The Osbornes
October 1, 2010 2:01 PM   Subscribe

The Osborne 1 was the first commercially successful portable microcomputer, released in April 1981 by Osborne Computer Corporation. It weighed 23.5 pounds, cost $1,795, and ran the then-popular CP/M 2.2 operating system. The computer shipped with a large bundle of software that was almost equivalent in value to the machine itself.

Adam Osborne (with John C. Dvorak) later wrote Hypergrowth: The rise and fall of Osborne Computers Corporation.
posted by Joe Beese (33 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It ran CP/M, and it could bite the head off of a bat.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:05 PM on October 1, 2010

Portable: it had a handle.
posted by jfuller at 2:10 PM on October 1, 2010

I meant to add that it's also the reason that Ralph Ellison only published one novel in his lifetime!
posted by Joe Beese at 2:28 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

A few of my friends' dads were programmers for a local defense contractor, and I remember seeing their Kaypro portables and thinking how awesome they were. I had never heard of the Osborne. Pretty cool!
posted by gimli at 2:36 PM on October 1, 2010

But does it run MaME?
posted by wcfields at 2:41 PM on October 1, 2010

thinking how awesome they were.

It's funny looking at it now, it's not an elegant machine but at the time, these were the future.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:44 PM on October 1, 2010

I can remember lusting over one of these big time. Then, when the Kaypro came out, my lust was transferred to one of those. I always did think the Osborne was a more elegant machine though, despite it's smaller screen.

These days it boggles my mind that the Os 1's display is not much bigger than my HTC Incredible's, and the box is hellaciously bigger and heavier.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:48 PM on October 1, 2010

MeFi obit thread way back here and a user's comment here.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:53 PM on October 1, 2010

Just to note that by 2009 (adjusting for inflation using the Consumer Price Index) the relative worth of $1,795 from 1981 is $4,240.
posted by Auden at 3:10 PM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Too bad it was run by the Green Goblin and it's only use was to eliminate Spider-Man
posted by joelf at 3:12 PM on October 1, 2010

(and ascii porn)
posted by Auden at 3:13 PM on October 1, 2010

My five-year-old self somehow didn't realize that those things had full-height drives inside. Damn. (Looks like the same ones that were also sold as the Apple disk ][, too.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:44 PM on October 1, 2010

My father had an Osborne for a while, followed by a Kaypro. When I went off to college, I inherited the Kaypro. Man, the lethal damage you could do with that machine...if only you could pick it up, which I couldn't.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:48 PM on October 1, 2010

A young prof had one of these in the Education Faculty at the U of Manitoba. He'd come in once or twice a week with the 24-lb. monstrosity and a hard-shell suitcase containing his floppy drives, diskette cases, CP/M manuals and papers - his whole setup must have weighed north of 60 lbs.

He would then occupy an entire 6-foot wide table, unpacking it all, running cords, plugging in those stylish blue ribbon cables and arranging his books and diskettes around the machine for swapping. It took him a good 10 minutes to set everything up. Then he'd work for about half an hour, use our printers and spend 10 more minutes packing up his kit.

So with travel he'd be spending almost as much time preparing to use the machine as he was actually using it. But by god he was determined to do this because, hey, free printing! (Note to the young'uns - printers, esp. CP/M printers, were very rare beasts back then. As rare as, say, people with 3D TVs today.)

(Post-purchase rationalization might have been a factor too, as he'd blown most of his budget on this one box.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 5:50 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember the Osborne, but I never really lusted after one. The Mac portable, on the other hand...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:11 PM on October 1, 2010

The first computer I ever physically laid hands on was an Osbourne 1. I loved how the floppy drives dwarfed the monitor, and those ridiculous cubbyholes for your floppies. And then the Compaq came along with that giant screen!
posted by phooky at 7:22 PM on October 1, 2010

I used to be an Osborne tech, I was one of the few techs outside the factory that could take the machine to pieces and solve any problem. I might have even been better than most of the techs at Osborne, I remember one client sent his machine to them 3 times for repair, it came back each time with malfunctioning disk drives. I finally found the problem. The techs had put in two left handed floppy disk drives. Yeah, that sounds like a lame joke, but I'm not kidding. Replacement drives for the left hand drive were different than the right, they had different circuit boards, and could be easily mistaken for each other.

Oh, the things I used to do with Osbornes. My specialty was setting up Wordstar with Mailmerge to do mass mailing campaigns. It was a nightmare working with large tables of data on that stupid little screen. Microsoft's new spreadsheet software (and shameless ripoff of Visicalc) Multiplan made it seem easy, compared to working with CSV data in a text editor. I can hardly believe that Microsoft got their start in the business world by writing a spreadsheet program for CP/M machines. But it is not hard to believe they got that start by ripping off Visicorp.

I remember buying Dvorak's book "Hypergrowth" when I was still working at the computer store where I had repaired Osbornes. I was terribly amused to find it on the remainders shelf, selling for 99 cents. I didn't know who Dvorak was then, but I do now. And this book is just a perfect example of what a hack he was. I dug it up recently after being cited on the web about "The Osborne Effect." Oh that book is just crap. About half of it is compiled from old press releases. Fully 1/3 of the book is just a spreadsheet dump he got from Adam Osborne, page after page of detailed and irrelevant financial stats. I talked to someone who knows Dvorak, he said that was just like him, to shovel some crap together, do some light editing and call it a book, then dump it out to the publisher as some business parable.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:25 PM on October 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

The father of a friend in high school had one and we'd play with it ( circa 1988 or so ). I plugged the display in wrong and fried it. I still feel guilty.
posted by roue at 7:25 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh.. I forgot the reason I went on at such length. For many years, I've had a collection of videotapes, the entire service and repair training videos for Osborne. I still remember it well, I spent many hours going over and over these tapes with a disassembled machine in front of me. The tapes are surely a time capsule of 80s computer technology, seeing the Osborne ripped apart, recalibrated, and reassembled. But I have a huge problem.
The tapes are recorded on VHS cartridges, but in a nonstandard VHS format. We had to buy the recorder from Osborne with the tapes. When Osborne died, they kept the VCR but they gave me the tapes.
The tape format was described to us as "Industrial VHS" but I've never found anyone who has heard of it. I'm trying to convert them to a modern format and rip them into video files for the web, as a history project. But I'm stumped. Does anyone have suggestions for a way to recover these tapes, before they deteriorate beyond usability?
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:33 PM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ha! I used to lug the Kaypro II back and forth on the No. 6 bus in Chicago. Beast.
posted by stargell at 7:46 PM on October 1, 2010

My first real computer was a Mac Portable backlit, with the aftermarket 8gb RAM expansion. It. Was. Glorious.

For one, the screen was usable in bright daylight, I mean direct sunshine at noon. Just dial back the backlight to nil, prop it up on the folding table in the middle of the meadow, and write for four hours on the battery - and know you had at least another three hours of juice left when you packed up for the afternoon. Full-sized trackball with an enormous button, oh, man, I wish Kensington made a trackball like that, buttery smooth and precise.

Would I have paid the four grand or whatever stupid-crazy-money Apple demanded for it new? Hells no. But two years after its debut, I paid $600 for a very lightly used one, which put it square in Mac SE territory. I'm a big brute, I've got pants that weigh more than the Mac Portable. It's size and weight was never an issue - where it's inexhaustible battery, full size keyboard/trackball combo and super nice display were issues I could get behind.

Until work gave me a Powerbook 180c, which has yet to be surpassed in my personal pantheon of mobile computing greatness. Yes, I owned a Pismo, and yes, I've seen the new MacBooks.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:13 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I picked an Osborne up for seven or eight bucks at a thrift store in 1995. I programmed something in BASIC on it - I can't remember what, exactly - then it sat in my closet for a few months before I destroyed it on stage while playing with an old band of hfhGGKOqsffffguk4de+22222488888888SWAF2dr,,,,,LLLLDDDdDDDLd\HhhHHHHhHHH$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$%%$$$$$$$$$$$##$$$$$$############### SYNTAX ERROR
posted by item at 3:32 AM on October 2, 2010

I just threw one of these out.

A few years ago, the Managing Partner at my firm was drooling over a tablet computer he wanted (I think it was one of those ThinkPads that converted back and forth from a laptop to a tablet). He had been waiting months for it to come on sale, then ordered it, and it was backordered a few weeks. He waited, and waited, and waited. None of us in the office heard the end of it (he is, needless to say, a total geek).

Finally, the big day arrived. The machine arrived at the end of the day, and he decided to set it up, but then leave it overnight in the office and start to play with it the first thing the next morning. He went home around 7pm that night, and I was still there working on something else.

Little did he know, but while he was waiting for it to become available, I went onto eBay or some other site, and found an Osborne. Some guy out in Texas was selling it. I won the auction, and sent him a note explaining what I planned to do with it. He thought it was so funny, he sent it to me overnight, and picked up the tab himself.

The next morning, the Managing Partner comes in, happy as a pig in wet shit, and heads right into his office to play with his new machine. He turns on the light, and where it was yesterday, there is now.... this Osborne. Just sitting there, up and running, humming along with it's little 2x2in screen glowing green, and some 5.25" floppy disks sitting in a little container right next to it.

Ahh... he wasn't amused. The rest of the office was, but he was not. I had his new machine setup again in a couple of minutes, but he never let me forget it.

The Osborne sat in my closet for four or five years after that. When I moved last month, I just couldn't justify hauling it along with me, and ended up tossing it out.

That Osborne was such a great machine!
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:36 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I still own one of these and I am looking at it now. I bought it new in late 1981 I believe.

I have the entire package of software and accessories. It all still works, and I occasionally fire it up...just 'cause I can.
posted by Aetius Romulous at 9:52 AM on October 2, 2010


That was my first computer. We called it "Osby".
posted by jewzilla at 12:06 AM on October 3, 2010

My first job was in a shop that sold those, among other things.

At the time, 80x24 text was standard on computer video displays. So I see my first O1, with its dinky little 52x24 screen that relied on horizontal scrolling to pretend to be 80x24, and its scummy bendy plastic case with its piss-poor ventilation and its massive weight and I'm thinking, why the hell would anybody buy this garbage? And why is the trade press treating Adam Osborne like somebody with a clue?

The machine sucked from Day 1. I didn't like it then, and time has not mellowed my opinion.
posted by flabdablet at 1:55 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

..why the hell would anybody buy this garbage?

Lots of people said the same thing about the original Compaq Portable too. It was even bigger and bulkier than the Osborne. But it was hugely popular and as the first true IBM clone, it changed the industry. I made a ton of money selling and repairing Compaqs. That was the Golden Age of microcomputers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:30 PM on October 3, 2010

There was a time, young 'uns, when it was possible to understand a machine completely, inside and out. Processor, memory, disk access, everything.

Now I sit in a cube next to some well-intended moron struggling with SharePoint. ("Why does it do that? I didn't tell it to do that!")
posted by SPrintF at 6:57 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, SprintF, that was Osborne's specialty. Not only was it possible to understand a computer in its entirety, it was possible to understand ALL the CPU chips that were on the market. Osborne was famous for his tech books, like An Introduction to Microcomputers: Volume 0. It contained all the theory you needed to understand the functions of any CPU chip at the hardware level. That book probably launched the careers of more computer hardware engineers (including me) than any other book. But his masterwork was a book modestly entitled An Introduction to Microcomputers: Volume 2, Some Real Products. It came as a stack about 5 inches thick of loose sheets of 3-ring binder pages, under the assumption there would be errata and inserts released as new chips were produced (there never were any updates). But it had the technical details of every single microprocessor chip on the market at that time. The 8008, 8080A, Z-80, 6800, 6502, 6100, 1802, IMP-16, LSI-11, F9440, TMS-9900, PACE, everything was in there. People bought these books and dreamed of the days they could use the exotic functions of rare CPU chips. I still have these books. Hell, I saved everything from those days, I still have my old SOL-20 microcomputer too, a blazingly fast 2MHz 8080A processor.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:18 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The thing I thought sucked about the O1 was not the weight (building lightweight computers out of what was available at the time was hard) but the design, which just looked totally thrown-together.

Both the Compaq Portable and the Kaypro II had decent inbuilt monitors. The O1 had this squitty little CRT that would have been more at home in an oscilloscope than a computer. The disk drives were badly positioned. The front panel looked like failed car interior trim and featured vast amounts of wasted space, and the computer ran hot.

The Kaypro II had a decent sized screen that made it about as usable as the terminals typically attached to popular desktop computers of the time. I liked the Kaypro. I really disliked the O1. I remember thinking at the time that Adam Osborne should have stuck to datasheet aggregation and left computer design to people who could actually do it.
posted by flabdablet at 10:19 PM on October 3, 2010

> I just threw one of these out.

I found this in your dumpster.
posted by spock at 12:13 PM on October 4, 2010

Yabut, I spent a hell of a lot more time fixing Kaypros and Compaqs with bad video alignment due to being bonked around, than I ever did with Osbornes. Each design has its compromises (not the least of which are weight and cost).
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:56 PM on October 4, 2010

I was able to see and play with one of these exactly once; I was visiting some friends at a nearby university and one of their dorm mates had one. I admired its compactness and at the same time thought that it was silly to have to work with such a small screen if you didn't really have to move your computer around on a regular basis.


>I talked to someone who knows Dvorak, he said that was just like him, to shovel some crap together, do some light editing and call it a book, then dump it out to the publisher as some business parable.

John Dvorak's continued employment never ceases to baffle me. He has been wrong about Apple so frequently and consistently for so long that reading his stuff is like reading a computer column written by Bizarro.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:08 PM on October 9, 2010

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