28 Oct. 2009
It's 1980 and I'm walking the aisles at the 5th West Coast Computer Faire in Brooks Hall, San Francisco. I am part of the Pacific Software booth crew, and we're showing off a piece of vaporware software called “Junior G-Man”, a variation of the relational database that the Community Memory Project has been developing. For this reason only I am wearing a felt hat that is at least two sizes too small. Others at the booth are dressed in garb inspired by the “Untouchables” TV show, and one of us has a shoulder holster with a real .38 snub-nose revolver (a policeman happens to see it and advises him to put the gun out of sight).
Walking past the booth of Osborne Associates, a publishing company that was early into the new market for computer books, I am hailed by Adam Osborne, the founder. “Lee!” he cries in surprise, “what are you doing wearing a fedora hat?” I knew Adam because I had done some work for him, mostly editing manuscripts for books on machine language programming and reviewing a secret project Osborne had under way to develop a dynamic memory board for S-100 computers. I had pronounced that project hopeless because the engineers were prototyping using wire-wrap technique, which is incapable of maintaining a level of what is now called “signal integrity” - i.e., it was generating signals with far more noise than the DRAM chips could tolerate.
When I stopped to chat, Adam told me that he wanted to meet with me to discuss forming a “hardware company” that would “really do things right”. Adam was somewhat of a caricature Englishman – tall and dark, in his '40's with a compact military brush mustache, and he held himself ramrod-straight. He spoke with an all-purpose British accent, emphasizing words with a cadence that made him sound like a character in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, though had lived in the States for twenty years. As I later found out, his accent only disappeared when he was angry. It seemed clear to me that he took advantage of the tendency common among Americans to regard the British as being of superior intelligence.
Adam held a PhD in chemical engineering and had come to the US in his twenties to work for DuPont and Shell, doing computer simulations toward the end of that career. When Shell closed its research facility in California, Adam struck out as a software consultant and a technical writer, doing business as Adam Osborne and Associates. When the Altair personal computer was announced in 1975 he scraped together the technical manuals on all of the available microprocessor chips and reprinted the information in a single, fat paperback book. Titled “An Introduction to Microprocessors”, it became the bible for machine-language programmers – the only kind of programmers that then existed for personal computers. Adam worked a deal with the Imsai Corporation that had one of these books shipped with each of the imitation-but-improved Altair clones they made.
By 1979 interest was growing in personal computers, and the publishing giant McGraw-Hill purchased Osborne Associates. It was during this time that I did my first work for Adam. While it would have made no sense for a publishing company to pay for a memory board development project, it made eminent sense if the owner had lots of money burning a hole in his pocket and was looking for the next big thing.
At first Adam said he had no idea what he wanted to manufacture and invited me to make suggestions. I dusted off a few plan I had previously set aside – one was a multiplexed game controller that would allow a small audience to drive a game with individual joysticks (software for multi-user games did not exist then and would have to be developed to give this product a market). After a few such presentations he sat me own and took out a pad of quad-ruled graph paper and a mechanical pencil.
I've decided what we're going to make,” he stated, and began to draw on the gridlines with a small ruler. “There's a truck-sized hole in the market for personal computers and we're going to fill it!” As he drew a crude image he went on to describe it: a CP/M machine using either a Z80 or 8085 processor, dynamic RAM memory in 16K increments up to 64K, a video display showing 24 lines of 40 upper-case characters, two 5 1/4” floppy disc drives, a 5-inch CRT display monitor, and all packaged in a case having the keyboard built into the lid that would sit inclined on a table top with the keyboard/lid propping up the front. Oh, a serial port and a parallel port as well, which itself could be configured through software to speak the IEEE-488 standard – the standard for connecting lab instrumentation, such as might be encountered in a chemical lab.
He also wanted to include pockets to hold several diskettes (the word of the time for the floppy discs themselves) so the software would stay with the machine, and he wanted it to be sized to fit under an airline seat. I had no problem going along with the specifications, as I was broke and eager to earn any money I could. But I did not see him engage in any process of deliberation resulting in this spec, and he never talked about how the concept came to him.
It turns out there was a likely source - a fellow named Blair Newman. I met Blair later through the WELL (the “Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link” - an early conferencing system set up in 1985 by the Whole Earth Catalog). Blair was brilliant and bipolar, moving from peaks of raging creativity to crashing depressions. He had apparently worked for the Howard Hughes organization in the past and claimed to have created the specification for the 5 1/4” hard disk drive (5 MB for the first ones).
Blair got in touch with me in 1985 and we had lunch. He was trying to find a place where he could be based – a gonzo R&D lab where he could be the chief creative thinker and others would fill in around him. I couldn't help him – by that time my R&D consulting company was beginning a long, slow decline. But at that lunch he told me an interesting story.
In 1978, Blair said, and he and Trip Hawkins (the future founder of 3DO – one of the big computer game software companies) were working as marketing consultants at Apple. Blair came up with the idea for a CP/M portable computer using two floppy disc drives, a CRT monitor and a case that would seal up when closed – the Osborne design, in short. The two of them proposed it to Steve Jobs, the head man at Apple, and Jobs rejected it scornfully, as was his habit with ideas that did not mesh with his. Metaphorically, Jobs threw the design out the window and threatened to throw its promoters out the window as well if they did not buckle down and do as they were told.
Not long after this conversation Blair took his own life. In past depressive episodes he had said “it's worth it to have a mind like mine”, but this time the black hole was too much. On the WELL he erased all of his previous postings – in effect committing virtual suicide before the physical act. I've experienced clinical depression, and it's a lot worse than simply feeling down. As I trudged around campus getting my body to classes all of which I was failing the worst part was the feeling that I didn't care – although I had always cared and underneath still did. It was like a living death, and I had only a mild case, resolved through therapy several years later. Blair found his own way out, and I wrote him a eulogy that was read at his memorial service.
But what happened to the design specification? In recent years I related the story to Steve Hamm, who was writing a book “The Search For Perfect” about the origin of the laptop computer. Steve interviewed Trip Hawkins in depth and developed more details – none of which contradicted Newman. Earlier, I had followed another line of inquiry, and asked Chuck Peddle about it. Chuck was the designer of the 6502 microprocessor chip that made the Apple and the Commodore computers possible. He ran a company named MOS Technology which was later bought by Commodore, for whom went to work. He was known to be garrulous – not at all shy in talking about anything. I knew that Adam had been a member of a regular poker game involving Chuck as well as Bill Godbout (a seller of electronic parts who ventured briefly into the computer add-on market) and Bill Morrow, a computer designer who started his own company, Morrow Designs. Adam had indicated that they talked about the personal computer market and about the “truck-sized hole” that he perceived.
Poker games among friends are more for the conversation than the card playing, and I wondered whether Peddle, who was connected closely to Apple, had been the conduit for the Osborne design. He did not answer directly, but simply said “that design was around the industry in those days”. Neither Hamm nor I can definitively name the route the design took, but it seems far too much of a coincidence for the idea to have simply popped into Adam's head fully formed.
Adam wasn't about to credit anybody else. In 1979 he was writing a column in the new personal computer press commenting on products of the moment. He titled the column “From the Fountainhead” and seemed amused when people understood him to be referring to himself. When asked he would claim that the word referred to the industry or Silicon Valley, but this held no weight with those who knew him. We knew how popular around the industry were the “objectivist” novels of Ayn Rand, whose early work “The Fountainhead” told of the struggles of an egotistical architect against the forces of mediocrity who conspired to crush his creativity (eventually the architect blows up the housing project he has been commissioned to design because other, less talented people got in his way and modified the design – a fine story for an opera, but having nothing to do with real life).
I began work roughing out the design of what was to become the Osborne-1, always supremely conscious of cost. It would be my first design using dynamic RAM, and I was afraid I wasn't up to it. I searched and found not one, but three CRT video display monitors that would meet the requirements. Interestingly, they were all built for the same mounting holes and the same interface connector – electrically and mechanically interchangeable. I eventually concluded that they had been tooled for the IBM 5100 “Portable Computer”, introduced in 1975 and taken off the market in 1979.
The 5100 was a super desktop calculator, in effect, which could be programmed in either the BASIC or APL languages. It weighed 30 pounds, its CRT display handled only about eight lines of display, it used a cartridge tape drive for storage and with an optional set of 8 inch floppy disc drives it was priced in the stratospheric area of $15,000. The 5100 could not compete with personal computers as they began to emerge and improve. So the Osborne-1 was possible because of investment that manufacturers had made in trying to sell components to IBM – we could not have paid the “NRE” (non-recurring engineering) expenses to tool such monitors, and would have had to live at the mercy of a single supplier who charged whatever it wished.
In the process of setting up the hardware company Adam used a dormant company he had lying around named Brandywine Holdings. The main DuPont plants were built on the banks of the Brandywine Creek in Delaware, so Adam must have had it left over from some venture or investment scheme from his early days. He had an artist develop a logo for business cards. I was there in the meeting when the artist came to present his design. He unveiled it and we all saw the text: “Brandy Wine Holders”. We all looked at each other – apparently Adam had given his instructions verbally and there had been no correspondence to confirm the order. It was an auspicious beginning for what was to follow.