World’s first laptop

The world’s first laptop (terminal, if not self-contained computer) … the Silent 700.

The Silent 700 used a built-in acoustic coupler to connect the user to a remote computer (usually a mainframe). The user entered data and commands by text, and the output appeared on thermal paper. The use of thermal printing made the terminal incredibly quiet (hence the ‘Silent’). Connections were slow — typically running 300 bps — but the quality of the acoustic interface allowed you to maintain connections for hours or days at a time. The Silent 700’s keyboard was a joy to write with, and the terminal was virtually indestructible.

The Silent 700 was the first device to make computing truly portable, though at 15 lbs, we couldn’t consider it mobile computing by today’s standards. All you needed was a telephone, a power plug, and a mainfraime computing account.  (And a paper bag to put over your head, because walking around with a Silent 700 in 1973 wasn’t quite as sexy as walking around with a iPhone in 2008.)

While it’s hard to recognize this today, the Silent 700 was a tour de force of industrial design in its day. The devices it replaced were clanky, fixed teletype units the size of small refrigerators, and heavy desktop video display terminals that tied users to their desks. The portable terminal let knowledge workers take their work into the field, and notably, into the home. The Silent 700 was the first step in the decoupling of data from location. Though now long forgotten, it launched the transformation of knowledge work into a mobile discipline.

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