First 'laptop' computer shown 30 years ago
May 27, 2013
by Mark Ollig

It was May 1983, and at the Anaheim National Computer Conference, history, of sorts, was being made.

The smallest and most light weight portable computer at that time was introduced to the public.

It was called the Gavilan Mobile Computer – and it received much attention.

Many consider the Gavilan to be the first true battery-powered, portable laptop computer.

The sleek-looking, full-featured Gavilan computer was the creation of Manuel Fernandez, the founder of the Gavilan Computer Corporation.

The Gavilan was originally designed to use a 3-inch 320K micro-floppy disk drive, but ended up being shipped using a 320K 3.5-inch floppy disk drive.

Most personal computers during this time (including mine) were using 5.25-inch floppy disks.

The Gavilan was, in fact, very “laptop-like” as it measured 11.4 inches square by 2.7 inches high, and weighed in at a manageable 9 pounds.

The top model Gavilan computer used a Liquid-Crystal Display (LCD) screen showing 16 lines by 80 characters.

This screen was inside a durable black plastic case. During transit, the screen closed downward, protecting the full-size standard keyboard.

An external monochrome monitor could be plugged into the video output connection on the Gavilan.

An optional “snap-on” printer (which weighed 4 pounds), could also be attached to the computer.

Gavilan’s central processing unit was a 16-bit Intel 8088 chip operating at 5 MHz (megahertz).

The Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS 2.11 version) was the operating system mostly used on the Gavilan, to control how the user would interact with software applications and hardware.

The software packages which could run on this computer included a word processing program called SuperWriter, and a business spreadsheet program called SuperCalc.

SuperCalc was developed back in 1980, and was originally used in 1981 on the Osborne 1 portable computer.

SuperCalc was similar to VisiCalc, which was used on the Apple II computer around 1983.

By the way, the Osborne 1 “portable” computer weighed in at around 24 pounds.

Data communication over dial-up telephone lines was possible using Gavilan’s communication software package and its built-in direct-connect 300 baud modem.

This computer included 48K of Read Only Memory (ROM). Information held in ROM is permanently stored and is mostly used for carrying out hardware\firmware instructions.

The Gavilan contained 96K of Random Access Memory (RAM) for managing software programs.

Additional RAM and software applications could be added by using small, plug-in rectangular modules. Each 32K “CapsuleRam” module cost $350. Four module slots were available on the Gavilan.

I recall my 1983 IBM personal desktop computer came equipped with 256K of RAM.

Around 1984, I took off the cover and added another 256K, to give it 512K of RAM. Yours truly was pleased with this accomplishment, and felt very “techie” after this.

The Gavilan used 64K of Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) memory which held its non-volatile memory, such as its Basic Input Output System (BIOS) information. The information stored on the CMOS is maintained by a small battery constantly powering it.

It included, what was in 1983 an innovative touch-pad user interface.

This solid-state touch-pad was located above the keyboard.

Several files, menus, and interactive icons were available on the Gavilan’s screen.

To interact with them, a person used their finger like a mouse and scrolled on the touchpad; a floating curser on the screen would go where the user pointed their finger.

The user would tap on the desired icon in order to select it.

The file drawer, trash bin, document, and file folder icons could be accessed in this manner.

The Gavilan computer was able to operate from eight to nine hours, using its nickel-cadmium batteries. It was said 80 percent of its battery power could be recharged within one hour.

Here is a link to a compilation of photographs of the Gavilan yours truly collected: http://tinyurl.com/nldv6s6.

The price for a Gavilan computer with 96K of RAM, and a 16-line by 80-character display screen was around $4,000.

The lower-priced model Gavilan SC was equipped with 64K of RAM and an eight line by 80-character display screen, it sold for about $3,000.

Although expensive, the smart design of this new mobile computer was ahead of its time in 1983.

The Gavilan had the potential to become one of the more popular laptop computers, if it were not for the financial difficulties the company encountered.

Sadly, serious cash-flow problems beleaguered Fernandez’s Gavilan Computer Corporation during the Gavilan’s ongoing development.

The company was forced to file for chapter 11 protections during 1983.

Although the company began shipments of the Gavilan in 1984, it still ended up going out of business in 1985.

By this time, other computing manufacturers were making their own laptop computers.

Laptop computers were and still are popular computing devices.

Long live the laptop!

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