Feature

William Moggridge, 1943–2012

The visionary who designed the first laptop

Soon after arriving in Silicon Valley in 1979, British-born industrial designer William Moggridge landed a commission from a start-up, Grid Systems, to create a new kind of portable computer. Even the lightest PCs then on the market had to be lugged around in ugly sewing machine–style cases; the company wanted one that could fit inside a briefcase. Moggridge designed the Grid Compass around a revolutionary concept—a clamshell case that opened to reveal a 6-inch screen on top and a keyboard on the bottom. Three decades later, laptops are still based on Moggridge’s visionary idea.

Moggridge said the impetus for the Compass came from a senior White House official who complained to Grid founder John Ellenby that his computer was larger than his desk, said The New York Times. What the official wanted was the same computing power in a case that would fill half his briefcase. “That became our guiding principle,” said Moggridge. When the Compass was released, in 1982, its $8,150 price tag put it out of the reach of ordinary consumers, but it “quickly received recognition from the scientific and military community,” said The Washington Post. NASA appreciated the machine’s tough magnesium exterior and took it into orbit on the space shuttle.

Moggridge, who co-founded the design firm Ideo in 1991 and became director of New York’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2010, was confident that his clamshell laptop design would “last forever,” despite competition from new devices like the iPad. “It’s a form that is very practical,” he said in 2011. “I can’t see the laptop ever being completely replaced.”

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