Flying Upside Down

The Hardy Boys and the Microkids build a computer

ONE holiday morning in 1978, Tom West traveled to a city that was situated, he would later say guardedly, "somewhere in America." He entered a building as though he belonged there, strolled down a hallway, and let himself quietly into a windowless room. Just inside the door, he stopped.

From the archives:

See the second installment of this article from the August, 1981, Atlantic.

The floor was torn up; a shallow trench filled with fat power cables traversed it. Along the far wall, at the end of the trench, enclosed in three large, cream-colored steel cabinets, stood a VAX 11/780, the most important of a new class of computers called "32-bit superminis." To West's surprise, one of the cabinets was open and a man with tools was standing in front of it. A technician, still installing the machine, West figured.

Although West's designs weren't illegal, they were sly, and he had no intention of embarrassing the friend who had told him he could visit this room. If the technician had asked West to identify himself, West wouldn't have lied and he wouldn't have answered the question, either. But the moment went by. The technician didn't inquire. West stood around and watched him work, and in a little while the technician packed up his tools and left.

Then West closed the door and walked back across the room to the computer, which was now all but fully assembled. He began to take it apart.

West was the leader of a team of computer engineers at a company called Data General. The machine that he was disassembling was produced by a rival firm, Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC. A VAX and a modest amount of adjunctive equipment sold for something like $200,000, and as West liked to say, DEC was beginning to sell VAXes "like jellybeans." West had traveled to this room to find out for himself just how good this computer was, compared with the one that his team was building.

West spent the morning removing the VAX's twenty-seven printed circuit boards. He'd take one out, study it, make a few notes, and then put it back. These boards were flat plates, each about the size of a shirt cardboard. In regular columns across their surfaces lay small rectangular boxes. Each of these boxes enclosed an integrated circuit, or "chip"; if bared and examined under a microscope, the chips would look like mazes—imagine the wiring diagram of an office building inscribed on a fingernail. It's possible to get inside the chips, inside the littlest boxes inside the boxes that constitute the central works of a modern computer, and, bringing back the details, to create a functionally equivalent copy of a machine. "Reverse engineering" is the name for that art, and it takes time and equipment. West called such engineering "knock-off copy work." He had a simpler purpose. He was not going to imitate VAX; he just wanted to size it up.

Looking into the VAX, West felt that he saw a diagram of DEC's corporate organization. He found the VAX "too complicated." He did not like, for instance, the system by which various parts of the machine communicated with each other; for his taste, there was too much protocol involved. The machine expressed DEC's cautious, bureaucratic style. West was pleased with this idea.

His hands in the machine, West was also studying and counting parts; many of the chips had numbers on their housings that were like names familiar to him. When he was all done, he added everything up and decided that it probably cost $22,500 to manufacture the essential hardware of a VAX. He left the machine exactly as he had found it.

"I'd been living in fear of VAX for a year," West said one evening afterward, while driving along Route 495 in central Massachusetts. "I wasn't really into G-2. VAX was in the public domain, and I wanted to see how bad the damage was. I think I got a high when I looked at it and saw how complex and expensive it was. It made me feel good about some of the decisions we've made."

West was forty but looked younger. He was thin and had a long narrow face and a mane of brown hair that spilled over the back of his collar. These days he went to work in freshly laundered blue jeans or pressed khakis, in leather moccasins, and in solid-colored long-sleeved shirts, with the sleeves rolled up in precise folds, like the pages of a letter, well above his bony elbows. He expostulated with his hands. When dismissing someone or some idea or both, he made a fist and then exploded it, fingers splaying wide. The gesture was well known to those engineers who worked for him. Long index fingers inserted under either side of the bridge of his glasses signified thought, and when accompanied by a long "Ummmmmmmmh" warned that some emphatic statement was near. Indeed, West made few statements that were not emphatic. Seen at the wheel of his shiny red Saab, he made a picture of impatience. His jaw was set; he had a forward lean. Sometimes he briefly wore a mysterious smile. He was a man on a mission.

"With VAX, DEC was trying to minimize the risk," West said, as he swerved around another car. "We're trying to maximize the win ... "

IN the early 1960s, several companies began to manufacture computers that were much less powerful but also much smaller and cheaper than the machines then in existence. These new devices were called minicomputers. By 1978, the increasingly imprecise term "minicomputer company" could be applied to about fifty corporations. Minicomputer sales had grown from about $1.5 million worth of shipments in 1968 to about $3.5 billion in 1978, and most interested parties believed that the business would continue to grow by about 30 percent a year.

DEC was one of the first minicomputer companies, and it was the largest corporation in this segment of the computer industry: the IBM of minis. In 1968, three young computer engineers who left DEC and a salesman from another company founded Data General. Minicomputer companies were known for playing rough; Data General had acquired a reputation as one of the roughest of them all. "The Darth Vader of the computer industry" was the way one trade journalist described the company. Meanwhile, Data General thrived. It made good computers inexpensively and it managed its business adroitly. By 1978, Data General was taking in about half a billion dollars a year. It was only ten years old, and its name had just been added to the list of the nation's 500 largest industrial corporations. Moreover, for most of its history Data General had maintained the highest profit margins in the computer industry, after IBM.

Making computers is a risky enterprise. Young, successful computer companies often get into serious trouble, largely because success in their business means rapid, stressful growth. Data General grew by more than 30 percent a year for a decade, and all the while the technology of computers was changing.

At some computer companies, it has fallen mainly to engineers, working below decks, as it were, to make the first decisions about new products. Data General was such a company, and one often heard that its president, Edson deCastro, himself a very successful computer engineer, liked "self-starters." By 1978, though the company's balance sheet had never looked better, it was becoming apparent that Data General had need of initiative from its engineers. Into the world of the minicomputer had come a new kind of machine—the 32-bit supermini. DEC's VAX was the best-known example of such a machine, and several other of Data General's rivals had also produced superminis. Data General, meanwhile, had yet to offer one of its own. "A disaster," Tom West said of this situation.

The most important characteristic of the 32-bit mini was its system of storage. Storage in a computer resembles a telephone system, in the sense that every piece of information in storage is assigned a unique number, so that it can be readily found. If the standard length of a phone number is seven digits, then enough unique numbers can be generated to serve the needs of New York City; but if a three-digit area code is added, every telephone customer in America can have a unique number. The 32-bit supermini-was a computer with an area code. Since the advent of Data General, most minis had been "16-bit" machines. The standard length of the numbers that such a machine assigns to items in its storage is 16 bits, 16 binary digits. A 16-bit machine can directly generate only about 65,000 unique numbers for its storage system. A 32-bit machine, however, can directly generate some 4.3 billion different numbers.

All interested parties agreed that the demand for superminis would be huge; the market might be worth several billion dollars by the 1980s, some said. If Data General failed to produce a 32-bit machine or something equivalent, it could expect to lose some old customers, and, perhaps more important, it would forfeit one of the next decade's best opportunities for gaining new business. The company could not now be the first to enter this new market, but that was all right; sometimes it was better not to be first. However, Data General had to field a suitable machine fairly soon, because customers get married to computer companies in intricate ways, and once they've married elsewhere they're often gone for good. Time was running out, Tom West maintained. "We're gonna get schmeared if we don't react to VAX," he said.

DATA General's headquarters stand near the intersection of two superhighways some thirty miles west of Boston. It is a low-lying brick building with TV cameras mounted on the corners of its roof, and all in all looks like a fort. Its official name is Building 14 A/B. Inside, it is essentially divided into an upstairs and a downstairs. The executives work upstairs. The lower level of Building 14, subterranean in front and at ground level in back, is another country. It belongs mainly to engineers.

West led the way down into this region one evening in the late fall of 1978, through confusing corridors and past mysterious doors that were locked up and bearing signs that read "RESTRICTED AREA." Then the hallways ended, and all around, under fluorescent light, lay fields of cubicles without doors. Their walls stood too low for privacy. Most contained a desk with a computer terminal on it. In many, there was a green houseplant. Green plants poked their heads, like periscopes, above the cubicles' walls. "The great statement," said West, gesturing at the foliage and smiling faintly. "It's basically a cattle yard."

By day, the basement held a homogeneous-looking throng, made up largely of young white males wearing jeans and corduroys and hiking boots; few wore neckties, but neat grooming was the rule. Now and then a visitor might catch a glimpse of a fellow with wild hair, dressed in Army-surplus clothes, but such figures were rare.

West's team specialized in the design and development of the hardware of new computers. It was only one of several such teams at Data General, and it was not the largest or, in the fall of 1978, the most prestigious. It was named the Eclipse Group, after the current generation of 16-bit Data General computers. The Eclipse Group, which numbered about thirty then, occupied a portion of a field of cubicles and a few narrow, windowless offices, one of which belonged to West. No sign announced that this was the group's territory. At night, it did seem that more lamps burned on in the Eclipse Group's offices and cubicles than in many other parts of the basement. At some moments during the day, the area had the atmosphere of a commuter train, and at others it reminded one of a college library on the eve of exams: silent and intent youngsters leafing through thick documents and peering into the screens of computer terminals. Conversation, especially the speech of the senior engineers, contained words and phrases such as these: a canard was anything false, usually a wrongheaded notion entertained by some other engineering group or other company; things could be done in ways that created no muss, no fuss, that were quick and dirty, that were clean. Fundamentals were the source of all right thinking, and weighty sentences often began with the adverb fundamentally, while realistically prefaced many flights of fancy. There was talk of wars, shootouts, hired guns, and people who shot from the hip. The win was the object of all this sport, and the big win was something that could be achieved by maximizing the lesser one. From the vocabulary alone, one could have guessed that West had been there and that these engineers were up to something special.

In fact, they were building their own 32-bit supermini, a machine that West fervently hoped would be a worthy rival to DEC's VAX and maybe the basis for Data General's ascent in the Fortune 500. Oddly, though, West and some of the senior engineers on his team expressed the paradoxical feeling that they were building a machine absolutely essential to the company but were doing it largely on their own. "I think we're doing it in spite of Data General," said one of West's lieutenants in the middle of the project.

Setting up intramural competition among various parts of a company is an old strategy of management. Many firms in the computer industry, most notably IBM, have used it; they deliberately establish internal competition, partly on the theory that it's a useful prelude to competition with other companies. At Data General, such internal struggle had the name "competition for resources." An engineering team such as the Eclipse Group sometimes had to vie with other engineering groups for the right to produce a new computer. A year or so before, some members of the Eclipse Group had found themselves in such a competition, against a much larger team of Data General engineers, situated in North Carolina. The Eclipse Group had been competing with the team in North Carolina essentially for the right to produce Data General's supermini, what West would later call "the answer to VAX." The Eclipse Group's project had been scrapped. There had been an intramural competition for resources, and the Eclipse Group had lost. But West had decided not to abide by the decision. He had launched the Eclipse Group on another big project, one that would rival North Carolina's. Doing so had taken him some months. It had also required that he pursue some indirect measures.

West had believed that whatever its other virtues, the machine that the company engineers in North Carolina were building did not represent a timely solution to the problem that DEC's VAX posed for Data General. West also wanted to save the Eclipse Group and himself from the fate of working only on small projects. So he had borrowed ideas from anyone who had some to share, and by the very early spring of 1978 he had settled on a new plan. The Eclipse Group would build a schizophrenic computer, one that would work as both a 16-bit Eclipse and a 32-bit supermini. The proposed machine was nicknamed "Eagle."

The production of software, the programs that tell computers what to do, costs customers time and money and sometimes entails awful administrative problems. Eagle would protect old customers' substantial investments in 16-bit Eclipse software and would offer prospective buyers at least the possibility of savings in software development. At the same time, this machine would fulfill Data General's need for a computer with enlarged "logical address space." And West thought that the front office was likely to let the Eclipse Group build this computer, if it was presented correctly.

"You gotta distinguish between the internal promotion to the actual workers and the promoting we did to other parts of the company," West later explained. "Outside the group, I tried to low-key the thing. I tried to dull the impression that this was a competing project with North Carolina. I tried to sell it externally as not much of a threat. I was selling insurance; this would be there if something went wrong in North Carolina. It was just gonna be a fast, Eclipse-like machine. This was the only way it was gonna live. We had to get the resources quietly, without creating a big brouhaha."

And so, when he proposed the idea to people outside his group, West made Eagle appear to be a modest project, and he got permission to go ahead. But when he proselytized engineers who might help build this machine, it was clear that West's intentions weren't modest at all.

From the point of view of a purist ("technology bigot" is the usual term), Eagle in its vague outlines looked messy. Indeed, some engineers called the plan "a kludge," computer jargon for any ill-conceived thing. West varied his pitch to suit his audience. His general remarks ran as follows: Eagle might not look it from the outside, but in fact it was going to be a new, a fast, a "sexy" machine. It would be software-compatible with 16-bit Eclipses, not because it was going to be just another Eclipse, but because that feature would make it a "big win" commercially. They were going to build Eagle in record time, working "flat out by definition," because the company needed this machine desperately. And when they succeeded and Eagle went out the door with their names on it, as West put it, and started selling like jellybeans, then they would all be heroes.

Once in a while West and some members of his staff asked themselves whether the company's president, deCastro, might not have orchestrated everything, including their feeling that they were on their own. Whatever its origin, though, that feeling was evidently invigorating. "Anytime you do anything on the sly, it's always more interesting than if you do it up front," one of West's lieutenants remarked. West said, wearing his wry smile, "We're building what I thought we could get away with."

Presented by

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile his neighbor, the patriarch of a 70-acre family farm

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In