Flying Upside Down

The Hardy Boys and the Microkids build a computer

SOME of the young engineers were assigned to work on microcode; they were called, and called themselves, "the Microkids." Those who went to work on the hardware, the actual circuitry, were known as "the Hardy Boys." This was the first real job for most of them. For some, at least, it was a strange beginning. Eager to make a good impression, and thinking it was the proper thing to do, one of the Hardy Boys set out, when he arrived, to meet his new team's leader. He went into West's office, extended his hand, and said, "Hi, I'm Dave." He would never forget that experience. "West just sat there and stared at me. After a few seconds I decided I'd better get out of there."

For a Microkid named Jon Blau, the first months on the job seemed relatively serene. After Blau was assigned his cubicle, Alsing and the group's chief secretary helped him to find his way around the in-house computing system. Then Chuck Holland, a submanager under Alsing, drew for him a clear picture of the entire microcoding job. Holland had divided the overall task into several smaller ones, and he let Blau choose one from among them. Blau decided that he would like to write the code that would tell Eagle how to perform a lot of its arithmetic. He had always liked math, and he felt that this job would help him understand it in new, insightful ways. He spent most of his first months reading, in order to prepare himself. All in all, life in the Eclipse Group did not seem very different from life at his alma mater, MIT.

Then one day in the fall of 1978, Blau was sitting in his cubicle studying Booth's Algorithm, a procedure for doing multiplication, and he was thinking to himself, "This is pretty slick," when Alsing poked his head around the partition and said, "There's a meeting."

Blau trooped into a conference room with most of the other new members of the team, joking and feeling a little nervous. There waiting for them were the brass: the vice president of engineering, another lower-level but probably important executive, and West, sitting in a corner, chewing on a toothpick. The speeches were brief. Listening intently, Blau heard all about the history of 32-bit minicomputers. They were really catching on, and the word was that DEC would probably introduce a new model of VAX in about nine months. Eagle was already late. It had to be designed and made ready for market by April, in just six months. That wouldn't be easy, but if any engineers could do it this group could, the bosses said.

Blau felt proud of himself and pleased about this first real job of his when he left that meeting. He went right back to his cubicle, and picked up Booth's Algorithm. Then, suddenly, he felt it, like a little trickle of sweat down his back. "I've gotta hurry," he said to himself. "I've gotta get this code written today. This is just one little detail. There's a hundred of these ... "

Practically the next time he looked around him it was midnight, but he had done what he'd set out to do. He left the basement thinking, "This is life. Accomplishment. Challenges. I'm in control of a crucial part of this big machine." He looked back from his car at the blank, brick, monolithic back of Building 14 and said to himself, "What a great place to work." Tomorrow he would have to start encoding an instruction called FFAS. He told himself that this wouldn't be too hard. When he woke up the next morning, however, FFAS was upon him. "Oh, my God! FFAS. They need that code next week. I'd better hurry."

"The pressure," Blau later recalled. "I felt it from inside of me."

AROUND this time, a hardy boy named Dave Epstein was dreaming up the circuits of the device called the microsequencer. No other parts of Eagle could begin to function without it, so the manager of the Hardy Boys, Ed Rasala, wanted it designed quickly. "How long will it take you?" Rasala asked Epstein.

Epstein replied, "About two months."

"Two months?" Rasala said. "Oh, come on."

"Okay," said Epstein. "Six weeks."

"I just wrote my own death warrant," Epstein thought. Six weeks didn't look like enough time. He took to staying at his desk half the night, and the microsequencer took shape more quickly than he had expected. He felt so happy that he went down the hall and told Rasala, "Hey, Ed, I think I'm gonna do it in four weeks."

"Oh, good," Rasala said.

Epstein returned to his cubicle. Then he realized what had happened. "I just signed up to do it in four weeks."

Afterward, Epstein remarked, "I don't know if I'm complaining, though. I don't think I am. I work well under pressure."

Not everyone was stimulated. One newcomer was astonished at the way the team was being managed. Hardy Boys and Microkids were making deals, saying to each other, in effect, "I'll do this function in microcode if you'll do this one in hardware." He was a little older than the other newcomers and had some experience in computer design, and he had never seen it done this way. "There's no grand design," he said. "People are just reaching out in the dark, touching hands." He was having some problems with his own part of the design and he felt sure that he could solve them properly if the managers would simply give him time. But they kept saying there was no time. No one seemed to be in control. Nothing was ever explained. The team's leader rarely even said hello to his troops. Make a mistake, however, and the managers came at you from all sides.

"The whole management structure ... " said this young engineer. "Anyone in Harvard Business School would have barfed."

If West had heard that remark, he might have taken it as a compliment. Carl Alsing had often heard West use the phrase "flying upside down." The inspiration for it evidently came from a friend of West's who used to do that very thing in his airplane. By the term, West seemed to mean the assumption of large risks, and the ways in which he applied it left Alsing in no doubt that flying upside down was supposed to be a desirable activity, the very stuff of a vigorous life.

Ed Rasala acknowledged that West made a project more dramatic, "definitely more dramatic" than it had to be. Rasala smiled at the thought, however, and he did believe it when West said that they had to fly upside down in order to ship Eagle on time. As for Alsing, he admired West's style: "I screamed and hollered over NAND gates and microinstructions when we built the first Eclipse, but I'm too old to feel that way about computers now. This would be crashingly dull if I was doing it for someone else. West is interesting. He's the main reason why I do what I do."

Presented by

Join the Discussion

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

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In