From Telautograph To iPad: 123 Years Of Tablet PCs
From the ‘telautograph’ to the Apple iPad, it’s been a long and winding road for the technology behind tablet PCs
The Apple iPad whetted consumer appetite for tablet PCs, not to mention its rivals’ interest in creating touchscreens of their very own. Advertisements for every new seven- or ten-inch device insist on talking up revolutionary or “magical” hardware or software, spinning the impression that these devices represent the bleeding edge of technology; that nothing quite so amazing has ever been seen on this planet, much less made available for a hefty percentage of one’s paycheck.
But all technology evolves from sometimes cruder predecessors, and tablets are no different. People have been playing with some of the technologies underlying tablet PCs for over a century: In July 1888, for example, inventor Elisha Gray (pictured) received a US patent for an electrical stylus device that captured handwriting. According to his original application, this “telautograph” leveraged telegraph technology to send a handwritten message between a sending and receiving station.
Tablet research necessarily accelerated after World War II, in conjunction with advances in computing. Research into electronic text and handwriting recognition contributed to the RAND Corporation’s RAND tablet, produced in 1964.
“The RAND tablet is believed to be the first such graphic device that is digital [and] is relatively low-cost,” read an internal research memo on the project. “The development of the tablet at RAND has been pursued as a part of research performed for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and is an aspect of a larger interest in the area of man-made communication and interaction.” As originally built, prime tasks for the RAND tablet included digitising map information and “the study of more esoteric applications of graphical languages for man-machine interaction.” It allowed for writing in “a natural manner” using a stylus, and measured 10 inches by 10 inches.
Not exactly a device intended to play Angry Birds, in other words.
Around this time, however, science fiction began playing with the concept of tablet computers in earnest. In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronauts on their way to Jupiter watch video on a tablet device.
The 1980s and ’90s
In the 1980s, manufacturers put renewed emphasis on the quest for a device that could recognise handwriting, relying on a stylus for input. During this period, companies like Pencept and the Communication Intelligence Corporation made inroads into that technology; in 1988, Wang Laboratories offered Freestyle, a “digitizing tablet” that allowed users to hand-write or annotate on any computer screen, using a stylus to drag elements around the desktop.
A year later, GRiD Systems Corporation released the GRiDpad touch-screen computer. Also in the late 1980s, GO Corporation began working on PenPoint OS, a stylus-based operating system it would introduce to the public in 1991.
During this period, Apple also took its first steps into the tablet PC arena. In 1987, the company — then still known as Apple Computer, Inc. — produced some glossy concept videos for a device called Knowledge Navigator. Folding on a hinge like a conventional notebook, the tablet featured a talking avatar and the ability to recognise and respond to a user’s speech. As a concept, it was even more futuristic than was Kubrick’s vision, but Apple was also working on something much more real world: the Newton project, which bore fruit in 1993, with the launch of a handheld device capable of handwriting recognition.
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