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35 years of dropping names

It was a marketplace of names.

That is the sentence one man suggested for opening a history of the HP 3000. Birket Foster of MB Foster has offered it to me in many discussions, chats when the topic became, "When are you going to write that book?"

Letterone150001 Birket is one of those names, among the more unique of the cast members which helped produce the HP 3000 marketplace. Others come to mind like Alfredo, Vladimir and the more common-sounding Bob or Fred. (If you're keeping score, the last names are Rego, Volokh, Green and White, the founders of Adager, VEsoft, Robelle, and IMAGE respectively.) That quartet of creators of database tools, a turbo-charged MPE and 3000's award-winning database — their names come to mind first.There are many more, uncommon monikers like J.P., Gilles, Eugene, and a Potter from Quasar who offered the 3000's first QUIZ. 

However, before nearly all of those names rose in your community's ranks — in fact, 35 years ago this summer — were Hewlett and Packard, and the company named for two men who didn't really believe a business computer was in HP's business interest. Despite their reservations, several years of work on the first model of your system led to the summer of 1972, when the HP 3000 was already running late, beset with hardware problems.

Our archives here in the NewsWire offices now include a letter to the first customer to order an HP 3000. But not the first customer to receive a new system, perhaps a good thing. The initial shipments of HP 3000s only fulfilled Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard's doubts. Their H-P was stuck with a product which started as a disaster. It was up to another Bill to break the news.

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."

Letterone150002 The letter arrived in May, seven months before HP allowed the first 3000s outside of California. It was a simpler time with crude technology. HP offered the hospital a bonus for 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."

So even with the 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 $8. Not core memory, specific to only one computer, but a 1GB memory stick  which 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.

But 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. This week, Computer Reseller News posted a blog entry about that moment, a part of the "Bill and Dave" book by Michael S. Malone which made its way into bookstores this spring.

So to the 3000's history of names we can add a different Bill. We'd like you to offer any 1970s names you recall to help compose the 3000's story. Thirty-five years is long enough to wait to begin. We could well call the book Don't Trust Anyone Under 30.