Tales In Tech History: IBM ThinkPad

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The Thinkpad laptop celebrates its 25th birthday this year, but how did it become one of IBM’s most successful computers?

IBM was the inventor of the personal computer as we know it today, but Big Blue never really reaped the financial rewards of its groundbreaking device.

For years IBM’s PC business was forced to fight tooth and nail with rivals such as Compaq, Dell, and HP, all offering their own ‘IBM compatible’ PCs.

Indeed, it is fair to say that IBM’s standing in the PC sector got lost amongst the crowd, but arguably one of its most standout and successful (and instantly recognisable computers) was the IBM ThinkPad.


What’s In A Name?

The idea for the ThinkPad name apparently came about because IBM staffers used to carry out paper notepads that bore the IBM slogan “Think”.

IBM had been sporting the “Think” slogan right from the 1920s, and it was created by IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr. The slogan appeared all over IBM offices, factories, company publications, magazines, newspapers, advertisements over the decades.

In 1991, senior planner Denny Wainwright still carried one of those “Think” branded paper notepads, and whilst he and his colleagues were discussing names for the company’s new pen-based tablet (yes, a decade before the Apple iPad arrived), he looked down at his notebook and told his colleagues. “Let’s call it the Think pad”.

The ThinkPad tablet failed to gain traction, as in 1992 no one was interested in (or buying) tablets. Yet the ThinkPad name stuck at IBM, which was surprising as IBM typically favoured labelling its products with numbers (i.e AT/370, XT 28 etc).

IBM released the first ThinkPad laptop in 1992, and it proved to be an instant hit. Costing $4,350, the ThinkPad weighed in at 5.7-pounds, and offered the industry’s first 10.4″ TFT colour display. It also had a 120MB removable hard drive, coupled with a 486 processor, and ran the Windows 3.1 operating system.

The machine was always traditionally black in colour and also boasted with a front-loading floppy disk drive (useful for businessmen using the laptop on an airplane), but perhaps what really made the machine stand out was the peculiar red dot in the middle of the keyboard.

Look Mum, No Trackball

Known by some as either as a grommet, button, nipple or stick, the red little piece of rubber was actually a device to control the mouse pointer.

It should be noted that this was not developed by IBM; it was actually conceived at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center by Ted Selker in 1984.

IBM took three ThinkPad models (700, 700C, and 700T) to Las Vegas in November of 1992 for the Comdex tradeshow, at the end of which it was clear that the ThinkPad 700c was the most popular ThinkPad machine.

The IBM ThinkPad proved to be popular thanks to its robust design, high resale value, and large number of after-market parts. Indeed for a time, ThinkPad were commonly used on space missions and apparently at one stage were the only laptops certified for use on the International Space Station.

Clever Design

The ThinkPad product range has always been at the cutting edge of technology, ever since the first model arrived with TFT colour display.

Original machines were mostly black, but newer models offer magnesium, carbon fiber reinforced plastic or titanium composite cases.

lenovo-thinkpad-x1-carbonThinkPad innovations include Active Protection System, (an accelerometer sensor that detects when a ThinkPad is falling and shuts down the hard disk drive to prevent damage); stainless steel hinges; biometric fingerprint reader, and drain holes to help reduce damage when a cup of tea or coffee is spilt on the machine.

IBM’s involvement in the industry it had created came to an end in 2005, when after three decades of intense competition, it eventually decided to offload its entire PC division to Chinese manufacturer Lenovo.

Since that the ThinkPad name has been used across a range of portable computing devices including the ThinkPad Tablet (since 2011), and the ThinkPad Yoga, an ultrabook-class convertible device that functions as both a laptop and tablet computer.

And it seems Lenovo is preparing to celebrate the Thinkpad’s 25th anniversary by releasing a retro version, but boasting a contemporary T470’s internal components.

The ThinkPad brand remains very popular and recognisable, and who would bet against the ThinkPad brand continuing for another 25 years?

Quiz: Know all about IBM?