This week-end’s project has been putting together an archive of documents and images about the company I founded and operated from 1977 through 1985, Marinchip Systems. Marinchip delivered, starting in 1978, the first true 16-bit personal computer on the S-100 bus, with the goal of providing its users the same experience as conecting to a commercial timesharing service which cost many times more. When other personal computer companies were providing 8 Kb BASIC, we had a Unix-like operating system, Pascal, and eventually a multi-user system.
Marinchip (which was named after the Marinship shipyard not far from where I lived, which made Liberty ships during World War II), designed its own hardware and software, with hardware based upon the Texas Instruments TMS9900 microprocessor and the software written by, well, me.
Our goal was to sell general-purpose systems and take over the personal computing market from people who had no grounding in the mainframe and minicomputer world and the user experience those systems provided. We didn’t, but some of the products and the people we met along the road provided the foundation for Autodesk, which ended less poorly. Amusingly, Autodesk’s second headquarters in Sausalito, California was on Marinship Way, formerly home to the shipyard after which Marinchip was named.
One amusing aspect of this project was discovering that the manuals for Marinchip hardware and software, which I believed immured in a store-all in the U.S. into which nobody had set foot since the early 1990s had, in fact, been pirated in the early 1980s by a magazine that, unbeknownst to me at the time, made a clone of my hardware and redistributed my software (and that of others who had developed for this platform) without permission. So, I returned the favour and pirated them back and posted them on my Web archive.
Texas Instruments (TI) in this era was a quintessential engineering company: “Hey, we’ve designed something cool. Let’s go design something else, entirely different, which is even cooler!” There didn’t seem to be anybody who said, “No, first you need to offer follow-on products which allow those who bet on your original product to evolve and grow as technology advances.” TI built a supercomputer, the TI-ASC, at the time one of the fastest in the world, but then they lost interest in it and sold only seven.
The Marinchip 9900 did somewhat better, although its performance and unit cost were more modest. Hughes Radar Systems designed our board into the F-16 radar tester and bought the boards in large quantities for this embedded application. The 9900 processor was one of the only 16-bit processors qualified for use in geosynchronous satellites, and we sold a number of systems to satellite manufacturers for software development because our systems cost a fraction of those sold by Texas Instruments. In 1985, after Autodesk took off, and I had no more time for Marinchip, I sold the company, with all of its hardware, software, and manufacturing rights to Hughes Electronics which had, by then, been acquired by General Motors, so I said, “I sold my company to General Motors”.
What can you learn from this? Probably not a heck of a lot. Certainly, I learned little. I repeated most of my mistakes from Marinchip in Autodesk, and only learned later, from experience, that there are things which work at one scale which don’t when the numbers are ten or a hundred times larger.
Still, if you haven’t seen personal computing as it existed while Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president, take a glance. As far as I know, nothing we did at Marinchip contributed in any way to our current technology. Well, almost nothing. There was this curious drafting program one of our customers developed which was the inspiration for AutoCAD….