If you’re passively tapping away on your Macbook Pro this afternoon you should stop and take a moment to pay your respects to John Ellenby, the man who helped invented and market what evolved into the digital age laptop.
Ellenby passed away earlier this month at the age of 75. With partial funding from Intel back in 1979, Ellenby and his team developed what would become the world’s first portable laptop computer in the early ’80s called the GRiD. Clumsy and sturdy, this pioneering portable weighed in at a hefty 10 pounds and from the looks of it, appears to be able to withstand a thermonuclear blast. Marketed mainly to billionaire business executives, military special forces, NASA astronauts and oil tychoons, the GRiD laid the foundation for the future refinement of the indispensable electronic appliance we are so enamored with today.
The grandfather of the modern laptop was employed at Xerox during the early ’70s where he was instrumental in the advancement of the Alto computer, widely considered the first “desktop” computer created from the ground up to support an operating system based on a matched graphical user interface (GUI). The legendary Xerox Alto was a major influence for Steve Jobs on the prototype Apple Lisa and Macintosh computers and the development of Microsoft Windows.
After Xerox, Ellenby struck out on his own to found GRiD Systems, with the Mountain View, California company’s lower case ‘i’ being a salute to Intel for assisting with the firm’s formation (Translation = major cashola). Working with a talented crew including industrial designer Bill Moggridge, Ellenby spawned the GRiD Compass 1101 in 1982, the first mass-marketed portable computer to use the familiar clamshell design with a fold-down lid collapsing onto the keyboard for convenient storage and transport. The burly black die-cast case was made from a unique milled magnesium-alloy. With a pricetag of $8,150, they were far beyond the reaches of most middle-class consumer households but perfect for elite designer Christmas gifts or unrestrained governmental procurement. Rumor has it that special superspy models were installed with a “seek and destroy” red dot for snipers to target to save classified intelligence information in emergency situations.
Its notoriety as a nearly indestructible piece of technology was well-earned as one of Ellenby and Moggridge’s GRiD laptops actually survived the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986. Following the recovery efforts, the GRiD was found to still be fully operational! The computer was rudimentary by today’s standards of course and featured an Intel 8086 processor (8MHz) with 8087 math coprocessor, 256KB DRAM, a 6-inch 320×240-pixel electroluminescent monochrome display and a 384K internal magnetic bubble memory.
In 1988 Ellenby sold GRiD Systems to the Tandy Corporation (Radio Shack) and founded Agilis, a producer of hand-held tablet computers, and then started GeoVector with his son, Thomas, pioneering navigational and augmented-reality applications.
Here’s a great documentary from the Computer History Museum featuring the work of Ellenby and the evolution of the GRiD Compass portable computer: