Remembering Pioneer Developer Of Early Laptop, “Built Like An Armored Tank”
August 29, 2016
He was a Brit, taught in Scotland, but did his major life work in Silicon Valley. Computer engineer John Ellenby, who died in San Francisco earlier this month at the age of 75, was a leader of the team that developed an early if not the first real laptop, the Grid Compass. He moved to California in the early 1970s, worked for Xerox in its early computer work, and then founded his company, Grid, in 1979. The Grid Compass pictured in this New York Times obituary still looks elegant, if a bit thick. When it came out in 1982, it was “the first successful clamshell laptop computer,” according to an historian at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, but only an elite high-end segment of the market could afford the sticker price, which in today’s dollars was more than $20,000. Intelligence agencies, special op units, big companies and the U.S. space program were among the customers. It was “built like an armored tank,” recalls Vice Adm. John Poindexter, who carried one when he was President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser in the mid-1980s. A Grid Compass, velcroed to the dashboard of the Challenger space shuttle, where it was intended for use as a backup navigation system, survived the explosion that destroyed the Challenger and killed its crew in 1986.
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