Flying Upside Down

The Hardy Boys and the Microkids build a computer

GETTING a machine out the door may have been the object of the team's labors. But the main source of motivation lay elsewhere. One day an old hand (old in a relative sense, since most in the team were very young) reflected on his job: "I said, 'I will do this. I want to do it. I recognize from the beginning it's gonna be a tough job. I'll have to work hard, and if we do a good job ... we get to do it again."' West called this "pinball." "You win one game, you get to play another."

Salaries within the Eclipse Group were respectable. At the start of the project, in 1978, a "kid" earned about $20,000 a year. But engineers are regarded, and regard themselves, as professionals; therefore, they'd get no extra pay for overtime, no matter how many hours they worked. For previous jobs, old hands had received some stock options, and there was talk that the team's members might get options if Eagle was a success. No one in authority actually stated that promise, it seemed. "But it sure as hell was suggested!" said one of the recruits. No one in the team said he expected to receive large amounts of stock, however. Most insisted that they weren't working on Eagle for money. When they talked about rewards, they spoke mainly of pinball.

By the fall of 1978, the preliminaries were complete. The kids—about a dozen of them—were hired, the general sign-up had been performed, and at least one possible reward, the Sisyphean one, had been clearly established. They had already begun to design the computer.

Eagle took its first material form in paper, in bound books as large as atlases, which contained the intricate geometric depictions of the circuits (the "schematics"), and in a fat volume of pages filled up with line after line of 0's and 1's—the microcode, the synaptic language that would fuse the physical machine with the programs that would tell it what to do. One could think of this small library of microcode and schematics as the engineers' collected but not wholly refined thoughts on a variety of subjects. The language was esoteric, but many of the subjects were as familiar as multiplication.

Chips, the product of the era of microelectronics, took most of the pure physics and plain electrician's work from the engineers' endeavor. Some circuit designers likened the chips to a collection of children's building blocks, which they had to assemble. Some referred to the entire realm of chip design and manufacture as "technology," as if to say that putting those chips together to make a computer was something else.

Many of the chips that Eagle's circuit designers used came ready-made to perform certain operations, such as addition. Others weren't completely ready-made, but in all cases one of the routine parts of the engineers' job was transferring their ideas to silicon and wire. The hardest part was concocting those ideas. Creating Eagle's hardware was primarily a matter of constructing long skeins of logical thought. Some indication of the complexity of the job lies in the fact that Eagle would contain thousands of chips. The designers had to figure out what each of those chips should do and how to connect it to the others so that Eagle could perform all the operations in its "instruction set," and some of those operations were very tricky ones. That was only half of the job. The microcode had to be written, too. Each operation in Eagle's repertoire would be performed at the direction of a "microprogram"; each microprogram would consist of one or more (usually more) "microinstructions"; and each microinstruction would consist of seventy-five discrete electrical signals. Thus, in order to equip Eagle to perform just one of its roughly 400 basic operations, the engineers had to plan in complete detail the passage of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of signals through the circuitry. They had to ensure, of course, that there was an absolute marriage between those signals and the circuits. And they had to be sure that the performance of one operation did not foul up the performance of another. Possibilities for creating internal contradictions were numerous. The engineers had to try to anticipate all of them, and the difficulty of doing so was exacerbated by the fact that more than twenty people were creating this design in a hurry.

A brief description of the physical engine they were making could have been set to the music of "Dry Bones." This device was connected to that device, and so on. There was the microsequencer, which managed the microcode, sending it out to other parts of the engine on command from the instruction processor, or IP, which made assumptions about what basic chores the machine would be asked to perform in the future. There was the input/ output controller, the IOC, which mediated between user and machine. The system cache was full of fast memory circuits and kept tabs on the IP. The address translation unit, ATU, kept track of the machine's main storage, and the control console (C/C), among other roles, acted as Eagle's therapist, by monitoring certain parts of the engine for problems and flaws, which are also known as "crocks." Practically every device relied upon the powers of the arithmetic and logic unit (the ALU), or "number cruncher," the heart of any computer; it did Eagle's math. There was also a clock, which ticked every 220 billionths of a second, telling all the rest of the machine that one microinstruction had ended and another had begun.

A great deal of the designing took place in silence, while engineers sat in their cubicles and paced in hallways and stood in their showers at home. It was the sort of work that was hard to escape, some said. One starts to imagine that trees and roads embody block diagrams and microprograms; this was the banal sensation that a member of the team had in mind when he said that it took three days for him to get Eagle out of his mind. During this time, West spent many hours in his office, staring at the team's designs of the circuitry. Usually, he drove away from Building 14 at high speed. "I can't talk about the machine," he said one evening, as he bent forward over the wheel. "I've gotta keep life and computers separate, or else I'm gonna go mad."

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