back to article Liberator: the untold story of the first British laptop part 1

In 1985, the UK home computer boom was over. Those computer manufacturers who had survived the sales wasteland that was Christmas 1984 quickly began to turn their attention away from the home users they had courted through the first half of the 1980s to the growing and potentially much more lucrative business market. The IBM …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Interesting that he didn't run into union problems. Working for BT (still very much run on civil service lines) in the early 80's, my fellow software engineers and I wanted terminals on our desks, so that we could work directly with various minicomputers and mainframes. The unions flatly refused; computer terminals had to be in a computer lab, a specially-furnished room off the corridor. Only typists were allowed keyboards on their desks, engineers were _not_ clerical staff.

    Eventually getting our own local mini (a VAX) some of us decided to ignore the rules, pulled in cables and moved the terminals onto our desks ourselves. After much spluttering the unions realized that we weren't being exploited, nor trying to put the typists out of work, and they agreed to some new rules. It took a while...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Interesting that he didn't run into union problems."

      Had a friend at University who spend some time working in an NHS hospital in the mid-80s .. he was working in medical physics and need to to get a cable from piece of equipment in one room to a computer in the next door room. This involved drilling a hole in a plasterboard partition and pushing a cable through - something he could easily have done himself in 5 minutes ..,. however it took several days as union demarkation restrictions meant that (a) there was no way he'd be allowed to do it himself and (b) the job required 2 workmen as the hole drilling was a job for maintenance while the poking the wire through was in the realm of the electriicans!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        This is because you might start drilling only to discover that the three-phase 240v AC line for the equipment two doors down runs through that wall when your drill bit severs it in a shower of sparks and death.

        They're not trying to be dicks, they're just trying to protect you* from your own stupidity. The same as you not giving a user admin rights on their desktop. I'm sure they would make a similar complaint about it only "taking 5 minutes to install a simple program if only they could do it themselves."

        *And their jobs mind you...

  2. Graham Lee
    Black Helicopters

    Any Sophistry involved?

    Coincidentally, Sophos was founded in a house in Oxford in early 1985, and coincidentally, one of their early products was a prototype portable computer. I wonder whether they might have been one of the companies that the DTI approached.

  3. heyrick Silver badge

    My first "laptop" was an Amstrad monster. Two floppies, mono display, and taking about a hundred D cells... Its saving grace was a really crappy modem, but it got me online. The clunky MS-DOS terminal program was tragic, I wrote a better one in college (when I should been studying) in TurboPascal (!). About the only useful thing I ever did with Pascal. But, hey, console controls and ANSI parsing, not to mention really dodgy checksum code for X/Y modem.

    Goddammit. I miss those days. ;-)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Amstrad PPC? I had one of those!

      Modem was one of the factors in favour of it ... but in realitiy I never used that. However main feature for me was it had 2x720kB floppies (most PCs at that stage only came with 1 floppy) which meant I was able to have one floppy with my work on and a 2nd with a minimal TeX set up to format and print text.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Good days,

    > Sinclair’s Quantum Leap, or QL, flopped,

    What? (see handle)

    But really I wanted to retiterate heyrick's comment - they were interesting times. You'll probably still find Z80s in your nearest vending machine. At one company I worked, the local Arnold Rimmer, when refilling the machine, didn't believe me when I said the coffee was awful because of the Z80.

  5. FartingHippo

    Ah, geeks

    Named after the ship on Blake's 7, no doubt :)

    1. Andrew Moore

      Re: Ah, geeks


      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Ah, geeks

        Hmm... anyone remember the Oric? (Orac)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up

          Re: Ah, geeks

          "...Hmm... anyone remember the Oric? (Orac)..."

          Yes. I had the other one they sold.

        2. Ian Johnston Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: Ah, geeks

          The Oric Atmos had BASIC commands "ping", "bang" and "explode" which did, aurally anyway, all that you might hope for.

  6. Lord Voldemortgage

    Some good design

    Particularly like the look of that keyboard and the tilt the fold-out stand generates.

    I'd like a go on one of these.

  7. Anomalous Cowshed

    Sinclair QL flopped? Oy!

    What are you talking about? Those were the days, that was a seriously cool machine for programming, in my opinion. I saved up all my money from several years of summer jobs to buy one. ThenI wrote a computer game that was published in Sinclair QL User magazine (Stellaris), I made £ hundreds on royalties. My parents used it for over a year to run their business, using a primitive mailing / word processing program that I cooked up for them.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Sinclair QL flopped? Oy!

      The Sinclair QL formed the heart of the ICL OPD ("One Per Desk") product. It was aimed at putting office functions on every desk. It also had an integrated 'phone and user directory. Economical storage was on those tiny tape cassettes.

      Unfortunately - like many ICL innovations - it was ahead of the market. No doubt an El Reg reader somewhere will report one still in use?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: it was ahead of the market

        marketing speak translates as

        Sinclair QL flopped.

        OPD flopped

        ICL flopped

  8. andy gibson

    Cambridge Z88

    The Cambridge Z88 was also another portable that returned to how you left it after a power off.

    1. Toxteth O'Gravy

      Re: Cambridge Z88

      Yeah - but three years after this machine.

    2. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Cambridge Z88

      Any chance of a detailed history of the Z88 in a future episode? That was a terrific little machine with so much potential.

      1. Tony Smith, Editor, Reg Hardware (Written by Reg staff)

        Re: Re: Cambridge Z88

        It's on the list.

  9. Jim 59


    After the "home computer boom" and before PCs became cheap enough for small business, Sugar man made a killing with the PCW 8256. With a built in word processor and able to run Sage accounts, it was an ideal product for running a small company. Apparently continued in use long into obsolescence.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: PCW

      I recall the later PCWs, looked like Macs and had PC compatible floppy drives.

      Popular with those who wanted a low cost machine for word processing and basic spreadsheets.

      Sold by currys, argos etc alongside the emailer phone.

      Another interesting Amstrad was the MegaPC - a PC and a Megadrive in one.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: PCW

      @ Apparently continued in use long into obsolescence.

      They were obsolescent when launched, essentially an integrated TRS-80 from 1979 all in one package.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I can remember my first Laptop working at a national accountancy firm in 1989

    It was an IPAQ the size of a suit case orange and black screen, but it speeded up work tremendously, until a senior partner installed a helicopter program on it, which then became my first introduction to a computer virus Called Stoned!

    The boss borrowed it over the weekend and when I got it Monday morning it was infected, but I didn't notice for 2 weeks until I got a boot screen message, we infected quite a few clients with it too! :)

    I was obviously the escape goat for the firm, fortunately our regional IT guys were straight players and the laptop had a sign-out sheet in main reception and program install dates.

    Needless to say no action was taken against the Infector!

    Oh the good old days!

  11. ForthIsNotDead

    Have a look at the Z88

    I liked 'em so much, I've got three of 'em! If anyone at the 'Reg fancies doing an article on one, let me know and I'll send you some hardware!

    The Z88 was (is) truly a brilliant machine. Still VERY usable to this day, and more geek-cred than you shake a stick at. I used one on a train about a year, and only got as far as the first parapgraph before being politely asked what it was, could they have a look, wow how cool, why haven't we got anything like that now etc etc!

    The Z88 was 1987 so it was a little late this particular civil service project. A shame, because it was probably exactly what they were looking for. However, I rather imagine that the Government may have put Clive Sinclair at barge-pole distance after the Sinclair debacle (he had a very hostile relationship with the previous Communist ^M^M^M Labour government) then it all went Pete Tong with the Sinclair C5, Merthyr Tydfil and massively over inflated sales projects, leading to politically embarrassing production line closures (which had received grants to open them up, IIRC).

    Interesting, maverick times.

    Anyway, a great, meticulously reserached article. Really enjoyed it, and the machine looked fab too, didn't it?

    Beer on me!

    1. Ian Johnston Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Have a look at the Z88

      Pipedream was an excellent bit of software. I wrote a comms program to link the Z88 (running Z88Link) to an Atari ST. It went out as shareware and I made a whole fiver from it.

  12. ForthIsNotDead


    "sales projects" above should read "sales projections". I must learn to type s l o w e r ...

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In the meantime, no one could proceed until they had all the right paperwork

    No change there, then.

    Anon, because I work in public sector IT for my sins.

  14. Waspy

    Replace 'home micros' with 'smartphones and tablets' in the following sentence...

    ...incompatible home micros successfully co-existed, each with its own ecosystem of software and add-ons. They believed business buyers would be happy with this world too.

    Sound familiar?

  15. David Given

    Amstrad NC200

    I have one of these. Brilliant thing --- the grown-up cousin of the Z88. Lovely keyboard, lovely screen. It ran for ten hours off five C cells, with a 720kB floppy drive and about a megabyte of battery-backed storage. The OS was its own but it had a port of R.T. Russell's BBC Basic and you could, if you really tried hard, force CP/M onto it (although it didn't work very well). I did a lot of writing with the built-in word processor.

    Alas, I put it away and forgot to take the batteries out, and they spewed foul foam throughout the innards. It may be cleanable but it's certainly beyond my expertise. I haven't dared to power it on since in case I damaged it further.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Amstrad NC200

      I had one of these in perfect working order, and I'm afraid I threw it away 2 years ago, when I moved house. Wrote quite a bit of stuff on it though, and it was great for taking notes in lectures/training courses.

  16. Sequin

    That takes me back!

    I worked in the Home Office IT department from 1985-2002, and we had several Liberators! We also had a typing pool and a Data Entry pool. We were not supposed to type "Documents" - we had to send our notes to the typing pool, and then wait for several days to get the typed copy back. Using the words "word processor" would have had the union (of which I was a member) walking out the door.

    I seem to remember that the Liberator had a 5 (or 7) pin DIN connector for its serial interface - I think I still have one of the printers used with it at home - a small rechargeable Epson unit that used heat sensitive fax paper.

    A couple of years later we went really high tech and got a Compaq luggable - about the size of a small suitcase, with an orange plasma screen, which got hot enough to cook bacon.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: not supposed to type "Documents"

      Bit like our library. We weren't allowed to buy books, that was the library's job, never mind that it was at the other end of the county and could take weeks to deal with a request.

      Manuals, though, those were technical products that any engineering team could order. We submitted many, many purchase orders for "manuals".

  17. Stephen Channell

    Too much deference.. big waste of money

    The Tandy TRS 80 model 100 that the Civil Servants “evaluated” revolutionised journalism. The “foreign correspondent” did not need to dictate a story over the phone to typist, but could type it up before hand and transmit at a whopping 30 baud with an acoustics coupler.

    The journalist use-case is the same as the Civil Servant.

    The article mentions the NEC & Olivetti versions of the Tandy that was manufactured by Kyocera, but neglects to mention why different firms where able to make essentially the same kit.. because Kyocera did not make the software.. a little Seattle outfit did that bit.

    The little Seattle outfit would have chewed Terry’s arm of for the customisation contract because it hadn’t made it big by then, and the programmer still goes on about “information at your fingertips” today.

    Sure, the Liberator looks neat; but if they’d just bought and customised a few thousand off-the-shelf standard boxes, they’d have saved a stack of money & the Moscow embassy wouldn’t have been cut-off when Gorbachev was deposed (telex lines were cut in the USSR coup).

    For the historically curious, the programmer was Bill Gates and the software was customisable with Microsoft BASIC

    1. druck Silver badge

      Re: Too much deference.. big waste of money

      Are you seriously advocating that the Civil Service should have rushed in to getting screwed over by Microsoft, even earlier?

      1. Stephen Channell

        Re: Too much deference.. big waste of money

        It’s a documented fact that in the 1991 USSR coup all data-lines (mainly Telex) were cut, but modems still worked because the KGB thought the bit-stream was faults. With no secure Telex lines, the British Ambassador drove to Berlin to brief Whitehall (which was on alert for possible war). Meanwhile print journalists were filling ‘live’ updates from Moscow using Tandy kit & acoustic couplers.

        At the time I thought it was quaint that our primitive government didn’t have the kind of kit I’d played with in the local Tandy store… but now understand why. “Why” because millions had been spent developing a home-grown version after evaluating and rejecting the Tandy with its Microsoft software.

        Forgive me for defending Microsoft (I don’t work for them), but yes in this particular case not buying Microsoft very nearly got us all killed!

        1. druck Silver badge

          Re: Too much deference.. big waste of money

          What the hell as the 1991 USSR coup got to do with the choice of electronic note taker in the early 80s?

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    That is one maseeeev LCD B&W panel!

  19. phuzz Silver badge

    Keyboard layout

    What's up with the layout of that prototype keyboard?

    the top row is <>PYFCGRL

    1. Tony Smith, Editor, Reg Hardware (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Keyboard layout

      This is one of a number of non-Qwerty keyboards considered for the Liberator but rejected. At the time, since the planned users would not have been keyboard users, there was no need to use a typist-friendly keyboard layout.

      More on this in part two.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Keyboard layout

        Ah. I was wondering that too. Thought at first it might be a Welsh keyboard layout... but then again it has some vowels on it!

        1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

          Re: Keyboard layout

          Welsh has vowels too! Things like "W", "Y" ...

  20. charlie-charlie-tango-alpha

    Check that keyboard

    Interesting that your pic of the "prototype keyboard" shows a rather, errm odd, layout. Looks as if someone has been prising off the chiclets and re-seating them.

    I had one of these back in the late 80s when I was working in HMT's IT Unit (and shorty before I joined CCTA). It was a rather nice piece of kit. Light, good battery life, excellent screen for its time, and robust too. I used to carry mine around in my briefcase bungied onto the back of my motorcycle. It came loose one day and bounced down the Wandsworth road on the approach to Vauxhall. Brieface a bit battered, but the Liberator still worked perfectly.

    I'm note sure the office Lisa would have coped as well.

  21. Alan Esworthy

    Amazing! Thank you very much.

    I was delighted to find in this article the sentence "Past histories of Dragon have often mentioned an unnamed portable that was intended to be pitched to business buyers."

    My estimation is that out of every 100 occurrences of the expression "past history" at least 99 are cringe-worthy usage errors. I just finished posting a critical comment in another El Reg article after noting one of those incorrect usages.

    This correct example brought tears to this old pedant's eyes.

    1. mhoneywell

      Re: Amazing! Thank you very much.

      Excellent sentiment Alan. Good to have you here.

  22. The Baron


    A very interesting and well-researched article which told me a lot of things I didn't know in a way that I could easily understand - thanks very much.

    Looking forward to part II.

  23. Rick Brasche

    and this old machine is *still* mostly what the lion's share of the workforce needs even today.

    Give it some wifi, a Raspi or similar, SD cards for memory, and power it off of AAs and you've nailed the OLPC. communications and education can still be handled through simple text and audio, the way it was done for generations.

    the whole culture of "throw it away because it's old" needs to end sometime

  24. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "Designed to fit the Civil Service standard briefcase"


    You know it's GI all the way.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    what might have been

    as a survivor of an early affair with the dragon 32/64, this article was a fascination trigger to some what-might-have-been scenarios - need a terry pratchet-type to speculate how things might have been if we'd all run OS-9 tablets from the mid-80s :)

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