Garage on Fourth Street
“It all started in a garage” – this romantic turn is present in almost every bike about a startup from Silicon Valley. No, seriously, almost every story starts like this. And, surprisingly, the narrator almost always tells the truth.
For example, the Hewlett-Packard garage where Bill Hewlett and David Packard started designing and assembling electronic equipment with “as much as” $538 in start-up capital has now been turned into a museum and is recognized as a California historical landmark, and is sometimes called “the place where which started Silicon Valley.
Also, the earliest Apple I circuit boards were made in the garage of Steve Jobs’ parents, and that’s where Mike Markkula met the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak). I myself was briefly involved in a garage startup: when the Apple Macintosh came out, my friends Tom Hogan and Roger Chapman and I rushed to develop a whole range of games for the new car in Tom’s garage on Lytton Avenue in Palo Alto.
The legendary Homebrew Computer Club, which spawned a galaxy of young microcomputer companies, was originally assembled in Gordon French’s garage.
Today I want to try on the role of a “garage” storyteller and tell you about one interesting startup and one very specific garage.
In 1974, Bob Marsh was broke and out of a job. As his friend Lee Felsenstein put it, Bob “progressed” to the honorary title of an unemployed electronics engineer. He had to pay the rent on the house, support the family, and plan for the baby that was about to be born. Bob was desperately looking for a project on which to build his own company.
But which product to take? And with what money to untwist it? Bob’s imagination made even walnut boards (which turned up for a ridiculous amount) a promising raw material. Bob found a cheap source of walnut wood and figured it would make great digital watch cases. Everyone needs a beautiful watch, and even a digital one, right?
Marsh and Felsenstein needed a place to work on projects, so they decided to shell out for a 1,100-square-foot garage at 2465 Fourth Street, Berkeley. Everyone now had to pay $85 a month in rent. They urgently needed income. But the aspirations and goals of the friends differed significantly. Marsh had a family to support, so he was serious and wanted to start his own company. Felsenstein, at the time, was fascinated by Tom Swift’s terminal, the very idea of a computer device that would be as easy to assemble, repair, and maintain as a home radio. It was focused on supporting social transformation in the computing industry rather than making money. In a way, they were an odd couple. But they were united by a common interest in science and computer technology.
In June 1975, Marsh pitched the idea for a terminal to Les Solomon, technical editor of Popular Electronics magazine. It was assumed that this would be an assembly kit, designed for amateur electronics engineers, readers of this very magazine. In this case, the set will contain a basic set of electronic components designed to perform the functions of displaying information and decoding – that is, those things for which a computer was usually used. It would be a kind of smart terminal. Les Solomon liked the idea. “If you can give me a working model in 30 days,” he said, “we will put an article about you on the cover.”
To implement an ambitious project, Marsh needed Felsenstein. In fact, he proposed to Felsenstein to build Tom Swift’s terminal, and it depended on Felsenstein’s decision (as well as his skills and abilities) whether he could show the editors of Popular Electronics a working prototype.
So Bob asked his friend a very tricky question: “Do you think this project is possible in principle?”. Felsenstein appreciated this formulation. To reject the offer, he would have to call the task impossible, and this is a very unpleasant act for any self-respecting engineer.
Marsh’s business project grew by leaps and bounds, and eventually took all of Felsenstein’s free time – and at the same time the entire garage. Marsh was going to use the same microprocessor from Intel that was installed in the notorious Altair computer, which, by the way, managed to blow up the market thanks to an article on the cover of the same Popular Electronics. With a keyboard, display, and a new processor, Marsh’s smart terminal could be more than its “competitor.”
In fact, a full-fledged computer appeared in the hands of the newly-minted inventors. Promising Les Solomon a working model of a kit to assemble a simple smart terminal, in the end they built a device that would actually destroy the Altair, so actively advertised by Popular Electronics. What would Les Solomon say to that?
They decided not to show their cards ahead of time.
By pushing back the deadline by a few weeks, they were able to complete their terminal, now called Sol, as a token of their gratitude to Les Solomon. Marsh even managed to use his walnut planks to give the terminal a stylish look inspired by 1940s cars.
Marsh and Felsenstein flew to New York to demonstrate Sol to the general public. They set it up in the basement of Solomon’s Forest, turned it on, and that was it. The terminal didn’t work. It was a disaster. Hand in hand, they flew back to California, to the garage on Fourth Street, where Felsenstein quickly found the problem.
Back on the plane, again the basement of the Forest of Solomon, and another attempt.
This time everything worked out for the best. Felsenstein tried to choose his words and called Sol an ordinary terminal, but Solomon turned out to be no bastard. He watched Felsenstein test Sol and then asked, “What’s stopping me from hooking up a Basic memory board and running Sol like a full computer?”
“In what sense?” Felsenstein tried to laugh it off.
It turned out that Solomon was not at all opposed to another microcomputer. What’s more, the entrepreneurs received the promised cover story, and thanks in large part to this ad, Processor Technology (founded, by the way, by Bob Marsh and his colleague Gary Ingram) became one of the pioneers of the IT industry, originating in the garage. Felsenstein himself, for the reasons stated above, refused to participate in the business, but for some time he was engaged in documentation for the “terminal” as a freelancer.
Afterword: Sol-10 at a Glance
The Sol-10 (and its later mass-produced Sol-20) used an 8-bit Intel 8080 microprocessor running at 2 MHz. The main difference between the Sol and most other machines of that period was the built-in video driver, which allowed it to be connected to monitors with a composite interface.
The company’s next computer, the Sol-20, was soldered on a single motherboard located at the bottom of the case and had a block of five slots for S-100 bus cards. The motherboard included a processor, memory, a video output module, and a number of additional I/O circuits. A power supply and a fan were also housed inside the case. The keyboard was made as part of the case. The computer was painted in IBM’s signature blue color, and the sides were carved from walnut, which the resourceful Marsh had managed to get in his time in the arms industry.
From 1977 to 1979, Processor Technology manufactured approximately 10,000 Sol-20 personal computers. All Processor Technology products were available either fully assembled or as kits for assembly. Processor Technology also sold software on compact cassettes. The original programs were written by Gary Ingram and Stephen Dompier.
You can read more about the terminal device here.