Last night William Moggridge, designer of one of the first laptop computers -- among many other accomplishments -- died at the age of 69 from cancer. His list of personal achievements included founding design firm IDEO and acting as director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. But the one that most affected we the people is his vision for the laptop. In 1982 he designed the GriD Compass 1101 (pictured right), which was not only the first really portable laptop computer, but the one that most resembles the current designs today. Technologizer's Harry McCracken recently called the creation "one of the most clever pieces of engineering in computing history." And not just because it was among the first, but because its clam-shell design, where the screen folds into the keys, set a standard that still exists today.
Though The New York Times's Leslie Kaufman says that Moggridge designed the first laptop, McCracken suggests that Osborne beat him to it, putting out the Osborne 1 (pictured left). Though it weighed 24 pounds and had a 5 inch screen, compared to the Compass's slender 10 pound 12 ounces build and "easy-to-read screen, allowing full 80x24 text," as this OldComputers.net site explains, it had more success. Probably because it cost $1,795 to the Compass's $8,150, which McCracken calculates out to $19,000 current American dollars with inflation. Though, the Compass didn't go completely unnoticed during the '80s. NASA (pictured above), the military, and the British Defense Ministry all used it at some point, notes The Washington Post's Emily Langer.
But, no amount of success Osborne had at the time could match the legacy of Moggridge's machine. Unlike the Osborne's clunky sewing machine design, the Compass's computer was made for people. Beyond the clam-shell case -- which is how all portable computers looked until the iPad came along -- it had a screen people could read with a bright, sharp electroluminescent display (ELD), and it weighed a reasonable-ish amount. (Okay, not compared to the less than 5 pound Macbooks Apple sells these days, but still what we would consider totable.) He also added little details that made the difference from a user perspective, as McCraken explains. "It let the user angle the screen to his or her preference. The backside of the display protected both the screen and the keyboard when the machine wasn’t in use. And unlike numerous mobile-computer cases to come, it was mechanically simple," he wrote.
For computing, something that initially did not appeal to the masses, Moggridge's people-first thinking is what gave us regulars access. For him, design meant connecting humans in beautiful ways with science -- a word that often turns off so many of us. (This is a tenant by which Steve Jobs, another design master of the computer age, also abided.) To do that, he put people, not price points, or fashion, first. "It's interesting, as so many things change around us -- the evolution of technologies and social relationships, and so on -- if there is a simple easy principle that binds everything together, it's probably about starting with the people," he said in an interview found in this Smithsonian tribute video.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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