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Bill Moggridge dies; designer of the first modern laptop computer was 69

Bill Moggridge, a British industrial designer who was credited with creating the clamshell form of the modern laptop, an innovation that helped transform the computer from a desk-bound behemoth to a ubiquitous, go-everywhere part of daily life, died Sept. 8 at a hospice in San Francisco.

He was 69 and had cancer, his son Alex Moggridge said.

Mr. Moggridge had been an international leader in the field of design for decades. He was a co-founder of IDEO, an innovation and design firm with offices around the world, and since 2010 he had been director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York.

In recent years, he helped create and promote a field of study called “interaction design” — the study, essentially, of how humans interact with computers.

Until his death, he remained best known for the GRiD Compass, a computing device he began designing in 1979 for the Silicon Valley company Grid Systems Corp.

GRiD Compass computer. (Courtesy of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

The GRiD Compass, Time magazine declared in a recent account of the machine’s creation, was “one of the most clever pieces of engineering in computing history.” Released in 1982, it featured a keyboard and 6-inch yellow-on-black screen display. The two pieces were held together by a hinge and that allowed the user to open and close the machine like a briefcase.

Even as laptops became lighter and more powerful, contemporary models continued to rely on Mr. Moggridge’s basic design. Laptops were reported to have outsold desktop computers for the first time in 2008.

The GRiD Compass was not the first portable computer on the market, Time magazine noted, but the device, despite its initial 1982 price of $8,150, was a big advance in weight and usability.

Unlike the tablet design, the hinge mechanism allowed users to maneuver the screen for optimal viewing. The fold-up construction protected the screen as well as the keyboard. And the ease of setup was travel-friendly.

It was the embodiment of Mr. Moggridge’s belief that design, rather than an aesthetic question, was a means of “solving problems.”

The problem with computers, as far as he was concerned, was simply that they were too big. Mr. Moggridge credited John Ellenby, the founder of GRiD Systems Corp., with being the “impetus” for the GRiD Compass project.

According to Mr. Moggridge, Ellenby had met a top-level White House official who told him of the need for the computing power of the desktop in a device half the size of a briefcase. “That became our guiding principle,” Mr. Moggridge told Smithsonian Magazine.

The GRiD Compass quickly received recognition from the scientific and military community. NASA appreciated the machine’s sturdy magnesium case and took it into orbit during the Space Shuttle program. The military used it, as well. The British defense ministry demonstrated its durability by throwing it out the window, and the U.S. military used it during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the London Independent reported.

As his career progressed, Mr. Moggridge moved away from physical design as he became increasingly interested in interaction design. His books included “Designing Interactions” (2006) and “Designing Media” (2010).

He became director of the Cooper-Hewitt museum in 2010 and oversaw the museum at a time of rapid expansion. Undergoing renovation, the museum will reopen in 2014.

William Grant Moggridge was born June 25, 1943, in London. His father served in the British military before becoming a civil servant; his mother was a painter.

In 1965, Mr. Moggridge received a diploma in art and design from what is now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. He worked as an industrial designer before founding a consulting firm, Moggridge Associates, in England in 1969. He opened a Palo Alto, Calif., office in 1979.

In his early career in America, according to Design Week, he worked on “garage projects” with Apple, Microsoft and other companies that became giants in the field of computer technology.

IDEO was formed in 1991 when Mr. Moggridge merged his company with two other firms owned by David Kelley and Mike Nuttall.

Mr. Moggridge taught on the university level and received awards that included the Prince Philip Designers Prize, a prestigious British honor.

Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Karin Helbig Hansen Moggridge of San Francisco; two sons, Alex Moggridge of San Francisco and Erik Moggridge of Portland, Ore.; and a brother.

Mr. Moggridge predicted that the laptop will “last forever,” alongside new technologies and devices such as the iPad.

“It’s a form that is very practical . . . and it is very portable,” he said. “I can’t see the laptop ever being completely replaced.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.



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