back to article Remembering the true* first portable computer

A lot of folks tend to honor the Osborne 1 as the world's first mass-produced portable computer. The machine was admittedly an early pioneer in totable systems in 1981, but another, much-earlier computer perhaps really deserves the credit. This old box logo Some 20 years before the Osborne's release, the American government …


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  1. John Freeman
    Thumb Up


    "Target demographic: Commies." "Just a minuteman". Thanks, I needed a laugh. That was just the right placement of wry wit.

  2. Ru

    50% less mutual

    was my favourite phrase. I shall be sure to use it more often in future.

  3. raving angry loony

    it's all in the perspective.

    So you're going from "lovable luggable" to "lovable launchable" as a definition of "portable". Next job, Microsoft "we're not abusing our monopoly" Marketing!

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Bucket of sunshine humour

    A particularly funny article.

    "...not being able to control your rockets can make mutual assured destruction up to 50 per cent less mutual. What's the fun in that?" had me rolling on the floor!

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Horns

    Subtitles are the best

    Hahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaa. Now, ther some funny writin'.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    War, huh, yeah...

    ...what is it good for, technological and scientific innovations, uh huh.

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  9. Nick L
    Thumb Up

    grammar !

    an original (i hope), interesting and fascinating article about computing, marred only by the grating use of the word "that's" as a possessive. 10/10 compared to much recent register reprinting of press releases !

  10. Stuart Halliday

    The first of many

    As so this was also the first 'netBomb' then?

    Well it did have a Atom 'chipset of sorts. ;-)

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The missile knows where it is at all times

    It knows this because it knows where it isn't. By subtracting where it is from where it isn't, or where it isn't from where it is (whichever is greater), it obtains a difference, or deviation. The guidance subsystem uses deviations to generate corrective commands to drive the missile from a position where it is to a position where it isn't, and arriving at a position where it wasn't, it now is. Consequently, the position where it is, is now the position that it wasn't, and it follows that the position that it was, is now the position that it isn't.

    In the event that the position that it is in is not the position that it wasn't, the system has acquired a variation, the variation being the difference between where the missile is, and where it wasn't. If variation is considered to be a significant factor, it too may be corrected by the GEA. However, the missile must also know where it was.

    The missile guidance computer scenario works as follows: because a variation has modified some of the information the missile has obtained, it is not sure just where it is. However, it is sure where it isn't, within reason, and it knows where it was. It now subtracts where it should be from where it wasn't, or vice-versa, and by differentiating this from the algebraic sum of where it shouldn't be, and where it was, it is able to obtain the deviation and its variation, which is called error.

    And that is how missiles work. Simple, eh?

  12. James O'Brien
    Thumb Up

    Nice article Austin

    Well written with a good dash of humor. Atleast now I can smile today at work.

  13. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Great article

    Fun and informative.

    "Now that's something you don't see every day"

  14. Mike Flugennock

    deja vu all over again

    So, I take it this was the granddaddy of the famous Saturn V instrumentation unit, an interstage ring packed with electronics between -- iirc -- the top of the S-IVB and the adapter panels covering the LM?

  15. Richard

    @The missile knows where it is at all times

    At which point does it turn into a chrysanthemum?

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Most excellent article!


  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Keeping your data in "The Cloud"

    "....but how many computers do you know that can destroy the world?...."

    Bearing in mind their demands to have him extradited and tried in the USA, I hereby nominate Gary McKinnon (or rather, his computer) as a contender for a "World - Ender" award. Well, OK, maybe just a "Nearly, but not quite, "Ended -The-World award". It kinda reminds me of this....

    Anyhow, back to the story. I wonder: if it didn't have a screen, would it never suffer the BSOD? Surely a plus point and another reason to celebrate this upwardly mobile computer. Death and destruction notwithstanding.

  18. Sean Nevin


    Right after it realizes the deviation of its position puts it in two places at once. Within its margin of error of course...

  19. Camilla Smythe


    I'm sure Ron.L could have done better.

    Still, these days we have the DPL so the Ruskies better watch out.!

  20. John Smith Gold badge

    @Mike Flugennock

    "So, I take it this was the granddaddy of the famous Saturn V instrumentation unit"

    Yes and no. IBM built the guidance processor for Saturn.

    As for the layout. All missiles aim to minimise unnecessary weight. So any pressurised structure usually has a round end. This ranges from c 17 psia on Saturn 1 tanks to 100s of PSI for something like a solid. Unless you want to expose that end to launch heating and balence the payload section on the extreme top you'll be wrapping a ring round it. Logically you'll suff the guidance sensors (Black Arrow did not have a guidance computer), computer and fine guidance fuel tanks here(Modern ICBMs usually have a liquid last stage to fine tune the trajectory). This allows 1 coputer to run the whole show. Ariane does the same and Aries will as well.

    Mine's the one with a compu of the Saturn IU manual in it.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Re: @The missile knows where it is at all times

    "At which point does it turn into a chrysanthemum?"

    You mean a bowl of petunias don't you? or a sperm whale.

  22. A.A.Hamilton
    Thumb Up

    50% less mutual?

    Something (*) in my head says that this ought to be 100% less mutual, surely? Or is it just me?

    A thoroughly satisfying article by the way; thanks..

    (*) - possibly a small particle of brain

  23. slack
    Paris Hilton


    Great article; a very interesting and amusing diversion. Thank you.

    /Paris. Because.

  24. Grant

    Good well written and very funny.

    This is how black humour is funny, not by swearing every second word.

  25. Martin Huizing
    Paris Hilton

    So, is it running the same software as...

    ...the USB missile launcher?

    Paris because of the similarities in brain capacity! (sorry Paris, we're still friends)

  26. Anonymous Coward

    BSOD has a new meaning.

    could it have been the first computer capable of delivering a blue screen of death, but fortunately didn't ? ( as compared to the commies red screen of death )

  27. Martin Lyne
    Thumb Up

    Nice article

    Some most excellent phrases herein lie.

    I think you missed a word though "approximately two and a half as much memory" + times?

    Anyway. Nice one, informative and funny.

  28. DZ-Jay

    Some comments

    Firstly, to Austin: Great article! You had me laughing out loud, while immensely enjoying the nostalgic elements of the article. Wit and humour--with a touch of relevance--is precisely the reason I read the Register daily.

    @AC: "The missile knows where it is at all times"


    @A.A.Hamilton: "50% less mutual?"

    No, it works well as 50%. If mutual is comprised of precisely two parties, then "50% less mutual" technically means "unilateral", which is follows the intent of the author. I say "technically" because semantically "mutual" is one of those concepts which are absolute, like "perfect" or "unique", which something either is or is not, wholly.

  29. Allan Dyer Silver badge

    @would it never suffer the BSOD?

    No, it has the MCOD (Mushroom Cloud Of Death) of course.

  30. JohnG

    BSOD not possible - no screens back then!

    Keyswitches and lamps (i.e. binary). Teleprinter interface if you were lucky - that gave you paper tape storage.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    @AC--presumably Mr. Modine alludes to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict's book _The Sword and the Chrysanthemum_ a study of Japanese culture published about the time of the Great Patriotic War. It is fair to say the preferred metaphor in the west is probably "plowshare" from the Bibilical "they shall beat the swords into plowshares". As I recall, there was a Project Plowshare in the states, aimed at civilian uses of nuclear energy.

  32. A.A.Hamilton


    No, it's infinitely more improbable than that, being a reference to the work of the departed genius D. Adams, creator of the short-lived, gravitationally assisted philosopher-whale, amongst other vitally important observations of the world within us.

  33. Anonymous Coward


    Could this not be identified as the first implementation of "cloud computing"?

    Sorry it had to be said...

  34. Anonymous Coward


    They were never actually used, how do we know they were any good?

  35. Bob Merkin
    Paris Hilton

    Can't believe it

    No one wants to comment on a missile requiring "penetration aids". This was a Friday article, right? Am I on the wrong website?

    If you need an explanation of my choice of icon, you are definitely on the wrong website.

  36. Chris Lewis

    Great article.

    That's all.

  37. Ferry Boat

    Project/Operation Plowshare

    The so-called self-styled eponymous 'Internet' is able to furnish you with video clips of the nuclear explosions. 'Sedan' is a particular favourite.

    I'm making another delivery of chemicals and sacred roots.

  38. B.Arridh

    Penetratio Curriculae

    Well, of course: It´s called "Lube The Tube" - works universally, though, too.

  39. A J Stiles

    As it says in the Camel Book:

    As it says in the Camel Book, at the end of the section on "for" loops:

    "If the notion of infinite loops bothers you, we should point out that you can always fall out of the loop at any point with an explicit loop-control operator such as last. Of course, if you're writing the code to control a cruise missile, you may not actually need an explicit loop exit. The loop will be terminated automatically at the appropriate moment.*" And, when you follow the star: "* That is, the fallout from the loop tends to occur automatically."

    (Larry Wall, Tom Christiansen and Randal L. Schwartz.)

  40. Lionel Baden
    Thumb Up

    excellent Article more please

    Kept me reading all the way through prolly could of done another 12 pages and i would of read them.

    Needed bucket o' Sunshine somewhere in there even if somebody else coined the phrase !

    Personally i think that phrase should be used in every conversation regarding nukes.

    @They were never actually used, how do we know they were any good?

    "After a successful initial test flight in 1961, the US Department of Defense formally green lighted the Minuteman program. The missiles turned out to be a big hit, although thankfully never literally."

  41. Marty

    sombody owes me a new laptop.....

    "The on-board system navigated by measuring velocity with gyroscopes and acceleration with an accelerometer - sort of like a Nintendo Wii controller, only slightly more deadly when you accidentally toss it at your television set."

    this one is now splatered in cornflakes and milk......

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    great stuff

    Austine, you're not a Journalist, you're a comedian...

    Brilliant article - your dry humour, apart from being very funny, simply melts the face off the insane mindset of these dinosaurs. How long will it be before everyone who has dedicated their working life to weapons will be held in similar shit-eating lunatic contempt?

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  44. Wayland Sothcott
    Thumb Up

    Wii controllers

    It's interesting that 60 years on the principle of inertia guidence this uses is now concidered advanced in the Wii controller.

    Inertia guidence and GPS will be in camera phones next, allowing you to wave your camera arround to obtain a 3D Google Street View style photo. That's looking 1 year ahead if that.

    What do the military have right now that will be in our hands in 60 years time?

    Excellent article, big up The Register.

  45. DutchOven

    Portable computer?

    ...I've never seen anyone take one of these out of their breifcase on the train.

  46. Anonymous Coward


    Will it run Linux? :-)

    I'll get my coat....

  47. Graham Bartlett
    Thumb Up


    Does this mean that the missile itself is smart enough to say "Hello, Professor Falken. Shall we play a game?" And work out midflight that what it's been programmed to do will result in a tie? Do you really want your nukes having moments of existential doubt halfway over the Atlantic?

  48. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Probably not any of the currently released versions, but you should easily be able to roll your own with a few tweaks to the source code and a recompile. And remember, Google is your friend.

  49. Anonymous Coward

    Great article

    Defo a great read, few chuckles in there.

    I for one will be first to locate John Conner in anticipation of our Skynet overlord!

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    volley of fission sandwiches

    Nicely played.

  51. Mike Silver badge

    Helped more than you think

    Many of these were given to colleges when they were retired, and there was a livley exchange of hacking tips, distributed as mimeographed newsletters. Many students got their first exposure to embedded computing from these systems.

    I/O, IIRC was 5-level TTY input, Servo control output. Many of the early questions were of the form "How do I get human-readable _output_?"

    Linux? Um, the Linux kernel is written not in ANSI/ISO C, but in gcc (A dialect, in the sense that Norwegian is a dialect of Swedish, or Bosnian of Serbian) gcc does not believe 24-bit computers exist.

    Not to mention that /bin/true (even on an older FC4 system) is larger than this system's total memory, even when dynamically linked, and stripped.

  52. J


    Nice article indeed.

    But something on the pictures to give a better sense of the size of the thing would have been nice. It says that the computer weighted 60-something pounds, but it look like something much heavier. Was it a typo for 600-something, or is the impression of big size just an illusion?

  53. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    @Wayland Sothcott

    "What do the military have right now that will be in our hands in 60 years time?"

    In the case of the UK armed forces; a bunch of rifles that don't work and some flying white elephants.

  54. Keith
    Thumb Up

    Great article!

    Thank's ! a great read.

  55. Josh
    Thumb Up

    Interesting Stuff

    A very interesting read. I never really thought about how guided missiles go about their business until now. fascinating to think these things carried about an entire prehistoric computer system. It's pretty amazing what innovation and creativity can spring out of a Cold War scenario, eh..?

  56. Anonymous Coward

    @AC RE Chrysanthemum

    "You mean a bowl of petunias don't you? or a sperm whale."

    Surely thats just too improbable...

    Nice article..

  57. Degenerate Scumbag

    Geekish nitpicking

    "The on-board system navigated by measuring velocity with gyroscopes and acceleration with an accelerometer"

    Surely it measured attitude from the gyroscopes? It doesn't need to measure velocity, it can calculate it from the acceleration.

  58. Kristin McKechie

    ballistic nuclear misses...

    ...are these the ones the US now call 'friendly fire'?

  59. Jon

    Great bit of writing

    Some genuine laughs from reading that, thanks.

  60. ben 63
    Thumb Up


    why i come back every day and why i have your igoogle gadget thing

  61. Chris Duncan
    Thumb Up

    Brilliant, just Brilliant

    Great Article. Informative, interesting and funny.

    Ditto for comments.

    Austin please write more.

  62. Joe H.

    Steven King, anyone?

    "The Minuteman 1's missile guidance computer was a bleeding-edge 24-bit microcomputer made by Autonetics Division of North American Aviation."

    Autonetics Division of North American Aviation. A subsidiary of North Central Positronics no doubt.

    Great article, and the usual great comments, this one not withstanding.

  63. Lottie
    Thumb Up

    fission sandwiches

    Made me laugh

  64. vr villa
    Paris Hilton


    I think you overlooked a current microsoft term to customers...

    Sorry, you misunderstood... But, the nuclear explosion was not a bug, it was a feature...

    We aim to improve on that feature with the next release...

    We will call it 'Vista'...

  65. peter garner
    Dead Vulture

    ..never actually used

    Maybe the North Koreans bought some at a US end-of-line sale. No doubt we'll find out soon...

  66. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    great article

    more from this from this author

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