The year 1982 was a landmark year for personal computers. In the UK, the BBC Micro computer was introduced, as well as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. In the United States, the Commodore 64 entered the market. And then came the GRiD Compass.
The GRiD Compass was the first notebook computer made in a “clamshell” type case.
The notebook had a unique “clamshell” design, where the monitor folded down over the keyboard. Its 21.6-centimeter plasma screen could display 25 lines of up to 128 characters in a high-contrast amber color that, according to the company, could be “viewed from any angle and in any light.”
By today’s standards, the GRiD was a bulky beast. The size of a large binder, it weighed 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds). But compared to, say, the Osborne 1 or Compaq Portable, which had a heavier CRT screen and weighed 10.7 kilograms and 13 kilograms, respectively, the Compass was very light. Some call the Compass the first truly portable laptop computer.
The computer had 384 kilobytes of non-volatile bubble memory, a magnetic storage system that was promising in the 1970s and ’80s. With no spinning disks or moving parts, solid-state bubble memory worked well in environments where the laptop could, say, be dropped. Sales representatives claimed to drop the computer in front of potential buyers to demonstrate its durability.
But bubble memory also tends to get hot, so the outer casing was made of magnesium alloy to make it a heat sink. The metal case added to the laptop’s reputation for durability. The Compass was also equipped with a 16-bit 8086 microprocessor and up to 512 KB of RAM. Floppy disk drives and hard disks were offered as peripherals.
At a price of $8,150 (about $23,000 today), the Compass was aimed not at consumers but at corporate executives. Accordingly, it came with a word processor, spreadsheet, plotter, terminal emulator, database management system, and other business software. The built-in 1200 baud modem was designed to connect to a central computer at GRiD Systems’ headquarters in Mountain View, California, from which additional applications could be downloaded.
The GRiD’s rugged construction made it ideal for use in space.
The rugged laptop soon found a home with NASA and the U.S. military, who appreciated its rugged construction and did not regret the cost.
The first GRiD Compass went into space on November 28, 1983, aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Hardware adaptation to microgravity conditions was relatively minor: a new cord to connect to the shuttle’s power source and a small fan to compensate for the lack of convective cooling in space.
Software modifications were more significant. Special graphics software displayed the orbiter’s position relative to the Earth and the daylight/darkness line. Astronauts used this feature to plan upcoming photo shoots of specific locations. GRiD also had a backup program for returning to Earth – in case all the IBMs in Mission Control failed.
For its first flight, the laptop was codenamed SPOC (short for Shuttle Portable On-Board Computer). Neither NASA nor GRiD Systems officially associated the acronym with a certain pointy-eared Vulcan from the Star Trek series, but the GRiD Compass became a Hollywood fixture when a character needed to demonstrate wealth and technological savvy. The Compass was featured in the movies Aliens, Wall Street, and Pulp Fiction.
Compass/SPOC remained a regular on shuttle flights until the early 1990s. NASA’s confidence in this computer was not unfounded: the GRiD flying aboard the Challenger reportedly survived the January 1986 crash.
The GRiDPad 1900 was the first tablet computer
John Ellenby and Glenn Edens, both of Xerox PARC, and David Paulson founded GRiD Systems Corp. in 1979. The company went public in 1981, and the following year they released the GRiD Compass.
Not stopping there, GRiD continued to be a pioneer in portable computers, especially through the work of Jeff Hawkins. He joined the company in 1982, left for school in 1986, and returned as vice president of research. At GRiD, Hawkins led the development of a pen or stylus-based computer. In 1989, this work culminated in the GRiDPad 1900, often considered the first commercially successful tablet computer. Hawkins went on to invent the PalmPilot and Treo, but no longer with the GRiD.
With the rapid consolidation of the personal computer industry, GRiD Systems was purchased by Tandy Corporation in 1988 as a subsidiary. Five years later GRiD was bought again, by AST Research of Irvine, California, which was acquired by Samsung in 1996.
In 2006, the Computer History Museum organized a roundtable discussion with key members of GRiD’s original development team, Glenn Edens, Carol Hankins, Craig Mathias, and Dave Paulson, moderated by New York Times journalist (and former GRiD employee) John Markoff:
How do you preserve an old computer?
Although the GRiD Compass computer product had a relatively short life, its life as a historical artifact continues. To enter a museum collection, an object must be groundbreaking, iconic, or historic. The GRiD Compass has all of these qualities, which is why the computer ended up in the permanent collections of not one, but two different Smithsonian Institution museums.
One Compass was acquired by the National Air and Space Museum in 1989. This is not surprising, as Compass was the first laptop used in space aboard a NASA mission. Seven years later, curators at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum added it to their collection in recognition of the innovative clamshell design.
Credit for creating the iconic look of the GRiD Compass goes to British designer Bill Moggridge. His firm was originally commissioned to design the outer casing for the new computer. After taking a prototype home and trying to use it, Moggridge realized that he needed to create a design that brought together the user, the object, and the software. This was a key moment in the development of computer-human interactive design. In 2010, Moggridge became the fourth director of Cooper-Hewitt and the first director without museum experience.
Given the importance Moggridge placed on interactive design, it is fitting that the preservation of the GRiD laptop was handled by the museum’s Digital Collection Materials Project. Launched in 2017, the project aims to develop standards, practices, and strategies for the preservation of digital materials, including personal electronics, computers, mobile devices, media players, and born-digital products.
Keeping an electronic device in working order can be extremely challenging in an era of planned obsolescence. Cooper-Hewitt enlisted Ben Fino-Radin, a media archaeologist and digital conservator, to help resurrect their stalled GRiD. Fino-Radin, in turn, turned to Ian Finder, an avid collector and restorer of vintage computers who has particular expertise in restoring GRiD Compass notebooks. Using bubble memory from Finder’s personal collection, the Cooper-Hewitt curators were able to load GRiDs at the museum and document the software for their research collections.
As museums struggle to keep their old GRiDs alive, new GRiDs are being born. In 1993, former GRiD employees in the UK formed GRiD Defense Systems in a management buyout. Based in London, the company continues GRiD’s tradition of building rugged military computers. The GRiDCASE 1510 Rugged Laptop, a handheld device with a 14.2-centimeter backlit LED display, looks remarkably like a smaller version of the 1982 Compass. I guess when you have a winning combination, you stick with it.