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Liberator: the untold story of the first British laptop part 1

Taking over the typing pool

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Archaeologic 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 PC had been launched four years earlier, in 1981. The 5150 and the clones it had inspired at Compaq and other computing firms new and established were winning an increasing share of the market. Some British manufacturers were content to follow the American lead and offer clones of their own. Others, however, believed they could win with systems of their own design.

Thorn EMI Liberator

The Thorn EMI Liberator: the first British laptop

Time would show they were wrong, that what business wanted more than anything was standardisation and, more importantly, the cost savings that came with it. Other buyers wanted ultra-low cost computing. But in the mid-1980s many of Britain’s computer companies had established themselves in a market where numerous, often 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.

Perhaps the most famous example, Sinclair’s Quantum Leap, or QL, flopped, and so did many, many others. Few are remembered today. Among the forgotten is the Thorn EMI Liberator, named not for the starship featured in the first three seasons of the then-popular BBC TV sci-fi show Blake’s 7 but for its ability to free workers from their desks and allow them to work on the move.

Little known now - it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry - the Liberator was the UK’s first home-grown laptop computer.

Thorn EMI Liberator promo picture

Designed for civil servants

It wasn’t the first portable computer, or even the first British mobile machine - Epson’s HX-20 and the Grundy NewBrain claim those honours. It wasn't the first laptop: for that look to the US-made GRiD Compass. But the Liberator was the first notebook computer created in Britain that would be recognisable as such to users of today’s portable PCs. It sported the now familiar clamshell design. Closing the lid put it to sleep; opening it not only brought back the power, but put the user back exactly where they had previously left off working.

And this major innovation in mobile computing was created for that most conservative of worker, the British civil servant.

The machine that was to become the Liberator was devised by a civil servant too. It was designed to solve a very particular problem: the delay imposed upon civil servants by the established workflow for written communications. In an era before email when all formal correspondence had to be in writing, civil servants who might, say, reach an agreement on a course of action during a phone call would nevertheless have to confirm the plan in a formal letter. They would jot down or dictate the gist of the message, which would then be sent off to the typing pool to be written up neatly. This took time, doubly so if a latter needed to go back to the typists for corrections or amendments. In the meantime, no one could proceed until they had all the right paperwork.

Thorn EMI Liberator

As a Principal Systems Analyst and Designer, Bernard Terry - called by some "Britain's father of the laptop" - realised that putting text editing tools into the hands of his colleagues could eliminate the delay. He also knew that many civil servants, especially the more senior ones, were highly resistant to new ways of working. These were men who relied upon secretaries to do the typing and filing for them. These knowledge workers didn't need a fancy new typewriter, something that they would perceive as a way to get them to do the work lower grades were employed for, but a device which would allow them to take charge of the creative process.

This device, then, would not be pitched as a ‘word processor’, at that time a term for an electronic typewriter with its own memory and storage, and a machine for secretaries and the typing pool. Nor would it be promoted as a ‘computer’, a device viewed as a tool for the mechanics in the IT department not civil service decision makers. Instead, it would be a ‘portable text processor’, a gadget on which the enterprising civil servant could create the drafts he or she would then pass on to others for printing and posting.

At the time, Terry was working for the CCTA, the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency, a body established to provide government departments with guidance on the use of information technology equipment.

Thorn EMI Liberator

The CCTA was formed in March 1972 by the then Conservative government as the Central Computer Agency. The Heath administration had accepted the findings of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, published in October 1971, that government needed a more joined-up approach to IT implementation. The CCA combined a number of government departments’ IT operations: the Computer Procurement Division and the Central Computer Bureau of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO), the government's office equipment supplier; the Technical Support Unit of the Department of Trade and Industry; and the Civil Service’s own Management Services (Computers) Division, which was already managing a number of large IT projects on behalf of the Treasury.

The CCA became the CCTA in 1979. Two years later, the Treasury would take control of the CCTA, and it was here that Bernard Terry was given the go-ahead by the CCTA's Director, Reay Atkinson, to find just such a text processor as he had envisaged.

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