Image: GRiD Logo Image: Compass logo

GRiD Compass 1101

Image: GRiD Compass

The GRiD Compass is purported to be the first ever "clamshell" design laptop computer. It features a black magnesium alloy case, a gas plasma display, magnetic bubble memory, and a 1200bps internal modem.

The machine was supposed to have been designed for NASA, and a look through their photo archives will reveal several models of GRiD laptops, including the Compass, floating in the shuttle with the crew, or connected to scientific equipment. GRiDs are also supposed to be popular with the U.S. military, but I suspect that this particular unit was in service at Bell Canada (another GRiD laptop found at the same location bears a Bell Canada tracking number), probably trundling along with a Bell repairman.

The magnesium alloy GRiD laptops are well suited for this type of service, as they are very sturdy. They are also quite heavy, though, and the Compass does not operate from batteries so it is not the type of machine that would appeal to the average corporate executive of today. An executive would have loved the price, though: according to the "Bits & Bytes" article in the August 1982 issue of Popular Science, the price was $8000. In the article "Choosing a Notebook Computer" in the January 1984 issue of Creative Computing, David Ahl states that "We excluded the Compass because its $9000 price was more than twice that of the next machine down, and we felt that it had appeal for a rather different market." Great for showing off. :-)

This particular unit is an 1101, but the very first model was the 1100. I don't know what the differences are. According to the Popular Science article mentioned above, the Compass was supposed to have 256KB of bubble memory, and this machine has 384KB, so maybe the 1101 just had more storage space.

That's how the bubble memory is used: as non-volatile storage. There are no disks in the Compass, either hard or floppy. Bubble memory is used instead. There is 256KB of dynamic memory for running programs in.

Image: GRiD Compass

In the images here, you can see a white sticker attached below the display. That is the previous operator's reminder of what key combinations to use for some commonly used functions.

Image: Closed Compass

The Compass closes up very nicely and very solidly. Unlike later models, there is no handle. Or at least, there is no handle on my unit. Instead, there is a stand that keeps the Compass on an angle for a more normal typing position. (Not deployed in these photos.)

Image: Serial port

The Compass has some unusual ports. The serial port is especially strange, with a 19-pin D connector that has an indeterminate sex. At first look it appears female, but there are male pins in the plastic holes.

Much more normal is the GPIB (IEEE-488) connector, which should allow me to connect PET peripherals to the machine. Unfortunately, although the connection would be correct electrically, the Compass isn't likely to know how to talk to Commodore peripherals. GRiD sold their own GPIB devices.

Image: GPIB port

This machine has GRiD-OS version 3.1.0 installed. Or at least, that's the version of GRiDManager. I don't know if the OS resides in ROM or in the bubble memory, because I haven't disassembled the machine enough to find out.

GRiD-OS is a menu-based operating system. There is no command line. Files have types and there is a default action for each type of file (e.g. files of type "Text" automatically execute GRiDWrite when selected). Executable files have type "Run" plus the type the program is supposed to load or use (e.g. the program "GRiDPlayback", which reads a file of type "Keystrokes" and operates the computer as if the keystrokes were being entered at the keyboard, has types "Run" and "Keystrokes").

Image: GRiD-OS in operation

Creating files in GRiD-OS is easy. Just key up to the top of the directory to the little arrow figure, then enter a filename in the "Title" box. Then the OS gives you a selection of types (or "Kinds") for the file. Select one, hit CODE-RETURN (which is the confirmation code) and it creates the file AND loads up the application for that type. You can also create your own "Kind" by typing something into the "Kind" box, but if there is no application for that type of file, a system error will pop up (but the file will still be created).

Types that my machine knows about but doesn't necessarily understand are: 3101; Canvas; Com; Database; Device; Graph; Keystrokes; Organizer; Reformat; Run; Sign-on; Task; Terminal; Text; VT100; Worksheet.

It is possible to have multiple files with the same name but different types. And GRiD-OS always sorts the directories alphabetically, so that it is easy to find files. File deletion, copying, etc, seem only to be possible by running GRiDManager.

Oh yeah, in case it appears as if this machine operates in a text mode... it doesn't. Everything seems to be graphical. You can change the font that the OS and applications run in, and graphics do show up here and there in applications, such as the ruler in GRiDWrite and the little telephone in GRiDVT100.

The fonts that GRiDVT100 on my system knows about are: System-wide; Built-in; GRiD 64; GRiD 80; TypeBlock12x16; TypeBlock24x32; TypeBlock9x12; TypeColonial10x12; TypeColonial8x8; TypeColonial9x15; TypeExpand12x8; TypeGRiD4x8; TypeGRiD5x6; TypeGRiD5x8; TypeGRiD5x7; TypeGRiD6x8; TypeGRiD8x14; TypeModern15x20; TypePCBasic8x8; TypeTextbook12x19; TypeTextbook9x15. Unfortunately I can only find GRiD 64 and GRiD 80 on my system, though selecting System-wide and Built-in also seem to work. I think System-wide just makes the program use the font that is chosen for the whole system in GRiDManager, and Built-in is probably in ROM.

Image: Device report

The extremely fuzzy picture above (the screen itself is very sharp) is a report of memory and device usage, attained by hitting CODE-U just about anywhere except when navigating the directories. The numbers seem to be... a little bit approximate. :-)

This is a peek inside, at one of the bubble memory modules. The only components on the top side of the motherboard seem to be the bubble memory modules and the clock battery. I didn't look under the keyboard, though.

I'm still not sure exactly what a magnetic bubble is, but there is an excellent article in the October 1979 issue of Popular Science magazine which explains how the bubbles are circulated.

For a while it looked as though bubble memory would take off, but bubble memory operates slowly, sucks a lot of power, and doesn't have very good density by today's standards. It's now a technological curiosity. As is, I suppose, the more common but no longer popular gas plasma display technology. These things combined in one machine, which also happens to be the first of its class, make me give the GRiD Compass two thumbs up for coolness. It gets additional points for the interesting operating system, and as the Compass is also one of the systems I've always wanted to see, ever since reading about it in the early 80s, maybe I should give it three thumbs up.<g>

Image: Bubble memory module

[Hrothgar's Cool Old Junk Page] 1999-06-07