In November 2012, I wrote and published the definitive history of the Thorn EMI Liberator, the first British laptop computer, over at The Register. I’d never even heard of the machine when I first saw a picture of it. I spotted the snap while researching the story of the Dragon 32 – some of the Dragon engineers went on to develop the Liberator after Dragon Data, by then a subsidiary of electrical industry giant GEC, was closed down.
I talked to the Liberator’s hardware and software engineers, their bosses and to Bernard Terry, the former civil servant who had the idea for a portable device for text processing in the first place. I even got to see a real Liberator, courtesy of the Science Museum in London, which has one in its collection, though not on public display. That’s a shame, given the Liberator is an example of pioneering British technology. More to the point, I wasn’t able to turn it on and try it out.
Since I wrote the Liberator’s story, I’ve had a couple of offers of old machines, most recently from Brian Whitefield, a one-time worker at Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) and a member of the British Standards Technical Committee on micrographics, a body on which Bernard Terry also sat. Brian very generously offered to send me his Liberator, long tucked away in a cupboard and unused, so I could see what it had been like in action back in 1985 when it first went on sale.
The Liberator is a little larger than a sheet of A4 paper and just over an inch thick. Two grey clips on the sides release the half-width lid, which reveals the screen and the keyboard. The screen is an 80-character by 16-line LCD, with letter- and line-count markings printed on the bezel. There are also two margin markers: one at 66 characters, the other at 76. These showed the end of the line for documents to printed out on dot-matrix and daisywheel printers with, respectively, ten and 12 characters per inch fonts.
Although the Liberator is a full Z80A-based computer, Bernard Terry always wanted it to be a mobile text editor rather than a general-purpose machine, so it boots straight into its work processing software, Wordcom. As someone who has been using text editor and word processors for more than a quarter of a century, I can say the Liberator isn’t the most feature-rich editor there has ever been, but there’s not a lot I can’t do with it. There’s no spelling or grammar checker, for instance – senior civil servants were expected to know all that – but there is a cut and paste system which also works across files.
The keyboard has a key marked MARK. Tap it once and you can use the four cursor keys to highlight a section of text. Hit MARK again, and a menu of options appears on the right side of the screen, among them Copy, Cut and Delete commands. A line of selection-sensitive help text appears at the top of the screen to tell you what each menu item does. The Liberator was driven using this contextual menu, activated at other times by a tap of the machine’s large, blue BREAK CMD key.
Extra symbols can be entered using the ALT key – hold it down and tap one of the number keys to get the symbol. A chart just below the screen hinge lists them all. The ESC key is also a modifier, but one not necessary to hold down. Tap B or U and you’ll mark the following characters as bold or underlined – ESC and then N put the text back to normal. Curiously, the B marker appears in bold on the screen, but the characters that follow it don’t – likewise underlined text. Not enough space in the character set Rom for bold and underlined character glyphs, presumably.
There are no super- or sub-script characters, and no italics. This is not a WYSIWYG word processor. And with no word count, table of contents page and index generation, or page number insertion, it’s not for writing ready-to-print books, either. But then it never was. The Liberator was a text drafting tool, not a device for document preparation. It’s not a DTP system. It does support multi-page documents, though.
The Liberator’s keyboard has both forward and backward delete keys, and while the editor starts in insert mode, a tap of the O’WRT button gets you overwriting characters. Use SHIFT and CTRL to delete whole words or remaining sections of lines at once, or to modify how far a press of one of the cursor buttons takes you.
Hit the CMND key and up pops a document-level menu over on the right side of the screen. One of the options is MENU, which takes you to the file-handling UI: a list of filenames on the left and the main menu in the right-most column. Files can be created, renamed, deleted, write-protected printed or, through the UTILITY sub-menu, sent through the liberator’s serial ports – of a bizarre type called S5/8 (Serial 5 Volt, 8-pin) – to another machine.
Like a modern iPad or phone, the Liberator powers up almost instantaneously, and takes you right to where you left off. There’s no on-off switch, or Shutdown command, and the Power button is a spring-loaded switch triggered by opening and closing the lid. It would be years before notebook computers gained this kind of sleep functionality. To save battery power, the screen powers off after ten minutes – just push the power button to bring it back to life.
With no hard drive on board, all you have for storage is memory, backed up with the on-board battery. Separate add-on Ram packs had their own button batteries to preserve their contents. For the main memory, there’s a built-in back-up NiCad cell fitted onto the motherboard and so not readily accessible.
Incidentally, the Liberator was clearly never intended for a long life. It’s not Y2K compliant, for a start – only two digits were used to store the year in the machine’s settings file.
Thorn EMI quoted a battery life of 14 hours with the bundled rechargeable battery pack, but it also offered a replacement pack that could take four alkaline AA cells, which is what I’m running this Liberator off. While the machine will begin to bleep at you and pop up a warning when the charge gets close to depletion, there’s no on-screen power charge level readout of the kind we take for granted today with laptops, tablets and phones.
We’re now accustomed to a different kind of keyboard too. The Liberator’s keyboard is solid enough, if rattly – more on the woeful 1980s build quality in a moment – with a decent travel, but requires a more decisive press than modern, low-movement keyboards do. It auto-repeats, but the time the system waits before repeating the pressed key is very short, so I kept getting pairs of characters rather than one. Another quirk: scrolling up or down with arrow keys works, but doesn’t (eventually) take you to the start or end of the text, only to the first or last line. Unless you press the CTRL key while doing so, as this takes you to the line end automatically.
Setting up the Liberator’s date and time is easy, but if you make a mistake you have to start all over again.
Two things strike me about the Liberator as a physical unit: quite how yellow old plastic goes – inside the battery compartment away from the light, it’s a pleasant light grey – and how poorly plastic was once moulded. For an ‘executive’ machine, the Liberator is rather rough. The serial port DIN sockets a well to the right of the centre of the holes cut in the case for them. Parts of the case were curved during moulding, the spring-loaded cover over the expansion port is loose and doesn’t fill the gap fully.
Of course, computer makers didn’t have CAD then – or at least they lacked computer controlled cutting rigs to create the master moulds. Compared to today’s precision manufacturing techniques, the Liberator assembly process seems very low-tech.
But that’s what maunfacturing was like 30-odd years ago. You can’t blame the engineers for that. Or for the LCD screen’s reflectivity or limited contrast – that was the nature of the beast in the mid-1980s. You can blame them for not putting a proper hinge in the lid – though perhaps that would have added too much cost. The Liberator’s screen hinges on a strip of thin, scored plastic, so it will only lie flat on the back of the computer. Fortunately, the retractable carry handle the engineers built onto the back of the Liberator can be folded over the top of the machine to keep the screen at an angle, as you can see from the photos above.
You need good light, but not direct illumination because of screen’s very glossy face. There’s no backlight, just a (large) contrast control handily placed right next to the keyboard. Even then it can be hard to see – large-size LCD technology was in its infancy back then, though as big a screen as possible was something Bernard Terry insisted upon in his original specification. It’s a passive-matrix panel, of course – no active-matrix, aka TFT (Thin-Film Transistor) LCD screens back then, certainly not at the price point of a mass-market computer. Apart from having a very limited viewing angle, if you move the cursor too quickly and it will ‘submarine’ – it’ll momentarily disappear, hidden by the low refresh rate of the screen.
The Liberator’s display has a pixel resolution of 480 x 128, with each character fitted into a 6 x 8 space, though the right-most column and bottom lines are kept clear. So, no graphics then and, with the Liberator’s emphasis on serious text processing, there are no frivolous graphical glyphs in the character set of the kind you could have fun with on Commodore’s Pet, say. A curious quirk: double-quote marks represented not as the usual “ and ” but as ‘’ and ‘’ – so one glyph for both. Again, a character set restriction, this time a result of being limited to the Ascii (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) standard.
The whole lot weighs 1.7kg without batteries, so it’s no lightweight but less than many a modern 15-inch laptop – and a lot less than the similarly styled 1989 Zenith Minisport ZL-1 I found myself using in the early 1990s. The ZL-1 was almost 3kg. The Liberator even came with a natty vinyl shoulder bag – surely one of the world’s first dedicated laptop bags, if not the very first.
You can turn your nose up at the Liberator’s poor manufacturing quality, its limited storage – no hard drive here – its hard-to-read, un-backlit LCD, and its unattractive angular design, but these really just show that the Liberator was a product of its time. The graphical user interface had yet to establish itself as the standard – most users worked with text-based UIs, of the kind the Liberator presents. If its text editing software is less capable than the early versions of WordStar and Word Perfect then available, that was deliberately done. Bernard Terry was adamant that too much functionality would be counter-productive: it would put non-technical, computer illiterate civil servants off using the device. The Liberator had to be simple – easy to use, quick to learn. And it is.
The Liberator is unquestionably a machine I could still use for writing on the move. Only its lack of wireless data communication – science fiction back in the mid 1980s – limits its use. Of course, I wouldn’t swap it for my two-year-old 11-inch MacBook Air, which is far more portable and much more capable, but that’s progress.
The Liberator was a ground-breaking product. It wasn’t the first mobile computer, or the first laptop, but it was the first of the latter to be affordable – it cost £567; £1340 in today’s money, based on Retail Price Index inflation – and the first designed and manufactured in the UK. It deserved to succeed, but was ultimately beaten not by Toshiba’s better-remembered laptop computers – which cost around £1000 back then, equivalent to £2360 now – but by the rapid rise of the MS-DOS desktop computer. Just as Bernard Terry was conceiving an easy-to-use introduction to information technology for people who’d never used a computer before, other people were envisaging a PC on every desk, each able to run a variety of applications. Their vision proved the dominant one, though they never considered the fearsome learning curve for non-techies the way Terry did.