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Man in a briefcase: the social construction of the laptop computer and the emergence of a type form

Atkinson, Paul (2005) Man in a briefcase: the social construction of the laptop computer and the emergence of a type form. Journal of design history, 18 (2). pp. 191-205. ISSN 1741-7279

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    Dominant design discourse of the late 1970s and early 1980s presented the introduction of the laptop computer as the result of ‘inevitable’ progress in a variety of disparate technologies, pulled together to create an unprecedented, revolutionary technological product. While the laptop was a revolutionary product, such a narrative works to dismiss a series of products which predated the laptop but which had much the same aim, and to deny a social drive for such products, which had been in evidence for a number of years before the technology to achieve them was available. This article shows that the social drive for the development of portable computing came in part from the ‘macho mystique’ of concealed technology that was a substantial motif in popular culture at that time.

    Using corporate promotional material from the National Archive for the History of Computing at the University of Manchester, and interviews with some of the designers and engineers involved in the creation of early portable computers, this work explores the development of the first real laptop computer, the ‘GRiD Compass’, in the context of its contemporaries. The consequent trajectory of laptop computer design is then traced to show how it has become a product which has a mixture of associated meanings to a wide range of consumers. In this way, the work explores the role of consumption in the development of digital technology.

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    Item Type: Article
    Uncontrolled Keywords: computers consumption gender politics popular culture product design social construction of technology
    Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
    Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA75 Electronic computers. Computer science
    Schools: School of Art, Design and Architecture

    1 Atkinson, P. ‘The (in)difference engine: explaining the disappearance
    of diversity in the design of the personal computer’,
    Journal of Design History, vol. 13, no. 1, 2000, pp. 59–72.
    2 J. Westly, the founder of ‘Husky Computers’ claims his battery
    powered ‘Husky’ (see Fig. 10) to be the fi rst laptop, but it had
    no alphabetical keyboard input, and was specifi cally designed
    as a rugged computer for data collection in adverse envir -
    onments. See The Obsolete Computer Museum: http://www.> [Accessed 10 February 2001]
    3 Interview with Bill Moggridge at the London Offi ces of
    IDEO, 15 June 2000. (See also ‘The Compass computer: the
    design challenges behind the innovation’ in Innovation – The
    Journal of the Industrial Designers Society of America Winter 1983
    pp. 4-8).
    4 Ibid.
    5 M. Hiltzik, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of
    the Computer Age, London, Orion Business Books, 2000 p. xiv
    suggests the date of the fi rst appearance of the ‘Dynabook’ to
    be in this thesis in 1969. However, interviews with Alan Kay
    on websites give the date he conceived it as 1968 (http://www.
    htm (accessed 3 March 2005) and
    wiki/Alan_Kay (accessed 10 March 2005)). However, a
    Dynabook-type concept was presented to potential clients of
    Xerox (Wesleyan University, Middletown Connecticut, USA)
    in 1967 as part of a fully digitized library and student learning
    system (Tim Putnam, personal communication), before Kay
    joined Xerox (1970 or, on some sites, 1972).
    6 Learning Research Group, ‘Personal Dynamic Media’ cited in
    L. Press, ‘Before the Altair: the history of personal computing’ in
    Communications of the ACM, vol. 36, no. 9, September 1993, p. 31.
    7 A. Kay, ‘Personal computing’ cited in L. Press, (1993) op. cit., p. 29.
    8 B. Osgerby, ‘So you’re the famous Simon Templar’ in B. Osgerby
    & A. Gough-Yates (eds.) Action TV: Tough Guys, Smooth
    Operators and Foxy Chicks, London, Routledge, 2001, p. 44.
    9 M. O’Day, ‘Of leather suits and kinky boots’ in B. Osgerby &
    A. Gough-Yates (eds.) Action TV: Tough Guys, Smooth Operators
    and Foxy Chicks, London, Routledge, 2001, p. 222.
    10 Sony introduced the TR-63 ‘pocketable’ radio in 1957, at a
    cost equivalent to an average Japanese worker’s monthly salary.
    Unfortunately, it was just larger than a businessman’s normal
    Fig 18. Newspaper advert for Samsung X10 Notebook, 2003 shirt pocket. Sony salesmen were consequently issued with custom-made shirts with slightly larger pockets. (http://www. [accessed 6th January 2005]).
    11 The famous Bond attaché case fi rst appeared in the fi lm ‘From
    Russia With Love’ (1963) and contained 50 gold sovereigns, 40
    rounds of ammunition, a folding rifl e with infrared telescopic
    sight, and a can of tear gas. ( -
    stique/gadgets003.html [accessed 5 January 2005]) A collector’s
    website describes the children’s toy version as being produced
    by Gilbert/Multiple Products from 1965, and states they are
    currently valued at $2000. (see
    ~fl ynn/toys.html [accessed 5 January 2005]).
    12 S. Ewen (1988) cited in M. O’Day, op. cit., p. 229.
    13 Ibid., p. 229.
    14 B. Osgerby, op. cit., p. 46.
    15 B. Osgerby, Playboys in Paradise: Masculinity, Youth and Leisurestyle
    in Modern America, Oxford, Berg, 2001, p. 162.
    16 Anon, ‘In the year 2001, the shape of everyday things . . .’, in
    Esquire, May 1966, p. 116.
    17 T. Pinch & W. Bijker ‘The social construction of facts and
    artifacts: or how the sociology of science and the sociology of
    technology might benefi t each other’ in W. Bijker, T. Hughes
    & T. Pinch (eds.) The Social Construction of Technological Systems:
    New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology,
    MIT Press, 1987, p. 28.
    18 See G. McCracken, Culture and Consumption, (IUP, Indiana,
    1988) Part III, which describes objects as markers of status and
    hierarchies of relationships.
    19 M. Csikszentmihalyi & E. Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning
    of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, Cambridge University
    Press, Cambridge, 1981, p. 29.
    20 Ibid., p. 38.
    21 Ibid., p. 38.
    22 Ibid., p. 39.
    23 J. Williamson, Decoding Advertisements, Marion Boyars, London,
    1978, p. 47.
    24 Ibid.
    25 Ibid.
    26 C. Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern
    Consumerism, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, p. 89.
    27 J. Williamson, op. cit., p. 31.
    28 Ibid., p. 35.
    29 Bubble Memory stored data in cylindrical magnetic domains,
    or ‘bubbles’ in a thin fi lm of magnetic material. The presence
    of a domain indicated binary 1, the absence, a zero. (http:// ‘It was once
    widely believed that bubble memory would become one of
    the leading memory technologies, but these promises have
    not been fulfi lled’ (
    b/bubble_memory.html) [both accessed 7 January 2005].
    30 R. Slater Portraits in Silicon, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 323.
    31 M. Aartsen, ‘Portable computers, a buyer’s guide’, in Design,
    March 1984, p. 48.
    32 I. Stobie, ‘They all laughed, but . . .’, in Practical Computing,
    January 1983, p. 108.
    33 M. Aartsen, op. cit., p. 48.
    34 R. Slater, op. cit., p. 326.
    35 R. Cringely, Accidental Empires, Penguin, London, 1996,
    p. 173.
    36 T. Carlson, The Obsolete Computer Museum, op. cit.
    37 I. Stobie, ‘Tandy 100’, in Practical Computing, August 1983,
    pp. 96–98; and I. Stobie, ‘Olivetti M-10’, in Practical Computing,
    December 1983, pp. 88–89.
    38 I. Stobie, op. cit., August 1983, p. 98.
    39 Interview with John Ellenby conducted over the telephone,
    9 February 2001.
    40 Interview with John Ellenby conducted by email, response
    dated 11 February 2001.
    41 Interview with Bill Moggridge, op. cit.
    42 Ibid.
    43 Ibid.
    44 Ibid.
    45 Ibid.
    46 Ibid.
    47 Ibid.
    48 ‘The Compass computer: the design challenges behind the
    innovation’, op. cit. (see note 3), p. 7.
    49 Ibid., p. 4.
    50 Interview with John Ellenby conducted over the telephone,
    op. cit.
    51 It is important to note that even though other forms of portable
    computer have since appeared, such as PDAs and ‘tablet’
    computers, they have complemented rather than replaced the
    laptop. PDAs have signifi cant amounts of memory, but are
    usually seen as a detachable peripheral of the computers with
    which they dock. Tablet computers are laptops with
    demountable screens, but have yet to prove popular. The fl at
    form and way they are held and used with a stylus could
    arguably connote a clipboard and hence not appear ‘executive’
    52 Hebdige, D., Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things,
    Routledge, London, 1988, p. 80.
    53 Interview with John Neale conducted by email, response dated
    28 January 2001.
    54 Interview with John Ellenby conducted over the telephone,
    op. cit.
    55 See, for example, R. Silverstone, & E. Hirsch, Consuming
    Technologies: Media and Information in Domestic Spaces, Routledge,
    London, 1992, and A. Cawson, I. Miles & L. Haddon, The
    Shape of Things to Consume: Delivering Information Technology into
    the Home, Avebury, Aldershot, 1995.
    56 E. Lally, At Home with Computers, Berg, Oxford, 2002,
    p. 167.

    Depositing User: Sara Taylor
    Date Deposited: 22 Feb 2007
    Last Modified: 28 Jul 2010 19:19


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