Twentieth anniversary of an Australian first:
the Dulmont Magnum laptop
By John Tinney
Twenty years ago, the first truly portable computer was launched on world markets – and it was designed and built in Australia.
The revolutionary new laptop came from the Dulmison company in Sydney (though nobody at Dulmison today seems to remember it) and was named the Dulmont Magnum.
Based on the new generation Intel 80186 processor, it featured 96 kilobytes of RAM, expandable to 256 kilobytes with a plug-in, and – remarkably for a portable machine - was three or four times faster than the average desktop at that time. Its operating system was MS-DOS 2.0. Standard applications included a full-featured word processor, a powerful spreadsheet program, a 9600 baud communication package, a file manager, a clock/calendar and a diary program. The LCD display had 8 lines and 80 columns. Disc drives and other peripherals were optional extras.
Extraordinarily for the time, the Magnum weighed less than 4 kilograms and could be carried in a slimline briefcase (laptop carry-cases were yet to be invented).
Advertisement in the International Herald Tribune, Paris, 6 June 1984
The Dulmont Magnum was a sensation in Europe when launched in a newspaper advertising campaign in June 1984. Reviewers compared it favourably with the HP notebook computer which entered the world market a short time later.
Later marketed internationally as the Kookaburra, the Australian laptop was a success in several European markets until it eventually lost ground to giants like HP with stronger marketing resources to service the global market. It is now a rare museum piece, along with other shooting stars of computer history like the Sinclair Spectrum ZX, the Amstrad PCW256 and another leading edge Australian PC, the Osborne.
The Magnum was conceived and developed entirely in Australia by a Dulmison team led by
John Blair, whose innovative software allowed the power-hungry 186 processor to be used in a portable device. Blair later went on to co-found Hypertec Pty Ltd before moving to San Francisco, where he is chairman, co-founder and chief technology officer of the business automation software company Kenamea Incorporated.
Reminded of the little computer’s twentieth anniversary, he remembers the Magnum fondly.
“It was a great product,” he says, “and way ahead of its
John Tinney is a lecturer in international business at Swinburne University of Technology. As trade commissioner in Paris, he assisted the Magnum’s launch in France in 1984.
Claudio Nieder remembers:
I am sure the Magnum existed already in 1984. In that year I worked for a
company in Uster (Switzerland) which imported on one part Apple clones from
Hong Kong and Taiwan and also the Magnum. I cannot say when we started
importing it, but I remember, that I went on a business trip to HK and
Taiwan in the first two weeks of October 1984 (I have a postcard which
reminds me the date) and during the stay in Hong Kong it was decided that I
should go to Australia and talk to the manufacturer as there were several
points we were not satisfied with the Magnum. This did then not happen
because the manufacturer told us, that because of some holiday nobody would
be in the office.
Anyway, from this episode I know, that we must have had the Magnum by
October 1st, and already for some weeks. Another thing I remember is, that
the Magnum existed before the Data General DG One, because I remember that
when the DG-1 was presented we feared that from that point on we would have
no more customers for the Magnum, as the DG1 had an internal floppy drive
and a larger display.