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Ode to a Laptop

October 5, 2012

Last month I helped my in-laws move. They were downsizing and I volunteered to consolidate their computer collection for them. Technically, they are my ex-in-laws, but we remain family and have known each other for a very long time. Just how long – and how long I have been helping them with PC issues and advice – became clear to me when I took a survey of their equipment. As far as I could tell they hadn’t disposed of any computers or peripherals in more than two decades. I found myself working through an inventory of nearly a dozen PCs, many of them old friends I hadn’t seen in years; like the Gateway 2000 desktop PC loaded with Reader Rabbit and Freddi Fish for one of their grandchildren, now just starting college. I retired most of these machines: backing up the data, eliminating redundancies and wiping the hard drives to assure that no personal data remained.

My most exciting find was the Lenovo ThinkPad 750c laptop I had used while living in Switzerland in the early 1990’s (the “c” in the name stands for color, most laptops at this time were monochrome). It was my first Windows laptop – indeed the first Windows machine of any kind that I had purchased with my own money. Before that I had only owned Apple Macintosh computers for personal use, using IBM Windows-based PCs at work (Credit Suisse bank at the time). After that, I was a Windows convert and with my move back to the US I moved on to newer, faster notebook PCs , giving the ThinkPad to my father-in-law.

In a cool coincidence, the ThinkPad notebook PC celebrated a milestone birthday today. The first ThinkPad, the model 700c, was introduced 20 years ago at the 1992 Comdex tradeshow in Las Vegas. (See ThinkPad turns 20: How IBM’s ‘Black Box’ Defined the Laptop Industry and the anniversary event at the MoMA that inspired several other recent write-ups.) MyThinkPad 750c was a couple of models later/newer than the venerable 700c. I discovered it in my in-laws’ garage inside a laptop bag marked with a “1995 WinHEC” logo from Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center – I had just begun working at Microsoft at the time. Inside the bag was the ThinkPad, its power supply, a 10-key attachment, the original User’s Guide and utility disks (on 1.44MB/3.5 inch diskettes). There was also a protein bar which appeared to be well preserved, though I elected to toss it rather than risk a taste. I purchased my ThinkPad 750C in 1993 for $4,300 (adjusted for inflation that would be about $1.5 million in today’s dollars, I’m guessing). It weighs in at 7.6 lbs (about 3 kg), has a 120 MBG hard disk, 8 MB RAM and a 10.4 display. Except for those specs and an obvious thickness, it looks very much like a modern laptop.

My ThinkPad-750c

Happy 20th Birthday ThinkPad!

My ThinkPad-750c

Moore’s Law, and heavy daily usage, make it painful for me to keep a computer for more than a few years. As a result, I’ve gone through dozens of PCs and laptops in my life – and a handful of Macs. With the introduction of Windows 8 later this month, I expect I’ll soon be moving on once again. Rather than watch them pile up in a closet (or, like my in-laws, the garage) I sell them or give them away to someone who doesn’t care about cutting edge technology. But this particular laptop has found its way back to me. Although it has no practical value, it does have enough sentimental value to earn a place on my bookshelf next to my father’s Polaroid Land camera (circa 1969, the collapsible one with the bellows – and no, you didn’t have to shake the picture). But before shelving the 750c, I had to first see if it would start. After 10 or more years in a bag and nearly 20 years since it was manufactured, I plugged it in and crossed my fingers. Only a faint, rapid clicking sound emitted from the “black box”. I sat and thought a bit. The system clock battery as well as the main laptop battery must have died years ago. I tried again, this time holding down the F1 key to skip the battery and system tests. Success! The relic sprang to life. The BIOS ran and Windows 3.11 began to load. Welcome to 1993! Now I can celebrate the ThinkPad’s birthday in style.

Fun side note – The ThinkPad was the only laptop certified for use on the International Space Station and the ThinkPad 750c was the first laptop in space as it road along on the Shuttle Endeavour’s flight to repair the Hubble Space Telescope on December 2, 1993. Three ThinkPad 750c notebooks remained on the Mir space station when it burned up in the atmosphere in a controlled crash into the Pacific Ocean on March 23, 2001. Mine sits on a shelf in the living room.

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