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From Grey To Jobs – The History Of Tablet Computers

Steve Jobs, Apple's then CEO, introducing the iPad
Steve Jobs, Apple's then CEO, introducing the iPad. Source

In the past few years, tablets have become the gadget so common that no one is astonished of their huge capabilities. It is widely believed that the appearance of tablets is closely linked with the development of mobile technology, and the main purpose of these devices is to combine the functionality of modern smartphones with technical capabilities and size of a small notebook. There is a lot of truth, but the story of tablets goes much further than the history of mobile phones. Learn the history of tablet computers below.

1887: Telautograph

Telautograph is a device that could remotely transmit handwriting through telegraph systems. The device transmits electrical impulses recorded by potentiometers at the sending station to servomechanisms attached to a pen at the receiving station. Telautograph was invented by Elisha Gray in 1887 and patented a year later. It is considered to be the precursor of the modern fax machine.

1910: Controller

controller device

The first half of the 20th century brought two interesting projects extended the Gray’s vision. In 1910, Hyman Eli Goldberg invented the device called “Controller”. Thanks to a stylus, very similar to the one used in Telautograph , the device could recognize handwriting. The device was patented in 1914, but never went to a prototype stage.

1945: Memex

Vannevar Bush memex

Fast forward to the 1940s, when the next great step towards a proper tablet computer was beginning to be realized. In 1945, American scientist and engineer Vannevar Bush described in The Atlantic Monthly article titled “As We May Think” a device called Memex (the name was a combination of words “memory” and “index”). Bush envisioned the memex as a device in which individuals would compress and store all of their books, records, and communications. The technology used would have been a combination of electromechanical controls, microfilm cameras and readers, all integrated into a large desk. Due to technological limitations, the project remained only a dream at the time, but it has been finally built years later. The Atlantic Monthly article became an  inspiration for many scientists to create the first practical hypertext systems. Vannevar Bush’s hypothetical Memex computer system was also an inspiration for Microsoft Research project called MyLifeBits lead by computer scientist Gordon Bell.

1957: Stylator


In 1957, Tom Diamond unveiled his Stylator invention, in a detailed article titled “Devices for reading handwritten characters”. It was a kind of electronic tablet equipped with a special stylus for data entry and interpreter or translator. The main feature was its software that allowed to recognize handwritten text in real time. Stylator’s basic concept isn’t all that different from Goldberg’s Controller. However, it improves upon it in several crucial ways, the most important of which is that instead of connecting terminal dots with conductive ink to create circuits, you’re using a stylus to draw across a plastic surface with copper conductors embedded in it. Some people consider Stylator as the  precursor to modern computer OCR (Optical character recognition) applications such as ABBYY FineReader or TextBridge.

1961: “Return from the Stars”

Stanisław Lem in 1966

Stanisław Lem in 1966

In 1961, Polish author Stanisław Lem published his science fiction novel “Return from the Stars“. He accurately and eerily predicts the disappearance of paper books from the society, anticipates electronic paper and tablet computers with “Opton”, a reading device very much like today’s tablets.

Spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century. And how I had looked forward to them, after the microfilms that made up the library of the Prometheus! No such luck. No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in the hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They could be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it.

1964: RAND Tablet

RAND Tablet

Tom Ellis, one of the RAND tablet computer inventors. He has pen in his right hand writing on the tablet. On the screen are a series of graphic lines. Via

In 1964, RAND Corporation released the RAND Tablet (also called Grafacon), which cost $18,000. The device was based on secret military project from 1945. RAND Tablet was one of the first devices permitting the input of freehand drawings into a computer. The attached stylus sensed electrical pulses relayed through a fine grid of conductors housed beneath the drawing surface, fixing its position to within one one-hundredth of an inch. Many experimental systems were developed to recognize handwritten letters or gestures drawn on the tablet, such as Tom Ellis’ GRAphic Input Language (GRAIL) method of programming by drawing flowcharts.

1968: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

Wireless tablet device portrayed in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Wireless tablet device portrayed in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

In 1968, American director and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick used a device confusingly similar to the modern tablet in his iconic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The main purpose of this flatscreen tablet device was to transmit video.

1970: Dynabook and Atlas DEC PDP 15

In 1968, Alan Kay envisioned A personal computer for children of all ages, aimed at giving children access to digital media. In 1970, Kay joined Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center, PARC. Two years later his concept turned into a prototype named Dynabook. Part of the motivation and funding for the Dynabook project came from the need for portable military maintenance, repair, and operations documentation, but a year later, the project has become obsolete and it has been shut down.

1979: Apple Graphics Tablet

Apple Graphics Tablet

Apple Graphics Tablet Via

In 1976 in Cupertino, California three friends: Steve Wozniak, Ronald Wayne and Steve Jobs founded Apple. The first major success of the company was the Apple II. One the first accessory to their Apple II was Apple Graphics Tablet released in 1979 with a retail price of $650 (about $2,000 of today’s money). The device was designed to work with professional graphics programs. However, because the technology was just developing, the gadget was not a market success.

1980s: PenPad 200, Knowledge Navigator & GRiDPad

In 1983, the company called Pencept released PenPad 200, a computer based on an MS-DOS operating system. The company abandoned the use of the traditional keyboard and mouse in their device. The device could recognize a handwriting.

In 1987, Apple demonstrated the concept of a device called the Knowledge Navigator which allowed to access to the global web and a special speech synthesizer that could read the received messages.


GRiDPad Via

In 1989, GRiD Systems Corporation released the GRiDPad, a touchscreen tablet. It is regarded as the first tablet computer directed towards consumer use. The GRiDPad measured 9 x 12 x 1.4 inches and weighed 4.5 pounds. The main distinguishing aspect was its touch-screen interface with a stylus, a pen-like tool to aid with precision in a touchscreen device. The stylus was able to use hand writing recognition software. The average selling price for one unit was $2,370 without software, and $3,000 with software. It was so successful that it sold approximately $30 million in its best year.

1990s: Microsoft’s operating system for tablets and new devices

The 90s brought several releases of tablet devices. Here are some of the most notable events. In 1991, Microsoft joined the tablet segment with his Windows for Pen Computing 1.0, an operating system for existing tablet devices. From that moment the tablet segment had more dynamic growth. Many major manufacturers joined this little ‘tablet revolution’ with their own devices, such as IBM 2521 (1992), Amstrad PenPad PDA600 (1993) or the Apple Newton – also known as the Apple MessagePad.

IBM Simon Personal Communicator

The Simon Personal Communicator shown in its charging base. Source

In 1993, IBM released IBM Simon Personal Communicator – the device that could be considered as the prototype of today’s smartphones. The phone was equipped with a touch screen. It didn’t recognize the handwriting, but allowed to write messages and send them as a fax via the cellular network.

Next major event was in 1998. Fujitsu released Stylistic 2300, the first device with color touch screen and equipped with Pentium 233 MHz CPU. It was very fast CPU back then.

2000s: Microsoft Tablet PC, Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, iPhone and Android

Tablet PC running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition

Tablet PC running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Source

The beginning of the century brought new devices. In 2001, Bill Gates presented Compaq Tablet PC made with collaboration between Compaq and Microsoft. In 2002, the device has been slightly modified and renamed to Microsoft Tablet PC. It was designed and manufactured by Hewlett Packard. The device worked under Windows XP Tablet Edition operating sytem.

In 2005, Nokia joined the tablet club with Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. That year, Apple took over Fingerworks, which in 1999-2005 developed the multi-touch. Apple later used that technology in the iPhone.

In 2008, a year after realing iPhone, Google released Android operating system and the HTC Dream, the first smartphone running Android.

2010: Apple iPad

Steve Jobs, Apple's then CEO, introducing the iPad History Of Tablet

Steve Jobs, Apple’s then CEO, introducing the iPad. Source

On April 3, 2010, Apple released iPad and changed the tablet market. Technologically the device was not as revolutionary as iPhone. But marketing experience and great design provided a huge commercial success.

Sources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

Share your thoughts about the history of tablet computers below and check out Then and Now: How Technology Has Changed Our Lives.

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Geralt Nowak

There will be something about me. I'm too lazy now.

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