back to article The Osborne 1: 30 years old this month

The Osborne 1, the world's first commercially produced computer designed to be portable, is 30 years old this month. Adam Osborne, founder of the Osborne Computer Corporation, introduced the 11kg machine in April 1981, though it didn't go into mass production until June 1981. Osborne 1 The Osborne 1 Source: Wikipedia It …


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  1. Elmer Phud

    portable - just about

    The advert shows a lady trying to walk with the thing as she leave the office.

    It seems she is leaning over a fair bit as she carries the thing. What isn't shown is the grimace on her face from the strain of lifting it.

    Good job it didn't have batteries. I've got a bag for an old Zenith 'laptop' - years newer than the Osborne. The Zenith had a horseshoe shaped battery that was about half the physical size of the whole thing and about 80% of the weight. I think it was termed 'luggable', rather than 'portable'.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Lift with your knees...

      I also thought it a bit unlikely that a skinny lady in high heels could manage to lift a nearly 25lb machine in one hand. My wife certainly couldn't handle such a massive unit. (Stop sniggering at the back)

    2. MrTivo

      Kaypro were even heavier, with sharp edges.

      At least the Osborne 1/Executive cases were round cornered, molded plastic. I have a couple of Kaypro luggables too, and when they catch the back of your leg, they take chunks out of it! The IBM 5155 gets my prize as the biggest hulk of a portable machine.

      Mines the one with the hernia pants in the pocket.

      1. jake Silver badge

        And Panasonic SrPartners were heavier than Kaypros ...

        I lugged one of these around the world for a couple years.

        38 pounds (including case, manuals & floppies), but at least it had a built-in printer :-)

        It has an MFM controller in the expansion slot, a 20 meg hard drive in one of the floppy bays, and an aftermarket hack that upped the stock 256K of RAM to a more usable768K. I used an external modem. Yes, I still have it, and yes it still works. Came with Panasonic-labeled MS-DOS 2.2, but it currently boots MS-DOS 3.3 ... It might be hard for some of the younger readers to believe, but a LOT of RealWorld[tm] work was done with such primitive devices.

  2. Mage Silver badge

    Vixen or PC?

    I always wondered if it was announcement of Vixen or lack of x86 / MS-DOS compatibility that killed Osborne Computer.

    We had an ACT Sirius 1. It did run MSDOS or CP/M86 and was far in advance of IBM PC in late 1981 or early 1982. But though very successful for a year it succumbed to the inferior IBM PC and PC Clones by 1993. For a short while the ACT successor to Victor/Sirius, the Apricot (3.5" floppies) held on in 1984 or 1985.

    Vixen would not have saved Osborne Company.

    (Mine's the one with the mains lead in the pocket)

  3. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Ah, the old sewing machine portables

    or "luggables", more likely. Brings back memories of hernias past (not mine BTW) ;-)

  4. Jim 59


    These early portables were referred to by reviewers at the time as "luggables", in PCW and other mags. CP/M 2.2 and then 3.0 was later bundled with Amstrad's 8 bit machines, including the business oriented 8256. "Public domain" software, as it was called back then, was available under CP/M.

    The 8256 survived a surprisingly long time, because PC compatibles of the time still cost a small fortune. It finally retired in 1998 with 8 million units sold and an estimated 100,000 still in use. Perhaps that was the last CP/M system.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm enjoying picturing an alternate past

    where the Starbucks coffee-house blight happened ten years earlier and every table was occupied by someone sporting an Osborne

  6. Mark McNeill
    Thumb Up

    Happy days

    "Portable as a suitcase full of bricks", people said at the time. The luggability wasn't an issue for my father and me (it never moved once from where we first installed it); what sold it for us was the software bundle, which was unique.

    The tiny screen gave us pause. The salesman pointed out that text was the same size and legibility as newsprint: all the same, we splashed out on a whopping 9" green monitor. When that died, we never bothered replacing it. It was the easiest computer to maintain I've ever had: if I recall correctly, there were no software updates in nearly ten years use!

    Eventually, of course, clients started asking for Windows-compatible files: we decided with some regret to retire the Osborne and buy an IBM PS/1, as I recall, running Windows 3.1.

    (And that, gentle readers, was where our troubles began...)

  7. Bob Sanders

    If IBM had charlie chapplin ... this was a Buster Keaton.

    Actually used something very similar when I was a contractor for the military back in 1992 and was used on an aircraft carrier. Was "updated" to have a 3.5 drive.

    The thing wouldn't fit in the overhead on the airplane and was definately a luggable or dragable.

  8. Lamont Cranston

    This is what computers are supposed to look like.

    No wonder that Apple company isn't doing so well.

  9. Martin

    This truly was innovative....

    I remember going to see a customer who had a problem with an embedded system we had supplied. I was able to see the problem demonstrated, bring up the software on the Osbourne, implement a fix, recompile (more precisely, reassemble, I think!) and link the software, burn a new ROM, install it into his machine, and leave a very happy customer working again.

  10. James Hughes 1


    I must be getting old - I remember that one when it first came out. Well, the adverts anyway! Couldn't afford the real thing.

  11. Elsie

    The Osborne One?

    I thought this was a reference to the number of brain cells residing in the current chancellors skull.

  12. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    My dad had one of these

    The most memorable thing was the daisywheel printer he had attached to it; I remember being able to hear it going from the other end of the (quite large) back garden. A sound a bit like someone dragging a sack full of broken china quickly across an iron fence, then back again.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'd like to see

    the casing for one of these gutted and then the computer rebuilt using modern parts. You could build a pretty awesome luggable desktop inside that :) add in a small LCD and you have the world's heaviest netbook.

    1. Richie Hindle


      Smartphone, Araldite, sorted.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Meanwhile, in an alternate universe...

    Clive Sinclair crams a brand new ZX81 motherboard / keyboard into a box with an FTV1 pocket TV and has created himself a blackberry. All the parts were already there. They even had (non-rechargeable) lithium batteries sorted too. :-/

    To my time machine!...

    1. juice


      Actually, Sinclair Research had been tinkering with a portable machine (codename Pandora) with one of Clive's pocket-tvs slapped on top as the display. Unfortunately, the various self-inflicted disasters at Sinclair (the QL, the C5, etc) killed any chance of it being released.

      (similarly, the proposed "super-Spectrum" Loki never made it past the planning stage - though at least some of the technology wound up in some arcade machines, the Konix Multisystem and ultimately into the Atari Jaguar...)

      In any case, Sir Clive carted the Pandora IP away with him when Amstrad bought out Sinclair Research and used it as the basis for a portable machine called the Cambridge Z88, which was released in 1987.

      For the time, it was an amazing piece of kit - just 0.9kg and roughly the same size and shape as a thick A4 magazine, so easily tucked into a briefcase or carried under one arm, unlike the "luggable" 10kg of a Commodore SX or the Osborne 1. Better yet, it delivered 20 hours of use on a single set of AA batteries and included a capacitor to keep the internal memory warm while you swapped the batteries over. Perfect for a plane or train...

      Sadly, it remained something of a niche product, but it is fun to ponder what could have been if Sinclair Research had put more effort into quality control and spent less time on ideosyncratic gadgets such as the C5 and Microdrive systems...

      1. Martin

        ahh...the Z88

        We used several at work as cheap and portable serial terminals - took up a lot less space than a VT100.

        Wish I still had mine...

  15. Charles E

    Osborne Effect

    Oh Tony, you should have done more research on The Osborne Effect. There is a rather unique article in the archives of El Reg that debunks the so-called Osborne Effect. Incidentally, that article quotes ME extensively, I ran a major Osborne repair site.

  16. Christian Berger


    Actually Portables lived on well into the 1990s. They were used for data aquisition and simmilar tasks where you needed full size add-on cards. Of course the design has changed. The machines became less deep thanks to LCD screens.

  17. W. Keith Wingate
    Thumb Up

    Ahhh, the bad old days

    I was just starting at the uni when these beasts came out, and I got a job for a small computer store which sold Kaypros, the Osbornes' main competitors. I won one in a sales contest and it was my first micro. Suddenly, all the babble at school about operating systems and libraries and assemblers started to make sense. Later, Compaq (then Eagle, which we sold) built similar suitcase-size luggables for the nascent [IBM] PC-compatible market. My wife is shocked I don't still have them in the basement, along w/ enough other old kit to create an IT museum.

    Thanks for the memory.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Sharon! SHAROOON!...

    The cat's shat on the f%&$ing computer again!...

  19. GBE

    Just got one!

    When I was at University it was big news when one of the Electrical Engineering faculty got an Osborne-1, and I remember going to his office to admire it. 29 years later a friend's father-in-law was cleaning out his garage and one of the items to be disposed of was a working Osborne-1 with original manuals and a handful of the original floppy disks. Now I'm the proud owner of that Osborne-1, but I'm too worried about wearing out the floppy disks to play with it...

  20. Anonymous Coward

    ???????? ....... 1

    [Suddenly, all the babble at school about operating systems and libraries and assemblers started to make sense]

    your school was >>SO<< different from mine ......

  21. Kay Burley ate my hamster

    To errr

    What's with saying 'build' rather than 'built' and the keyboard clearly connects with a ribbon cable... I dunno if there were more as I got scared when I heard it ran CP/M. :D

    1. Kubla Cant

      Ribbon Cable

      The original cream case Osborne 1 used a ribbon cable. The updated machine had a grey-blue case and a curly extensible cable, so you could rest the keyboard on your knees. I think it also had double-density disks.

      I was seduced by things like this into trading in my cream case O1, which would be worth a bit of money now, for the newer model, which isn't.

      Colossal Cave wasn't part of the bundled software. I remember having to get a C compiler and build it from source. Both had to be acquired on floppy disk or via a 300-baud acoustic coupler that burned real call charges. Kids today don't know what real computing is, with their interwebs and smartphones.

  22. david 12 Silver badge

    Osbourne and Kaypro

    Both computers commuted from home to work. The Osbourne also went to the computer club.

    The Kaypro died when our (state) power company upped our supply voltage from 210 to 240. Dad was using a transformer to get 230 from 210, and the Kaypro couldn't handle 260V.

    The Osbourne died of a invisibly cracked mother board, probably due to commuting in the back of a 1968 Land Rover for several years. I still have some of the bits.

  23. PolarPerson

    Memory Lane

    I used one of these in the 1980s as a portable development system for developing real time logging software. I re-wrote the I/O component of one system in the middle of the Greenland ice-cap using our trusty Osborne 1, following the failure of the primary recording device.

    Hey-ho - the joys of writing complete systems to fit in 2k of EPROM! But the Osborne's suit of programs did the business; it came with an editor and an assembler, and Kermit would transfer stuff to the EPROM writer.

  24. Yag


    "With no battery on board, the Osborne was a computer you took to work rather than one that allowed to you work anywhere."

    The ad pictured right after this sentence quote a "Battery pack for one hour of processing" as one of the optional extra...

    Was it a very uncommon option, an external battery pack, or just a usual case of ad lie?

  25. realtimecat

    My first home computer (2nd major technology purchase)

    The osborne 1 was a great machine for it's time. My father and I shared usage of it. I found all the wonderful additions available, the z-80 enhanced version of CP/M, the standard C compiler. We had that and a Xerox KSR daisy wheel printer.

    We got the mid-life upgrade for the osborne 1 which upped the screen resolution to 24/80. I was able to get a terminal emulator working on it so we could connect it up to the PDP-11/70 I had at work. Got modem7 running and was able to actually transfer files.

    The system rarely travelled. On one of the few occasions it did, it was stolen out of the hotel room.

    We ended up getting two Kaypro-4's with the money back from the insurance. By then I had moved out of the house, and it provided a perfect stepping off point for me.

  26. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Speaking of "portable"

    Remember the IBM PS/2 Model 80? It was encased in heavy steel and weighed about 65lbs, with a flip-up tube-steel handle. Some wag put a "2 Man Lift" sticker on ours.

  27. Axehandle

    Wish I could read the ads

    Linking them to larger images would have been thoughtful.

    Kinda wish I hadn't lost my Sinclair ZX81.

    Of course I also pine for me HP11C calculator. It would still be useful.

  28. Rovindi

    jeez - forgot about that one...

    My first job (week before 16th birthday, Top Man tie etc) was converting an Aussie accounting program (basic) into being UK compliant. The Osborne was my putah! It was an absolute joy to use. Used to use Wordstar as editor - remember that beauty?

    There was also another similar box, might have been a Hyperion? PC AT compatible with ´orrible orange screen. Felt like it was made out of spare bits of the Forth Railway bridge...

    God, makes me feel like a wrinkly

  29. ddogsdad
    Thumb Up

    ROTFLMAO I have an Osborne I

    Stills boots on CPM and runs Dbase and wordstar , boots faster than my quadcore W7 machine. When I bought it I used it to log into the Mainframe to run Stress analysis and Process Syms. With a $1200 300 baud modem I could log in from any phone. It was great. I did the stress on several nuke plants on my Osborne and still have the files.

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