What Was the First Portable Computer?

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A Brief History

On April 3, 1981, the Osborne Computer Corporation unveiled it latest creation, the Osborne 1, the first portable computer to be commercially viable.  The grand daddy of all the laptops, tablets, pads and smartphones we have today started with this 24.5 pound chunk of electronics.  Despite the pioneering nature of the company, Osborne went out of business only 4 years later.

Digging Deeper

Costing a whopping $1795 (or equivalent to over $5000 today), the Osborne 1 had to be plugged in to a wall socket for power as it had no internal battery.  Although you could not use it without the plug in power, the fact that you could easily (relatively, compared to a PC with its heavy and bulky CRT screen) carry it from place to place made it “portable.”  It “boasted” a now pathetic sounding 90 KB (Kilo bytes, meaning thousands) of RAM.  (Yes, that is “KB,” a designation that is almost funny today when a typical laptop can be had with several GB (Giga bytes, meaning billions of bytes) of RAM for under $200!  Walmart currently offers an iPhone 6s for $99 that has a hard drive with 32 GB of memory.  The Osborne 1 had a puny 5 inch screen.  And to think, some people the past “the good old days!”

As the first on the market, the Osborne 1 was a trend setter.  Coming with a bundle of software roughly equivalent in value to the computer itself, other companies that soon offered portable computers were compelled to match the practice of including software.  One such competitor that appeared later in 1981 was the Kaypro II, first sold in 1982, with only 64 KB of RAM, though it bested the Osborne 1 by coming with a 9 inch CRT screen.  Kaypro Corporation also did not last to the present day, going out of business in 2001.

The Osborne 1 and the Osborne Computer Corporation were the inventions of Adam Osborne (1939-2003), a British-Polish man born in Thailand.  Later moving to the United States, Osborne got his PhD from the University of Delaware in 1968.  Osborne also authored books and manuals about operating computers known for their user friendly nature.  One of his books, An Introduction To Microcomputers, sold an impressive 300,000 copies.  A genius, Osborne was a member of Mensa.  Sadly, he died at the age of only 64, plagued by a series of strokes.  He left behind 2 ex-wives and 3 children, and a spot solidly etched in the history of computers.

Question for students (and subscribers): How does your first portable computer compare to the Osborne 1?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Ceruzzi, Paul. Computing: A Concise History.  The MIT Press , 2012.

Osborne, Adam. Hypergrowth: The Rise and Fall of Osborne Computer Corporation. Idthekkethan Pub. Co, 1984.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Bilby of an Osborne 1 portable computer, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.