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May 10, 2017

Wayback Wed: 3000s Needed More Time

In this era of cloud computing, the roots of the original HP 3000s rise up. Clouds are the ultimate shared computers, systems so fluid they use hardware that can be provisioned with a set of entries on a webpage. Forty-five years ago this month the first computer that created our community wasn't making its way to its first loading dock. HP called this system a server for multi-programming, designed with the full intention of enabling people to use it from remote locations. The product couldn't bridge the miles between California and Connecticut, unable to ship from the HP factory location to a customer facility on time. It was the beginning of a black eye the vendor wore for nearly two years.

First-HP-3000-Sale-DelayHalting starts have been in many a successful product's history. In May of 1972 the HP 3000 was already running late, beset with hardware problems. The archives in the NewsWire offices include a letter to the first customer to order an HP 3000. The initial shipments of HP 3000s only fulfilled Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard's doubts about being in the commercial computing business. Their H-P was stuck with a product which started as a disaster. It was up to another Bill to break the news in the letter (click for details).

HP put its best face on this first delay, telling Yale-New Haven Hospital that "When a first order comes from a hospital such as Yale-New Haven and from [Dr. David Seligson] a person with an international reputation in the field of laboratory automation, we are doubly flattered." But this HP 3000 system was going to ship late to New Haven.

"Although our development is remarkably close to the targets we set over a year ago, we find that we must slip our shipments to insure that our customers receive a computer system with the built-in reliability that HP is known for," read Bill Terry's letter to Seligson. "Your system will be the first shipped outside the immediate Cupertino area and is scheduled for December, 1972."

The letter arrived in May, seven months before HP would finally allow the first 3000s outside of California. It was a simpler time with crude technology. HP offered the hospital a bonus for enduring the delay. "We would like to donate an additional 8K words of core memory (part 3006A, $8,000.00) to your HP 3000 system. Additionally, our intention is definitely to continue with plans for the training of your people, both in Cupertino and New Haven, as soon as possible." The 3000 entered the world as an ASAP project.

Things didn't get much better once the computer finally arrived at customer sites. MPE crashed, the "golden saddle on a jackass," as one account put it. Eventually the 3000 was withdrawn from the market and HP proceeded to buy back all of them. In late 1974, the server poked its head above the surface of market waters.

Even with that very first order of the HP 3000, the vendor was delivering its product by way of "intention" rather than guarantees. HP's founders had made a fortune with a practice of under-promising and then over-delivering by 1972. Conservative to its core, the company nonetheless would ship a system so crippled it had to be returned for a do-over, two years later.

And those 8K words of memory, at a cost of $8,000, are so small today that 125,000 of them are available for almost free. Not core memory, specific to only one computer, but a 1GB memory stick can be used in 100 million computers, and millions more cameras, printers and phones. A small contribution indeed, HP offered, in the face of a delay. It was significant for the time, though.

Bill Terry was doing his best with what HP had for the nascent 3000 community. He would survive the debacle of the first HP 3000 models to see himself and other HP computer founders honored with a documentary film, screened when HP's restored Palo Alto garage reopened.

07:10 PM in History | Permalink

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