Monday, April 12, 2010

The Fastest Computer in the World - CompuAdd

I invited Bob to my office to show him what I had done with the tracking system idea and I demoed the Smalltalk/V prototype I had written. I showed him what it could do and I explained that we could attach many terminals to it. This went over very well. I told him that in order to do this well we would need a copy of Smalltalk/V 286, which was a more powerful version of Smalltalk/V that could access up to 16MB of RAM. This was $199. We would also need a computer more powerful than anything we had in the factory at that time, and we would need to purchase at least one multiport RS-232 card to get started.

Bob agreed to all this. On top of that he was willing to go all out. The company usually quoted as having the fastest PC clones at that time was Compaq with their DeskPro systems. Bill Machrone from PC Magazine was famous (in my own mind at least) for having said that the DeskPro/20 ran its startup tests so fast that it made him giggle.

But the king of the hill at the time I went looking for a speed demon for our shop floor system was made by CompuAdd. In the reviews I read, the CompuAdd 386/25 was a terrific performer for the budget price of only $6100. Then we needed to add 4MB of RAM for about another $2000, and I'm pretty sure the multiport card was about $900. He agreed to buy this equipment. Wow. Just, wow.

My office wasn't the best place for this machine, so they moved me downstairs into a more central location. The office they gave me was spacious with a very large window. This was great except sometimes the window leaked when it rained. Our facilities manager Joe (yes that was his real name) helped me run some serial cables, and I soldered the 25 pin D connectors onto each end. RS-232 is only designed for 50 foot cable lengths. We needed longer runs than 50 foot. I had to source special low capacitance cable so that we could run cables of 100 foot or more. I needed to short across handshaking lines to make them work, and I made a null modem adapter for each one. I found a supplier in Framingham called Marcus Associates where we bought some used ADM-5 terminals, which were much newer and nicer than the ADM-3A I had prototyped the system on.

Before long we had a working system with terminals in different departments, and a printer for reports. I created a simulated terminal window for the computer itself so I could test the system without consuming a valuable serial port in my office.

This was the beginning of what was an exciting and productive project, even with some very challenging hurdles to overcome.

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