die-cast magnesium-alloy case. Today's users might find it a bit heavy at 4.9kg (10.75lbs), but it was less than half the weight of an Osborne 1 at 10.7kg (23.5lb), and incomparably smarter.

We borrowed one in for review when I was editor of Practical Computing magazine, and it inspired a fervid technolust around the office.

Of course, none of us could afford the £5,195/$8,150 price, but the machine clearly had a future in military and industrial applications. It was just the thing if you worked on a nuclear submarine, and taking one on Space Shuttle missions was another obvious idea. If you're spending that sort of money, the GRiD's price is trivial, and the rest of could just wait for cheaper versions. (A decade laer, we got the IBM ThinkPad 750C.)

Grid Compass laptop Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum (600 x 402)
Grid Compass laptop from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The GRiD Compass made Moggridge briefly famous to a generation of geeks, but he spent his life outside computing. He said his career had three phases: first as a designer, then as a manager of design, and then as a communicator. In the final phase he was a writer, graphic designer and video-maker. He wrote two books published by MIT Press: Designing Interactions, published in October 2006, and Designing Media, published in November 2010.

Bill Moggridge
Bill Moggridge by Mayo Nissen Source: Wikipedia

Moggridge was a graduate of the Central School of Design in London. At various times, he served as a Visiting Professor in Interaction Design at the Royal College of Art in London, Lecturer in Design at the London Business School, member of the Steering Committee for the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy, and Consulting Associate Professor in the Joint Program in Design at Stanford University. Most recently, in 2010, he was appointed director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum on 5th Avenue in New York.

He was awarded the Prince Philip Designers Prize in 2010 in recognition of his lifetime contribution to design.

Note: there seems to be no connection between the naming of GRiD Systems Corporation  — where the lower-case i is a nod to Intel  — and NASA's use of GRID to stand for Graphic Retrieval and Information Display. When a GRiD Compass ran a GRID on the Space Shuttle, it was apparently just a beautiful coincidence.

 

Topic: Laptops

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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4 comments
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  • Cool stuff

    It's a shame that so few know any of the history behind our modern computers. Thanks for writing about this!
    T1Oracle
  • Out of the box

    "The GRiD Compass made Moggridge briefly famous to a generation of geeks, but he spent his life outside computing."

    Respect.
    klumper
  • Patented It?

    Is that why laptops didn’t really supplant desktops until the 2000s, after the patent expired?
    ldo17
    • I'm not sure that had any impact....

      Early laptops were very expensive -- often twice the price of desktops -- heavy, and didn't have very good battery life. It was only with the introduction of the Compaq Lte (first notebook PC) and then the IBM ThinkPad that sales started to take off. After that, it was prices falling from $3,500 to $350....
      Jack Schofield