Dan Hall: A bottom-up view of the digital world

Dan Hall

Some very old friends came back into my life recently. They have written a book, and I picked up a copy.

If you are a computer geek, or you simply enjoy cultural history as seen through the eyes of a couple of people who march to the beat of their own somewhat oddball drummer, read “Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution.” Geeks will like it for its technical history of computers, the rest of us will skip all that but still find it a wonderful look at the birth of an era.

The first personal computers did not, as most people think, come from Apple or IBM. They were kits that electronics enthusiasts had to solder together themselves. The first off-the shelf computer was Radio Shack’s TRS 80, which had about the same amount of memory as a wristwatch does now. Neither the kits nor the TRS 80 came with software – you had to learn to write that yourself, or buy some from the small, self-taught  software entrepreneurs who in the late 1970s and early ‘80s operated out of basements, attics or garages. Bill Gates was among them, and David and Theresa Welsh were too. Their book, often autobiographical, tells the story of those unknown visionaries who primed the pump of the digitized world we know today.

I met Dave around 1963, when we were students at Wayne State University in Detroit. He became one of my best friends, as did Terri after they started dating and eventually married. We stayed close for many years before finally drifting apart. Probably 25 years have passed since we last saw each other.

Wayne State was not Harvard. It was a commuter college, populated mostly by kids from blue-collar Detroit. Most were the first members of their families to go to college, and many were the children of immigrants. As a result, Wayne State attracted a particularly high percentage of students who truly were pursuing a dream. Three of our small group of friends on the student newspaper quickly found their way to the staff of The New York Times. Another became a highly respected judge and author.

Dave, though, bounced around from one major to another, finally grew tired of college and dropped out – an event that proved to be not an ending but a beginning. Free of the constraints of formal academia, he blossomed in his own unique way. He began tinkering with electronics and hanging out with other tinkerers who frequented the Radio Shack stores of the time. Meanwhile, Terri pursued her degree in English and her interests in writing.

The two of them had complementary personalities – he was laid-back about nearly everything; she seemed frantic about nearly everything. Yet both were free spirits. They took flying lessons and bought an old Piper Tri Pacer, designed in the 1940s. Once, flying back to Detroit after visiting my wife and me in Rochester, the covering on one wing started to rip away. They landed in a farmer’s field, covered the rip with duct tape, and took off again.

They bought their first house in a rough section of Detroit, paying about what a new car would have cost even at the time. That gave them the financial freedom to pursue their interests without having to punch a corporate clock. Plus, they liked the quirkiness of the neighborhood. A convicted murderer, out of prison on parole, proved to be a good neighbor. When they decided to move, they extended him credit so he could buy their house. He never missed a payment.

Like nearly everyone else in the country neither Dave nor Terri had much more than the foggiest knowledge of computers at the very beginning, and there were no schools to teach them. Through their own curiosity and perseverance, they taught themselves to write programs for the TRS-80 and together created one of the first word processors, Lazy Writer. It had at least one feature that even the latest version of Microsoft Word does not: If your TRS 80 crashed, your work would still be there after you rebooted.

They sold Lazy Writer through ads in small magazines intended for enthusiasts, and people from nations around the globe bought it.

Unlike Bill Gates, whom they regard as a business genius but not necessarily a computer genius, they never got rich. They might have, though. Their book contains some wonderful stories about various wealthy investors who sought to partner with them. Just as with other major inventions of the 20th century, like cars and airplanes, however, the big corporations eventually took over and the early experimenters faded away. Dave and Terri, in fact, were left with a pile of debt and worries about just getting by day to day.

They were left also with the satisfaction, however, of having been there at the beginning. And, I get the satisfaction of having known them when. The book is available at Amazon.com

Dan Hall is the former editorial page editor of Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail danwriting@aol.com