Man in a Briefcase

P. Atkinson, ‘Man in a Briefcase:
The Social Construction of the Laptop Computer
and the Emergence of a Type Form’
Journal of Design History 18(2): 2005: 191-205.

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Abstract

Dominant design discourse of the late 1970s and early 1980s presented the introduction of the laptop computer as the result of ‘inevitable’ progress in a variety of disparate technologies, pulled together to create an unprecedented, revolutionary technological product. While the laptop was a revolutionary product, such a narrative works to dismiss a series of products which predated the laptop but which had much the same aim, and to deny a social drive for such products, which had been in evidence for a number of years before the technology to achieve them was available. This article shows that the social drive for the development of portable computing came in part from the ‘macho mystique’ of concealed technology that was a substantial motif in popular culture at that time.

Using corporate promotional material from the National Archive for the History of Computing at the University of Manchester, and interviews with some of the designers and engineers involved in the creation of early portable computers, this work explores the development of the first real laptop computer, the GRiD ‘Compass’, in the context of its contemporaries. The consequent trajectory of laptop computer design is then traced to show how it has become a product which has a mixture of associated meanings to a wide range of consumers. In this way, the work explores the role of consumption in the development of digital technology.

A full text version of this paper can be downloaded from here:

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