First Laptop

Written By MR on Tuesday, June 14, 2011 | Tuesday, June 14, 2011

1981 Osborne 1 , The first truly portable computer introduced April 1981. It weighs 24 pounds, can fit under an airline seat and could even use an optional battery. It had a price tag of $1,795 which included the CPM operating system, WordStar word processing, SuperCalc spreadsheet and MBASIC and CBASIC programming languages. That was very affordable for a computer at the time. $1,795 in 1981 equals $4,320 in 2008 dollars. For that $4,320 today you could get ten budget laptops with free Open Office software online. The Osborne 1 has 64K RAM. The two 5.25" floppy drives each store 91 kilobytes of information. To compare, as I write this in July 2008, you can get a 500 gigabyte external hard drive for $95 at That hard drive holds about 5 million times more information that a single Osborne 1 floppy drive! My large photo of the Osborne 1 is about 100 kilobytes, exceeding the capacity of an Osborne 1 drive. That photo itself is 5% its original size out of the camera. 8 gigabyte flash memory cards are common today. Each holds 80,000 times more information than an Osborne 1 drive! Increases in secondary storage in less than 30 years have been astonishing.

The Osborne 1 has a 5" black and white CRT display showing 53 x 24 characters of text. The text is actually quite clear, although a 53 character width is frustrating doing word processing since you have to scroll to see a full line of about 80 characters. While its stats are amusing by today's standards, it was very useful in its day and a huge success with sales up to 10,000 per month. (Of course, success is relative. As I write this in July 2008 Apple sold over 1 million 3G iPhones in the first weekend of sales!) My seller bought it new in 1981. He is a power engineer (e.g., works with uninterruptible power supplies). He and his fellow engineers where he worked all decided to go out and each get an Osborne 1. Obviously, to engineers, accountants, and others who do a lot of number crunching, the spreadsheet capabilities at a reasonable cost were wonderful. It was also a great tool for writers, although with a significant limitation of a 53 character wide display.

While the Osborne 1 sold well, with increased competition from companies like Kaypro with larger screens and more secondary storage, and the arrival of MS-DOS, Osborne was out of business two years later. I bought my Osborne 1 from an ad on Craigslist on 7-21-08 for $40. It is in very good cosmetic condition and comes with the software and operating system. It powers on. At first, with the keyboard plugged in the monitor would flicker. It did not do this with the keyboard unplugged, however. Eventually the display was stable with the keyboard plugged in. The drives do not appear to be working, however. The red lights blink for an instant, but the drives never turn. (The original price was $50. The seller agreed to knock $10 off because of the problems.) The Obsolete Computer Website - has a great Web page about the Osborne 1 including internal photographs.


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