Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Alex Cruickshank's writing machines: Panasonic Sr Partner

June 2015

Since part of my work involves writing about technology, I get to exercise my inner nerd from time to time, all in the name of business. I like quirky technology, the kind that makes you think, "What on Earth is that?"

Or, more often, "What on Earth were the manufacturers thinking?'

This is just such a machine. It's a portable computer that weighs a mere 15kg. It has a built-in CGA green monochrome screen and even a built-in thermal printer, which works on the same principle as an old fax machine.

Panasonic Sr Partner

A well-heeled sales executive of yesteryear would have dragged this weighty beige box around his clients' offices and wowed them with spreadsheet graphs, before printing out a sales contract on the spot. And then gone to hospital to get treatment for his dislocated shoulder.

Launched in 1983, the internet tells me that this machine swiftly became the subject of a lawsuit by IBM because Panasonic stole their BIOS code. Panasonic lost the court case. They had to pay compensation to IBM and remove this computer from sale. So these are rare beasts.

In other parts of the world this PC was sold as the Panasonic Sr Partner, but here the label on the front says Panasonic Portable Computer. I bought it with no hard drive or software, so working out its internals has been an education. If in doubt, whip out the screwdriver and see what lies beneath.

Panasonic Sr Partner dismantled

A thorough dismantling, dusting, lubricating and reassembly later and, surprisingly, it still worked.

In base trim the Sr Partner had 128KB of memory, but this particular model has a plug-in card that not only increases the RAM count to 640KB (who could ask for more?) but also provides a hard drive interface.

I managed to obtain a working Seagate ST-225 from Bulgaria and install it, though the controller would only format the drive to 10MB instead of its native 20MB. That might be fixable, but I've left it as it is, since 10MB was this PC's original hard drive capacity.

It's enough, anyway. With the help of compression software and perseverance, I've installed two office suites, a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet clone, dozens of my favourite text hacking utilities and one of the best word-processors ever written, WordPerfect 5.1. Oh, and 35 games.

Panasonic Sr Partner dismantled

As a writing machine it lacks a little something. The keyboard is surprising cheap and plastic, but more importantly this computer is loud. The two cooling fans and antique hard drive sound like a jet turbine spinning up. It's an evocative noise initially but quickly becomes annoying.

Still, the 4.77MHz 8088 processor is powerful enough for word-processing, and the glowing green screen is nicely retro. So I do use this vintage computer for writing the occasional feature, but I wear ear-plugs while doing so. The noise is an encouragement to finish what I'm writing quickly, without being sidetracked.

In summary, this 32-year-old Panasonic Sr Partner is a massively over-engineered anti-procrastination device, and I rather like it.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and likes technology that can be dismantled easily.

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