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dynabook drawing

Tech Throwback Thursday: The Nobility of Mobility, part 2

October 13, 2015
By Alexander N. Lucas

I recently wrote about the Osbourne 1, the first “portable” personal computer. In this second part of the Nobllity of Mobility series, I take a step further back to the early 1970s and visit the first true conception of tablet computing.

Eerily familiar specs

In 1972 a young computer scientist, Alan Kay, wrote a proposal called “A personal computer for children of all ages.” First outlined in 1968, this proposal called for the construction of a device known as Dynabook. The Dynabook as described looks much like a modern tablet, though with a built-in keyboard rather than a touchscreen. The proposal described the following specifications:

  • Size of a notebook: 9” by 12”, and ¾” thick.
  • Lightweight and portable: Under 4 lbs. Kay believed being portable meant that it could be carried at the same time as something else.
  • Local storage: 1 million characters (500 book pages) or several hours of audio files.
  • Low cost: Ideally to cost less than a color TV, or around $500, to make it widely available.

Dynabook illustration

The original proposal was certainly forward-looking as the components described would have cost approximately $6,000 to manufacture, a good deal more than his target of $500.

Seeing into the future

What is really neat about this proposal is the fact that Kay predicted many other aspects we now are starting to take for granted, but had not been explored at the time. Kay mentioned several key things:

  • eBooks. This was one of the main things Kay was interested in, as to him the Dynabook was for education. He saw books being offered by vending machines that allowed you see abstracts before allowing you to “instantiate” them. Or, y’know, Amazon.
  • Digital publishing. Kay compared the use of ebook to how the use of tapes had not damaged the LP record business. Apparently, the music industry has always been scared technology would bring about its demise.
  • World Web. While Kay describes it as the global information utility, he foresaw the widespread use of the Internet that could connect libraries and schools to the home.
  • Adblockers. My favorite line of the proposal: "One can imagine one of the first programs an owner will write is a filter to eliminate advertising!"

Kay was incredibly savvy at understanding the potential of the computing network, especially with a device that could easily be carried around. The only other option he knew of at the time: a contraption known colloquially as the Sword of Damocles. I wonder when some company will pick up a head-mounted computer design …

Sword of Damocles headset

Apple’s precursor and Kay’s legacy

Despite all his predictions, Alan Kay is not known primarily for the Dynabook.

Kay joined the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and along with several engineers, collaborated to create the interim Dynabook, also known as the Xerox Alto. This machine was the first computer to use a computer mouse and have a graphical user interface (GUI). It also introduced an object-oriented programming language, Smalltalk, which would then go on to influence many other languages like Python, Java, Ruby and Objective-C.

One small thing about this computer. In 1979 a fellow by the name of Steve jobs visited the facility in exchange for Apple stock to see the Xerox Alto. The mouse-based GUI would influence his work in projects for both the Lisa and original Macintosh.

Despite the advances in tablet computing, Kay does not believe that the Dynabook exists yet. He currently works as part of the One Laptop Per Child nonprofit to move toward this goal. To see Alan Kay talk about his work in developing the Dynabook concept, check out this LONG talk on YouTube. If you’re curious about the next iteration of the portable laptop, check out part 1 of this miniseries: Tech Throwback Thursday: The Osborne 1.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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