The lap of luxury

US Marines used the Compass to locate targets and communicate with a war room when they invaded Grenada. One was even dropped from a helicopter without damage
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The Independent Culture
Are yesterday's computers the collectables of the Nineties? Maybe - but they are not yet a good investment. Bonhams, the Knightsbridge auctioneers, recently sold the world's first commercially produced laptop computer for a hammer price of pounds 460 - a fraction of the pounds 5,000 or so it cost its original buyer.

The Grid Compass computer was created for the California start-up company, Grid Systems, by a British designer, Bill Moggridge, in 1980. It occupied less than a tenth of the volume and, at nine pounds, weighed less than a fifth of contemporary desktop machines with the same computing power. Its innovations included a cast magnesium casing and electroluminescent flat-screen display; Business Week called it the Porsche of personal computers.

The basic model had 256 kilobytes of memory, less than a thousandth of the capacity of today's models, and required an umbilical mains electricity connection. Software was loaded by means of a telephone connection from a computer hub known as "Grid Central".

Despite these shortcomings, the Grid Compass was put on the US market in 1982 for more than $8,000, though price was of little consequence for some markets. "It's so inexpensive," Grid's marketing man told the US Department of Defense at the time, "that if it breaks in the field it can be thrown away and replaced." But the Compass was unlikely to break. The magnesium case combined light weight with high strength. It was also highly effective at dissipating the considerable heat generated during operation.

Inside was a "bubble memory" - not an Absolutely Fabulous secretarial software package, but the solid-state equivalent of a disk drive with no moving parts. All this was designed to enable the Compass to withstand high G-forces, whether in military usage or simply from being thrown around in delivery vans. (In a test, the designers rented an impact recorder and sent it from sea to shining sea via Federal Express, UPS and DHL, registering up to 60-G.)

The Compass was chosen by both the British Secret Service and the CIA. President Reagan's aides used it aboard Air Force One. At the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, they demonstrated its capabilities by throwing it out of the window. (James Bond: "I suppose that's what they call downloading." Q: "Oh, do pay attention, Double-Oh-Seven.")

The US Marines used the Compass to locate targets and to communicate with a war room "somewhere in the United States", when they invaded Grenada. One was even dropped from a helicopter without damage. NASA used it on early Space Shuttle missions where, logically enough, it was rechristened SPOC - the Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer.

But it will come no surprise to learn that the other market for the Compass, with its sharp lines and black finish, was as an electronic complement to the attache case for "boys with small briefcases and large wallets", as one computer magazine put it - a group ruthlessly targeted in the publications of institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons.

American sales were $25 million in the first year: a modest 3,000 units. Subsequent models were aimed more at the business user. The advertising pitch in 1985 in the Financial Times was: "How a trusted Washington aide became a public informer". .

"The Grid Compass defined the obvious geometry which everyone else was forced to follow," says Moggridge. Indeed, imitators paid handsomely for the privilege. Grid Systems earned $7 million in licensing fees from its patent covering the novel way in which the display screen folds down over the low-rise keyboard.

The computer's genes live on in every laptop on the market today. But the company itself was bought, and bought again, and the original product range was discontinued. Moggridge, meanwhile, works on its descendants for Hewlett-Packard, Apple and NEC. Buy them today for a fraction of the price of the Compass. Or catch them at Bonhams some time early in the next century