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I’m curious if there was ever a case of a company making some sort of serial ASCII terminal, but in a portable factor, such as a laptop or even reasonable luggable. I’ve seen plenty of portable devices with a terminal emulation functionality, but I’m more curious of devices designed specifically for that purpose.

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    Oh, there have been a lot, and even more use cases. Essentially ever job that needed to have computer access while on the road. From sales people all the way to insurance agents.
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 6 at 21:58
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    If it does not have to be self-contained, adding the serial ASCII functionality to an existing TV set akin to TV Typewriter could be easier achievable in a portable form factor.
    – Leo B.
    Jan 6 at 22:08

8 Answers 8

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if there was ever a case of a company making some sort of serial ASCII terminal, but in a portable factor

Well, it all depends on the definition of dumb, portable and terminal. Let's go with the most common definition:

  • Dumb as in "no higher function", a glass-TTY. A VT05 is already non-dumb
  • Portable as in "made for being used in constant changing places", not just movable.
  • Terminal as in "made to interactive operate a remote host", not just some terminal device.

A prime candidate would of course be the TI Silent 700 series of transportable printing terminals. Some with integrated modems and battery packs, so as portable as it could get in the 1970s.

such as a laptop or even reasonable luggable.

They have been available in any size, from luggable to fairly small.

TI Silent 735

(Image from this 1976 brochure)

While the original 1971 Silent 700, like the above 735 were quite a large beast, weighting more than 10kg, later models, like the shown 745 (below) became barely larger than an average typewriter. They were an all in one mobile solutions including an acoustic coupler or integrated modem and (optional) batteries.

TI Silent 745

(Image taken from Wikipedia)

Later models were even smaller. The 700 series was produced all the way into the mid 1980s.

While TI had a quite strong stand in the market for portable terminals, they were neither the only or even the first. Computer Transceiver Systems Execuport series, starting with the Execuport 300 in 1969 beat them by more than two years. They as well sold units way into the 1980s - the last development was an improved Executell 400, introduced as late as 1982(!)

While such terminals have usually been a nice for specialized manufacturers and often been sold as part of turnkey solutions, computer companies did offer such systems as well, like DEC with their LA12 series.

DEC LA12

(Image taken from the VT100.net website)

but I’m more curious of devices designed specifically for that purpose.

There has been quite a use case for them. Think insurance agents, mortgage brokers or even car dealers meeting their customers at home. With a terminal and a phone line they could not only show some glossy paper advertisements, but generate an offer right away.

Keep in mind, there were no portable computers in the 1970s - at least not in a way that would allow use like today's laptops. A small printing terminal could fill the gap by connecting to a central system providing the functionality. The salesman only had to key in the customers data and not only get a tailored offer (*1), but with printout for the customer or even print the contracts right away, closing the sale in one visit.

A CRT based terminal would have been way to heavy, eating up too much power and at the same time still needing an additional printer to fulfil the same role. It wasn't until Kyotronic style handheld devices (Olivetti M10, Tandy M100, Epson HX20, etc.) began to take over that niche by not only using lightwight LCD, but as well putting the needed computing power and data storage right into the same suitcase.

Nixdorf FST using an Olivetti M10

(Field Service Terminal as used by Nixdorf in the mid 1980s)


*1 - at least that's what they were told to tell :))

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    I had access to one of these. It was wonderful. It was super, uh, "handy". I replaced it with a TRS-80 Model 100 for my work. Jan 6 at 22:21
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    The Silent 700 was what immediately came to my mind on reading the question. Jan 6 at 22:54
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    I remember things like those pictures - though not necessarily those models. But the built-in acoustic modem in a portable typewriter sized device was easily found (though, IIRC, pricy!)
    – davidbak
    Jan 6 at 23:10
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    There was one Silent 700 model with an APL character set. A math teacher at my high school owned one, and brought it in to share with us for a couple of weeks. Jan 7 at 14:14
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    Wasn't the definition of "portable" back then anything up to 31.5 kilograms? Jan 7 at 19:13
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The Termiflex was a handheld terminal that was introduced in 1979. It was very cumbersome to operate as it had a very limited keyboard and could only display a few characters at a time. It looks like refurbished ones are still available.

Termiflex Hand Held Terminals

enter image description here

Image from - Amazon.com

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  • I wonder what similar devices existed earlier? A 1973 telecommunications device for the deaf was slightly bigger than that, but I would think the design could easily be adapted to be suitable for purposes similar to the unit you show.
    – supercat
    Jan 13 at 17:19
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Unix

On page 44 of his book Unix: A History and a Memoir, in the context of a photo showing Thompson and Ritchie next to a PDP-11 around 1972, Brian Kernighan briefly mentions an experimental portable terminal built from a modified Teletype Model 33 teletypewriter. The keyboard and printer were in a suitcase-like container weighing 55 pounds (25 kg), with a built-in acoustic coupler for dial-up connections. Kernighan used the portable terminal from home a couple of times.

PLATO

Although not a commercial product, at CDC Jock Hill developed several prototypes of a portable PLATO terminal.

The devices, which for years were carried around the world for demos, featured an 8"x9" 512x512 orange glow plasma display, a keyboard, an acoustic coupler, and a phone headset for dialing into PLATO. These terminals became available in the early 1980s but I have no information on the exact timeframe.

Source: Chapter 22 "The Business Opportunity" (Part III) of the book The Friendly Orange Glow, The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture by Brian Dear.

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To complement the answer by "henros": the French Minitel had various versions. The Minitel 5 build by Matra was a portable terminal.

See https://sites.google.com/site/collectionminitel/equipements-terminaux/minitel-5-matra

enter image description here

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The French Minitel system seems to fit this description.It was a highly successful serial communication system which predated the Internet. Plenty of information available - start with Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minitel.

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    You might want to add a bit of information. So far it's a link only Answer ... without any link to click on :) Also, to my knowledge, Minitels were small, but not for portable use. Ur were there such units? Last but not least (AFAIR), Minitel wasn't a dumb terminal, but capable of interpreting a variety of complex commands - plus running a control program for dialling and connection handling.
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 8 at 14:37
  • @RAffzahn I didn't find any requirement for "dumb" in the OP's question, thus an intelligent terminal fits the bill. You are correct that Minitels were intended for domestic installation, but in the later models the keyboard folded to cover the screen and I definitely remember a carrying case for these units. (I made some money selling my translation of the Minitel (strictly TELETEL) specification and operating manual to UK manufacturers who provided a service or needed to access the French services, thus at one time I was very conversant with the system)
    – henros
    Jan 9 at 16:53
  • A dumb terminal is usual a synonyme for a glass-TTY, so no fancy escape sequences for positioning, character sets, graphics or field definition, just the basic ASCII controls like CR, LF, VT, HT, FF, BS. Everything past that is no longer a dumb terminal, but provides 'intelligent' functionality. Would you mind to put the additional information into the answer as it still is just a link-only answer? It would not only improve it, but comments may be deleted a any time. I know the 'foldable', I'd still call them non portable by design. It would be quite cool to see otherwise. Maybe add a picture?
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 9 at 17:01
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I have a Brother EP-44 electronic typewriter in my collection - it doesn't have its own built-in modem, but it can be connected to one using serial cable. It can also be connected directly to a computer using serial (null-modem, IIRC) cable and used as a dumb terminal or a serial printer. It can also be used stand-alone as a typewriter that can print either immediately on key press, small (about a dozen) character buffer for editing typos, or typing in memory about a page of text. It uses four D-cell batteries, has a carrying handle, and is about the size of a thick 4:3 14" laptop - probably about as portable as one can get. It was produced in 1984 and was one of the last electronic typewriters by Brother that had serial port and could be used as a terminal. Here are some pictures and description: https://typewriterdatabase.com/1984-brother-ep44.5403.typewriter

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enter image description hereMinitel.

Dumb, connected and portable. Most models had a handle on top.

Google picture searche

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    If a device with a 1.5m power cable dangling out and no way to store it i portable, then I guess next to all terminals are portable. That is, in addition to a Minitel being more than a dumb terminal.
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 10 at 11:49
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    "or even reasonable luggable" in OP's intial question and for having lugged my minitel all the time around, I can say that the cables were not an issue. As for the Minitel to be more than a dumb terminal is ludicrous, you couldn't even clear the screen when offline. Jan 10 at 12:10
  • Well, that interpretation would make next to every terminal includes - even an ADS Regent. Further, having a clear screen key or not isn't the definition for dumb. it's what function set a terminal offers. Already a 1970s VT05 (it's and all in one, so you'd call it portable?) is no longer a dumb terminal as it allows cursor positioning or tab stops.
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 10 at 12:19
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    Do you make extra efforts to interpret stuff in the wrongest way possible? Even if it had a clearscreen key or local cursor movement it wouldn't change that it was a dumb terminal, or to change the burden of proof, could you provide us what function an offline minitel, except warming its vicinity, provided. Jan 10 at 12:40
  • Huh? What is the purpose of an offline terminal at all, beside heating the air? It feels as if you're using "dumb" in hindsight, on a base of all terminals being dumb. Do you? The term "Dumb" for terminals was introduced in the early 1970 when new terminals with added "Intelligence" were introduced, relieving a host from tasks like sending blanks to the end of line or screen by offering a much shorter ESC sequence (K/J). Saves up to 1918 bytes not transmitted :) It may sound basic today, but it made an incredible difference back then, hence the differentiation of not being "dumb" anymore.
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 10 at 13:17
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The RCA VP 330x series were keyboard-only terminals intended specifically to be plugged in on-site to existing televisions. They were generally advertised with the unit shown inside a briefcase to indicate their portability.

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