Syncopated Systems
Seriously Sound Science

Common Threads: Media, Science, Technology, and Other Magic

May 2020: The COVID-19 Chronicles

Silicon Valley, 1970-1993

I was in grade school when the microcomputer revolution exploded around me.

The American Landing

Neil Armstrong on the Moon, Apollo 11 July 20, 1969 (NASA image)

Neil Armstrong on the Moon, Apollo 11 July 20, 1969
(click to for full NASA image)

My parents met while both working for IBM in the Netherlands. My father Richard “Rick” Carlsen (1936-2018) was an American technical writer and my mother (born in 1943) is Dutch and at the time worked as a librarian.

My father—the eldest child of a fisherman who immigrated from Norway—became unusually fluent in Germanic languages, and my mother—like many people raised in the Netherlands—is fluent in Dutch, English, German, and French. Because my parents spoke Dutch at home, Dutch became my first language.

Shortly after they married, my parents packed most of their belongings into their Volkswagen bus and shipped it to the United States, where they flew to meet it. When they arrived in July 1969, they were delayed in New York and New Jersey because the port was closed (along with nearly everything else) so that the nation could celebrate and watch on live television the landing of the first people on the Moon.

My father’s passport, with admission stamp dated July 13, 1969
(click to for larger image)

I was born and raised in Silicon Valley.

Because I was conceived before my father started a new job (though unbeknownst to my parents at the time), my mother’s pregnancy with me was considered a “pre-existing condition” and not covered by health insurance. So, my parents started their lives in Silicon Valley with significant expenses.

Still, they were able to buy a starter home in one of the western tentacles that San José had aggressively annexed during the 1950-1969 reign of its city manager A.P. (Anthony) “Dutch” Hamann (1909-1977), along a street that bordered Campbell. (Hamann and his wife died in the worst aviation disaster to date, when Boeing 747s from Pan American Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines collided in the Tenerife airport disaster.)

Growing Up in Silicon Valley

The microcomputer revolution effectively started in 1977 with the release of three general-purpose personal (“home”) computers—Commodore PET, Apple II, and Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 (suffixed Model I since 1979). Also released that year was a single-purpose machine that had a relatively low cost of entry (because it connected to television sets people already owned): the Atari Video Computer System (VCS, also known as 2600 since 1982).

Indistinguishable from Magic

British science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) proposed his three laws (at least as early as 1962, when they appeared together), the best known of which is

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

My father loved 1:64 scale (S guage) American Flyer electric toy trains and other products of the A. C. Gilbert Company, which was started as a supplier for magic shows in 1909 by Alfred Carlton Gilbert (1884-1961).

Like my father, Gilbert was born in Oregon. Like my Dutch grandfather Klaas de Groot (1919-1994), Gilbert competed in Summer Olympic Games in London (Gilbert in 1908 and my grandfather in 1948).

My father introduced me to many of A. C. Gilbert’s products, which he would sometimes find at garage sales and flea markets (frequent stops on our weekends). In addition to toy trains, these included Erector Set and science kits including microscope and chemistry sets.

I recall my father teaching me that one of the A. C. Gilbert Company’s many innovations was enameled magnet wire, which enabled the company to make electric motors that were smaller and cheaper than others of the time, which used woven insulators. With this, at one point the company offered an inexpensive household electric fan.

American Flyer electric toy trains were more realistic than those of their nearest competitor, Lionel, which required three rails. It also had many remotely-controlled accessories that used interesting technology to simulate various common railway operations, such as electric track switches, an animated sawmill, a moving stockyard and stock cars (which had cattle that moved on vibrating surfaces following the orientation of velvet on their bases), and a talking station (which enclosed a light bulb and a small phonograph player).

My father also repaired these toy trains through a local club and nearby specialty shops, which he would sometimes visit with me (and/or my little sister) in tow. One shop was in a narrow hole-in-the-wall in one of Sunnyvale’s historic old buildings on East Washington Avenue from the shopping mall built in the mid 1970s. Another was The Engine House: a building with its name large in fading paint on a crumbling stucco façade attached to a pair of Quonset huts across a gravel parking lot from the owner’s home at 666 Alberta Avenue (near Hollenbeck Avenue); the owner was E.C. (Emanuel Charles) “Easy” Schwafel (1906-1991), who—as I could see through pictures on his shop’s walls—had led a big band in his younger days, when they were popular.

The Middle of the Action

In early 1978, my parents moved our family from west San José to Sunnyvale, to a house that was both larger and closer to my father’s work.

From before my parents met until his retirement, my father was a professional technical communicator. Aside from the year he worked for Lockheed Missiles and Space Company (LMSC, now Lockheed Martin), he created manuals for big mainframe computers (the “big iron”), working long tenures at Amdahl Corporation, after Tandem Computers, and earlier—for about the first ten years of my life—Control Data Corporation (CDC), which made the world’s fastest computers.

Our new home put me between (and within only five miles of) both Apple and Atari, and I quickly realized that I was in the middle of something big.

Around the middle of 1979 and my ninth birthday, I started learning about electronics and computers from my father and his CDC office mate LaFarr Stuart, who had in 1962 been featured on a national radio program (NBC’s Monitor) while a student at Iowa State University by programming recognizable pieces of music to play from its Cyclone vacuum tube computer, which was built in 1959 as a derivative of the identical ORDVAC and ILLIAC I computers built by the University of Illinois in 1952. (ORDVAC is notable for being the first computer to have a compiler, which enables software to be written in languages at levels higher than an assembly language or machine code. Together, the two machines are notable for introducing interoperability of software between machines running the same instruction set, which extended to the later Cyclone computer and—to a somewhat lesser degree, due to extensions to its instruction set—NTT’s MUSASINO-1 computer, built in Japan in 1957 by a team led by Saburo Muroga, who had been part of the ILLIAC I team as a visiting scholar.) Stuart taught me to enter machine code programs into a COSMAC ELF single-board computer he lent me (including some that played music through its little speaker); he also lent me a logic experimenter kit made by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and a copy of The TTL Data Book for Design Engineers from Texas Instruments (TI)—a first edition from 1973, and the only hardcover semiconductor data book I had ever seen.

My father brought home small printed circuit boards (PCBs) discarded by CDC. Through taking them apart and learning why they were assembled the way they were, I started to understand and appreciate the work of CDC’s chief engineer, the legendary computer scientist and supercomputer pioneer Seymour Cray (1925-1996). (The PCBs I got were logic modules used in CPU cores.) This also taught me to appreciate what I could learn from others by analyzing (“reverse engineering”) the products of their work, and Silicon Valley’s nearby surplus electronics shops at the time provided many more good lessons.

Toward the end of 1979, my fourth-grade teacher had apparently recommended me for a program at my grade school for “gifted” children. Through this program, a teacher would come to the school once a week for a few hours, bringing interesting things for students to play with, including an Apple II computer system wheeled in on a metal cart. After a couple of IQ tests, I was admitted to the program and got what was probably my first taste of the Apple II.

My Atari Neighborhood

After Atari in 1979 released its first pair of computers, 400 and 800, many of my neighbors got the Atari 800. (I also recall friends’ homes having an Apple II, a Commodore PET, a Durango F-85, and even minicomputers from Data General and Wang Laboratories.) Across the street lived the parents of Mike Peters, who in 1981 founded Optimized Systems Software (OSS) with Bill Wilkinson and the developers of Atari BASIC and Atari DOS. His father, Steve Peters (1933-2017), had managed engineering for California’s largest telephone company, Pacific Bell.

Around 1981, a program called Computers for People visited my grade school with a van carrying Atari 800 computer systems packaged neatly on large trays. (An interview with Roger Hector includes a nice picture of Harry Jenkins with the systems and van.) The following school year, my grade school had a few Atari 800 computer systems of its own, at first three and later five.

Probably around December 1982—when Atari announced its newest computer, 1200XL—the price of an Atari 800 had dropped from its original $999 to $399, and I finally convinced my father to buy one.

At first, I didn’t have any peripherals—nothing to connect to it except a television set.

At one point, I managed to scavenge internal components to make a working (and otherwise complete) Atari 820 40-Column Printer (a dot-matrix impact type). My father made most of a wooden enclosure for it. It was big and loud, and became an object lesson in what worked well and what didn’t.

Around roughly the same time, and after some unsuccessful experiments in trying to store and retrieve data using my father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder, I got him to buy a 5.25-inch (minifloppy) diskette drive assembled from scavenged parts and mounted to a steel plate (but otherwise a complete Atari 810 Disk Drive) from someone who (as I learned later) worked for a small-but-growing startup called Sun Microsystems. At first, the disk drive was pretty unreliable, and I got to learn how to keep it working. (In 1983, a magazine reported that Atari disk drives made before 1982 had “notoriously poor speed regulation”, which I found was the case, and why.)

In 1985, Eckerd sold its national home electronics retail chain VideoConcepts to Tandy. As its stores were being liquidated, I managed to buy its remaining Atari inventory and the national chain’s field service kit, which happened to be at the location nearest Atari, and me. (In making the deal, also I met the chain’s repair technician, who was a former firefighter who had changed careers after being badly burned.) Buying this greatly helped me understand and build a small business repairing and upgrading Atari games and home computers. The experience also helped me get a job at Atari between my last years of high school.

Advertising Online

That year, I also bought a modem and starting advertising online. At the time, that was on local computer bulletin board systems (BBSes). (I was also a member of the Bay Area Atari Users Group, BAAUG, which shared its picks for modems in the August 1986 issue of the Atari computer magazine Antic.) This was about four years before the World-Wide Web (WWW) was invented, about 10 years before I first saw it, and about 13 years before I registered my first internet domain name.

By that time, I had already found what I would argue was the best word processor for early Atari computers: Letter Perfect by LJK Enterprises (in Saint Louis, Missouri). It had a good spelling checker and used the advanced functions of my Centronics 737 9-pin 80-column dot matrix printer (such as variable character spacing) to produce good-looking output.

Unfortunately, I could save my files only on diskettes that were not compatible with Atari DOS, so I couldn’t write something with the word processor and share it across a modem, such as on a bulletin board system.

Building what I had learned about reading disk sectors while trying to keep my disk drive running, I wrote a program that extracted the text from my finished word processing files—sector by sector—and wrote them to diskettes that were compatible with Atari DOS.

That’s pretty much how I became a computer whiz kid (maybe not quite a child prodigy or wunderkind), along with my earliest friend in Sunnyvale and next-door neighbor Michael “Mike” Sherwood (1972-2016) and a few other close friends who had Atari computers.

Bringing in the Big Iron

After my father worked for Control Data Corporation (CDC) in Sunnyvale (in a building practically behind the Atari headquarters I worked at in 1987), he worked for Tandem Computers.

At one point (probably in the late 1980s), Tandem sought to reduce some inventory, and offered it to their employees. My father came home with a printed list and asked if there was anything I would like. I checked off a few items sight unseen, and soon had a fair amount of surplus equipment, including a couple of data terminals and a couple of hard disk drives from a computer room floor. With the terminals, I experimented further with serial data communication. I had modified the power supply in one of the disk drives to run on two-phase 240-volt power (from three-phase 208-volt power) and got it running, but only long enough to realize that it would be impractical to use for any practical length of time.

Silicon Valley Ups and Downs

In the 1970s, I saw Atari become the fastest growing company in the history of American business, in the late 1980s worked for Atari and its founder as they declined, and today see Atari reduced to a zombie brand giving a gimmicky theme to a new chain of boutique hotels.

I watched in 1981 as Apple constructed its first building and Motorola acquired Four-Phase Systems, in 1993 as the former Four-Phase Systems campus was replaced by the Apple Campus (adding the road Infinite Loop), in 1996 as Apple slumpped, in 2017 as a former Hewlett-Packard campus was replaced by Apple Park, and Apple’s recent emergence as the world’s most valuable publicly traded company.

I attended meetings at and learned about the history of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and how Apple bought access to its many innovations for the Apple Lisa and Macintosh in exchange for equity in Apple that rose in value to roughly a billion dollars, which was about one-twelfth of Xerox’s total value when it merged with Fujifilm in 2018. I also learned about how Xerox researchers were hired by Atari, Apple, and Microsoft.

I was there as Sun Microsystems, Everex, and NeXT rose and fell, and in the early 1990s attended liquidation auctions at the latter two.

I worked for the first independent video game developer, Activision (then called Mediagenic), as it succumbed to a buyout, and I narrowly escaped before a layoff scattered my colleagues throughout the video game industry. Though I worked very hard and did good work for the startup I escaped to, Media Vision grew explosively, but after I left, it was embroiled in scandal and became the subject of the longest-running securities fraud case in Silicon Valley history.

By watching history unfold and learning its lessons, I have been able to build great products—and a great career—seeing further by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

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