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William Moggridge: In Designing the Laptop Computer, He Was Way Ahead of His Time

Tablets and smartphones are pretty nifty, we admit. But when it comes to actually doing stuff - whether it's writing memos or working on spreadsheets at the office, or playing fantasy baseball at night - we still depend heavily on that reliable old workhorse, the laptop. It's got a roomy keyboard that enables us to use all 10 fingers, and it's still small enough that you can close the lid, stick it in your shoulder bag and take it with you just about anywhere. More than any other gadget, the laptop made computing a ubiquitous, near-indispensable part of everyday life.

For that, thank William Moggridge. The British-born industrial designer was the major creative force behind the first true laptop, the GRiD Compass, which hit the market in 1982.

Moggridge, who lived in California and passed away on Sept. 8 at age 69, was assigned to come up with a portable replacement for the clunky, bigger-than-a-desk computer used by a White House official. To accomplish that, Moggridge came up with five innovations that ended up changing all our lives as well.

  1. A flat screen. Earlier portable computers were as hefty as microwave ovens and painful to stare at, because they had bulky, dim cathode-ray monitors. Moggridge instead chose an early flat-panel monochrome screen produced by Sharp, which was lighter and brighter.
  2. The clamshell. With a thinner screen, Moggridge was able to design the GRiD Compass in a way that it folded up when not in use.
  3. Lightweight design. Moggridge put his electronics inside a magnesium-alloy case that weighed in at just under 11 pounds. That might seem gargantuan compared with today's two-and-a-half pound MacBook Air, but it was less than half of what previous portables weighed.
  4. No need for floppies. With early PCs, remember what a pain it was to rely upon those slow, fragile discs for storing data and programs? Moggridge instead tapped a transitional technology called bubble memory, which recorded data on a tiny bubble of magnetic film inside the computer. In some ways, it was the ancestor of the solid-state drives in the Air and PC "ultrabooks." 
  5. Desktop power. Moggridge gave the GRid Compass an Intel 8086 central processing unit, only slightly less advanced than the 8088 used in the first IBM PC. And he put in a then-impressive 256 kilobytes of memory, which was more than the computer on the Hubble Space Telescope had. That made the laptop capable of running serious software - though unfortunately, the decision to use GRiD's own proprietary operating system kept it from running the same programs desktops did. Later laptop designers would remedy that problem.

Here's a video tribute to Moggridge from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, where he served in recent years as director.

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