John Ellenby, British inventor of the first laptop, powers off

GRiD Compass made it into space and onto Aliens


Obituary The creator of the world's first laptop, the GRiD Compass, has died at the age of 75 at his home in California.

John Ellenby was born in the North of England in 1941 and educated at University College London, where he showed an early interest in computers. After a career designing mainframes he moved to the US, where he ended up joining the Xerox PARC brains trust that gave the world the PC, the graphical user interface (GUI), laser printing and the Ethernet.

Ellenby was one of the team working on the Alto personal computer – which inspired Steve Jobs to rework Apple around the GUI – and also worked on the Alto II, which was a PC designed to be much cheaper to manufacture. While at PARC, he also worked on portable computers but had the idea for a clamshell laptop that would replace the portable model.

He and some PARC friends left the company in 1979 to set up GRiD Systems Corporation. The company initially designed portable computers but saw little success, thanks to competing companies like Osbourne and Compaq selling similar kit for less.

But in 1985, the firm released the GRiD Compass 1101, an $8,150 laptop in a form factor that's now commonplace. The laptop ran an Intel 8086 processor, a 320×240-pixel electroluminescent display, had 340 kilobytes of magnetic bubble memory, and a 1,200 bit/s modem, all contained in a mag-alloy case.

The Compass wasn't a perfect machine by any means. The power requirements were so high that the device had to be plugged in for use but, despite the high price, it was a hit among the well-heeled or government-funded buyer.

Despite the high price, and the weight of the 5-kg (11-lb) machine, it sold very well in the military and government. NASA used the Compass as a backup computer for the space shuttle and one of the firm's laptops reportedly survived the 1986 Challenger disaster in working order.

Hollywood also loved the futuristic look of the device – it was featured in numerous films, including the 1986 classic Aliens, where two Compass machines controlled the robotic sentry guns that briefly held off the savage beasts.

Ellenby sold the company in 1988 to Tandy and started a portable tablet business, but never enjoyed the success he found with GRiD. He also founded GeoVector, an early pioneer in virtual reality systems.

He made his home in San Francisco and remained a tech tinkerer until his death earlier this month. He is survived by two sons and a grandchild. ®

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