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IBM 5100 the the world's first portable computer

Released 29 February 2023

The IBM 5100 is a portable computer introduced by IBM in 1975. It was marketed as a "portable" computer, although its 50-pound weight made it less than easily transportable. It had a built-in CRT monitor, keyboard, and tape drive, and was powered by a 16-bit processor running at 1.9 MHz. One of the unique features of the IBM 5100 was its ability to emulate the programming language of IBM's larger and more expensive System/3, System/360, and System/370 mainframes, allowing users to run software originally developed for those systems on the 5100. This made the 5100 attractive to businesses and organizations that needed to run specialized software but couldn't afford a full-sized mainframe.


The IBM 5100 is a rare gem in the world of vintage computers. Released in 1975, it was the first portable computer that could perform scientific calculations. Despite being overshadowed by later models, the 5100 played a significant role in the history of computing.

The IBM 5100 may look like a clunky and outdated computer by today's standards, but it was revolutionary for its time. Released in 1975, it was one of the first portable computers ever made and had a unique feature that allowed it to emulate different programming languages, making it a game-changer for businesses and developers alike. In this article, we'll take a deep dive into the IBM 5100 and explore why it was so significant in the evolution of computing.

What is a luggable computer?

A luggable computer is a type of personal computer that is portable, but larger and heavier than a laptop or notebook computer. It typically weighs between 20 and 50 pounds and is designed to be carried like a suitcase, with a built-in handle. Luggable computers were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s, before the development of smaller and lighter laptops. They were often used as portable workstations or for field work, but their size and weight made them less practical for everyday use.

The IBM 5100 is considered to be a luggable computer because it was designed to be portable, yet still too large and heavy to be easily carried around like a laptop. The computer weighed around 50 pounds and came with a built-in handle, making it possible to be transported from place to place, albeit with some difficulty. Its portability was a major selling point for the IBM 5100, as it allowed users to take their computer with them on business trips or to work remotely.

IBM 5100 Form factor

IBM 5100 portable computer
IBM 5100 portable
IBM 5100 portable computer
IBM 5100 keyboard
IBM 5100 portable computer
IBM 5100 CRT with BASIC

Historical context and significance

In 1975, the idea of a personal computer for business use was still in its infancy. Most businesses relied on large, expensive mainframe computers that required specialized knowledge and training to operate. However, the introduction of the Altair 8800, a build-it-yourself computer kit, sparked the interest of hobbyists and enthusiasts who saw the potential for personal computers to become more accessible and affordable. This led to the development of more user-friendly machines, such as the Commodore PET and the Apple II, which would eventually pave the way for the widespread adoption of personal computers in business and beyond.

Typical business applications that a business manager would use a computer for at that time included basic word processing, simple spreadsheets, and financial calculations. Accounting software was also beginning to be developed, as were early inventory management and customer relationship management (CRM) programs. However, the capabilities of personal computers in 1975 were quite limited compared to today's standards, and most business tasks were still done manually or with the help of larger mainframe computers.

APL (A Programming Language) was a popular programming language for the IBM 5100 computers. It was mainly used for mathematical and statistical analysis, financial modeling, and data processing applications. A typical APL program for IBM 5100 computers would be comprised of short, concise expressions that made use of a rich set of mathematical operators and functions. These expressions were often written using a compact, one-line notation that could be difficult to read for those unfamiliar with the language. However, APL's ease of use and power made it popular among analysts and statisticians in the business world.

Significance of the IBM 5100

The IBM 5100 introduced several innovations that became standards in the personal computer industry, such as its use of a CRT monitor and a built-in BASIC programming language. Its portability and compatibility with IBM mainframes made it popular among businesses, leading to the widespread adoption of personal computers in the workplace. The 5100 also paved the way for IBM's later personal computers, including the IBM PC, which became a cornerstone of the modern computing industry. Overall, the IBM 5100 played a significant role in the evolution of personal computing and left a lasting legacy in the business computer environment.

Yes, there were some reviews and articles written about the user experience of the IBM 5100 when it was first released. Some praised its portability and versatility, while others criticized its price and lack of software options. However, since it was a niche product aimed at a specific market, there may not be as many detailed accounts of the user experience as there would be for a more mainstream computer.

In its time, the IBM 5100 was a groundbreaking computer, and any suggestions for improvements would be based on technological advancements that occurred after its release. Some areas for improvement could include increased processing speed, greater storage capacity, and a more user-friendly interface. These are all common areas of improvement for computers in general, and advancements in these areas were made in subsequent generations of personal computers. I think that most users would say, Just make the IBM 5100 lighter!

IBM 5100 collecting

The IBM 5100 is a classic example of early personal computing, and it holds a special place in the history of computing. For vintage computer enthusiasts, the IBM 5100 offers a glimpse into the early days of personal computing, when computer systems were just beginning to become accessible to individuals and small businesses. With its unique APL programming language and portable "luggable" form factor, the IBM 5100 is a fascinating piece of computing history that is sure to appeal to collectors and enthusiasts alike. Its rarity and historical significance make it a prized possession for vintage computer collectors, and its unique features and capabilities make it a fascinating piece of technology to explore and experiment with.

Collectors should look out for several things when buying a vintage IBM 5100, including:

Getting replacement parts can be a real saga for these vintage computers. Many of the components used in older computers are no longer produced or readily available, so finding replacement parts can be a challenge. This can make repairing or restoring vintage computers difficult, and can also drive up the cost of replacement parts. It is important for collectors to do their research and make sure they have access to the parts and resources they need before purchasing a vintage computer.

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