|October 2000||Volume 10 Number 10|
A bit of local history ... by Sally J. Clute
Twenty-five years ago, having a computer in your home was nearly unimaginable, and the idea that almost everyone would be using one was beyond comprehension. Then came the first computer an individual could actually buy. You mailed away $500 and got back a bag of electronic parts and a few pages of instructions. To have any chance of making this into a working computer, you had to find someone else who had this same bag of parts. Between the two of you, you had to get a soldering iron, decipher what the instructions meant, and teach yourself enough about this "new computer electronics" to be able to put together your computer. If this worked, you had a 2 MHz (not 200 MHz), 256 byte (not 256 MB) computer with no hard disk, no floppy disks, no keyboard, no monitor...and no software. Such was the experience of those whose first foray into computers started in the 1970s.
Over the next half-decade, keyboards, monitors, floppy disks, and the CP/M operating system (envision this as the father of what would someday be MS DOS) were introduced. The creators of CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) established the standard for the entire personal computer software industry. During this time, groups of users banded together to try to make these new computers work and to share software.
In 1981, the CP/M Users Group Northwest was formed to start a software library where people could copy public domain disks for the new operating system. As the industry has gone through generations of changes, this group has held on. They have monthly meetings, host free semiannual computer "swap meets," and help all levels of computer users with each new wave of innovation. Gary Grossoehme, whose business, Oregon Electronics, is home on Friday afternoons to an eclectic gathering of computer-minded individuals, has been a player in the group for many years. "In the good old days, CP/M was the only game in town for a microcomputer operating system. This was before the PC," says Grossoehme. "It wasn't the only operating system, but it really was pretty much the first one that was usable on microcomputers."
One of the founders of the CP/M group, Jim Willing, still has his original 1981 membership card (Member #0) in his wallet. On the back of those original cards was an ASCII code reference, "so if you were trying to read through a paper tape or decode something on the fly, you had your cheat sheet on the back of your membership card," says Willing. He, along with Ron Braithwaite (Member #1), formed the group around a monthly copy session. At the time, there was no centralized dissemination of the disks, so people had to come together to share the software. "I've still got the complete set of library disks for the CP/M group," says Willing.
Willing and several of the original members of the Portland group were also employees of the Byte Shop, the first retail computer store chain, which opened in Portland in 1976. "People were coming into the store all the time to copy the disks because we made it known that we had the disks and anybody who wanted to could come in and copy them. So, that was generally the way they were distributed," says Willing. "There were so many people coming into the store asking to copy these that we decided to form a club to share the disks and we started having meetings to have a place where people could get together." Willing and Braithwaite hooked up with someone who worked over at Tektronix and were able to get the use of the Building #40 auditorium for the meetings. The group still meets each month in the cafeteria at Tektronix.
"The first meeting, we had about 50 people," says Willing, "and at one point, we had over 400 on the membership list." They would have meetings where they would bring in people to talk about new machines or new programs. "The high point tended to be the monthly copy sessions, though," says Willing. "Once a month, we'd have a meeting where we would let everyone know we'd have the library here and lots of outlets," he notes. "We'd say, bring your machine in, set up, and copy 'til you drop. It wasn't unusual to have a dozen machines set up in the library, and even with that many machines, there would be a line stretching out into the hall with people waiting to copy disks." These were 8-inch disks at the time.
"We took copying time down from four minutes to under 30 seconds with newly-developed copy software," says Willing. "It was like Disneyland crowd control, trying to keep ahead of the people who wanted the disks." The 8-inch disk could hold 241K of information. That was single-sided, single-density. At the time, the average computer had 64K of memory and an 8-bit processor. The machines of the time -- the Intel 8080 and the Z-80 -- had between 2 and 4 MHz of processor speed.
Willing says that 1984-85 was "right around the time when the IBM PC was going to come out, and that was kind of the beginning of the end of the first age of the personal computer." According to Willing, his Web page is "my virtual museum and my electronic memory bank. I keep it out there as a window into how we got to where we are today." Willing notes that "until about five years ago, this stuff was junk. People pitched away the old machines without a second thought. It wasn't in the general consciousness that there was any significance to all this." Now, they are beginning to be referred to as "classic computers." Willing states that "unlike a lot of Web sites out there that are just trying to document the history, my variation on that is that mine is not just a documentation of the history, but it's a documentation of my physical collection. Everything on my Web site I physically own. I have my original Altair and it still runs."
Willing says that computer historians and preservations are now competing with a whole new breed of classic computer collectors. "Now, with the advent of things like e-Bay, this stuff can get out in front a huge audience, and many of these recently minted Internet millionaires now want to lay some claim to this early history," notes Willing, who is a speaker at the fourth annual Vintage Computer Festival in the Bay area this year. "When CP/M was riding high, those were the days of computers with front panels and all the switches and things. That's when real men worked on computers," Grossoehme says laughingly. "The PC showed up about 1982," he notes. "We were all in denial that the PC was going to take over, but yes it did, and we got to watch. But, you know, it's still fun to play with the old stuff. It's just a few times a year that we actually touch CP/M any more. Sometimes, someone will bring in a piece of "techno-trash" they found at Goodwill. Other times, someone will bring in a CP/M computer they got at someone's garage sale and we'll get the thing to function and show them how to make it work." "We're all recovering junk-meisters," says Grossoehme. "It's a day at a time. The problem is we're still emotionally attached to the effort and/or the money we spent on this stuff, even though intellectually we all understand that it's just sand and it's obsolete."
The semiannual "computer swap meet" has been a fixture of the group since the first year. "The legacy of CP/M is the swap meet," says Grossoehme. It is held at the Tigard Senior Center on Rose Festival Parade Day in June every year and then again in October. There are no charges of any kind and it is open to anyone and everyone who wants to bring items to sell. The group rents the hall and provides the tables. "There's no sign-up list," says Willing. "You want a table, get there early." People show up with every kind of techno-ware imaginable: Computers, printers, software, keyboards, modems, adapters, mother boards, laptops, boxes of cards, boxes of boards, computer magazines, computer games, just to name some of the things available. There is always an overflow into the parking lot, where some people set up tents and others open up the backs of their trucks or vans.
In the beginning, there was actually a lot of trading and bartering. "The stuff was still fairly expensive at the time," says Willing. Now, there is some vintage computer ware, but mostly people just bring in whatever they want to get rid of and, hopefully, someone else wants to buy. Some tables have signs over them with sayings like, "My wife says not to come home with anything." The swap meets are "dedicated to saving members' marriages -- by cleaning out the garage," says Grossoehme. The CP/M group has fewer members now at its monthly meetings, but the spirit is still alive, especially at the swap meets. There is usually a notice in Computer Bits and The Oregonian for upcoming swap meets.
"Being in this business for like 25 years now nonstop has gotten me into some real interesting situations and given me great opportunities," Willing notes. "To steal a line from the Grateful Dead: What a long, strange trip it's been."