Retrocomputing Again: Marinchip Systems

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….


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11 Responses to Retrocomputing Again: Marinchip Systems

  1. 10 Cents10 Cents says:

    16 bit chip? How many chips in a Pringle Can?

    If you had named it SalsaChip things might have been different.

  2. 10 Cents10 Cents says:

    The early days of computing is mixed. It was so cutting edge but now it seems laughable. I wonder if the same thing will occur in the future. “iPhone? Why did anyone use something so clunky, Gramps?”

  3. 10 Cents10 Cents says:

    I read about Marin Ship. I had no idea Bechtel built ships. There record was making a tanker in 33 days.

  4. ctlaw says:

    Note young JW’s attempt to trash Florida on behalf of California:

    How times have changed.

  5. 10 Cents10 Cents says:

    John, how did it feel to best IBM? They were like Goliath in those days.

    Are you saying TI had a chance to do what Intel did but missed it? This is almost as bad as Xerox not capitalizing on GUI and the Mouse. Funny, Apple was a copy from a copier company.

    • John Walker says:

      >> Are you saying TI had a chance to do what Intel did but missed it?

      Here is a detailed article from IEEE Spectrum about precisely how TI blew it in the home computer market.

      They had a true 16 bit processor, but to save money, they made it use 8 bit video memory, which made it run slower than a regular 8 bit machine.

      This was after they had already blown it in the general microprocessor market by first failing to make their minicomputer software available to users of the microprocessor on any basis (for fear of cannibalising their [obsolete] minicomputer business) and second, never following up the TMS9900 with faster versions of the chip which addressed more memory. Z-80 machines were routinely running at 6 and 8 MHz while the fastest TMS9900 was still 3 MHz. You picked up some speed by running 16 bit wide memory, but not enough to close the gap.

      • ctlaw says:

        “for fear of cannibalising”

        In the auto industry, Ford and GM are notorious for sabotaging car A to avoid cannibalizing car B, only to find both fail.

      • DouglasDouglas says:

        Reading the Wikipedia article about it, what immediately stuck out to me was that it didn’t have a real operating system, just built-in proprietary BASIC interpreter. That would be enough to turn me off right there.

  6. DouglasDouglas says:

    “Unix-like operating system”.

    How close to Unix was it? Considering how getting an affordable Unix for personal computers was such a holy grail, I’m a little surprised that you didn’t do better than you did. An AT&T license was, what, a few grand back then? And Berkeley’s BSD project didn’t even really start ramping up until the 80’s. You could’a been Linux!

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