Trivia Question

From: evan <>
Date: Sat Feb 22 00:44:00 2003

Hello all,

Some of you may recognize my name by now; most won't.
I'm a reporter at eWeek (aka, formerly PC Week)
magazine. Anyway, as Sellam I. will attest, I'm a
self-proclaimed (dare I say) guru, specifically
regarding the history of mobile computers.

Roger's question thus made me get off my ass and

As others noted, some of the early programmable
calculators may qualify as "portable computers."
Also, the Sharp PC-1201 -- along with the
Panasonic/Quasar Handheld Computer, and the
Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 Pocket Computer 1 -- all
debuted in 1980/1981. (If you're near a decent
big-city or university library, then check out the
January 1981 issue of Byte, on microfilm.)

If you don't want to use mere programmability as the
line between a calculator and a computer, then
consider display features. The TI-58, in 1978, was
the first to display letters, not just numbers. The
catch was, it could print them on a printer, but not
on its own screen. The HP-41C, in 1979, was the first
that could display letters natively. It also had
removable storage, which third-party companies
actually sold applications on.

Sellam and I have also discussed (as have others
before us, a few years ago) the electronic language
translators of the late 1970s. The first one of these
was from a Florida company, Lexicon, in 1978 (though a
patent was applied for in 1976.) Besides translating
words, it also had memory module functions, to make it
into a calculator, a primitive flat-file database, or
a notepad. Combined with its keyboard, I believe
those features make it a "PDA."

Lexicon sold out its initial batch of a few thousand
units, and promptly ran out of money. They sold the
rights to Nixdorf. If you do a Web search for
"LK-3000" (the product name), you'll find several
references to a Nixdorf product that Lexicon was a
reseller of. That is wrong, it was the other way
around. I know this because 1.) Lexicon had the
patent, and 2.) I personally talked to the founder of
Lexicon, Mike Levy, a couple of months ago. (Today he

Craig Corp. made a very similar translator, in 1979,
called the M-100. It has the calculator option
built-in. Its investors/advisers included Nolan
Bushnell (Mr. Atari) and Joe Sugarman (the guy behind
those BluBlocker TV infomercials.) TI also had a
product, Language Translator. It came out in 1980.
Theirs was unique because it actually spoke the
synthesized word, so users could learn the foreign
pronunciation. It did this using the exact same
technology as a best-selling TI product from the year
before: the Speak-and-Spell toy. Sharp had a
translator too, in 80 or 81 I think, but I don't know
much about it.

So, you could say Lexicon invented the PDA, if you
don't count Alan Kay's concept of a DynaBook, from
1975. The concept only came true in Xerox's
"NoteTaker" prototype, but that was more like a
primitive laptop, and it wasn't mass producted
(according to the book "Dealers of Lightning," only 12
were made.)

Another twist to the story of "who invented the PDA"
is a Judah Klausner. Klausner's best known as the man
behind the Sharp Wizard. That's mildly interesting,
but more interesting is this: he also has a 1978
patent for an "electronic directory." I don't think
anything came of that, but I'll know more in a few
weeks; I've got an interview scheduled with him. Even
if there was a prototype, it doesn't beat Lexicon,
though Lexicon's involved just one function at a time,
vs. being a multi-task integrated unit.

Yet another twist is those primitive handheld sports
games from Mattel, etc. Those debuted in the
mid-1970s. I would NOT call them PDAs, since they
only had entertainment functions, not "assistant"
functions. But if you choose to consider a calculator
as a portable computer, then why not a game too?

So the answer of "what was the first PDA (and thus
sub-1 Kg)" is still "it depends on how you define
PDA." I'm open-minded to other input, but for now, I
think the best answer is Mike Levy's device, which was
conceptualized in the 74/75 timeframe, patented in
76/77, and sold, en mass, in 78. It was truly first
device that could run removable-storage applications,
display text vs. just numbers, was handheld, had
rechargeable batteries, even had a keyboard, and sold
in quantity to the general public.

Someone should tell Apple this, the next time they
ramble about "inventing" the PDA with the Newton.

 Evan Koblentz

PS -- if anyone visits Boston, you're welcome to visit
my apartment, where I have several of these devices
that actually work. I have most of the documentation
too (none of it's for sale.)

--- Roger Merchberger <> wrote:
> With my contemplation of purchasing a new Sony
> Picturebook, I was wondering:
> What was the first portable computer that weighed
> less than 1Kg?
> [[I'm assuming that it'd be older than 10 years, so
> it should be ontopic...]]
> Any pointers appreciated! :-)
> Thanks,
> Roger "Merch" Merchberger
Received on Sat Feb 22 2003 - 00:44:00 GMT

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