As I wrote last week, my Dad, like some of his contemporaries, resisted the advent of the PC age. It’s kind of a conundrum since he created a new industry on the back of new technology and thoroughly disrupted the patent renewal business thirty years hence. Once achieving ascendancy, however, he complacently resigned his role as innovator when he moved his booming company to New Jersey. But he still sought control over everything.
Sure enough, others, like Jerry Van Winter and Bob Gerhardt, arose to begin the next cycle of cannibalization in this niche marketplace. During the 1970s, the competitive pressures those gentlemen brought to bear on the market began to take its toll on Olcott International. This threatened Dad’s ability to maintain control.
When Bob Gerhardt became a free agent in the mid-1980s, Dad felt compelled to co-opt him. In “HIS NAME WAS BOB GERHARDT,” I wrote about how I lugged Bob’s Compaq laptop into the office one day in 1985.
Back in the day, that clunky Compaq was considered to be the best of what were called “IBM-clones.” The DOS operating system was the standard for business and household use. Macs, on the other hand, were big in education, preferred in the emerging field of graphical arts, and worshipped by my flighty, erratic, entertaining, and drug-addicted friends. Apple could have made it as a religion, an ersatz Scientology.
The basic issue came down to cost – clones were the cheapest solution, just like that plastic color sheet Dad draped over his black and white TV to simulate color. Even brand name Compaqs were too expensive for Olcott International. Clones were the key to keeping computer costs to a bare minimum.
Yoshi, the keeper of the OI main frame, had a strangle-hold on the solution. He could buy PC components and assemble them for a fraction of the cost of IBM PCs. If clones could be had for a couple of hundred bucks this way, then my Dad was down. In this way, Yoshi, as head of the computer department, became “the man” in computer parts procurement, assembly, and maintenance.
Every morning he would lug into the office fresh components, from clunky beige spray-painted metal cabinets to green electronic circuit boards, spools of ribbon cables, and bags of connectors. I remember the monitors with the amber or orange text on black screens most of all. Who would want to look at that? As our President would say, “just look at that face!”
Occasionally, after Yoshi put the thing together, it still wouldn’t work. Like my Dad assembling pocket watches 23 years earlier, however, Yoshi was similarly undaunted. He would dive into those Core Processing Unit (“CPU”) towers and come back the next day with a replacement part, be it power supply unit (“PSU”), motherboard, or whatever. After slapping it in, the chances were good that the PC would chirp alive and boot up.
Every once in a while, of course, the thing would still just sit there on a desk like a sorry-ass paperweight. The chump was stumped, it could be said, even after multiple part swaps. At this point in the game, Yoshi declared, the issue came down to proprietary software drivers too shoddy to run the dead-on-arrival parts.
Maybe they didn’t pay the programmers enough to write and test good drivers? As my readers may know, there was a limit to Yoshi’s patience. If after all this, he still couldn’t get the clone to light up, he would junk the whole stillborn unit, and start over with a different brand or supplier.
I saw this play out a couple of times in the late 1980s. That’s why I didn’t waste time with a clone PC while I was at Columbia Business School. I was getting a Master’s Degree in something else other than swapping out components or dealing with crappy drivers. Some programs wouldn’t even work on a clone!
To do myself a favor during my first semester, I bought the real thing, an IBM PC-XT with 20, that’s right, twenty megabytes of hard disk storage and two, two!, floppy disk drives. Yessiree, she was built for speed! Without the need to piss around with crappy silicon and glitchy software, I dove into the intricacies of the DOS operating system and became handy with word processing and spread sheeting.
By 1992, however, Yoshi’s assembly and know-how had begun to seriously intrigue me. The dependability of his machines were noticeably improved. The lower cost was undeniable. Maybe I could replace my old DOS machine from B-School with a brand spanking new one running Windows? As Yoshi knew good parts from bad, he knew a way to beat the system.
My expertise in computers at that time was strictly limited to software. After all, that is the purpose of a computer — to run programs!!! But you can’t drop software on your foot. No, that material quality is reserved to hardware, the physical stuff that fits together to provide a playground for applications.
One day, I pulled Yoshi aside and asked him where he had learned to assemble clones and, in response, he flipped me a computer magazine advertising a two night course on building PCs from scratch. These were held once a month in some barn in the Meadowlands; one was coming up 2 weeks hence. I readily plunked down the $250 registration fee.
The big night came. After some introductory comments, we were handed a huge book called “How to Build Your Own PC” and a box full of components. All together, we sorted the pieces and attached them part-by-part to the metal shells. There I was, a political science graduate from Tufts University, screwdriver in hand, assembling computers from scratch as if I were a meshuganah Geppetto!
Illustrations by Marcel Gotlib from Le Petit Prince.
The test came when it was time to boot ‘em up. Chirp it did! It was alive! (Good thing it didn’t grow a long nose and run away!)
Satisfied that this could work, I was sold on clone computing. One reservation, though. PC components crowded shelves and catalogues under 10,000 brand names. I knew some were good. Others, not so much.
That’s where Yoshi’s expertise would come in handy! Back at the office the very next day, I told him about my experience in the course. Then I told him I wanted to build a clone running Windows leveraging his expertise in selecting the best and most dependable clone-parts.
Yoshi willingly agreed to help me. Over the course of a week, he arrived each morning with parts under his arm. Although I expected to do most of the assembling, Yoshi typically had most of it put together by the time I walked into his office. He couldn’t resist the joy of assembly.
As for me, I now understood each part and parcel inside.
Thus, I entered the colored age of computing running Windows at the figurative cost of a plastic sheet hanging over a black and white television!
It was fulfilling to understand how to build something. And to see it work and come alive. Not that I was a budding Dr. Frankenstein or anything. But writing this today, I can see how the challenge of assembling that pocket watch appealed to my Dad back in 1966. Just as building my own PC from components did back in 1992. When a chore is not a chore!
And similarly for creating a volume of stories, like this blog does for me today in 2017.
Build something. Anything. Hopefully, not schlocky glass and chrome towers with your neon name on it funded by dirty Russian money.
Something that you have devoted your heart and soul to.
Dad, Yoshi, and I.