The Very Thought of You
21 Oct. 2009
It's 1979, and I have my first workshop that's not a garage. I had been talked into sharing a garage in Berkeley, where I'd been (taking a year off twice) since I came to school at the university in 1963, by Bob Marsh, a fellow resident of my student co-op from the early days. I didn't really know Bob then, but we met in 1974 when he was looking to set up a workshop and needed someone who could 1) help, and 2) share expenses.
We rented a 1200 square foot garage at 2465 Fourth St., down in the industrial district by the bay for $175 per month. I moved my clumsy wooden workbench in and Bob set up shop in a small office upstairs in the back. I was doing business as an independent engineer under the name “LGC Engineering”, a reference to the utopian poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan, picking up little bits of contract work here and there.
Then the Altair personal computer kit was announced and things picked up. Bob started a company, Processor Technology Corporation, to make plug-in boards for the Altair and I began getting contracts from them to do engineering and technical documentation work. Five years on I had designed their video display board, the VDM-1, which set the standard for personal computer text display, and had designed a computer around it, the Sol-20 “Terminal Computer”, so called because it was shaped like a terminal (someone wrote “like a typewriter with nowhere to put the paper”). The order book was opened for the Sol-20 in August 1976, half a year before the Apple II, and it got displayed in the Smithsonian for 17 years.
I made a deal for royalties in addition to a fixed fee for each product, so for every unit shipped I got $10 (VDM-1) and $12 (Sol-20), paid quarterly. I wouldn't have to give any money back, no matter how the company fared. In 1976 Processor Tech moved out of the garage and into bigger quarters, and I moved my workshop back to my studio apartment. In 1978 they had moved again, 40 miles away, and I decided to use my new money to rent a spiffy office and set up the workshop of my dreams.
I rented a space which would have accommodated two 400-square-foot offices, on the second floor of a building overlooking a parking lot behind the University Avenue Co-op market (of which I was a member). The rent was $800 for 800 square feet, the place was carpeted but otherwise plain. I had some fairly radical plans for it.
My father had worked for a company that makes folding tables and chairs, so through him I was able to buy four “serpentine” tables at cost. These tables describe a 90 degree sector of arc, and can be connected to make circles, U-shapes, or oscillating shapes (hence the name). Each one was 4 feet in radius to the outside, and would fit a 2 by 3 foot sheet of “D-size” drawing paper. Seated at the center point you could reach everywhere on the table, with no “shadow areas” out of reach where clutter could pile up (I had heard architects talking about this phenomenon).
I got four rolling carts each of which held a top-accessible filing drawer (I called them “file pots”) and filled them with hanging file folders. The bottom portion of these carts was just a shelf with clear space up to the bottom of the file pot, and there I placed a simple plastic tray. I put track lighting, with little spot lights that could be re-positioned, on the ceilings.
My idea was for a non-territorial office, in which people would set up their tables where they needed them and then fold them up again before they left. We used director's chairs for seating, and all pencils etc. had to be swept into the plastic trays, the tables and chairs folded up, and all stowed away at the end of the day. We also had a sofa, a drafting table, and a cabinet with a blueprint developer machine on it. It worked well, but only for the people I had hired – when a client placed one of their people in the office to work on a project with us he demanded room dividers to create the equivalent of a little closed office.
In those days, when computer aided engineering (CAE) programs were in their infancy, engineering drawings were still done by hand, with special pencils (called “lead holders” because you could release the thick lead with a push of the button) – that you would perpetually sharpen by twirling them in special pencil sharpeners. You rotated the pencil while you drew the line, so that the point would, in effect, continue to be sharpened (or at least not get dull as fast as it would if you held it still).
To reproduce these drawings, which were done on translucent “vellum” paper, you put the original together with a sheet of “Diazo” paper, which had a yellow photo-sensitive coating, with the coating contacting the back of the original. Then you fed it into the developer, which wrapped it around a rotating glass cylinder with ultraviolet-rich fluorescent tubes inside, giving the paper a good dose of UV through the original.
Where there was a pencil line, the UV was blocked. The coating bleached out in the clear areas and as it emerged you fed the copy paper through another section where it was exposed to ammonia gas, which turned the unbleached coating dark blue. The result was a “blueline print” - the negative of the earlier “blueprint”, which had turned the clear areas blue and the lines white.
The ammonia came in gallon jugs and hooked up to the machine through a special screw-on cap with several tubes connecting it to the machine. The whole rig cost $1000, a lot of money then, but you couldn't do the work without it – Xerox copiers were over ten times more expensive, and there was no such thing as a laser printer for use with a small computer.
If you wanted to make printed circuits you had to do a “tape layout” on a back-lit light box, sticking down thin, black, flexible paper tape to layers of clear Mylar film representing the copper traces on the fiberglass board. You would take the layers of Mylar and tape to an industrial photographic house and have reduced negatives made and reduced from it. If you had dropped your roll of tape on the floor it would pick up lint and hair, which would result in tiny, invisible copper bridges between conductors if you didn't run your layout knife along the tape to clear out the lint.
At that time CAE layout programs were just coming into use. They had been developed inside large corporations that could afford the really expensive precision photo-plotters along with the computers needed for the work – a system might cost $250,000. Eventually some of the used equipment made it outside to “service bureaus” where you could rent the use of it, and the time of a skilled operator, for a hundred dollars an hour or so. They had to work using a digitizing pad from a layout you made on grid-ruled frosted Mylar, using colored pencils, red on one layer and blue on the other (layouts of more than 2 layers were rare).
The grid was 10 lines to the inch, and you usually worked at a 2X magnification, so each grid line represented 0.050” (or “50 mils”). The printed circuit fabrication technology of the day allowed for 12 mil line width and 12 mil spaces – they could do finer but charged a lot more per board. So we could fit one trace on each grid line and one between.
So it happened one night that I was applying myself at the drafting board trying to work out the routing for my “VDM-2” display board – a long-overdue successor to the now-obsolete VDM-1. This product would have 24 lines of 80 characters (the VDM-1 had 16 lines of 64), have two display fields that could be scrolled separately – one scrolled smoothly, and a character font that could be written from the computer (as opposed to a cooked-in ROM character font on the VDM-1). All this took lots of logic, which took lots of integrated circuit packs, which took lots of area on the board. I had to extend the top edge of the board beyond the standard S-100 outline to the limit of what could be accommodated in the Sol-20 cabinet. I called it the “magnum” board outline.
Still, it would not fit. The going was hard and slow, and I had to stay late.
I was listening to KPFA, one of Berkeley's treasures – the world's first listener-sponsored radio station, established 1949. They would let inexperienced interns learn broadcasting skills by taking late-night shifts, and you could always expect to hear unusual things after midnight at their frequency. Tonight was no exception. The program was jazz, and the DJ for some unknown reason had decided to play every available cover of an old standard, each by a different artist.
The song was “The Very Thought of You”:
“The very thought of you/
and I forget to do/
the very ordinary things/
that everyone ought to do...”
It was pleasant enough. Then on it came again, by a different singer with different musicians. Still, I thought that was interesting, too. Then again. Then again – and again. They kept coming with no end in sight.
I was working urgently to get the layout done - quite likely an impossible task. I had to get the prototype to Processor Technology on a deadline, as they were about to leave for the National Computer Conference in New York. I was alone in a spare office with nothing but parking lot lights outside and no living thing in sight.
On and on it went - “The very thought of you...” It was going to go on forever! I was struck by the thought that perhaps I had died, that the sun would never rise, the layout never get done, the song would go on and on and on throughout eternity as I tried and tried and failed...
That was my first glimpse of hell.
The music stopped eventually, the sun rose, though the layout never did get finished as I had to cut it short and fill in for the missing printed circuit traces with wires. Shortly thereafter I found myself standing with the not-yet-working VDM-2 board in the multi-story Javits convention center in New York City, looking for the Processor Technology both, sweating in the summer heat.
I searched and searched - and couldn't find it. There was no Processor Tech booth. I located a bare space where it was scheduled to be - Processor Tech, it turned out, had closed its doors. Future royalty payments would not be made. I would try to sell the design to other manufacturers without success. Winter was coming.
Processor Technology Corporation died for a number of reasons – not all of them clear to me. I do know that they made the mistake of staying with their first products too long. By 1978 the Sol-20 was in dire need of an upgrade from the 8080 processor chip to the Z80 – highly desirable for running the CP/M operating system which had by then become the standard. They never asked me to design any upgrades – the VDM-2 was my initiative. When I asked them too late in the game what they wanted me to do the principals said “we were waiting to see what you came up with”.
I concluded from that experience that the time to start work on the next, improved version of the product is the day after you finish with the previous version. With luck you'll finish before your company needs it – this gives you time to adapt it to the world as it is, or rather, as it has become in the meantime. If you're really lucky and skillful you can create a range of versions so that when the competition pulls their product out of a hat your company will be able to open its closet and choose which product to release that will be better and cheaper than the competition. That and still have higher and lower-end products in reserve.
Of course, that takes a company run by competent professionals – something we didn't have in those days.