What Might Have Been – Production of a
By John Moorhead
Floppy Disk Controller
Early in 1976, I was a 23-year-old EE student in need of work and joined a fledgling startup company as employee number seven. The sole product and focus of this company was an 8080 micro-based word processing system that used a custom OS and software package.
At the time I joined, the software package had been completed, and there were five working prototypes of the basic computer system which was using a cassette tape for storage, but an intense effort was in place to complete the design and production of a floppy disk controller. This would be attached to a Persci dual 8" floppy drive which used voice coil technology. This was quite innovative and very state of the art at that time.
My compensation would be on a salary basis up front, with the promise of owning stock and a share of the massive profits to be attained after the eventual successful commercial launch. At that time the prospects of future success were bright, and the market was wide open. I was very young and inexperienced. Well, it all sounded good up front! In retrospect, there were so many blunders made by the company that now I simply have to shake my head and think of what might have been.
The main funding source and titular head of the company was the owner of a string of motorcycle shops, who was interested in the speculative investment opportunity but who had no electronics or computer expertise. At the time I joined, the company "headquarters" were in the back of his local motorcycle shop, and we shared bench space with cans of engine oil, tires, and other parts.
The second investment partner was the sole owner and product designer of a company that manufactured an electronic apparatus used in the psychological testing arena. He brought knowledge of electronic product design and production techniques, marketing, sales, and customer relations, and he was a very stable influence.
The third and fourth persons on the team were the real electronics and computer gurus. One had been out of school for a while and had some electronic design experience; he had been responsible for much of the initial processor design, which was based on a single main board containing the CPU, memory, keyboard I/O, video, and cassette interface, but with 80-pin I/O slots for expansion – one of which was targeted for the previously mentioned floppy disk controller.
The other was a PHD physics student at the university. At the time I joined, he had designed the floppy disk controller circuitry and had worked out all the details on paper but did not have a prototype built. As he was very busy finishing up his degree program and was gone much of the time. They needed another person to take his place with the finishing details, and that's when they hired me.
At the time, I was heavily into hacking (when hacking was a good thing), owning my own Altair 8800 and later the Imsai 8080, with CP/M and a custom assembler/disassembler that I had written. As such, I was a natural fit to provide crossover expertise with both hardware and software design and debugging experience as they came up. The fifth person in our company was an extremely talented programmer and had very nicely designed an elegant custom word processing application wrapped into the dedicated operating system.
The sixth and final person on the original payroll, who I have left till last, was quite a character, and I believe the source of many of the problems that we had later, including the eventual bankruptcy of the company. He was stoned much of the time on various hallucinogenic and psychedelic drugs which caused him to see the world in an altered state of reality. His main contribution at the time I was hired on was as the CAD designer responsible for PC board layout, including the disk drive controller.
Shortly after I hired on, five sample disk controller boards came back from the board etch facility. I was designated to load them with all the components. I very carefully compared the layout diagrams against the physical board layout and immediately discovered an anomaly. All the component locations existed in the proper locations and the mask looked identical to the drawings – everything except at the very bottom of the board where the traces connected to the board slot fingers. These through-hole boards used a single layer double sided layout, but the 80-pin card edge connections were a mirror image of what they should have been.
It didn't take long to realize that the board mask data that had been sent to the PC board etch facility was totally wrong and the sides were reversed! The net result was that all traces leading to the slot fingers were going to the pin in the card slot opposite from where they should have gone. Talk about altered reality!
We had so little funding then that we did not have enough resources to spend on another board run using the proper layout. There was nothing we could do but to dive in and try to right the ship. I spent several days using an X-ACTO knife, cutting all the card slot finger traces, drilling holes, and soldering wire-wrap wire to route the signals to the other side of the board. This crisscross network of signals would never survive today's high-speed buss traffic, but back in those days the buss was slow enough that they would still work. Amazingly enough, all five prototype boards actually worked the first time around, and soon our word processing system was in full operation using the disk drives.
We took the concept to the bank for major funding, and that is where it all fell apart. The bank laughed at the concept of a microprocessor-based word processing system; said it would never fly, and sent us packing. Who had ever heard of such a thing? The thought of a small start-up company coming out with a competitive product at a much lower price point was foreign to them. The company soon folded for lack of funding.
The programmer took his code and along with the afore-mentioned co-owner providing stable influence, formed their own company which turned out to be very successful in their own right, competing on a global scale for quite a few years with the likes of WordStar, WordPerfect, and others. I ended up working for this same co-owner and assisted in building his electronic apparatus products. Unbelievable as it sounds, I later partnered with the motorcycle shop owner, having traded some of my unpaid salary for the sole Persci disk drive asset of the former company and mated that with my Imsai to form a CP/M system that was used to write a point-of-sale program in BASIC, which was sold commercially.
We later joined forces to open one of the first ever computer stores in town. Somewhere in someone's junk yard, there are probably the remains of those five floppy disk controller boards, identifiable by the wire wrap lines connecting each side of the board to the 40 pins on the opposite side!
In retrospect, there are many lessons that can be learned here. The company management has to be involved and know what is going on under the hood. You need a clear head when performing complex tasks. Company direction has to be clearly thought out well in advance of any equity funding attempts. However, many successful companies have started out in even more humbling circumstances. Ah, what might have been!