The Laptop, Circa 1968

By  |  Saturday, July 4, 2009 at 11:22 am

In 2009, portability is the default state of affairs with computers, since laptops outsell desktop PCs. But in the 1960s, the typical computer was a room-filling mainframe; minicomputers, which were merely the size of a refrigerator, were the small computers of the day.

Which didn’t mean that folks weren’t craving the concept of mobile computing even back then. I was just rummaging through Google’s invaluable archive of several decades of Computerworld, and came across a short item from March 1968 on carrying cases for the typewriter-like Teletype terminals that were then used to interface with mainframes and minis. Anderson Jacobson sold the cases both separately and as a package with a Teletype pre-installed. (Sadly, the Computerworld story doesn’t say how much you had to pay for one of these portable Teletype systems. Maybe if you had to ask, you couldn’t afford one.)

One model of Teletype weighed a trim 75 pounds in its case; another, was an even more featherweight 65 pounds. The cases offered optional wheels in case you wanted to roll your Teletype along. The gent in the photo below didn’t need the wheels–I wonder if he tried to store his Teletype below the seat in front of him when he traveled by airplane?

Portable Teletype

Of course, putting a Teletype in a case didn’t really give you access to a mainframe’s mighty computing power anywhere; the Teletype had to be plugged in and connected via a dial-up modem (with an acoustic coupler that attached to your telephone’s handset). What it did was help you move a big, bulky piece of equipment from place to place with a little less difficulty. But the yen to go mobile was there. Wonder how the guy in the photo would have reacted if you’d shown him even the most mundane notebook from 2009?



28 Comments For This Post

  1. Dave Says:

    I used the ASR-33 and ASR-35 with a DEC (Digital Equipment) PDP-15 and other mini-computers.
    I believe “ASR” stands for Automatic Send and Receive. This meant the unit had a paper tape unit included. There was also a “KSR” which was Keyboard Send and Receive – no paper tape unit.
    The model 33 was “light weight” was designed for a limited life before having to be rebuilt. The model 35 was more heavy construction for unlimited running life. But they had equivalent functionality.
    These units printed a fully formed character from a character drum (model 33) or character matrix struck by a hammer.
    I would not want to carry either one around as a “portable”.
    The great improvement to these (in the mid 70′s was the DECwriter – a dot matrix type unit).

  2. NanoGeek Says:

    “But the yen to go mobile was there.”

    Was that supposed to be yearn?

  3. davebarnes Says:

    What came next, in portables, was the TI Silent 700. I used one connected to an IBM 370/158 running the Cambridge Monitor System.
    It was awesome.

  4. The Furry Squid Says:

    “Was that supposed to be yearn?”

  5. GrumpyYoungMan Says:

    I briefly had the use of one of the later thermal paper based portable teletypes, at a svelte 40 or so pounds. Ah, the memories.

    Literacy, son; acquire some.

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    Bill Gates is said to have started out using an ASR-33. When I was at Boston University (1982-1986) there were still Teletype machines in the computer lab–but they seemed archaic even then…


  7. Yonah Says:

    This article is crap. Where are the details? The specs? Interviews with the people behind the machine? Can we get a price? You don’t give us any information that isn’t already in the blurry newspaper article, which just so happens to be the only picture on display. Oooh! What’s inside the mysterious black case. Whatever it is, you won’t find out here. I know it’s a holiday, but this undercooked article needs to go back on the grill.

  8. Walt Says:

    There were a few teletypes at U of Illinois in the late 80′s, too. I occasionally used one in the basement of the Foreign Language Building rather than walk over to the computer lab (which was a room full of dumb terminals.)

  9. Ron Says:

    At about this same time IBM had a mainframe program called Administrative Terminal System (ATS) which provided rudimentary word processing capabilities to remote terminals. The “portable” terminal was a Selectric typewriter with an acoustic coupler/modem – all built into a suitcase weighing about a zillion pounds. Good times.

  10. Tony Says:

    Teletypes are all we had to connect to our ICL 1900 series mainframe at university in the 70′s, and in the late 70′s I had to use a Teletype with an acoustic coupler to connect to a remote Honeywell mainframe.

    Although we did have 1 VDU at university for our DEC PDP11, and my first job had one that they were using to inquire on data, all the data was input on punched cards.

    It was only in 1979 that I first started using VDU’s to enter data and to edit programs, they were still written on coding sheets and sent out to be punched onto cards and fed into the computer.

  11. Nate Says:

    Ahh, the thermal paper printer :) Ya know, those were very reliable in my opinion — Don’t remember them ever breaking, ever, and all you have to change is paper, no ribbons, ink, toner, … What the hell happened.

  12. Steven Fisher Says:

    How’d he have reacted? Probably enthusiastic, until he realized his teleterm and thus critical business logic wasn’t accessible.

    40 years not only advanced technology, but also adjusted our needs and expectations. :)

  13. John Blake Says:

    So we’re forty-one years from 1968, when Lyndon Johnson abdicated in favor of his buddy Humph-the-Pumph. Today’s technology moves numerical data, text, and video incomparably faster, with extraordinary ease– but like a calculator’s standard four arithmetical functions [addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division], in absolute terms 2009′s nanotech marvels have not changed in principle.

    Fifty years from now, in AD 2050, we suggest that a post-quantum physical, hyperlinked “emergent order” will provide a truly qualitative difference. This may take a semi-sentient form, whereby an over-arching cyber-entity (not organism) will subtly direct all outcomes. Computations out-of-reach today, such as factoring a trillion-digit composite number to its component primes, will be instantaneous because Joe the Entity will have reckoned everything not certain or impossible already. Just input a hyperspace index-reference and readout the result.

    Joe need not be “intelligent,” artificially or otherwise. Nor need he be creative or “ethical” as we understand the terms– indeed anything our rudimentary faculties conceive. Perhaps debates will rage as to whether he in fact “exists.” But “real” or no, hyperlinked complexity guarantees that Joe’s emergence by c. 2030+ is nigh-inevitable. He will be immortal, omniscient, possibly for practical purposes omnipotent (meaning he can accomplish any ends whatever). Joe will be beyond human capacity to grasp.

    Information Theory still dances around Emergent Order, but we know from ant-colonies and such that self-organizing super-entities WILL appear. If Planet Earth engenders more than one, they may compete in some bizarre Darwinian context, placing humanity squarely in the middle. Only our children or grandchildren will know how that turns out.

  14. MaggieL Says:

    Actually, Steven Fisher, many laptops are still capable of 110 baud async dialup…admittedly fewer as time goes on and WiFi takes over from dial-up access.

    But that poor fellow’s mainframe data and programs could probably be ported into a modern laptop without too much trouble.

    I wrote my first programs in 1968. On an ASR-33. The non-portable kind.

  15. Chester Drawers Says:

    Minicomputers, some quite small, were in use in 1969. I programmed on one that used an LA-32 teletype terminal as its keyboard and output device as a printer was integral to the machine. No graphical interface was available or even seriousely thought of…..yet. It stored programs on paper tape and its processor said ‘Altair or something with an ‘A’ in front. This company that had it where I worked was doing some work for the government and some of it was secret but the computer was never told to be to be secret. It had a row of lights and switched so that memory could be directly addressed and edited on a bit by bit basis. It had four, yes f-o-u-r ‘K’of random access memory of the magnetic core type. Its primary function was to be experimentally used in the field to access the new GPS satellite system that was being built then. Yes! Then!

  16. Pooky Jenkins Says:

    Hunter S. Thompson called it “The Mojo Box”

  17. Joe Smith Says:

    Acoustic coupler and Bell 103 modem = 0 to 300 baud; the ASR-33 operated at 110 baud. With 11 bits per character (1 start bit + 1 parity bit + 7 data bits + 2 stop bits), that meant a whopping 10 characters per second.

    Due to mechanical considerations, it was not wise to send a printing character immediately after sending CR+LF. CR+LF+72-characters+CR+LF+”A” resulted in a smeared “A” being printed near column 40 while the carriage-return operation was still in progress. DEC computers were programmed to send CR+CR+LF+RUBOUT to compensate.

  18. CityTrader Says:

    There’s a wonderful German word for a heavy laptop – “schleptop”

  19. mediawoema Says:


  20. Greg Says:

    This reminds me of a really good book by John Naughton titled “A Brief History of the Future – From Radio Days to Internet Years In A Lifetime”.

  21. Ricky Says:

    ASR is asynchronous send receive, this takes me back to the first IC based computer built by RCA the Spectra 70 model 45 that I worked on. Went to school in W Palm Beach for 6 months to learn MainFrame and Peripherals. Was paid about 6 bucks an hour then. Boy how times have changed….

  22. Eric Lee Elliott Says:

    Silent 700, ATT type 103, ASR33, acoustic coupler, paper tape, Altair. So many hardwares I used, repaired & forgot at least 2 decades ago.

    I hate to think some “writer” got paid for adding nothing to a ’68 Computer World ad from last millenium. Thanks for all the comments that were much better.

    One more for the memories, Cromemco computer.

  23. Nefarious Wheel Says:

    Yes, the TI Silent 700 was awesome, but the keyboards had a tendency to catch fire. I found this a trifle disconcerting.

  24. spinnakerjksc Says:

    I remember seeing my grandpa’s first work computer. It had a screen about 3×3 inches and was carried in a giant briefcase.

    What did you celebrate on the 4th?

  25. TK Says:

    Gosh, look at all the authentic history. All I can think of to add is that we used to feed the paper tape into the 33 to upload a program. (Hard drive space was not often granted to mere mortals at one time.)

    You could string the roll of tape across the floor of the room and then wait. BUT you had to be careful in the winter because if you had snow on your feet, the paper might fall in the showmelt and your (typically unbacked-up) program tape would rip in two.

  26. Para Handy Says:

    In 1974 the ASR-33 was alleged by my boss to cost £1200. They were very robust and long lived. ASR was indeed Automatic Send and Receive, as the first poster suggested. Almost totally mechanical, I spent many a happy hour tweaking various bits to ensure error free operation. The paper tape readers in particular were prone to getting dirty and needed frequent cleaning. After that the 8 fine gold wires that sensed the holes in the paper needed bending (special tool provided) so they worked correctly 100% of the time.

  27. squarebrackets Says:

    [that was a pretty good read, make me appreciate my laptop and the time I live in even more]

  28. Tom Says:

    My dad brought home a TI Silent 745, hooked up to the Bell Labs systems circa 1980. Great for Unix ‘maze’ and ‘banner’!

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