The History of the ThinkPad Name

What laptop is the most loved, and maybe the most famous laptop in the world? Which laptop went into space? Which laptop won over 300 design awards? I’m sure many of you will be thinking of something made by Apple, but the truth of the matter is that we’re talking about something else: IBM’s ThinkPad. You might wonder, where does that name come from?

The IBM ThinkPad was first introduced in 1992, and it was an instant hit. It sported the industry’s first 10.4″ TFT colour display, and had a 120MB hard drive, a 486 processor, and ran the Windows 3.1 operating system. It also had a peculiar little red dot in the middle of the keyboard.

This peculiar red little dot was actually a little stick used to control the mouse pointer. It was not developed by IBM; it was actually conceived at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center by Ted Selker in 1984. Selker would later join IBM, where he perfected the design of the pointing stick, but people higher up at IBM were not exactly thrilled by the idea. In the end it took Jim Cannavino, general manager of IBM’s Personal Systems Group, to realise that the pointing stick was a much better alternative to a trackball, which were used up until then to replace the mouse on notebooks.

In any case, let’s get back to the name ThinkPad. The name consists of two parts – think and pad. Both have their own history within IBM, and since ‘think’ comes first, and also has the longest history, let’s start with that one.

THINK was actually a one-word slogan for IBM, conjured up in the 1920s (!) by IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr. It appeared all over IBM offices, plants, company publications, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, and appeared in translated forms all over the world for local branches of the company. In fact, even though there’s no way to know for sure, it could be that it inspired Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign. THINK has its roots in the rationalist beliefs of Watson, Sr. In 1915, he told his employees: “All the problems of the world could be solved easily if men were only willing to think.”

Then there’s the ‘pad’ part. Some of you probably already knew about the THINK part, but the ‘pad’ part is more interesting. What many probably don’t know is that the ThinkPad actually started out as a tablet computer, an idea IBM took from GO. When IBM’s tablet was nearing its big unveiling to the press, the company still needed a name.

In 1991, Denny Wainwright, a senior planner at IBM, worked on the tablet computer product at IBM. He proposed calling the machine ThinkPad, a name he derived from, well, the non-digital version of the tablet concept: a notepad. As in, paper bundled together covered in leather. IBM employees were given these posh notepads labelled with the company’s slogan – THINK – embossed on the leather in black letters.

IBM’s corporate naming committee did not like the name. First, it didn’t have a number. How could IBM ship a computer without a number? Second, IBM sold a lot of machines outside of the US. How would an English name catch on in the non-English speaking world? Kathy Vieth, vice president at IBM, ignored corporate and unveiled the name at a press event anyway – it caught on immediately, and the name stuck.

We’re still talking tablet here. The tablet market failed, and nobody was buying tablets. As such, IBM decided to use the ThinkPad name for a laptop it had in development in parallel to the tablet. The original ThinkPad laptops, the 700, 700C, 700T and 300, were instant hits, and transformed the laptop market from utilitarian machines to something you really wanted to have.

“The ThinkPad rocked the market,” said Bob O’Malley, then managing director of IBM Personal Systems, Asia-Pacific, “The early notebooks were like the fleet cars purchased by a utility company… Functional, ordinary. But the ThinkPad was like a Porsche convertible. It made people say, ‘Wow!’ and that ‘wow’ was unprecedented. I remember that none of the geographic areas could get enough ThinkPads. It seemed as though everybody had to have one.”

Up until this very day, the ThinkPad is still held in very high regard. Sure, Lenovo took over the business from IBM, and many believe the ThinkPad is worse off for it, but I still see many a true geek carrying around a ThinkPad.

The original ThinkPad? You can still order them at IBM’s Logo Merchandise Store, but the leather is now fake. You can also still order paper refills.


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