1983 Compaq Portable

CGS6210 - Microcomputer Hardware (901 : Fall 03)
University of South Florida

Wes Tilson

Compaq Portable Stats
It was introduced in November 1982
It was released in March 1983
Its price was US$3590 for a two floppy system
53,000 were produced and sold in its first year, 1983
Its weight was 28 pounds.

CPU: Intel 8088, 4.77MHz
RAM: 128K, 640K max
Display: 9" monochrome monitor built-in
25 X 80 text
Color graphic card
External Storage: Two 320KB 5-1/4" disk drives
Ports: 2 parallel, 1 serial
Operating System: MS-DOS

The 1983 Compaq Portable was the beginning of the end of IBM's hardware monopoly, the start of a multi-billion dollar industry, and the start of the explosion of the Information Age.

Compaq Computer Corporation was founded in February 1982 by Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto. They had been senior managers, but they left Texas Instruments and formed their own company. Their initial investment was $1,000 each. Their first target was "Big Blue".

The Compaq Portable was the first portable personal computer able to run all of the software being developed then for the IBM PC.

Thus; it was the first 100% compatible IBM computer clone.

The IBM PC was extremely popular, and was taken very seriously by businesses looking for a computer system.

Other computers of the day were not considered feasible for business, and business was where the biggest market was to be found.

According to legend, the idea for the Compaq Portable was first sketched on a paper place mat in a Houston House of Pies pie shop.

Many members of the design team had experience in military computers, so they built the Compaq Portable to be very durable.

According to legend, there are stories of cars running over the Compaq Portable leaving the data unaffected. It is rumored that the prototype was tested for ruggedness by throwing it down a hallway into a wall.

In his book "Accidental Empires" Bob Cringely tells a story of how the president of Compaq sold the idea of the Portable while it was balanced on the toilet in his hotel room bathroom. That was the only room that had an AC outlet.

IBM's Acorn (PC) team had sourced off-the-shelf parts for the PC in order to reduce costs and keep the time it took to make a PC to a minimum.

Theoretically anyone could put the same peices to gather and duplicate IBM's hardware.

The problem was that Compaq couldn't legally copy IBM's BIOS to make the new computer guaranteed IBM compatible.

IBM had published the source code for their BIOS. They could prove that anyone who produced another BIOS had infringed on IBM's copyrights.

Compaq's solution was to reverse-engineer IBM's BIOS.

Compaq used two sets of programmers. one group had access to IBM's published source code. The second knew nothing about it.

The first group listed everything the IBM BIOS did for a specific set of inputs while carefully avoiding any mention of the original code.

The second group took the notes and created a BIOS that performed exactly the same as IBM's from scratch without contamination from IBM's source.

Steve Flannigan, Compaq employee No. 10 and one of a few engineers left at the company was tasked with writing the ROM BIOS because he had not seen inside an IBM PC.

The process took one year. The cost was around a million dollars

The second group had created a legal BIOS identical in operation to that of the IBM computer.

The result was that the machine was very successful, and the company took in $111 million in its first year. At the time this was a record in American business.

The Compaq Portable offered added value. It was transportable and designed to be taken aboard an airliner as carry-on luggage.

At twenty-eight pounds, it earned the monickers "The Sewing Machine" and "luggable".

Equipped with padded handle. It also came with a soft-sided carrying case.

Port and power plug access were through panels on either side.

To open, an access panel was pressed in at the bottom. Then it slid down inside the case.

To remove the case cover, a user would lay the unit flat (fold up the bottom feet) and press their elbow into the middle of the top cover. The rear edge of that cover would pop out enough to grab and lift off.

The power supply had a special wrench to remove the lower lock screw. Then the power supply would slide out where the connectors could then be removed.

In January 1983, BYTE magazine published a review of the Compaq Portable computer.

Rod Canion, a Compaq founder realized that compatibility with the IBM PC would not be adequate to ensure success.

He needed a killer application for the Compaq Portable that would show buyers that they needed it.

He also needed a means of getting it to market quickly.

Compaq decided to work with Lotus 1-2-3 creator Mitch Kapor for the application and with Sears Business Centers to distribute the Portable.

Later in 1983, Compaq released the Portable Plus. It had an internal hard drive.

In 1986, Compaq released the Portable II. It's improvements included an internal hard drive and a 80286 microprocessor.

In 1987, Compaq released the Portable III. It was an even smaller portable with a faster CPU and a flat panel, gas-plasma screen.

History of the Compaq Computer Corporation
Source: Chronology of Events in the History of Microcomputers

1982: February - Compaq Computer Corporation is founded by Rod Canion, Jim Harris, and Bill Murto, all former senior managers of Texas Instruments who were unhappy with how TI was running it's computer business and they thought they could do a better job.

1982: November - Compaq Computer introduces the Compaq Portable PC.

1983: March - Compaq Computer begins shipping the Compaq Portable PC.

1983: October - Compaq Computer introduces the Portable Plus.

1983: December - Compaq Computer makes its first public stock offering, raising US$67 million.

1986: February - Compaq Computer introduces the Compaq Portable II.

1986: April - Compaq Computer joins the Fortune 500 list faster than any company in history.

1986: April - Compaq Computer ships its 500,000th personal computer.

1986: September - Compaq Computer introduces the first 16-MHz Intel 80386-based PC, the Compaq Deskpro 386.

1987: October - Compaq Computer introduces the Compaq Deskpro 386/20.

1987: October - Compaq Computer introduces the 20-MHz Compaq Portable 386.

1987: November - Compaq Computer makes its 1 millionth personal computer.

1988: February - Compaq Computer reports sales for the year reach US$1.2 billion, setting the record as the fastest company to reach that mark.

Related Links

Compaq Portable at Obsolete Computer Museum

Compaq Portable at PC Museum

First IBM compatible computer

Obsolete Computers

The machine that forever altered the computer industry landscape

Silicon Heaven?