First Portable Computer for Linguistic Fieldwork

Two SIL staff members receive a research grant and recognition for the first portable computer designed for use in linguistic field work.

Well before the personal computer became a commodity item, two SIL staff members acted on their dream of using one in linguistic field work. Dr. Joseph Grimes (then also serving as a linguistics professor at Cornell University) and Gary Simons, a Ph.D. student of Grimes minoring in Computer Science, concluded that a computer would be needed to support Simons’ dissertation research in the field. Grimes and Simons applied for and were awarded funding for the project. Bill Hemsath, an engineer working in Cornell’s Psychology lab, built the computer to their specifications. Gary and Linda Simons then used the machine to collect and analyze language data while conducting language surveys in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (1976-1977).

The ETP-8L (Electronic Text Processor -- 8-bit, Low Power) had an Intel 8080 processor, 16K memory (at a cost of $100/K at the time of production) and a five inch CRT display (eight lines of text, thirty-two characters across), all housed within a waterproof case. Data was stored at 300 bits per second on cassette tapes with a portable cassette recorder.

This cutting-edge project was funded by a research grant from the National Science Foundation, and was chosen by the Linguistics program of NSF as their project of the year for inclusion in NSF’s annual report to the United States Congress in 1977.

In 2010, Dr. Gary Simons was appointed SIL's first Chief Research Officer.

Clockwise, from bottom left: Gary Simons and Bill Hemsath with the finished machine, introducing the computer to a multi-generational gathering in the Solomon Islands, carrying the computer into a remote field site, Linda Simons enters data,    Gary Simons and a Solomon Islands colleague use the machine to collect and review language data, Simons hikes to the administrative center on Santa Cruz Island (Solomon Islands) to tap into the nearest power source.

Tuesday, 5 October, 1976
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