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History flows full at museum

3000 pioneers launch volley of stories

The talk in the room rang of software. For the cornerstone system of HP’s computer empire, the world’s Computer History Museum set up a ring of tables with two corners — and one open end. The HP 3000’s end may be neither near or clear, but a room of pioneers ringed those tables to talk not of an end, but all about beginnings.

This summer produced the first meeting of the HP3000 Software Special Interest Group at the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View. The CHM put out a call to the community to invite people who built the HP 3000 software foundation, the bedrock to the system’s — as well as HP’s — success.

Few in the room had begun their HP 3000 career later than the 1970s. The meeting table was flanked with pros who cut the cloth of the software garment which clothed mewling 3000 hardware. Some, like Marty Browne working for ASK Computer in the early 1970s, reported a miserable summer creating on a computer of dubious reliability.

Browne was one of 18 “pioneers” called to download the historic beginnings of 3000 software, with most of the tales told out of the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Chuck House, who become HP corporate engineering director in the early 1980s, gave insights from the higher echelons of Hewlett-Packard. One of his more riveting comments was that HP “never really understood” software during that period when the 3000 was growing its reputation and customer base on the strength of MPE and applications from its ecosystem of partners.

HP’s top-level ardor was never strong for the computer called the System 3000 on its first rollout. Phil Sakahihara, who led the development of the HP DeskManager suite which powered HP communication for more than 15 years, said that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard came down to the labs to see the 3000 underway “and they weren’t very happy about it.”

House and Sakahihara made up a handful of HP representation among the invitees; HP archivist Anna Mancini couldn’t make it to the June meeting, but Harper Thorpe brought the insights of a founder of the value added reseller chain he helped build. Fred White recounted his time in an HP “black sheep squadron” to build the IMAGE database before he joined Adager. Doug Meacham, also an HP alum, gave reports on the founding years of the Interex user group he headed up during the 1970s and 80s.

The symposium was moderated by Burt Grad, a 54-year vet of computing and CHM advisory board member. He asked the kind of fundamental questions only a 3000 outsider could to spark deep-seated examinations of how the computer became HP’s sparkplug for IT products.

The attendees were select among the 3000 community, ranging from Brown and Nick Elder of ASK, the largest software supplier in the 3000’s nascent days; to Grace Gentry of Gentry Systems, Steve Dennis of Smith Dennis & Gaylord; Steve Cooper of Allegro, as well as his colleague Stan Sieler; Adager’s Alfredo Rego and Rene Woc; Jack Damm of Cognos, whose roots ran back to the days when the company was called Quasar; Mark Klein, representing the early days of Orbit Software as well as Abacus; Rick Berquist of AMS, and Martin Gorfinkel of LARC Computing.

Nearly every pioneer had a story to tell about prodding the 3000 into impossible capabilities. “People were pushing the boundaries,” Mecham said.