Computer History Of The World, Part 8

by Bob Seidel

The last History Of The World column discussed my time in IBM's Display Products group. As I have mentioned, IBM had developed its own internal product line of small microcomputer processors to be used in a number of its products, including the display products produced in the mid to late 70's. But these were far from one-chip units - the larger one of the two that Display Products used was on 3 circuit cards about 6" by 8" each, and that didn't count the memory. The smaller version fit on one card.

But, outside of IBM, the integrated circuit boom was on - led by Intel, Motorola, and other companies. Processor chips such as the Intel 8080, the Motorola 6800, and the Zilog Z-80 were becoming common. The Radio Shack TRS-80 that I bought in 1978 had a Z-80 in it and that was considered quite advanced for its day.

We were aware within IBM, of course, of the availability of these small and inexpensive processors, but the majority of Display Products upper management and planning people did not see the relevance and did not believe that the new processors had enough processing power to do what was needed. It took a bright young man from England with a vision to try to change that.

I was still working at IBM in Kingston NY, which was the headquarters of the Display Products unit. But there was also a large laboratory in Hursley, UK. My opportunity to work closely with the English crew came in 1979, when I was asked to be a manager in a new display product called Rover. The Rover project has begun in Hursley, and was being transferred to Kingston, along with about 40 people from Hursley who were going to be on assignment in Kingston for three years or more.

Socially, it was a fantastic three years. The British and American groups got along very well. We could talk to each other - after all, we spoke the same language (sort of) - and the cultures were sufficiently different that we had lots to talk about. I have memories of some great parties - well, great if you are a nerd! My wife and I often discuss one New Year's Eve party at which I well, perhaps we shouldn't go there.

While we were finishing up Rover (eventually called the 3279 Color Display Unit), a very quiet, unassuming fellow was working in one of the laboratories. He had taken some spare parts, and built a fully functional display, but using a commercial microprocessor rather than the much bulkier IBM unit. I didn't play any role in this, but was certainly a supporter of the concept of using the small and inexpensive single chip microprocessors. But the Display Products leaders were still not convinced and I think that hastened my departure from Display Products.

Leaving my management assignment (I needed a breather), I did some design work in an ad-tech (advanced technology) group attempting to carry the microprocessor based concept forward, but this also did not have upper management behind it. So, in the 1982 I made a big move. I relocated to IBM Poughkeepsie, the home of big mainframe development; you may recall that I was in Advanced Large Processor Development initially in my career. I was now manager of the Recovery department in the 308x program. More on the big mainframes next time.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail him at bsc@bobseidel.com).