(as published in West Country Life- Jan 2018)
One of the most important inventions of the 20th Century was the laptop computer as it both revolutionised the way we work and the way we engage with our technology. All of a sudden we could remove the historic walls between our home life and work life and concepts such as ‘working from home’ became the norm. At the same time by attaching a handle, our computers became our trusted travel companions and heralded new bonds with the machine that many (including myself) now find hard to detach from.
From Mainframes to Luggables
The giant mainframe computers of the 1950s-60s introduced people to the possibilities of a digital world, but these were expensive megaliths which due to their immense size and value remained locked behind closed doors to all but the baptised few. They required specialised training to speak their language and in most cases were little more than glorified calculators. Then beginning in the late 1970s the Home Computer revolution began in earnest. With the help of Apple, Sinclair, IBM, Acorn, Commodore and many others, all of us could suddenly afford a little slice of the computing lifestyle. We eagerly played games, drew pictures, stored files and created spreadsheets, but while the home computer gave each of us a chance to explore the digital world, they still remained shackled to our desks.
Although most people think of laptops as being a 1990s thing, the first portable computer (the Osbourne 1) actually emerged in 1980. Weighing in at a hefty 11kg these early machines were quickly dubbed ‘luggables’ and certainly toned the muscles of many a user. The Osbourne sported twin floppy disk drives, a tiny 5-inch screen, a removable keyboard that neatly clipped onto the front for transport, and a small handle to help you wrestle it to the car each day. Even so, such was the potential of a portable computer that many companies were willing to jump into the market also.
The Wren Computer
A short while ago I was pleased to pick up a now largely forgotten luggable from 1984 by a British start-up called Wren. The early years of home computing are littered with the debris of smaller companies who tried to get a foothold into this potentially lucrative business market, but ultimately failed. This was one such company. On paper the Wren Executive portable computer should have been a success. It had been designed by a reputable computer design firm called Transam, was priced at the magic and affordable £1000 mark, was backed by Thorn EMI and came with an impressive suit of spreadsheets and programs to keep any prospective business happy. Weighing in at 12kg and constructed in sheet metal rather than moulded plastic, the Wren was always pitched as a serious business machine. Yet as is so often the case, timing was everything.
In the world of luggables, Wren was one of the last to come to market and this was ultimately their downfall. Perhaps they had spent too long on the development side or obtained the necessary backing they needed too late, either way the market was already moving on. Despite initial production being agreed at 10,000 units with the manufacturers, by the end of the year only 1,000 machines had actually been made and sold. Wren was forced into liquidation.
Looking back, one of the things that always amazes me about the history of computers is how happy the public have always been to give each new start-up its fair shot. Its as if we too understand that what they are trying to achieve is somehow noble, even if the actual product falls short of the mark. As an example a few days ago I chanced upon a review of the Wren in Personal Computer Magazine from March 1984. According to its front cover, this was Britain’s biggest weekly computer magazine and the soon to be released Wren was given a double page write-up. Over the course of the article the reviewer repeatedly slammed the machine for its somewhat ugly look, program glitches, hefty weight (12kg) and schoolboy-level design faults. Yet when it got to their closing verdict, I was surprised to read that the Wren got their thumbs up. By coming in cheaper than its competitors the glaring faults were overlooked and the writer announced that with its great value even he would be happy owning one. Of course with less than 1000 machines ever sold I doubt he did buy one in the end, but the sentiment was there at least.
Another anecdote from someone who used to sell the Wren also summed up the same spirit of the time. Because the casing was aluminium it would often get dented as it bashed against the calf. The metal would then press against the motherboard and short out the whole computer, so with each machine that came his way, this gentleman would insert a thin piece of plastic sheeting to prevent it from occurring. Today we would never think of such a Heath Robinson repair if our ipad came with such faults, but this was a different era.
Laptops come of age
The first laptop that we would visibly recognise today was the GRID Compass 1011 which actually came out in 1983. It was the first to use the classic clam shell design which is so ubiquitous today, but at $8,000-$10,000 was never going to be aimed at the general public. Instead these computers were bought up by the likes of the Military and NASA though the designers earned good money later leasing their patents to other computer firms as the industry very slowly got onboard. By 1987 Hewlett Packard had released their own clam-shell design laptop and in 1989 NEC released the first light-weight ‘notebook’ computer. Thus by the start of 1990, the stars were finally aligned for laptops to steal the computer market from the PC once and for all.