John Ellenby, Laptop Pioneer, Dies Aged 75

Astronaut John O. Creighton poses with onboard GRiD Compass computer, displaying a likeness of Mr. Spock of Star Trek, aboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-51-G on 18 June 1985.

Astronaut John O. Creighton poses with onboard GRiD Compass computer, displaying a likeness of Mr. Spock of Star Trek, aboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-51-G on 18 June 1985.

The man whose company made the first widely-sold laptop has died aged 75. John Ellenby was credited with having a notable ability to turn technology into commercially viable products.

Ellenby spent much of the 1970s at Xerox when it was working on the Alto range, generally regarded as the first to use a graphical user interface and to be explicitly compared with the organization of a physical desktop. The range heavily influenced both early Apple computers and the development of Windows.

After leaving Xerox, Ellenby formed GRiD Systems, the lower case ‘i’ being a nod to Intel having helped with the set-up of the company. Alongside fellow staff including designer Bill Moggridge, Ellenby launched the GRiD Compass 1100, the first widely available computer to use the clamshell design in which the screen is built into a lid that folds down onto the keyboard.

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The New York Times notes that while the $8,150 price limited its appeal among smaller businesses, it was a hit with government and one variant was even rumored to have a red dot for military staff to shoot at if they needed to quickly destroy data. The computer’s durability was proven in tragic circumstances when one survived the Challenger space shuttle crash.

Ellenby went on to work on early tablet computers and developed technologies blending GPS with augmented reality.




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