Update: This article was updated on March 18, 2023 thanks to the help of Dan Basterfield who worked for IBM UK PC Company. His knowledge has helped increase the overall accuracy of this article.
ThinkPad enthusiasts will likely know that at the very beginning of the history of ThinkPad, black was not the only colour used for these iconic machines. As hard as it might be to believe there do exist Beige/Pebble Gray ThinkPads, it is a strange sight to behold. You can tell by looking at it that the hard work and consideration that Richard Sapper and Kazuhiko Yamazaki put into the design is impacted when the machine isn’t the colour it was designed to be. The Pebble Gray colour choice was available on several models, not just the 700C.
According to the IBM Mobile Systems Hardware Maintenance Manual Volume 2: ThinkPad Computers April 1995, the following models had “gray” part options that were designated “For Germany.” They are listed below:
- IBM ThinkPad 700 and 700C (Cream in colour)
- IBM ThinkPad 720 and 720C (Cream in colour)
- IBM ThinkPad 750, 750P, 750Cs, 750Ce (Grey)
- IBM ThinkPad Dock I
- IBM ThinkPad 300 Monochrome (See PSREF below)
There was also a Japan-exclusive ThinkPad 330C (5523-JVB) that was beige. This was released on May 16, 1994 and did not feature a TrackPoint and other more recognizable ThinkPad features. We will talk more about that shortly.
It is worth noting that the different colour parts are shared between some models. For example, the 700 and 720 share the same housing components.
So where and why do these machines exist? Let me try and offer as complete of an answer as I can using the information I have collected, some of it recently.
The “Why?” question was partially answered by Arimasa Naitoh during the 20th Anniversary of ThinkPad.
The ThinkPad models in the 1990’s had documentation stating that they are to be made in black cases, in accordance with Richard Sapper’s guidelines set in his collaboration with the Boca Raton Team. Why were there variations from this, where, for instance, the 700/ C, 720C and 300 are in grey?
Naitoh-San: In the 1990’s, we had the retail models of ThinkPad painted in grey to be distinguished from the original enterprise models.
Naitoh-San is likely referring to the Japanese-exclusive ThinkPad 330C (5523-JVB) I mentioned earlier. You can see a gallery of photos of this device that were taken by ThinkPads.com Forum member Bondi.
Official IBM documentation of the Beige/Pebble Gray ThinkPad is spotty at best. In the Personal Systems Reference IBM ThinkPad Notebooks 1992 to 2001 – withdrawn January 2001 – Version 214, the only model not listed as being offered in black was the ThinkPad 300 monochrome model and it was listed as “Charcoal grey” (page 4) as opposed to black. We know from the Hardware Maintenance Manuals from above that there was a more comprehensive offering of ThinkPad in Beige/Gray. This is likely to do with the markets they were sold—more on that in just a moment.
To answer the “Where?” part of the question, we can look at the keyboards and see that nearly all of the photographed examples have one item in common and that is a QWERTZ keyboard layout. I found one example sporting a French European keyboard layout. Both of these keyboard layouts are exclusive to Western/Central Europe and the QWERTZ layout is often simply referred to as the German keyboard layout. Now, this raises an interesting and somewhat plausible connection to the interview I did with Tom Hardy where he discusses the challenges he had with German DIN standards and IBM Germany at the time. See the video below for that whole story.
It is impossible to know how many of these machines were produced but it is highly likely the German DIN standards of the time had an impact on their creation. If we assume Naitoh-san is correct in the above statement at least as it pertains to the Japanese market, where the retail models were designated that colour, Dan Basterfield, a former IBM UK PC Company employee and ThinkPad collector who contacted me also shed some light on how all these histories can co-exist.
“Naitoh-san’s comments about the retail models being grey and business models being black were clearly true for the Japanese market, which saw a proliferation of ‘PS/Note’ branded models for both markets (many of which never made it to the US or EMEA), but not in the context of the non-black 700/720/750/755 models. Yes, the PS/Note 182 was grey, as was the ThinkPad 300, both of which were marketed outside Japan, both were entry-level machines. I acquired a 300 about eight years ago. It is nowhere near as sharp or as iconic as the 700/720, and side-by-side they are clearly different machines. I’d never seen one even in my time at IBM, and it feels disappointingly like a generic laptop dressed up with IBM badges and design cues; IIRC it was manufactured by a 3rd party. The odd texture and the fact that it wasn’t black only emphasised the ‘wrongness’ when I finally got hold of one.
The retail/commercial divide had nothing to do with the cream 700/720 and grey 750/755. These were all due, as you correctly surmised, to the German DIN regulations regarding contrast of visual display units which effectively precluded black (or white) screen surrounds. Not a problem for any of the desktop ranges then, as all the PS/1, PS/2, and ValuePoint monitors were acceptably cream, but a problem for the black ThinkPads, hence the non-black German-only variants. The manufacturing and localisation guys at Greenock confirmed this to me – I asked back then because I’d once had a close look at a peculiar beige/black hybrid ThinkPad, left on a desk in PC Co HQ back in Basingstoke in 1994: black keyboard sitting in a white chassis. I never saw another one like it, even with keeping my eyes open and having good access to oddities and curiosities. I thought it had been a prototype or development chassis, but realised then that this must have been a beige German-market 700/720 that had been retrofitted with a black non German keyboard – presumably UK layout for a UK user. I recently picked up a NOS grey 750/755 German keyboard, like you do, and of course it really is grey (not beige).
What I never even thought to ask about was whether the N33/N55 precursors of the 700/720 were ever sold in Germany (if so, what colour?) since the DIN standard you link to dates from 1984. A lot of big German companies and banks were very loyal IBM customers at that time. I do recall that the cream L40sx was sold in Germany, and I’m pretty sure the one I scrounged for the Helpcentre had a German keyboard. Perhaps IBM didn’t market the black pre-ThinkPads into Germany for this reason… but then again the ThinkPad 350 (re-badged Yamato PS/Note 425, successor to the N33/N51 in that same chassis) is listed in the HMM as having a German keyboard option but no grey casing options, so were presumably sold as standard black, in contravention of the DIN regulations. Maybe they didn’t offer the 350 in Germany, and the German keyboard option was for Switzerland, Austria, etc where presumably the DIN regulations did not apply?”
Here is a possibility of how all this comes together by working under the assumption that all the information we have is accurate.
Firstly, as Tom Hardy stated in the interview, the section of the German DIN standards that did not allow computers to be black was revoked sometime after the release of the ThinkPad 700C, this would mean that black could be used for Enterprise machines as Naitoh states in the interview. If the DIN standard was no longer required however then why spend the money to create the gray models for a German market that would no longer require them?
Changing standards takes time and I suspect between Tom Hardy leaving IBM and German businesses slowly moving away from the DIN Standard took just over a year. David Hill also mentioned that recalled some pushback against changing the standards to allow for black machines. If the last ThinkPad that was offered in gray was made in November of 1993 (began manufacture), the standard likely would have been revoked around that time. Some German businesses would be able/willing to overlook the standards and buy the black machine regardless, however, others might have not had that flexibility and the pebble gray was brought in to meet their needs. Perhaps IBM Germany just passed on the cost in the price of the machine.
I also suspect that Japan may have been stuck in the middle of these standards or perhaps wanted to diffeniate a “professional” machine from a consumer one.
After the product lifecycle was complete, it wouldn’t need to offer the gray/beige machines afterwards, standardizing the line and reducing manufacturing costs. Perhaps any remaining inventory was sold off as retail units as Naitoh stated in the interview above. What we can say for certain is, after 1994, no ThinkPads were made in the pebble gray/beige colour.
David Hill also stated in the book “ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue” there were other challenges to making ThinkPad the classic black we know today:
“There were a lot of barriers to getting the original IBM ThinkPad design approved. Many were opposed to using black as the color of the notebook. At the time, black was very radical in personal computing, even though it was accepted in earlier computer products. If you went back and looked at the IBM System 360 mainframe from the 1960s, it was primarily black. It was in the computer room behind glass windows and was supposed to look outstanding. The black color allowed clients to show off their prize possession to visitors.
“But personal computers weren’t black at the time. That’s because we wanted to make PCs fit naturally into the office so they wouldn’t be noticed. So, we made all of them in pearl white, a sort of cream color that no one would notice. But, then along comes the ThinkPad, and we wanted to make a bold statement that was just the opposite. We wanted everyone to notice it, so we adopted black. A lot of people objected to our using black as the color of ThinkPad, thinking it wasn’t like ‘IBM.’ Eventually everyone saw it as something that would really differentiate IBM.
-“ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue” by Deborah A. Dell and J. Gerery Purdy, Ph.D.
What do you think about these ThinkPads? Have you ever seen one in person? Let me know by @ me on Twitter. As always, if any new information is acquired, I will update this article accordingly.