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When Laptops Came to Wall Street

For financial services the 24-hour workday began in 1985, with the advent of portable computers.

  • By Alicia McElhaney

In February 1985, working from home or on the road was near impossible. Then “portables,” as they were then known, arrived on the scene and promised to radically change the way Wall Street did business.

Richard Karp detailed the early days of portable computers in his article, “Taking a Computer on The Road,” in the February 1985 issue of Institutional Investor. 

These early laptops weighed about ten pounds or more and, Karp noted, “fit under an airplane seat.” But they also made working around the clock possible. Little did Karp know that more than 30 years later, America’s financial class would be tied to even smaller devices, engaged almost constantly with their smartphones.

Flashback to 1985. One financier — a vice president at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. — told Karp that he used to take blackboards, files, and notebooks to auditing meetings.

“Now I just pocket two floppy discs, and off I go,” he bragged. To be sure, he also had to lug a 28-pound Compaq portable computer on a luggage cart, but at least it was more manageable than the paperwork.

A vice president at First Boston Corp. said he borrowed a friend’s Hewlett Packard 110 — a shockingly sleek eight-pound battery-powered model — so he could work on a trip from New York to Boston. Rather than waste the five-hour train ride, Karp wrote, the VP finished a five-year budget forecast.

Some computer enthusiasts who left the country with their laptops in the early days were required to make cash deposits worth $900 at the Canadian border. The deposits were received in the mail up to three months later, stymied by bureaucratic processes.

“You can easily see how this policy limits the number of times you can go to Canada with a computer,” David du Pont, managing director at Prudential-Banche Securities told Karp. But, he added, the real problem was that it was impossible to fit a computer in his briefcase.

Du Pont would no longer have that problem, of course. Today, computers fit in our pockets, as smartphones, and have many workers feeling like they need to detox from using their devices. Karp had at least an inkling that this would occur.

“Because of their convenience and versatility, portables make the 24-hour workday a distinct possibility,” he wrote.                           

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