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John Ellenby, a pioneer in the creation of the modern laptop, dies at 75

It’s being reported that John Ellenby, CEO of Grid Systems, died earlier this month at the age of 75. Ellenby is widely credited with a pioneering role in the creation of the modern laptop, based on the part he played in bringing the first commercially successful clamshell computer to the market.

Ellenby was born in northern England in 1941, and studied at University College London and the London School of Economics. After graduation, he would work for the British computer manufacturer Ferranti, before landing a job with the Xerox Corporation that required a move to California.

By the middle of the 1970s, Ellenby had earned a reputation for being able to turn novel technology into marketable products, according to a report from the New York Times. He had played a pivotal role in designing the company’s Alto II computer, and would soon leave Xerox to establish his own company.

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Grid Systems was founded in 1979, although the startup would operate surreptitiously until shortly before their Compass laptop was ready to go public in the early 1980s. The system was aimed at CEOs, and would demonstrate that portable computers were practically and commercially viable — even if they weren’t quite ready for the masses.

The Compass, designed by William Moggridge, did have plenty of fans in high places. It’s thought that one of the systems was kept inside the briefcase used by the president of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack, and a Compass was present on every Space Shuttle mission between 1983 and 1997.

However, Ellenby’s prescience wasn’t just limited to his work on early iterations of the laptop. After selling Grid Systems to the Tandy Corporation, he would co-found a company that produced tablet-based computers and a company that worked with augmented reality tech, in each case years before these technologies would hit the mainstream.

Ellenby passed away in San Francisco on August 17. He is survived by his sons, Thomas and Peter, and a granddaughter.