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Liberator: the untold story of the first British laptop part 2

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The Liberator design team's first working prototypes were little more than circuit boards with keyboards and screens attached. The CCTA's deal with Thorn EMI called for an initial delivery of 40 complete units. These were hand-assembled by the team during the first months of 1985 when a strike at the Treorchy, Wales plant ensured that the original plan of getting workers there to build them had to be abandoned.

Thorn EMI Liberator Manual

Manual override: the Liberator was not promoted as a computer

“We all did whatever we had to do to make the thing work, and that meant forget about demarcation," says Williams. "There were obvious skill sets and that dictated who was going to do what, but at the end of the day, it was a joint effort.” So there was never any question of anyone not mucking in to get the units built. They all grabbed soldering irons and screwdrivers and set to work.

"We loaded up the back of my car, and I drove down to London and delivered the units to Bernard," remembers Williams. "Then I went to Sunbury-on-Thames [site of Thorn EMI's HQ] and showed them the receipt for the goods. They were totally gobsmacked. No one had delivered a project of that complextity on time and on budget before."

Bernard Terry handed six of the first prototypes to civil servants for pre-release testing. "I selected about six people who would then trial them and come back with feedback. For instance, one of the things the I underestimated was the file size that people required - it was bigger than I thought it should be. Now we had a limit on the file size, and we had to change it. And people would come back and say, 'It would be good if it did this, or it would be nice if you could add that', and we did keep on modifying and hopefully improving it.

Thorn EMI Liberator Manual

RTFM... but you never really needed to

"The main faults we found were manufacturing faults rather than system faults. There was nothing wrong with the software, there was nothing wrong with the hardware - it was how they were putting it together in South Wales," he told me.

Thorn EMI previewed the Liberator to 70 senior Civil Servants on 21 February 1985 at an event held in Riverwalk House, the CCTA's HQ. Bernard Terry discussed the motivation for the project and the thinking behind it, and demo'd the Liberator to attendees. Derek Williams talked about Thorn EMI's commitment to manufacturing the machine. On 18 March, Thorn EMI's marketing team began previewing the machine to CCTA and departmental staff. Civil Service pricing was agreed with Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO), which would be selling the device, and CCTA staff member Gordon Lawrence noted in a promotional document that "Thorn EMI is about to make the commercial launch and full production models are expected to be available in May [1985]".

That proved overly optimistic. Come May, Thorn EMI was already saying the Liberator would launch in June, though HMSO had already started listing the machine in its catalogues and customer newsletters as "non-stock items" and was offering government departments further previews of the machine. At the same time, the CCTA was working with pre-production machines, testing the software to expose bugs that would need to be squashed before the final Rom was burned.

Thorn EMI Liberator Manual

Get it set

As John Peacock, the development team's finance manager, says, the first units highlighted issues that would need fixing before production could begin. The strike at the Treorchy didn't help, but at least it was short-lived. A bigger problem was that Thorn EMI bosses hadn't really believed the design team's claim that a working prototype would be ready early in 1985. It was, but Thorn EMI wasn't ready for it. And this was a time when initiating mass production required a lead time of at least 16 weeks, says Peacock.

Another problem, recalled by Derek Williams, was exposed when the machine was shown at the CCTA demo in February. The Treorchy plant had a wooden floor, but Riverwalk House was laid with nylon carpeting. The static electricity shocks the first Liberators were exposed to were something the rushed development team had never anticipated. Jan Wojna went back the to drawing board and in a few weeks had beaten the problem.

The June deadline was missed too, but Thorn EMI was sufficiently pleased with the product's progress to highlight the new device in its Annual Report, published in July of that year, calling it “a compact, easy-to-use and highly portable word processor with extensive applications”.

Thorn EMI Liberator
Thorn EMI Liberator

No monster PSU for this mobile computer

That enthusiasm would fade. The following year, the company's Annual Report would not mention the Liberator at all. By that time, Thorn EMI was more concerned by the ongoing cash drain that was UK chip maker Inmos, which it had taken over in July 1984 after it acquired 76 per cent of the Transputer developer for £95m.

But at the end of September 1985, Thorn EMI had enough cash to splash out on an extravagant public launch in France, taking journalists to the Chateau d'Artigny near Tours in the Loire valley. They were given kit play with on the flight, the better to appreciate the value of being able to work even at 30,000 feet. How many of us don't take that for granted now?

Back in Treorchy, Thorn EMI was punching out Liberators, Jan Wojna having spent the first part of year overseeing the establishment of the production lines while John Linney and Duncan Smeed finished off the software. Following the portable text processor's launch, their job was largely done and they were soon tasked with other computing projects for Thorn EMI. The following year, they would be working on an IBM compatible laptop, an Intel 286-based machine derived from their work on the Liberator but based on the platform now rapidly establishing itself as the de facto standard.

Thorn EMI Liberator carry case

The world's first dedicated laptop bag?

Thorn canned the project just after the completion of the prototype, Wojna recalls, despite a major deal with “a major manufacturer” which John Peacock remembers was Daewoo. The Korean company was willing to make the machine and sell it in the States, but only if Thorn EMI committed itself to running a European sales operation. But Thorn wanted simply to license the design to other companies, Peacock recalls, and so the deal fell through.

Had the project reached the product stage, it would have been the first IBM-compatible notebook with an integrated hard drive to come to market, beating Toshiba, which launched the first HDD-fitted notebook PC, the T1200, in 1987.

Part Three: Into the maelstrom
Part One: Taking on the typing pool

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