Taking an In-Depth Look at the Fascinating History of Laptops

You’re probably reading this on your laptop right now. Over 75% of U.S adults currently own a computer. But have you ever wondered how your laptop came to be?

Since their inception, laptops have become lighter, slimmer, and more powerful. No one could have imagined such an outcome when looking at the prototypes. Those bulky frames, tiny screens, and laughable storage capabilities have evolved so much since the 1970s.

Modern laptops provide better global communication, new work opportunities, and hours of entertainment. Let’s take a journey through time and explore the history of laptops!

The 1970s: Ideas and Prototypes

The 1970s brought the first powerful microprocessor built on a single semiconductor chip. It was the beginning of the portable computer. Of course, the 1970s would be a time of trial and error but something big was brewing.

The portable computers of the 70s looked nothing like our modern notebooks and did not provide the same laptop experience. But these prototypes paved the way for a period of experimentation and growth in the 1980s.

The first such prototype was the Altair, created by a tiny company called MITS. The Altair was a build-it-yourself computer that shipped to your address in parts. It featured a box, a 256-byte memory CPU board, and a front panel. The cost? $397.

It used the infamous Intel 8080 microprocessor to run its system. What it did lack was a keyboard, printer, paper reader, and software. To make it function, you had to program a set of switches on the front panel. Needless to say, the Altair didn’t catch on with the public and remained a collectible for hobbyists.

Towards the end of the 1970s, a few actual laptop prototypes emerged. These included the Apple 2, Radio Shack TRS-80, and Commodore’s Personal Electronic Transactor. They used 8-bit processors and had limited storage capabilities, but they were much cheaper than desktops!

Due to their size, price, and relative ease of use, these became popular with individuals. They were also often used by small businesses and schools.

The 1980s: The First Portable Computers

Most historians accept the Osborne 1, founded in 1981, as the first real portable computer. Created by Adam Osborne, a former book publisher, this computer weighed around 25 lbs and cost $1,795. While that seems like a similar price tag to modern laptops, remember that this was in 1980s dollars.

The Osborne 1 had a five-inch monitor, two floppy disk drives, and a modem port. With a Zilog Z80 4.0 MHz processor, it certainly wasn’t the speed we’re used to today. Sadly, the company didn’t do well and quickly shut its doors.

Next came the GRiD Compass laptop, designed by Bill Moggridge. This laptop more closely resembled our modern laptops. With a much lighter weight of 11 lbs, the GRiD Compass cost around $8,150. That’s approximately $20,000 in today’s currency.

The GRiD Compass was mostly used for military operations and NASA research. It even joined the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery! Sadly, the price tag and the general unpopularity of computers with the public didn’t produce enough sales.

Throughout the 1980s, many companies emerged and tried to take on the laptop market. IBM and Radioshack both had excellent, although unsuccessful attempts at creating laptops. But fast forward to 1989, where we catch a glimpse of the first “real” laptop!

In 1989, Zenith Data Systems released the Zenith Minisport. This laptop weighed a shocking 6 lbs! Light enough to actually carry around with you, becoming the first actually portable laptop.

Model ZL-1 featured 1 MB of RAM, while Model ZL-2 had 2 MBs. It had a 640 x 200 LCD color display and ran on the MS-DOS 3.3 Plus system. The laptop was popular, especially among writers and journalists. This Chicago Tribune article from December of 1989 praises the new Minisport as a winner!

The 1990s: The Rise of Notebooks

Things really started to get going in the 1990s! New processors, expanded storage, and more user-friendly systems became the norm.

IBM’s 9345 hard disk drive, introduced in 1990, offered 1 GB and 1.5 GBs of storage space. A far cry from the 1980s capabilities of a few megabytes.

1990 also saw the creation of user-friendly software like Microsoft Windows 3.0 with its Microsoft Word and Excel. Designers got an upgrade with the first release of Photoshop! But by far the most incredible invention was the WorldWideWeb, which we now call the internet.

Apple’s Macintosh PowerBooks entered the market in the early 1990s. The new re-design had features that lasted through the 1990s, such as palm rests, internal floppy drives, and a trackball. The PowerBook remained popular until the mid-2000s.

Another incredible advancement came in the form of the Intel Pentium microprocessor. With the ability to run software at a faster pace and support graphics, it became the basis for all IBM PCs. In turn, improved laptop performance made it possible to develop more software.

1995 marked a turning point in personal laptops. Microsoft Windows 95 was released with a $300 million promotional campaign. It was truly one of the most anticipated product launches in history. Within two years, Windows 95 was installed on more computers than any other operating system at the time.

Although laptops remained bulky and utilitarian throughout the 1990s, they still grew in popularity. They had also slimmed down considerably from the 1980s prototypes and were easier to transport. Companies like Acer, Compaq, Dell, and Gateway became popular types of laptops throughout the decade.

What solidified the future of laptops was the incorporation of Wi-Fi in 1999. Apple immediately jumped on board and released the Airport Wi-Fi router, building connectivity into the new Macs. Using Wi-Fi with your laptop soon became the standard in cafes, offices, and even public spaces.

The 2000s: Becoming Tech-Reliant

The decade started off with Y2K, demonstrating our permanent reliance on technology. The 2000s welcomed the invention of the USB, Mac OS X, and Windows XP. All of these advances created more growth and improved technology in the laptop sector.

In 2005, Lenovo purchased IBM’s personal computer business. This monumental sale positioned Lenovo as the biggest manufacturer of PCs in the world. Lenovo continued to enjoy success throughout the next two decades.

Rapid growth and improvements continued throughout the 2000s. We saw the first terra-byte hard drive, the expansion of the internet, and the MacBook Air.

The 2010s: High-Tech Experimentation

The 2010s could be described as a time of high-tech experimentation. Laptops continued to become faster, more powerful, and lighter. At the same time, computer companies began exploring new frontiers.

In 2011, Lenovo partnered with Tobii, a Swedish high-tech company, to create something incredible. They built the world’s first eye-controlled laptop with eye-tracking technology. A built-in camera tracked eye movements to act as a mouse would. It could point, click, and move with only your eye movements.

Beyond experimentation, the Lenovo ThinkPad became the definition of a business laptop. Companies equipped employees with ThinkPads, and it became one of the best-selling laptops in history.

While Lenovo was experimenting with eye movements, Apple was trying to create the best product for our eyes. The Apple Retina Display came into play in 2010 with screen resolutions of 400 pixels per inch. The result was improved color accuracy and better graphic displays.

As the decade winded down, laptops became sleeker and more user-friendly. Thinner, lighter, and faster became the basis for every laptop manufacturer. 2-in-1 hybrid laptops popped up on the scene, exemplified by the famous Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga. These convertible devices functioned as both laptops and tablets.

2020 and Beyond: Better, Faster, Stronger

In recent years, computer manufacturers have focused on improving speed, graphics, and quality. With the rise of remote working and digital nomads, consumers want laptops that work anywhere life takes them.

To meet this need, Lenovo partnered with Intel to create the Intel Evo platform. These new models promise extreme speed, incredible graphics, and significant portability. Learn more about this amazing advancement in technology at lenovo.com.

The future of laptops is unknown, but we can see some trends emerging. Apple is hard at work creating their Apple Glasses meaning AR could soon be coming to a laptop near you. Meanwhile, companies like Framework are focusing on customizable, built-to-last laptops.

Dual screens will probably become the new standard in the next few years. And every laptop user can look forward to improved battery life and 5G capabilities. A brand new laptop in 2029 may mean something completely different than it does now.

The Fascinating History of Laptops

What started as a collectible for hobbyists slowly turned into a must-have for the masses. The history of laptops has been quite a rollercoaster ride since the 1970s. One thing’s for sure; they’re undoubtedly here to stay. And not only that, but they’ve changed every aspect of modern life.

Laptops have become the standard for work, entertainment, and communication. The past 50 years have given us limitless device options and upgraded technology. Who knows what the next 50 years hold for our beloved laptop?

Did you learn something new from this article? Explore our Computer section for more great information, including news, guides, and lists!

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