Why the First Laptop Had Such a Hard Time Catching On (Hint: Sexism)

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It wasn't just a high price that kept businessmen away from early portable computers.

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The GRiD Compass laptop aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery (Wikimedia Commons)

The legendary designer Bill Moggridge died this weekend and is being properly memorialized around the web. Among the many things Moggridge is known for, he built what seems to be the world's first recognizable laptop, the GRiD Compass. Though it sold decently well for an $8,150 computer (that's 1982 dollars) to the military, it did not exactly catch on among businesspeople.

The first and most obvious reason for that is the price. We're talking something like $20,000 in today's dollars, depending on how you calculate. The second obvious reason I would guess was its weight. The GRiD Compass weighed 11 pounds.

But Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and Handspring (makers of the Treo), was there in 1982 and he told a different story at the Computer History Museum a few years ago during a panel on the laptop. For him, the problems were not exclusively in the harder domains of currency and form factor. No, sociological and psychological reasons made the GRiD Compass hard to sell to businessmen.

Here's the sociological reason:

This is an amazing fact. We had this product. It was designed for business executives. And the biggest obstacle, one of the biggest obstacles, we had for selling the product was the fact -- believe it or not -- that it had a keyboard. I was in sales and marketing. I saw this first-hand. At that time, 1982, business people, who were in their 40s and 50s, did not have any computer or keyboard in their offices. And it was associated with being part of the secretarial pool or the word processing (remember that industry?) department. And so you'd put this thing in their office and they'd say, "Get that out of here." It was like getting a demotion. They really were uncomfortable with it.

Though Hawkins doesn't quite say it. There is a distinct gendered component to this discomfort. Typing was women's work and these business people, born in the 1930s and 1940s, didn't scrap their way up the bureaucracy to be relegated to the very secretarial work they'd been devaluing all along.

Because -- and here comes the psychological reason -- they were not good at the work that their female employees had been doing. And that made them feel bad.

The second reason they were uncomfortable with it is that none of them knew how to type. And it wasn't like they said, "Oh, I'll have to learn how to type." They were very afraid -- I saw this first-hand -- they were very afraid of appearing inept. Like, "You give me this thing, and I'm gonna push the wrong keys. I'm gonna fail."

In Hawkins telling at least, there was no way around these obstacles. "We couldn't solve this problem. It took a generational change, for the next younger group who had been exposed to terminals and computers to grow up," he continued. "That was an amazing technology adoption problem you would have never thought about."

But you would have thought of this if technology-adoption analyses more typically included the study of gender and class. And that's why we've long argued that even the most money-hungry, wannabe apolitical technologist needs to understand the role that social power plays in technology adoption.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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