Bill Moggridge: Computer pioneer behind the first laptop

 

Bill Moggridge was the designer of the first laptop computer and a pioneer in the conception of a number of the innovations in the world of portable computing. Most important of these was the concept of the "clamshell" case, an idea which provides a practical solution to both saving space and protecting the screen and keyboard, now widely used on laptops and mobile phones.

Moggridge was born in London in 1943 to a civil servant father and artist mother. After studying industrial design at Central St Martins College of Art, he took a job in the US designing medical equipment. He established his own design company, Moggridge Associates, in London 1969.

When he set up his American studio, ID Two, in California 10 years later, Moggridge found himself in the right place at the right time for the portable computer revolution. Portable machines already existed, known at the time as "luggables", because of their unwieldiness. These resembled sewing machines and weighed in at more than 10kg.

A chance meeting with the founder of the company GRiD, John Ellenby, led to Moggridge being invited to work on the design of a new portable computer. The main requirement was that it should be able to fit into a briefcase. He devised the concept of a computer which could fold, so that the screen and keyboard faced each other like the shell of a clam. The familiar fold-shut design of the modern laptop was born.

The GRiD Compass computer, the first based on this design, was launched in 1981, with a magnesium case, a yellow-on-black flatscreen plasma display, and a price tag of more than $8,000. One of these computers first went into space onboard the shuttle Discovery in 1985.

Alex Bochannek, a curator at the Computer History Museum in California, said of Moggridge's work on the early model: "In terms of the industrial design of the enclosure, Moggridge was instrumental in proposing that. He came up with that particular form factor."

Key to his work was the idea of "interaction design", by which products were created with ease of use for the human in mind, rather than simply a machine built by an engineer to perform a certain task. Moggridge had not used a computer before working on the Compass and found that he now started to become involved in not just the design aspects of hardware but also the software. For too long these had been created by engineers who had little idea of the ergonomics and "human factors" involved in design. In his words, "I would have to learn to design the interactive technology instead of just the physical object" in order to make the system more easily usable.

In 1991 ID Two merged with David Kelley Design and Matrix Product Design to create IDEO, which now employs 550 people. IDEO went on to create designs for the Palm V, an early hand-held computer, as well as devices such as heart defibrillators.

In his book Designing Interactions (2006) Moggridge sought to provide a history of the design processes – and inventors – behind many of computing tools that have become part of our day-to-day lives, including the mouse, the internet and hand-held computers. The Architectural Review said of the book that it "...provides a cornucopia of wonderful data on this rapidly developing frontier in the form of 40 interviews with his industry heroes, the pioneers who have found ways to make the power of the computer accessible not just to techies and nerds but to everyone."

A follow-up book, Designing Media (2010), looked at the evolution of publishing in both the offline and online worlds and featured interviews with those, such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who had been instrumental in the development of various aspects of the new media. In 2009 Michelle Obama presented Moggridge with the US National Design Awards for Lifetime Achievement. The following year he received the Prince Philip Designers Prize from the Duke of Edinburgh. In nominating him the Royal Society of Arts said that: "His phenomenal success is emblematic of the industrial designer's skill in visualising and giving form to intangible data and human sensations".

That same year he became director of Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, part of the Smithsonian Institution, as the first professional designer in the history of the museum to take on the role. The associate director of the museum, Caroline Baumann said in tribute to Moggridge, who died of cancer: "Beloved by the museum staff and the design community at large, Bill touched the lives of so many through his wise counsel, boundary-pushing ideas and cheerful camaraderie."

William Grant Moggridge, designer: born London 25 June 1943; married 1965 Karin (two sons); died San Francisco 8 September 2012.

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